Feb 6 2013 3:00pm

Why AMC’s The Sparrow TV Show is Divinely Inspired

You know how you want to share a really good book with everyone you know? Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books. (In fact, I read an excerpt of it for the NYC I, Reader series this past winter.) It’s difficult to write about religion and sci-fi without upsetting both camps, but Russell’s novel treats it artfully by using using space exploration as the lens to examine this huge issue. In The Sparrow we follow two stories: The global miscommunications that arise when one culture attempts to convert another, and one man’s crippling loss of faith.

On February 1st, Russell herself announced that The Sparrow might finally be flying from page to screen.

Although both Universal and Warner Bros. have been attached to the adaptation at varying points, this time around it’s not a studio, but a network, that has optioned the story. In a fitting move, AMC is taking a stab at this tricky, heartbreaking tale. The same AMC that brought us the runaway success of Mad Men, the mostly well-received adaptation of The Walking Dead, and everybody’s favorite TV show Breaking Bad. Honestly, I’m elated.

When it comes to so many of my favorite literary works it seems like a film adaptation is the go-to option, with television barely considered even when it would clearly be the best choice. (I still argue that an HBO or Showtime miniseries would be the best adaptation for Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, but they’re going ahead with yet another attempt at the silver screen.)

The Sparrow TV show AMC Mary Doria Russell fan art

However, let’s not prep our asteroid spaceships just yet! Despite being the one to break the news on her blog, Russell confessed that she has difficulty believing that this third time will be the charm. After all, it was only April 2012 that she wrote a lengthy blog post titled “Saying ’No’ To Hollywood” about how her beloved novel remains mired in development hell 15 years after publication. Regarding this latest development, she wisely cautioned, “Nothing is real in Hollywood until the cinematographer is on the set eating a breakfast burrito.”

I’m equally cynical, but I’m going to quote Father Emilio Sandoz from The Sparrow when he first hears the beautiful alien music transmitted through time and space:

“Look, Anne. Perhaps you’re right. The whole idea is mad... But Anne! This is an extraordinary moment, is it not? Entertain, for this extraordinary moment, the notion that we are all here in this room, at this moment, for some reason... Anne, at least, shall we not try?”

All signs point to AMC taking on this story.

Episodic Storytelling

The Sparrow is 400 pages and spans nearly fifty years. On trial in Rome, disgraced priest Emilio Sandoz narrates in flashback the events that led up to the Stella Maris crew assembling, reaching Rakhat, and making contact with the alien species (plural) there. We the audience have to learn about the Runa and Jana’ata as quickly and exhaustively as the crew does; on Earth, there’s the Jesuits and the mafia to contend with.

To try and cram this into a two-hour movie—even stretching it to three hours—would necessarily cut key developments. Since The Sparrow is headed for television, however, each episode could be bookended by the frail Sandoz trying to make his peers understand why he made the decisions he did. Each season could be the standard twelve episodes with a year in-between.

The Runa and Jana’ata wouldn’t suffer, either, since there could be entire episodes devoted to characters like the merchant Supaari VaGayjur. Consider the Battlestar Galactica season 2 episode “Downloaded,” where for the first time we see what happens to Cylons after they die. Suddenly, Number Six went from a sex symbol and saboteur to almost human. Most importantly, parsing out Sandoz’s story over the course of a season or two would preserve the horror of the novel’s emotional payoff.

The Sparrow TV show AMC Mary Doria Russell Children of God tattoo

One detail that makes me porai (the Ruanja word for “upset”) is Russell’s admission that she will neither be writing scripts nor have input on the storylines. I do worry that the writers’ room will find it too easy to overdramatize and cheapen the relationships among the humans. That said, you enter into that risk with any TV show.

Presenting Russell’s world in this serialized format would leave the door open to incorporating her sequel Children of God. Imagine, a few seasons down the road, when viewers are already heartbroken by Sandoz’s ordeal—then get the chance to find out what happened on Rakhat after the Jesuits spirited him back to Earth. No need to grasp at straws for new plotlines.

That Whole Religion Thing

In her explanation of all the Hollywood-sized obstacles, Russell quoted her writing partner Karen Hall’s agent as telling them, “I love the story and the characters and the world and and the philosophy and the religion. However, I believe that Hollywood’s version of this would eliminate almost all of that.”

Or perhaps they would swing to the opposite pole and ramp up the religious intrigue to try and fill the hole left behind by The Da Vinci Code and its disappointing follow-up Angels & Demons. The condemnation of colonization; Jesuits losing face in front of the Vatican; Sofia Mendes becoming a Joan of Arc figure—all of these would crop up within the plot but no single one would become a touchstone to piss off more religious viewers.

The Sparrow TV show Mary Doria Russell Emilio Sandoz Runa Jana'ata fan art

Finding The Perfect Sandoz

This could be the most important advantage to adapting the novel to television. Russell has freely discussed how the two actors most connected to the project have been Antonio Banderas and Brad Pitt. When word first leaked almost two years ago that Pitt was contemplating playing Sandoz in his production, I challenged that casting and presented a much more suitable contender in Nip/Tuck’s Robert Lasardo.

The Sparrow TV show Mary Doria Russell AMC Emilio Sandoz

AMC is well-suited to presenting older, less intuitive choices for male leads. It’s still astonishing to relate Bryan Cranston’s deliberately villainous performance as Walter White/Heisenberg with his years as hapless, whipped dad Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. Before he was Don Draper, Jon Hamm toiled thanklessly in Hollywood for over a decade. Even Andrew Lincoln—who switched his British accent to a Southern one to play Officer Rick Grimes—was known only for Love Actually before the zombies took over.

It’s early days, but this could be a fantastic adaptation. I’ll be keeping up with Russell’s blog for news on the TV show. Even if she won’t be in the writers’ room, she’s been the clearest source of information on her own novel. Which, if you think about it, is kind of a beautiful thing.

Art via Paper Blog and by lokelani on deviantART

Tattoo photo via tattoolit on Tumblr

Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.

1. SunnyReads
I read this book years ago and loved it, but didn't think a screen adaptation would ever be possible. This, however, now sounds like a doable project. Can't wait to see wait happens...
Joshua Starr
2. JStarr
Utterly love The Sparrow and its nuanced exploration of what religion means to people, how it works for people, and how that changes when "people" no longer equates quite so simply to "humans."

Also, characters I remember falling in love with, gorgeous writing, and such a memorable representation of the conequences of the nigh-inevitable misunderstandings in any "first contact" scenario.

In favor if only in the hope it'll get more people to pick up the book.
S Cooper
3. SPC
I don't think I could handle the ending on TV.
4. RobinC
Years ago, I read both these books twice trying to take it all in. I still have them on my keeper shelf, but can't yet bring myself to read them again. I don't think I could stand watching it on TV if it was done right. My heart starts to break again just thinking about it.
Natalie Zutter
5. nataliezutter
I'm so glad to see there are others who share my visceral reaction to this book! I still remember having my breath taken away in that scene at Anne and George's where Emilio and Sofia sing together. Jimmy Quinn thought he had it tough!

(Wow, I seriously do not geek out about books as much as I am right now.)

As for the ending... I think whether or not people know about it ahead of time, it will be chilling. It just has to be well-timed for the end of whatever season it's stuck into, not just to get a rise out of newcomers to the story.
jeremiah gaster
6. jer
Honestly, although I thought the writing was superb, I had a lot of problems with the book and its concept...

For the main part, the catholic church has a long history of first contacts, that were very different from what this book showed... I'm sorry but genocide has not been atoned for, by the church, and so any book that expects me to feel sorry for jesuits who are in first contact and are treated better (even after what happens to them, it was a misunderstanding and not simply casting into living hell humans who are non-believers, as the church did -see las casas) is a book that misses the mark. Also, this was one in a few books (life of pi, springs to mind) with beautiful writing but leaving me cold (as always) to the "existence" of god, and the horrors of the world that humans have constructed.
ANd in the end, i wanted to smakc the hell out of the priest... big time. He acted like god delievered a smackdown on him, but obviously any 'alien' culture could be dangerous, for a myraid of reasons...

Finally, the sequal also left a lot ot desire, but i've only read it once. One of these days, i'll write up a big piece on this book and how i find it to be crap...
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
jer @6, I'm with you. Never liked this book -- most of it was pretty boring/sloppy, but parts were also squicky. No interest in the sequel.
jeremiah gaster
8. jer
Actually @chuk, I did say that I thought the writing was good, and the "squicky" part didn't bother me so much as did the political-historical context of church first contact and the pitiful loss of faith that ends up basically putting him in a coma annoyed the shit out of me
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
Oh what? I didn't even know this was happening!
10. gENTU
I'll say this about the book, that priest sure go it IN THE END
11. JoeS
I can picture no actor other than Gael García Bernal playing Sandoz.
12. apocryphile
If you love The Sparrow, please check out another adaptation of it—the rock opera by prog band Metaphor. (Okay, full disclosure, I'm in the band, but we did it with Mary Doria Russell's permission, and she was enthusiastic about the result and gave the project a mention at the end of her latest novel, Dreamers of the Day.) You can find the album here:

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