N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy is one of the most significant works of science fiction and fantasy published within the last decade. In addition to the individual books—The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky—making several "best of" lists for their respective publication years, they garnered multiple accolades.
Notably, each installment won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in consecutive years. This was the first any trilogy accomplished such a feat, and time will tell if any other series can ever match it.
Given all this recognition, a screen adaptation was inevitable. But even though the rights for a television adaptation were announced back in 2017, little news had come out about any progress. That changed in June, 2021 when it was revealed that Sony TriStar Pictures will bring the trilogy to the big screen, with Jemisin herself handling the adaptation.
With the possibility of a Broken Earth movie—or movies—now coming closer to reality, we must ask: what will make it to the big screen? Adapting science fiction and fantasy novels for film can be tricky, especially when they feature intricate worldbuilding like in the Broken Earth novels. Nevertheless, here's what we can't wait to see in the Broken Earth movie adaptation.
A setting that mixes lost technology and a survivalist aesthetic
The Broken Earth trilogy takes place in the distant future when the Earth has been shattered and experiences regular apocalyptic events that are known as a fifth, and deadly, season.
Because of this, society adapted to survive, sometimes building literally on top of or within remnants of a previous civilization. Preserving this landscape is crucial to bringing the books' unique worldbuilding to life.
Creepy, looming obelisks
Speaking of which, a major hallmark of the setting involves obelisks—giant, floating hunks of rock. At the beginning of the trilogy, the only thing anyone knows about the obelisks are that they're artifacts of an ancient civilization.
Nothing is known about their purpose, but unraveling the mystery and discerning their function is a major thread throughout the trilogy. Any adaptation will need to capture the obelisks' ominous mystique, especially when it becomes apparent their movements aren't actually random.
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The power of Orogeny
The primary magic system of the Broken Earth novels involves harnessing the kinetic energy unleashed by the world's overactive tectonic plates. People with this ability are known as orogenes.
Using their talents, orogenes can cause seismic activity, such as the event that triggers the latest fifth season at the beginning of the trilogy. However, they can quell seismic activity too, as demonstrated by the protagonist, Essun, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic event that dooms the world. There's a lot of potential to showcase what can be accomplished with orogeny.
While the special effects budget will be the determining factor in what can be brought to the big screen, smart choices can highlight what separates orogeny from the magic systems found in other fantasy and science fiction series.
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The unnatural existence of the Stone Eaters
In the Broken Earth trilogy, Stone Eaters are a sentient race that live alongside humans. No one knows their motives. No one knows what they want. All anyone knows is that they're not to be trifled with, and that some of them like stalking orogenes.
On a superficial level, stone eaters generally look like people made of stone. But if they were just living statues, they wouldn't warrant a separate entry on this list. The Stone Eaters are alien. They don't move like humans. And unless they work hard to seem otherwise, they don't behave like humans either. Bringing that alien nature to life without appearing stilted and unbelievable will require some deft acting and direction.
The Guardians both uphold an oppressive system, and are its victims
Guardians are a crucial faction of people within the Broken Earth trilogy. They're charged with finding, identifying, and controlling orogenes. By doing so, they protect stills—people without the gift of orogeny—from orogenes, but they also protect orogenes from stills.
More than one orogene has faced a grim fate at the hand of a still, because as far as stills are concerned, anyone with the ability to control seismic energy is trouble.
Back to the Guardians: they're unnatural in a way distinct from the Stone Eaters. Some, such as those responsible for eliminating troublesome orogenes, are unhinged and threatening. Others are just downright creepy. And, of course, any adaptation will need to take care with Schaffa, the Guardian whose complicated relationships with Essun and her daughter, Nassun, form a major emotional thread throughout the books.
It would be easy to paint Schaffa as a one-note villain, but as with many things in the Broken Earth trilogy, it's more nuanced than that. And let's not forget that the Guardians are gifted with tremendous physical abilities, so we expect at least one amazing fight scene.
Casting true to the spirit of the novels
The Broken Earth trilogy features a diverse cast of characters in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, so any film casting should maintain the original intent. In addition, an adaptation offers the excellent opportunity to feature an older Black woman in the lead role of Essun.
It's rare to see older women in feature film lead roles, let alone Black actresses. A rich and vivid character, it'd be wonderful to see Essun depicted as she should be.
A unique narrative structure
Without giving away too many spoilers, The Fifth Season features an unusual narrative structure by following three orogenes from different time periods. What makes this choice interesting is how the orogenes are connected, and how their respective storylines are told. On top of that, none of the orogenes are actually the true narrator of the books.
Obviously, preserving this exact same structure would be impossible. Movies are not books, and you can do things with books that you can't do with movies and vice versa. But it would be nice to somehow maintain the spirit of this unusual structure in the film. It would be a challenge, but the innovative structure of The Fifth Season is part of what won the trilogy so much attention in the first place.
With the Sony TriStar deal only recently announced, it'll be a while before we'll see any progress on a film adaptation. But hopefully, given Jemisin's involvement, the time will be well worth the wait.