According to recent industry reports Columbia Pictures has picked up a screenplay for Katherine Kurtz’s 1970 fantasy novel Deryni Rising for a six-figure deal, intending to turn it into a tent-pole franchise . . .

I wouldn’t hold my breath however. Deryni Rising, which can be described as “Lord of the Rings meet Harry Potter”, looks like the ideal literary property to turn into a blockbuster movie. After all, it combines elements from two of the most popular movie franchises of modern times into one.

The only problem is that most recent films bearing the “children’s fantasy” moniker has tanked or underperformed at the box office: Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Dark is Rising: The Seeker, Inkheart and the second Chronicles of Narnia adaptation, Prince Caspian. It seems that if you don’t have the instant brand recognition at the box office of a Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter itself then you will have trouble attracting audiences. And Kurtz’s Deryni novels aren’t exactly household names . . .

On the Rings side of things, Deryni Rising is set in the sort of unspecified pseudo-medieval setting that is typical of post-Tolkien fantasy novels. On the Potter side of things, its main protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy who discovers that he actually has magical powers and must use The Force, er sorry, that’s not fair: Deryni Rising actually predates both Star Wars and Harry Potter, his powers to protect his throne from a beautiful, but deadly sorceress named Charissa.

For an epic fantasy novel Deryni Rising isn’t particularly “epic”: most of the action takes place over a 24-hour period and is set mostly in a few locales in the same medieval city. Our boy hero named Prince Kelson is set to become the new king of the mythical kingdom of Gwynedd after his father, the previous king, has died of an apparent heart attack during a hunting trip.

Of course this being a fantasy novel in which magic really exists (although there are no magical creatures such as dragons, ogres, elves and the like) we know that the sorceress Charissa, who intends seizing the throne for herself, killed Kelson’s daddy with magic. How does Charissa intend taking over from Kelson? By challenging him to a magical duel during his coronation ceremony. (If you’re a staunch republican – not the U.S. political party type, but the sort who prefers a republic to a monarchy – then you’ll probably be wondering why you should care which unelected despot becomes head of state next.)

The problem is that in Kurtz’s mythical medieval world the so-called “Deryni” – practitioners of magic who inherit their powers (must be the medichlorians in their blood!) - are actually frowned upon and hunted down as heretics by the Church. Why the people would accept a Deryni witch who has just fried their fourteen-year-old king in a cathedral in front of a live audience is a bit of a mystery.

"Deryni Rising may be fantasy, but it isn't particularly epic . . ."

This plot hole and a few others aside, the biggest problem with Deryni Rising is that like we said it isn’t particularly “epic”. In fact the story is somewhat on the thin side even though the book clocks in at 280 pages or so. Kelson is told of his own magical powers and destiny by Morgan, a confidante of his dad’s, a day or so before his coronation ceremony. There are all kinds of skullduggery afoot at the royal court as Charissa tries to frame Morgan, who is suspected of being a Deryni, for the king’s abrupt death. The most “exciting” sequence in the book is a council meeting in which the young Prince outwits Morgan’s political opponents. How this will translate to the big screen we don’t know. After all, it is only George Lucas who thinks that meetings are exciting which is why he stuffed so many of them into his Star Wars prequels.

After the meeting there is some running around, a visit to the crypt where his dad is stashed away and then the perfunctory magical duel at the end of the book in which Kelson vanquishes Charissa even though he hadn’t had so much as a minute’s worth of magical training. (We were hoping for at least one “your eyes can deceive you; don't trust them” training sequence.) The point is not much really happens, there is a lot of talk and even though Deryni Rising is well-written and never bores outright, one cannot help but wonder whether there is enough substance to fill up the 90 minutes or so running time of a standard feature film without it feeling anticlimactic and predictable. (At times the book feels like it should have been a stage play instead.)

Weirdly enough you’d expect most of the novel’s focus to be on the young prince, but instead it is on Morgan and his sidekick Duncan. It is another hurdle to be overcome in any screenplay: for kids in the audience to root for him Kelson has to do more than merely outtalking old geezers in a meeting and beating the villainess in a sequence right out of a Doctor Strange comic. (By the way, if you were expecting more exotic character names like, er, Count Dooku or something – forget it. Other characters include Agnes, Colin, Nigel and Ian . . .)

Deryni Rising is the first of several Deryni novels Kurtz wrote. Others include: High Deryni, King Kelson’s Bride, In the King’s Service and Childe Morgan. No doubt Columbia would want to turn them into movies as well if the first movie makes some money at the box office. But don’t count on it: it seems that the fad for Fantasy flicks is truly dead and except for the upcoming Hobbit movie and the outstanding Harry Potter adaptations, there is probably little box office fortune awaiting the genre, which is why Disney pulled out of the troubled third Narnia movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader . . .



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