Pitch Meeting: Expanding the Bas-Lag Trilogy

This article will be discussing three of author China Miéville’s novels known informally as the “Bas-Lag Trilogy”; Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004). If you have not read any or all of these books, please be aware that this article will almost certainly contain spoilers for them.

Sometime around 2010, I was catching up with an old friend in London and we were discussing what books we had both read recently. I mentioned that I had just finished Perdido Street Station on a recommendation from a colleague and thoroughly enjoyed it. My friend was most pleased to hear this, as she had read most of Miéville’s stuff for reviewing purposes, but she said something afterwards that stuck in my mind: “I admire him for stopping when he did. He proved he could do fantasy and then he went off to try something else.”

At the time, I had only read Perdido, so I had little knowledge of Miéville’s other works, but after reading the rest of the Bas-Lag series (and most of his other works) I understood what my friend was getting at. Though his other novels were hardly grounded in stark reality, Miéville never went back to the world he had created in those three books. His subsequent novels delved into science-fiction (Embassytown), detective noir (The City & The City) and even the young adult genre (Railsea) –all coloured with Miéville’s characteristic “weirdness” to varying degrees– but that trilogy remained standalone in his bibliography.

For some fans, however, the world of Bas-Lag remains a goldmine of untapped potential. A quick image search on Google will show up masses of fanart depicting the locales, characters and architecture of the trilogy, some of which I will be using here. There was an aborted attempt at a video game based on the series, apparently with some input from Miéville himself. Fans attempted to create a tabletop gaming campaign set in the universe but, that too, withered on the vine. So I thought it might be fun to discuss how we would like to see the Bas-Lag Trilogy expanded into other media, where budgets, time constraints and the realities of production do not apply. Mostly.

Television

It’s a good job that budgets don’t apply in this fictional pitch meeting, because there’s one word that would undoubtedly keep coming up in any discussion of a Bas-Lag TV show; “expensive”.

It seems inevitable that any Miéville adaptation would have to at least feature the core of all three novels; the city-state of New Crobuzon. With it’s bizarre mix of steampunk and magic, architecture from various races and cultures, towering edifices and sprawling shanty towns, bringing the city to life would be a challenge indeed. Then you would have all the various inhabitants of the place; the humanoid cacti called Cactacae, the bird-like Garuda and the insectoid Khepri are but a handful of the weird and wonderful citizens we would expect to see on the screen. That’s before we even get on to the subject of the eternally pitiful Remade…

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World of China Mieville by nJoo, via Deviant Art

This is assuming we went with live action, of course; anything is possible in the wonderful world of animation, but I figure that if we’re going to bring Bas-Lag to the screen, we might as well go the whole hog.

So perhaps we make New Crobuzon a bit part, somewhere we flash back to every so often with a little cutaway of the city, followed by an interior shot of some insidious government office. Bas-Lag is a very big place, after all. Two of the books give us viable, alternative locations that have also been somewhat realised on television already.

The Scar could have ridden the wave (sorry) of pirate/seafaring adventures that seemed to pop up everywhere a few years ago; Black Sails, Crossbones, Vikings, another Treasure Island TV movie. Admittedly, none of those had giant, floating armadas populated with vampires and people whose blood turns to stone, but it’s a good start. The setting would also lend itself well to taking the story to new places, as our cast hop from island to island to seek out information on ancient technologies and… giant, inter-dimensional fish.

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Or with a bit of re-tooling, Iron Council could be a Hell on Wheels-style drama, following the eternal train on its journey through the wilderness, encountering different adventures every week whilst trying to avoid the steely grasp of the New Crobuzon government. Admittedly, neither of these pitches exactly scream “fiscally conservative” either, but it at least shows that there is plenty of scope for a setting.

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Movies

Whilst bumping the franchise to the big screen might give us more leeway in terms of budget, the intricate plots of the novels might not be immediately suited to the restrictions of a movie runtime. Miéville is notoriously wordy and trying to squeeze any of the three books into a two hour film would be a big ask for any director. Say we go the Peter Jackson route and decide on multiple entries; do we break one novel down into parts or try and make all three books into three separate films?

I think Perdido Street Station would make for the most visually interesting concept, mainly because I would love to see New Crobuzon brought to the big screen. My first inspiration would be, of course, the incredibly imaginative worlds created by director Guillermo del ToroHis work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army has Bas-Lag written all over it; the creature effects, the mix of fantasy and steampunk aesthetic, magic and technology in an uneasy alliance. Of course, getting del Toro to actually finish anything he starts is a running joke now, but it’s definitely a good jumping-off point.

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Del Toro, while undeniably talented, is a little bit too twee for my tastes however. The Bas-Lag books are pretty well known for having some absolute bummers of an ending, so maybe a director with a more cynical point-of-view could balance things out. Fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuarón did some amazing work on the dark Children of Men (one of my favourite films) but he also has a Harry Potter movie under his belt, so he’s experienced with magic and monsters at least.

If we’re going to assume that the restraints of reality are completely out the window, you could also suggest throwing Luc Besson or The Wachowskis into the hat, though I’m not sure who would bankroll them on an untested fantasy IP these days… I haven’t actually seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets but it seems like “hodge-podge of cultures, races and technologies in a visually arresting scenario” could apply to New Crobuzon as well as it did to that film. Maybe tone down the neon a tad, though.

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Video Games

Let me start off by saying I am not a fan of MMO’s. I’m sure most gamers would immediately think “Warcraft, but with more shit on the cobblestones” when picturing Bas-Lag in digital form, but I’m not going to go that route. Miéville’s novels are driven heavily by characters and story and I always find that the MMO format sucks the life out of any plot they revolve around.

A safe pair of hands would be Bethesda, who have ample experience in the fantasy genre, but they seem to show little interest in adapting other people’s properties. They also seem busy making Skyrim for the seventeenth time. However, parent company ZeniMax Media do own Arkane Studios, who made the amazing Dishonored series, and they would be my first pick.

In fact, Dishonored is such a perfect fit that I wouldn’t be surprised if Arkane were at all influenced by Miéville’s work. There is the obvious London-on-steroids substitute of Dunwall, with it’s brutal police force, disinterested upper class and heady mix of magic & steampunk technology. Witches and supernatural assassins exist in this world, much like the thaumaturges in New Crobuzon. Mysterious beings from other dimensions meddle in the affairs of mortals, similar to the unpredictable Weavers in Perdido and Iron Council. Dishonored doesn’t have the same diversity of races and creatures, to be fair, but Arkane definitely know how to build up a believable world and lore around fantastical things.

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Thinking further afield, the wider world of Bas-Lag could be explored in a sandbox setting akin to the Final Fantasy series, where you could gather a rag-tag crew of adventurers and set off into the wilds of Rohagi to seek work, riches and travel to exotic places. Though a lot more optimistic and colourful than how I imagine anything set in a Miéville property, a strength of the FF series has always been the interesting locations that you can find as you wander around the map.

If both of those sound like the kind of gaming experience that you associate with Doritos dust and Mountain Dew all over your keyboard, perhaps we could dial back the scale to something more personal, such as a point-and-click adventure. The point-and-click genre may be long past its heyday but it is far from dead, with companies like Wadjet Eye Games turning out some solid titles in the last few years. Perhaps we could turn Perdido into one of these, as we control Isaac, Yag and Lin on their quest to find out what exactly is giving everyone in the city terrible nightmares…

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Well I hope you enjoyed all that. I certainly enjoyed writing it. What are your ideas for making the Bas-Lag Trilogy into something bigger? Are there other formats you’d like to see it in, such as a play or comic perhaps? Please let me know in the comments below.

Header image by Marc Simonetti