It topped Germany’s list of bestselling novels for eight months, and to great local excitement Frank Schätzing’s science-fiction page-turner Der Schwarm is being turned into an eight-part drama series for the German public service broadcaster ZDF.
But in a first for the country, the primetime TV adaption will be filmed in English rather than German. Der Schwarm is becoming The Swarm in response to changes in the market brought about by streaming services and as part of a plan by ZDF to secure major international sales. The show will be dubbed for the German audience of its two channels and subtitled on ZDF’s video on demand service.
In a further sign of the broadcaster’s global ambitions, in partnership with the independent German film-maker Beta it has hired one of the most celebrated names in US television, Frank Doelger, the triple Emmy-winning producer of Game of Thrones, for a joint venture in which The Swarm is intended to be the first of many German-led English-language productions.
Schätzing’s book, first published in 2004 in Germany and Austria and which has sold in excess of 4.5m copies, has been praised for its scientific accuracy in depicting the geology and marine biology behind a fictitious series of global events found in the story to be caused by a hitherto unidentified entity living in the depths of the sea.
Speaking at a €23m underwater studio on the outskirts of Brussels where the final scenes of The Swarm’s first series were being filmed, Doelger said ZDF’s decision reflected the difficulties of European public broadcasters in buying up high-quality dramas in the age of streaming.
“A lot of broadcasters have realised that with the advent of streaming services, the kind of projects that they used to buy from the UK or America – the high-quality, high-production English-language series that were very important to a younger audience and a more international audience – they were no longer going to buy.
“As an example, I think Game of Thrones was sold to over 240 broadcasters around the world, and as I understand it HBO is dong a prequel now which they will not sell to any of those broadcasters – they will basically keep it for HBO Max [a subscription streaming service]. So that means there are going to be these holes in the schedules.”
Doelger said he did not believe there would be opposition in Germany to the novel idea of German-led productions being filmed in English. “I think there isn’t the resistance you would expect because these projects have been carved our specifically to fill a gap in their schedule.
“No local producers who are doing the standard fare of German television would take something like this on. It is not that they are saying to local producers that they are not going to be supporting the local language, we are simply taking the airtime and the money allocated for acquisitions and creating projects.”
The new drama, whose cast includes Leonie Benesch, who played Prince Philip’s sister Cecile in The Crown, has been mainly filmed in the Italian regions of Lazio, Veneto and Puglia, but Northern Ireland, the choice of HBO for Game of Thrones, had been a contender.
“The situation unfortunately with Northern Ireland became more complicated after Brexit,” Doelger said. “All of the rules and regulations about equipment going back and forth, transport from Northern Ireland, became something much more complicated and I know in Game of Thrones, you know what made it possible, we could put actors on a plane either in Belfast or drive them down to Dublin, [and] get them into Spain working.”
The Swarm plays on the concept that reckless treatment of the oceans will have unforeseen consequences, a theme that particularly resonated with Doelger, he said, in the light of Sir David Attenborough’s call for a ban on deep sea mining over the “potentially disastrous” risks to its eco-systems.
Doelger said he had avoided leaning too heavily on parallels with the Covid pandemic and human-made climate change.
The BBC has been in talks about purchasing the rights to the series, which Doelger said was “character-driven” and, like Game of Thrones, could run and run.
“When I first read the novel I thought this is a wonderful example of an intelligent life force which has been on this planet and responsible for the evolution of man from the sea and the wellbeing of oceans, is a force of good and love but also, like a vengeful God, it will seek vengeance on those who pervert the natural order.”
The joint venture producing The Swarm, Intaglio, is led by Doegler and NDF International Production’s Eric Welber. Alongside ZDF, which is the lead broadcaster, the other partners on the project are France Télévisions, Rai in Italy, the Austrian broadcaster ORF, SRF in Switzerland, the Nordic Entertainment Group based in Stockholm, and Hulu Japan.