A faithful adaptation of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels would be nigh impossible, but the Syfy Channel's upcoming Riverworld miniseries plans to veer off into such uncharted waters that readers may not recognize it.
Heraclitus said you can't step into the same river twice, but that's what Syfy, having adapted Riverworld into a standalone feature in 2003, is trying with next year's more ambitious, four-hour miniseries based on Philip José Farmer's beloved novels. Judging by this Q&A at SciFiWire, however, scribe Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The 4400) seems undaunted by the prospect of alienating Farmer's loyal readers with an adaptation that ditches the original's storylines and relegates its protagonists to supporting character (or antagonist) status.
The basic premise is the same: deceased humans from across time find themselves living in a watery limbo, a planet-traversing river, where famous historical personages and obscure folk unite to unravel the mystery of their situation. Like the 2003 movie, however, the Wolfe miniseries will push aside the first book's protagonist (real-life Victorian explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton) in favor of a contemporary American protagonist (to be played by Dollhouse's Tahmoh Penikett) with a simple motive: to find his missing love (Smallville's Laura Vandervoort), who died with him in a suicide bombing.
Wolfe (whose strong résumé includes multiple episodes of Andromeda, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The 4400) suggests that he wants to leave the saga's spiritual and philosophical underpinnings intact, but downgrading the swashbuckling, complex, real-life protagonist to a supporting role because American TV viewers might find him too obscure and unlikable doesn't speak well for the project's literacy and thoughtfulness. In fact, Wolfe hints that Burton may be more of an antagonist than a protagonist. Mark Twain, the hero of the second book, will turn up early on, having managed to build himself a riverboat.
Plus, Wolfe envisions future installments of this possible ongoing series, where he uses Farmer's platform as an opportunity to dig up various historical figures and watch them fight. "I'd love to do a story where the real Macbeth finds out about this play that has been written about him and is freaking pissed off because it makes him look like a dick!" Heh heh. Watch your back, Shakespeare!
Farmer, who died in February at 91, was reportedly upbeat about the prospect of this miniseries. These days, however, he's probably on a steamboat somewhere with Twain and Shakespeare, plotting vengeance.