Why Legend of Zelda could be TV's next Game of Thrones

Any studio searching for the next great franchise ought to get the message — and take this

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Screenshot/YouTube)

Hey! Listen! Make The Legend of Zelda into a TV series!

I'm surprised I have to insist at all. We're living in the golden age of both the gritty reboot and the high-budget sci-fi/fantasy series; The Legend of Zelda should've been a no-brainer, snapped up by the likes of HBO or Netflix years ago. Instead, the classic Nintendo video game remains bafflingly undeveloped as content-hungry streamers otherwise greenlight every script that so much as mentions fairies or swords. Forget a live-action Harry Potter series though: It is Zelda that could be the next great show on TV.

The main quest of every streaming service since at least 2013 has been to find "the next Game of Thrones." HBO is doing this … by making more Game of Thrones. Amazon is dumping money into a Lord of the Rings live-action multi-season series. Netflix is busy planning at least two spin-offs of its hugely-popular Witcher franchise. Disney is doing what Disney does best, and flooding the market with Star Wars projects. Even Apple TV+, otherwise the runt of the streaming litter, has a high-budget sci-fi project cooking. This week, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the further creation of a Harry Potter TV series by HBO Max-owner WarnerMedia is a "top priority."

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But despite all evidence indicating we're in the midst of a genre television bonanza, streamers have overlooked The Legend of Zelda. First released in 1986, the franchise turns 35 this year, and includes some 19 games in the main series, the most recent being Breath of the Wild from 2017. Critics consider several of the installments — though especially 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time — among the greatest video games ever made.

Hesitation over tackling Zelda might come from the perception of a "video game curse," the idea that games will never be as enjoyable when they're made into movies and TV due to the inherently derivative nature of gameplay. This concern was raised by The Atlantic during one cycle of Zelda TV rumors back in 2015: "[T]he real magic comes from the player's agency and ability to explore the world," the author, David Sims, wrote. "There's no need to get too bogged down in story detail and nuance since there's so much else to do." But Zelda is different. From its richly-imagined Medieval kingdom of Hyrule to its charismatic, elfin protagonist Link, to the franchise's subversive flip on classic fantasy tropes — like that the "damsel in distress" of the title, Zelda, is a nimble fighter who sometimes uses the male identity Sheik — Zelda has always been an especially narrative- and character-driven franchise. With a big enough budget, keen casting, attention to the music, and a good storyteller at the helm, it would be a surefire hit.

Zelda's owner, Nintendo, though, has historically been protective of its properties after embarrassments like the widely-reviled 1993 Super Mario Brothers film. But as other cinematic universes like the MCU and MonsterVerse have found success in recent years, the Japanese company's reluctance seems to be slipping. In 2019, Nintendo allowed for the live-action Detective Pikachu; as of September 2020, a new animated Super Mario Bros. movie is still on track for a 2022 release. There have even been several rumors of a potential Zelda TV series over the years: one from 2015, though Nintendo's then-CEO debunked the report, as well as another in 2018, when Castlevania producer Adi Shankar teased on Instagram that he was "working with an iconic Japanese gaming company to adapt one of their iconic video game series into a series." Despite excited reporting that the project was surely Zelda, Shankar was actually alluding to Devil May Cry, a stylish, demon-hunting action franchise.

At this point, the biggest hurdle for a Legend of Zelda TV series seems to be Nintendo's dogged insistence that its franchises remain family friendly. But approaching a Zelda project as a kid-friendly Game of Thrones misses the mark. Besides — Nintendo basically tried that already. In 1989, a goofy animated Legend of Zelda TV show ran for one disastrous season; today it is best remembered as an internet meme. But Zelda's original fans are all adults now, and any reboot should be treated with the same maturity afforded to its competitors like The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and the eventual Lord of the Rings series. What's more, with its screeching, zombie-like ReDead monsters, its oddly unsettling themes, and the inclusion of the creepypasta-spawning Majora's Mask in the Zelda canon, insisting on a show being kid-friendly seems to be in direct opposition to the franchise's darker mythos.

Dedicated fans of The Legend of Zelda might still balk at a television adaptation. For those like myself —for whom Link's Awakening, Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and The Wind Waker were sacred parts of childhood — it's painful to think of the franchise tarnished by bad CGI, weak writing, or even giving Link a voice. "I'm scared [that] such a deal with Netflix or any other studio at the minute may dilute what we love about the series and take away the magic that draws us in with such incredible design, time, and care put into creating the games," wrote the author of a 2015 Change.org position aimed at ensuring no TV plans went forward.

The high level of competition for fantasy epics on television these days, though, raises the bar for an eventual Legend of Zelda adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Any studio searching for the next Game of Thrones ought to get the message — and take this.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.