Before the holidays, fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series got an early present: News that Disney would be developing her 1996 novel The Thief for its Disney+ streaming service. It’s unclear whether it will be a movie or (hopefully) a TV series, only that screenwriter Brian Duffield (Love and Monsters, The Divergent Series: Insurgent) will adapt the novel, and that producer Jim Whitaker (A Wrinkle in Time, Pete’s Dragon) is attached.
But, as with gifts from the gods in Turner’s beloved fantasy series, this news inspires some critical thought regarding how to handle the first book’s incredible feat of narration-as-withholding, and the series’ increasingly darker tone and content. We’re not refusing this gift from the entertainment powers that be, but we do have some follow-up questions.
How to Handle the Narration?
The Thief without Eugenides’ voice just isn’t The Thief: only by having him very deliberately narrate the events of the book do readers come to realize how thoroughly he’s fooled them. But what’s the best way to translate that voice from the page to the screen? You could go literal, with a voiceover keeping a running account of Gen’s thoughts throughout the adventure; but few movies or series aimed at younger audiences utilize voiceover in ways that actually augment the plot rather than just layering on a cheesy commentary. If there’s a way to bring the voiciness of the narrator in Fight Club, or Joe in Looper, while keeping things age-appropriate, that would be ideal. Of course, a good director can also shoot the film from a perspective that emulates close-first-person, doing their best to have the audience literally see through Gen’s eyes during the action.
Regardless of the setup, what will be key to the execution is the film device (most often seen in mysteries and thrillers) of returning to prior moments to fill in new information—that is, the difference between Gen adjusting his hair tie and actually showing him stashing Hamiathes’ Gift in his hair. You could even do this with new moments, like showing Gen’s family as the magus must see them (poor, unskilled, estranged) when he initially describes them, and then how they actually are (royal, highly trained, yet still idiosyncratic).
Who is the Audience?
You can’t solve the narration question without knowing what kind of viewer(s) The Thief is courting. In thinking through this piece, my mind keeps casting back to 20th Century Fox’s 2010 film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Chris Columbus’ adaptation of Rick Riordan’s books. Neither that movie nor its sequel were well received—by audiences or author—in terms of translating the source material. Ideally, an adaptation of The Thief (and hopefully The Queen’s Thief series) would emulate Lionsgate’s Hunger Games films, in engaging young adult audiences while still layering in enough asides and commentary to entice adult viewers. That means, however, that Disney will have to make plans regarding the complexity of the narration (as discussed above) and (more below) how dark they’re willing to go.
Standalone or Series Start?
At the moment, Disney has only optioned The Thief, for development on Disney+. The THR announcement didn’t mention whether this will be movie or (hopefully) TV series; nor whether the studio intends to develop the sequel novels, or if (likely) they’ll wait to see how the first one goes over. This is especially tricky for a series like this because that choice will determine how Duffield and Disney approach adapting The Thief. Turner’s novel provides just enough information about its world for this particular story to operate; even the dangling plot threads regarding Gen crossing Attolia at the end hardly presaged a sequel at the time of the book’s publication.
Yet if Disney had any inkling of a franchise in mind, they would likely want to bring in more of the Sounis/Eddis/Attolia conflict at the start, and possibly even the Mede threat (though that is the core of The Queen of Attolia, so it wouldn’t have to be foreshadowed in the first installment). If The Thief winds up being the only adaptation ever produced and the sequel scaffolding is clear, it might make the standalone not, well, stand alone quite as strongly as it could have.
Will They Keep the Multiple POVs?
Even Turner, with her loyal fanbase, asks a lot of readers to follow a new character’s perspective in every single book. Obviously that trust pays off in spades, as each additional viewpoint reveals new details about key characters—mostly Eugenides—but it would likely be more difficult to market that in film form, as opposed to opening a book and immediately seeing a new tense and/or pronoun to signify the latest narrator.
It’s more likely that the Thief film would establish a particular style, and then the director (if the same one stays on, or if a new one joins up for a sequel) would apply that style to each new voice. Not in an identical way—can you imagine Attolia freely narrating in a voiceover—but repeating whatever visual or aural device would signify when a moment seems to go one way… and then the way it actually went. Here’s hoping that we don’t lose the various viewpoints into the world of the Little Peninsula, and the resulting dramatic irony.
Will Disney Up the Deus Ex Machina?
In Turner’s series, the gods only really exist when summoned—that is, when mortals are trading mythological stories, or on the rare occasions where they infiltrate temples to petition the gods for divine guidance. The gods’ appearances are all wonderfully understated, relayed through a mortal’s limited senses in subtle moments like Eugenides (the god) catching Gen (the Thief) as he dangles off a building. Even when Gen stumbles upon the gods’ court of living statues in Hephestia’s temple, the scene is presented in flashes of movement and hints of contact rather than explicit interactions.
Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney leaned into its new pantheon, presenting scenes of them debating the merits of meddling in mortal affairs—think the Mount Olympus interludes in Hercules, or Zeus and Poseidon bringing their familial issues to the human plane in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Personally, I prefer witnessing the gods just through mortals’ awe, but I also recognize that the temptation is there, especially as the stakes become ever more epic, counting down to the eruption of the Sacred Mountain in the latter half of the series.
Can Disney Do Dark?
The most vital question for a potential franchise is if Disney will commit to the increasingly darker tone of Turner’s sequels. Should they greenlight The Queen of Attolia, they won’t be able to pull any punches, as it were, with that book’s hand-cutting scene. What will require even more nuance and sensitivity is Gen’s slow recovery and depression stemming from that traumatic event. And we haven’t even gotten to how to depict the thorny, complex, sexy-without-being-explicit power dynamics between Attolia and Gen in that book and others.
Then there’s Thick as Thieves, which grapples with slavery and freedom; A Conspiracy of Kings, which is plenty violent; and Eugenides’ growing despondency approaching what he believes to be his prophesied death in Return of The Thief. Again, Hunger Games is the blueprint here, not shying away from depicting the hero(ine) at their lowest points. The Divergent Series: Insurgent would be useful to examine here, too—and Duffield adapted the second novel in Veronica Roth’s dystopian series, so he has experience with showing series protagonist Tris’ growing sense of martyrdom.
What Moments Might We See?
Because I’m not a complete cynic, this whole time I’ve been thinking about which classic moments from the series (let’s be optimistic that the whole series gets adapted) that would be amazing on the screen. My must-haves:
- Obviously the aforementioned Hamiathes’ Gift reveal in The Thief, but I’m also super interested in seeing how Gen’s fight with the Attolian guard plays out. He goes into something of a fugue state while fighting, with the book cutting away from the action and only hinting (through the others’ impressed/horrified reactions) at the damage the skilled Thief dealt via the swordplay he so hates.
- Attolia cutting off Gen’s hand, of course. What makes it so devastating in The Queen of Attolia is how it’s almost a blink-and-miss-it moment—the adaptation wouldn’t have to make it any bigger than that, but it must be in there.
- Attolia accepting Gen’s marriage proposal via a pair of earrings, a truly epic queenly move. This would be trickier to pull off without making it super obvious, but I would love to see a filmmaker decide between shooting it from her perspective (as it’s presented in The Queen of Attolia) or Gen’s.
- Sophos with the guns in A Conspiracy of Kings: It’s a badass move yet simultaneously so upsetting, that he tries everything in his power to not go the route of shooting his rivals, yet it’s the only language they’ll listen to from their king.
- Eugenides dangling off the edge of Attolia’s palace in The King of Attolia, because his god isn’t ready for him to die yet. Still gives me shivers to think about.
- The in-universe play poking fun at Eugenides in Return of The Thief. By that point in the hypothetical series/franchise we would be in sore need of some levity, and what better way than the scathing parody figure of Emipopolitus?
The most exciting thing about an adaptation is where the series can be expanded. I would love to see more of Eddis, especially as her story intertwines with various books. It would be fun, once Eugenides’ status as the Thief is revealed, to do the flashbacks to how he meticulously planned his subterfuge. And I confess that I’m very curious to see if an adaptation would show any of Attolia and Gen’s infamous wedding night—inkwells, tears, and all.
What are your burning questions about the Thief adaptation, and which moments (from the text or otherwise) can you not wait to see on-screen?