On this hot late summer day, the Pacific Ocean off Vancouver Island has been moved to an inconspicuous hall in Vilvoorde, ten kilometers north-east of Brussels. In the "Lites" area, the largest film studio for underwater recordings in Europe, the attack by orcas on people is filmed today: a group of actors swims frantically and screaming in a huge water tank - but without orcas. They will be added later digitally on the computer. Arms reach out to the desperate from a speedboat, a camera crane and cameramen in the water capture their fear-contorted faces from multiple angles.
The man who dreamed up this horror scenario is sitting in an adjoining room watching the shooting on a large screen. It is September 16, 2021, Frank Schätzing, author of the apocalyptic thriller "Der Schwarm" looks almost moved at the live scenes of the shooting. "It's great what we're seeing right now," he says to himself - and doesn't seem to mean the shock scene. It's as if he himself hasn't realized that his novel is about to become a film right before his eyes. For a long time, the 1,000-page book was considered unfilmable. This page-turner about an unknown, maritime swarm intelligence that causes whales, sharks, crabs, jellyfish and other sea creatures to attack people, which incites ice worms to trigger tsunamis that devastate entire coastal regions.
Scientists and researchers from different countries finally find out that the unknown species they call Yrr is the reason for the catastrophes affecting the world. A thriller about global loss of control, written by a German author, the book has sold six million copies worldwide.
Uma Thurman and legendary Hollywood producer Dino de Laurentiis had expressed an interest in bringing the 2004 bestseller to the cinemas, but due to funding difficulties and other problems, it never materialized. Until 2017, ZDF approached Schätzing with the idea of filming “Schwarm” as an eight-part series. Under the leadership of the Mainz broadcaster, seven international TV stations and streaming providers as well as Frank Doelger, the Emmy-winning showrunner of hit series such as "Game of Thrones" or "Rome", were to handle the production.
With a budget of 40 million euros, it was the largest series production in Europe to date. Stars like Barbara Sukowa and Oliver Masucci were engaged, as were well-known directors like Philipp Stölzl, Barbara Eder and Luke Watson. The PR campaign and the preliminary reports in the media raised expectations of a series spectacle, of an underwater "Game Of Thrones", of a series that could become as big as a Marvel film.
Schätzing and Doelger agreed to write the outlines for the eight episodes together - i.e. the story guide for the individual episodes. The writer also received executive producing credit. Doelger and Schätzing, the "Game Of Thrones" makers and the German thriller king. That sounded like a dream team. What could possibly go wrong?
When the first episodes of the "Schwarm" film adaptation premiere at the Berlinale on February 19, Frank Schätzing will not walk the red carpet with the other participants. He is not named as an executive producer or co-writer in the film credits. "Based on a novel by Frank Schätzing" is now only in the opening credits.
"When I realized how fundamentally my ideas and those of the producers differed, I withdrew from the project," says Schätzing when we recently met in Cologne. His positive impressions and expectations, which he still had during the shooting, had increasingly clouded over. The low point for him was viewing the raw version a year ago. "The orca attack lacks bite, the horror potential of the white crabs is wasted, even the tsunami only seems to cost the lives of a few sheep and tourists, it rushes through and is not discussed further. For this it pilfers where it should rave, and newly invented narrative threads – the Japanese faction, the ominous Council ICPO – are without current relevance and make no sense.”
Now you don't have to be a film financing expert to realize that the story of an ominous Japanese tycoon, which does not appear in the novel, was mainly written into the film because the Japanese streaming provider Hulu is one of the co-producers. This is not an uncommon procedure in the film industry. Opinions differ as to whether such concessions advance the plot.
The tsunami that devastates Trondheim and entire coastal regions of Europe in the novel is only shown briefly in the film. The consequences are not discussed in detail. One or two viewers will probably fill this gap with memories of all the TV images of the real 2004 tsunami that devastated large regions of Southeast Asia at the time. A catastrophe, the consequences of which were also implemented in 2012 in the cinema film "The Impossible" with Ewan McGregor in a visually stunning way.
Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons are vacationing in Thailand. But then the tsunami tears the family apart. The film is based on the 2004 disaster.
The context is significant because, of all the other catastrophes and shocking moments in the novel, Schätzing's description of the tsunami is perhaps the most haunting and disturbing element of the book to date - and one that best describes the pull created by his narrative style and his plot runs out. No one has probably described it to him more vividly than those German vacationers who read his novel on the beaches of Sri Lanka or Thailand in 2004, on the day of the real tsunami. They later explained to him on talk shows that they were only able to get to safety in time because they only knew from the descriptions in his novel what was in store for them when the water receded. For Schätzing, these encounters were an experience of humility.
For the Cologne author, the tsunami episode in the series is symptomatic of the many areas in which the film adaptation fails. "The global threat is not noticeable," he says. Schätzing is disappointed. Frank Doelger did not work with him as part of a team, and after a certain point in time he was no longer informed. When he first saw the rough cut of the eight episodes last summer, he pulled the ripcord – and his credits as executive producer and co-author.
"The start was successful," says Schätzing, "but then: I didn't understand the characters in the novel, and the implementation was flat and old-fashioned. Despite rejuvenation and feminization, the staff seems strangely outdated, almost yesterday: staid family quarrels, relationship kitsch, young people who are trimmed, grumpy teenagers, a tycoon who sits in his Tokyo office like in an eighties thriller. Hard to believe, but the figures have actually become less modern. Melodrama replaces depth, at times you feel transported to a soap that wants to be woke but hasn't understood what wokeness is all about. In the supporting roles, the diversity that is so important seems as if you didn't approach it with your heart, but with the checklist. But what's the use of putting people of all walks of life in a film if you don't know how to tell them in an exciting and touching way?"
Frank Schätzing ("Der Schwarm", "Limit") is Germany's thriller king. Now he has written a non-fiction book about a real-life thriller – climate change. A conversation about religious wars, climate debates and attacks by orcas.
Source: Photo: Paul Schmitz, Kiepenheuer
The ZDF, which is in charge, is trying to limit the damage in view of the rift between Doelger and Schätzing, which has only now become public. "For us, 'The Swarm' is a very successful and contemporary adaptation of the novel from 2004. Film adaptations of literary material always and significantly differ in narrative form and dramaturgy from the original medium book. We respect Frank Schätzing's point of view, who would have preferred different accents and weightings in some aspects," says Frank Zervos, head of the ZDF main editorial office "TV film / series", to WELT.
Frank Doelger, asked by WELT about working with Schätzing, replied that the adaptation of a bestselling novel is always an enormously delicate matter, one always hopes that the author will be satisfied with the resulting television series or the film on which it is based become. Doelger refers to his many years of experience with important British and American writers such as David McCullough, Robert Caro, William Trevor, Ernest Gaines and other writers.
"When I first met Frank Schätzing, I told him what I'd said to the other writers I've worked with: that a novel to be made into a film, even if treated with the greatest respect, is only the starting point can. During the development phase, Frank Schätzing and I spent a lot of time discussing the adaptation. Throughout this time I remained open to his suggestions and he remained open to mine. Unfortunately, as the show began to take on a life of its own, ours and his vision of what the show could be diverged."
For "Game Of Thrones", Doelger and other creators of the legendary fantasy series were praised by critics for the fast-paced, visually stunning narrative style, especially the depiction of violence, the setting of ever new moments of shock, became a trademark of the series for years guaranteed maximum attention. Accordingly, the expectations of a "Schwarm" film adaptation for which he was responsible were enormous in advance.
In 2005, Time's Lev Grossman named George R.R. Martin "the American Tolkien". In 2011, he was named to the annual Time 100 list of the world's most influential people. WELT author Martin Scholz met him in Dublin.
The fact that the moments of shock and tension from the novel are now only administered in more homeopathic doses in the series - when, for example, masses of rampaging crabs carefully crawl around the people lying on the ground instead of attacking them - is not a shortcoming in Doelger's view. "That's why when we show attacks on people in the 'Swarm' film adaptation, we brought the depiction of violence to a certain level in order to be able to portray the yrr as sympathetic and compassionate. We wanted to dramatically emphasize that this life form attacked humans in self-defense to protect itself, the ocean, and all creatures within.
If the depictions of violence were too extreme, too brutal, Doelger continues, “we risked losing sympathy for the yrr. Portraying the yrr as sympathetic and compassionate also reflected our hope that audiences would understand that in this story, we humans were the "destructive" force - and not the yrr. That's why we decided to show the beauty and majesty of the ocean in all eight episodes, to remind people how precious the ocean is and how our actions are endangering that habitat.”
This essential point reveals what is probably the biggest gap between Doelger and Schätzing. Since the publication of his novel, the writer has gotten used to his Yrr being interpreted as a metaphor, as a placeholder for all sorts of things. Nevertheless, he never tires of emphasizing that his hive intelligence is unbroken and timeless, neither devil nor savior nor anything in between - namely something disturbing, an ancient power, hundreds of millions of years older than us. Now his inexplicable deep-sea aliens have been made into maritime ETs.
“The desire to idealize aliens is as old as the genre,” says Schätzing, “and pretty much yesterday. The 'swarm' is about the conflict with a species that doesn't share any values or emotions with us, but with which we have to find a level of understanding. With a view to our survival in a nature that is not friendly, a very topical discussion – which, by the way, also affects our coexistence with artificial intelligence, which the Yrr network is very similar to.”
According to Schätzing, “Frank Doelger explains that such modern science fiction works very differently from fantasy. He made history with 'Game Of Thrones', I give him the utmost respect for that, but here he falls back into the 80's. I'm a cineast, nobody has to explain to me how literary adaptations work. It's about creating a contemporary viewing experience, rather than filming pages from a book, and changes to the material and characters must serve that purpose. Not the self-realization wishes of the producers.”
Was there a point when he, the creator of the "swarm" worlds, wanted to veto the project? Schätzing thinks for a moment before answering: "I would have found that indecent of me. By the time I distanced myself from it, hundreds of people had already been working for months on the film adaptation, which was already facing great challenges during the pandemic.”
Nevertheless, he wishes ZDF every success and all the best with the "Schwarm" series. "After all: Habemus' swarm', after all these years," says Schätzing. “To get a project of this magnitude off the ground deserves respect, and my perspective doesn't have to be that of others. In the end, viewers and critics decide. Ahoy!”
The first episodes of the "Schwarm" film adaptation will premiere on February 19 as part of the Berlinale. You can be seen in the ZDF media library from February 22nd and in the regular ZDF program from March 6th. Schätzing recently published a special edition of his novel of the same name, expanded by a current essay and a previously unpublished chapter, at Kiepenheuer