This month, in the picturesque setting of Siebenmühlental between Tübingen and Stuttgart, the filming of a short teaser for a potential eight-part series may lead to a major screen adaptation of a Viking saga.

Each episode of the planned series, The Saga of Grettir, has been written by a former student of Niles Maxwell's screenwriting course at the Media Studies Department of Tübingen University

The project has been put together by the American director, producer, and screenwriter, who has his own production company in Germany, Bohemian Entertainment.

From saga to big screen

"I was always a big fan of Tolkien," Niles tells The Viking Herald, "then someone recommended this particular Norse saga. I realized that these sagas were the basis for a lot of Tolkien's naming formulations and monsters".

Beyond the Lord of the Rings, however, Niles discovered other aspects of medieval Norse writing: "The way the sagas are written, they're very straightforward. They're expressions of what happened, with no sense of reflection. This kind of storytelling is easier to translate to the screen, rather than world literature that is difficult to adapt. This also makes them compelling to watch."

The particular tale of Grettir Ásmundarsonar, a quick-tempered rebel looking to make a name for himself as a warrior, seemed equally filmic: "Grettir's character is a complex one, as an anti-authoritarian figure littered with human fears due to a curse placed upon him by the revenant Glámur."

Seeing the potential of Grettir in an "action-packed and character-driven limited series," Niles duly shot an initial teaser using the fearsome Benny Zunder as the lead. "He was someone I had met by chance at my local gym. He wasn't an actor but had just the right look I was after. It turned out he was a police officer who was used to staring at people in a certain way." 

An illustration from a storyboard for the film by Zdravko Jandric.

The writers' workshop

With his pilot teaser in the can, it was only later that Niles hit upon the idea of tasking his best screenwriting students to develop further scripts: "As part of the course, they each had to create a short film script. With this achieved, I felt that they were ready to tackle a full-length one of 90-120 pages. When we met for an end-of-term dinner, they were all keen to take another step forward".

Killing two birds with one stone, Niles created a writers' workshop for graduates from his screenwriting class. As most still lived locally, they could convene to throw around ideas for character development, plot, and, hardest of all, dialog. "It needs to feel archaic, poetic, and foreign yet still appeal to a contemporary audience," says Niles. 

The script should also be so well written that a large streaming or film production company might pick up on it and allocate the kind of budget required for such a project. 

Underscoring the story is its timing, "towards the end of the Viking era, when they are transitioning from pillaging to Christianization," explains Niles, the mood enhanced by the fact that this month's shooting of the second teaser in Siebenmühlental will take place at sunrise, to represent dusk.

With Niles' help, each student has been developing a single episode and has been responsible for a single area of historical research to ensure authenticity. To balance things out, the group consists of four women and four men, for whom English is not their first language. 

While challenging, the work has been remarkably rewarding. As one young writer, Vladimir Jakimenko, 22, puts it: "The dark, violent but also beautifully mysterious story works well in medieval Iceland, where Grettir struggles against his destiny, challenging it at every step, in contrast to other characters who blindly accept their fates." 

Featuring the same actor, Benny Zunder, as Grettir, Niles and his crew will also be using horses from nearby stables. A longer teaser will then be shot in June, by which time all scripts should be complete.

"Even if it doesn't get taken up," concludes Niles, "they will have learned a lot from it and had a lot of fun along the way."

For more details, see The Saga of Grettir website.

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Illustration: Zdravko Jandric

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