Christopher Golden On Adapting The Ben Walker Series
Note: This interview originally appeared in the April 2019 edition of The Big Thrill, the official magazine of the International Thriller Writers.
In the 25 years since the release of his first novel, Christopher Golden has achieved success by nearly every metric the publishing industry can think of. He’s appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, won the coveted Bram Stoker Award, earned glowing blurbs from Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, left his own mark on beloved properties such as Star Wars, X-Men, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer via media tie-ins, and collaborated with the likes of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. But one milestone has eluded him so far—in spite of multiple options and development deals, Golden has yet to see one of his original properties make it to the screen.
It looks like that’s about to change, thanks to Golden’s Ben Walker series, which kicked off in 2017 with the horror-adventure hybrid Ararat and continues this month with The Pandora Room, out April 23 from St. Martin’s Press. (A third entry, Red Hands, is slated for publication next year.) The series, about a Department of Defense operative who works under the auspices of the National Science Foundation to investigate and contain what he accurately describes as “weird shit,” is currently being developed for television by the small-screen arm of AGC Studios.
Walker made his first appearance in Ararat, which won 2017’s Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. But the character’s genetic material dates back to Golden’s 2010 novel The Ocean Dark, written under the pseudonym Jack Rogan.
“The organization that Walker works for is set up in The Ocean Dark,” says Golden. “Obviously, you didn’t have to read The Ocean Dark in order to read Ararat, but in my brain, it was sort of an unofficial book in that same world.”
Ararat was conceived and written as a standalone, but the character struck a chord with readers, and Golden started thinking about a follow-up. Again, he mined his own bibliography for the sequel’s raw material: a short story called “Fault Lines,” co-written with Tim Lebbon for the 2015 anthology The Library of the Dead.
“Tim and I were talking about what we were going to do for that book, and I said, ‘Well, I have this idea about Pandora’s Box that I’ve been toying with for a long time.’ And so we did a short story together using sort of the same conceit [as The Pandora Room], though obviously with a completely different plot. When I talked with my editor about doing a follow-up [to Ararat] with Walker and this organization, that was the obvious choice for me—to go back and spin out this idea into something much broader.”
The Pandora Room, which works equally well as a standalone or a series installment, follows a structure similar to the one Golden used in Ararat: the reader is invested in a new group of characters long before Walker shows up to help manage the problem. In this case, the main character is Sophie Durand, an archaeologist whose team uncovers an ancient jar that might be the inspiration for the Pandora’s Box myth. The problem is, legend tells of two jars—one that holds miraculous blessings, and one that holds unthinkable curses. Sophie and her team don’t know which jar they’ve found, but when word of the discovery gets out, jihadists and governments alike are determined to claim the vessel and unleash whatever it might hold. Enter Ben Walker, who’s tasked with protecting the jar from enemy soldiers while also fending off the nightmares spilling out of it.
That structure is an intentional choice and one that will likely come to define the entire Ben Walker series. For Golden, it’s the critical factor that makes the books serve as effective horror stories, rather than adventure stories that happen to include supernatural elements—a point that was underscored for him in a recent film franchise.
“To me, The Conjuring is a very scary movie and The Conjuring 2 is not scary at all, other than the nun,” he explains. “I think the reason I reacted that way is, in The Conjuring, you meet the people in jeopardy first. You meet the people you are afraid for, that you identify with, and then you meet the people who are the potential problem-solvers, whom you know nothing is going to happen to. In The Conjuring 2, they did the opposite, and I think doing that means I’m not as connected to the people who are in actual jeopardy because they’re not my main characters. So when I went to write The Pandora Room, I tried to repeat the structure of Ararat, in the sense that you first meet the characters who are not Walker, and you get in their heads and get a sense of the peril that they’re in. I really feel like you can’t walk the line between adventure story and horror story, or between thriller and supernatural, as effectively if you don’t fear for the characters.”
By the time The Pandora Room was well underway, Ararat had already been under option for a year in what Golden describes as “an ill-fated deal.” Nothing was to come of it, but it kept rights tied up for months, even as other production companies were expressing interest in adapting the bestselling and critically acclaimed novel. Through Golden’s LA-based manager, Pete Donaldson, the book made its way to development executive Aghi Koh, who recommended it to AGC’s television division head, Lourdes Diaz, once the previous option expired.
“Lourdes read Ararat and loved it, and only then did we say, well, you know, the second book is coming, and it’s actually a series, and I’ve sold the third book and this is what’s happening,” Golden remembers. “It came together very quickly after that. I had one phone call with Lourdes, and we just went from there.”
While novelists are often shut out of the adaptation process before the ink is dry on the option, Golden says AGC immediately welcomed him on board as a writer and executive producer.
“What was great about them—and I think this is a testament to how the film and television world is changing—is that I have found, more often than not, that there’s an active disinterest in having the original writer work on the development of a film or TV adaptation,” says Golden, who will write both the series bible and the pilot episode. “So it was great that they were so welcoming. Now, it’s entirely possible that we’ll get to a certain point in my developing of it, and they’ll decide they want to bring other writers in to take the next step or go in a different direction, and that’s fine.”
For now, though, Golden is relishing the opportunity to develop one of his properties with such enthusiastic studio support. It hasn’t always been that way. Golden, a veteran screenwriter who most recently worked on Neil Marshall’s Hellboy revamp, has previously adapted his own work for a string of studios, production companies, and networks, including New Regency, Fox, Constantin Films, and the CW. None of those projects made it to the screen, and a few of them turned into exactly the kind of horror story that makes novelists so wary of Hollywood. Golden recounts one case in which a screenwriter was paid $1 million to adapt one of his collaborative properties, only to doom the project altogether by producing a completely unusable script.
“The first action scene in the entire script took place on page 87, and did not involve the main character,” Golden recalls, still incredulous that such a highly paid screenwriter would write an “action” movie that consisted of nearly 90 minutes of talking-head exposition. At that point, the studio had already sunk so much money into an unsalvageable script that it declined to continue with the project at all.
“And that’s so frustrating,” Golden says. “Maybe I wouldn’t have done something that you wanted to shoot from, but I could’ve done a hell of a lot better than that, for a lot less money, and then maybe [the studio] would’ve invested in having somebody clean up what I did. So the thing with Ben Walker is, if it doesn’t work it’s because I didn’t do it right, not because someone got paid a million dollars to do something crappy.”
In spite of those past disappointments, Golden remains optimistic about adapting his work for the screen. He’s quick to point out the many positive experiences he’s had with the film and television industry, and he’s excited to work with the teams who are committed to bringing his stories to an even wider audience. (Golden has several other properties in development, including a feature film based on his 2014 horror novel Snowblind, scripted by Black List feature lab fellow Amber Alexander.)
“I guess what I want to say about Hollywood as an industry is, it’s not nearly as bad as its stereotypical reputation,” Golden says. “There are wonderful people in that business. But you will absolutely not go very far before you bump into the people who make the stereotype. It’s an unfair stereotype in the sense that there are so many brilliant, creative, inventive, inspired people, and that includes executives. I can’t stress enough that I’ve been really fortunate to work with some great people. But my advice to writers who are maybe having their first encounters with the town and the industry, is this: the first time somebody says to you, ‘We want to be in the [insert your name here] business,’ run fast and far, because it’s the hollowest thing you’ll ever hear.”
Golden is also quick to acknowledge what often goes unspoken in option announcements and news stories about novelists who are brought on board to adapt their own work: there’s always a chance that the final product will bear little resemblance to his original vision.
“Just to be realistic, we don’t know what will end up happening,” he says. “I have no idea if [the studio] will like what I’m doing, or if they’ll end up saying, ‘Okay, good job, but now we’re going to get this person to take it to the next step or do something different.’ And I’m fine with that. I want to be involved, and I want to have it be my vision as we go forward, but I’m also a realist. You have to come to this thing from a professional perspective. I just want it to be good, and I want it to make sense. But at the end of the day, I do feel really good about this. Even it doesn’t work out, I’ll know I did my best.”
And while outlets such as Deadline have reported that the television series will begin by adapting Ararat, Golden stresses that the series won’t necessarily be beholden to his novels’ precise story arcs. “I don’t want to get too deeply into it,” he says, “but our intention is to do a Ben Walker series—not necessarily a direct adaptation of Ararat or The Pandora Room, but a series about Ben Walker.”
That creative direction is in line with Golden’s broader philosophy as a storyteller. There are plenty of thematic and narrative threads that run through his work—for instance, Golden has become a key figure in the “mythic fiction” movement, which draws heavily on folklore, myth, and legend, and his work is often grounded in history both known and hidden. But the real, underlying theme that unites all of Golden’s work, regardless of genre or medium, is a commitment to character.
“My passion is for stories about people,” he says. “I really do believe that every single person has their own pain, their own situation, their own something, and all you need is one catalyst to turn it over and make people begin to make changes in their lives under duress. My fascination is how people respond in times like that—times of crisis or danger. As much as I love all of this other stuff that it’s about, to me, it’s about the people, and how they react to the situation they’re in.”
About International Thriller Writers: ITW represents professional thriller authors from around the world. One of the main purposes of the organization is to provide a way for successful, bestselling authors to help debut and midlist authors advance their careers. To that end, ITW has designed numerous, effective programs and events which promote debut and midlist writers and their work, sometimes in partnership with bestselling authors. In addition, ITW promotes literacy, gives money to worthy organizations, supports libraries, and advances the genre. Finally, it brings together almost a thousand writers, readers, publishers, editors and agents at its annual conference, ThrillerFest, as well as at CraftFest, a writing workshop program, and AgentFest, where aspiring authors can meet and pitch top literary agents. To learn more, visit thrillerwriters.org.