Documentarian Ken Burns is turning the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, into a six-hour series that will air on PBS in 2015. CTCA, one of the project’s funders, supports the effort to chronicle the history of cancer, current research and patient experiences.
The 2010 book, written by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, traces the roots of cancer to its first documented appearance thousands of years ago to last century’s “War on Cancer.” The PBS series replicates the book and is similarly titled CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies. It will feature interviews with doctors, researchers and patients fighting the disease.
“There’s not a person in our country that has not in some way been affected by this disease, cancer,” Burns says in the video preview above. “It’s time we put away the superstitions and the fears and the anxieties and ran up against it.”
Burns, whose mother died of cancer when he was 11 years old, is executive producing the series. Mukherjee appears in the film and consulted with the production team.
The project initially began with Laura Ziskin, an award-winning film producer, who wanted to produce a documentary about cancer since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Ziskin, also co-founder of the nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer, read a manuscript of Mukherjee’s book and urged him to assign the television and film right to her organization.
Stand Up To Cancer is working with WETA, the PBS station in Washington, D.C., and production partner on all of Burns’s films, on outreach efforts for the series. WETA president and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller read the book while undergoing cancer treatment and connected Mukherjee and Burns. Rockefeller contacted Ziskin in early 2011, which got the project rolling before Ziskin died that year.
Production is currently underway, with Barak Goodman as its director. When it airs in 2015, CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies has the potential to reach PBS’s more than 118 million monthly viewers, along with its almost 221 million visitors online.
The project’s website calls the story of cancer “a story of scientific hubris, paternalism and misperception” but also “a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance.”
“Make no mistake, this is one of the most significant challenges in human history,” Mukherjee says in the video preview.