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Hollywood and the Recycled Idea

Hollywood is often accused of recycling old ideas rather than generating fresh ideas. Well, duh. Idea recycling is a cheap, easy way to keep churning out movies and collecting the millions of dollars that moviegoers eagerly fork over every week for 100 minutes of escapist diversion. Not to mention the megabucks spent on Sno-Caps. (Mmmmm…Sno Caps…)

The accusation against idea recycling is usually lack of originality: If it’s not original, it can’t be good. But this argument is a fallacy, at a high level of abstraction at least, because there are only a small handful of unique ideas to draw from anyway. Everything else, then, would be just a rehash of the stuff we’ve seen before.

But it’s not.

Moviemakers can take an old idea and give it new life. Yeah, we may have seen the same themes before. Under Siege is often called “Die Hard on a boat” or, in keeping the SF theme, Star Trek is often called “Wagon Train to the stars”, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be good. Good storytelling always entertains, regardless of the originality of the content. Heck, even content of marginal quality can be entertaining (see Star Wars).

So, don’t discount recycled ideas as trash. You just might be missing something. Or will you? Let’s explore a little bit further…

Idea recycling can takes several forms:

  • Film Adaptations of Books
  • Television Adaptations of Books
  • Film Adaptations of Television Shows
  • Television Remakes of older TV shows
  • Television Spin-offs of movies
  • Big screen remakes of movies

Each has its own set of pros and cons. Let’s get a cup of Joe and discuss, shall we?

(Note: There are other forms of idea recycling that I do not cover here because they are a whole new can of worms. They include book sequels, book adaptations of movies/TV (novelizations), serial/shared world stories (Forgotten Realms, Perry Rhodan, etc.) and adaptations of Games (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, D & D)

Film Adaptations of Books

Perhaps this is the most controversial form of idea recycling, especially with the recent fluff over I, Robot, even here at SF Signal. Asimov fans were outraged that film adaptation was not true to the original book (which was just a collection of short stories, really). Why? Because rumor was that the movie’s story was not faithful to the book.

The problem with adapting any book for the silver screen is twofold:

First, as with any movie, there are critics and the movie-going public to please. That alone is a difficult enough task. As an off-the-cuff guess, I’d say that for every Close Encounters of the Third Kind (good movie) there are about five Waterworlds (not a good movie).

Second, there is the book’s fan base to please. Now here’s a fickle bunch. Most book fans hold the original ideas of the book close to their hearts. For a mere filmmaker to change what they hold so dear is nothing less than blasphemy in their eyes. What most fans fail to realize is that film is a different medium than paper. What reads well is not necessarily fun to watch. Sf author and screenwriter Michael Cassutt gives a great overview of why this is necessarily so. Go. Read it now and enjoy book-to-film adaptations more. (Bottom line: Get over it, fanboy!)

To be sure, sometimes filmmakers can please everyone. Most recently, Peter Jackson raised that bar with Lord of the Rings. And certainly the Harry Potter movies have been successful. But did anyone, and I mean anyone, see Battlefield Earth? The only fan of that space-wreck is Kevin Costner and that only because the movie single-handedly wrestled the “Worst Movie of All Time” crown away from Costner’s own Waterworld. However, by and large, most film adaptations diverge from the source from which they were born.

But given that an adaptation may not be faithful to its source; does that bode ill for the quality of the film? Does it spell Box Office Doom? One might think so if he were to read beloved books like Frank Herbert’s Dune and then see the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation. Lynch was so unhappy with the film that he employed the oft-used Hollywood pseudonym of Alan Smithee instead of his own name in the final credits. The problem was that Herbert’s many internal dialogues did not translate well to the screen. In an attempt to adhere to the source, the final result was laughable. (Quality, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Some people actually enjoyed that film.)

Here are some other film adaptations of high quality stories that have not fared well financially on film. Many of these are still very enjoyable, though.

  • Enemy Mine – based on the award winning novella by Barry Longyear. Louis Gossett, Jr. as a pregnant alien. ‘Nuff said.
  • Logan’s Run – based on the William F. Nolan book
  • Millennium – based on John Varley’s story “Air raid” (I loved the book-length version of that story by the way). Cheryl Ladd in a gravity defying hairdo just wasn’t enough to pull in the big bucks.
  • Re-Animator – based on H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West: Reanimator”. I’m not sure how screaming, bloody corpses failed to attract huge audiences. Maybe it was Fritz Weaver’s “lunch” scene?
  • Screamers – based on Philip K. Dick’s story “Second Variety”. RoboCop in the desert. What’s not to like?
  • Starship Troopers – based on a book by Robert A. Heinlein. It was like Dawson’s creek in the Army.

QUESTION FOR THE READER: What are the top 10 worst sf movies you’ve seen?

How do SF movies fail? The August Ansible quotes Orson Scott Card on why movie adaptations fail: “The problems that have plagued Ender’s Game are the same that have plagued other award-winning science fiction books. Science fiction is set in a world contrary to our reality, so you have to have an explanation. And explanation time on screen is unbelievably dull.”

I disagree with that statement. In looking back at many of the SF movies that were successful and/or critically acclaimed, I see that many were based on books. And they were not necessarily faithful to the original text. An MSN article cites many “well-regarded” SF movies like:

  • Destination Moon (1950) – based on a book by Robert A. Heinlein
  • When Worlds Collide (1951) – based on a book by Philip Wylie
  • War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) – both based on books by H. G. Wells.
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950) based on the 1940 novelette “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates
  • The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – based on a book by Jack Finney
  • The Day of the Triffids (1963) – based on a fantastic book by John Wyndham
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – based on a book by Ray Bradbury
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) – based on a book by Isaac Asimov
  • Planet of the Apes (1968) based on a book by Pierre Boulle
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”
  • Alien (1979) – based on A. E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet
  • Blade Runner – based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
  • Total Recall (1990) – based on the Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”
  • Jurassic Park (1993) – based on the book by Michael Chrichton
  • Contact (1997) – based on Carl Sagan’s book
  • Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) – based on Brian Aldiss’ story “Supertoys last All Summer Long”
  • Minority Report (2002) – based on the Philip K. Dick story.

[Note: For a sampling of stories made into movies, check out The Reel Stuff.]

Given this set of movie winners, it must be acknowledged that SF books are indeed a good source for “quality” SF films even if they diverge somewhat from the source.

And in the land of comic books, there are a whole slew of movie adaptations as well. A few are successful (Spiderman I and II, Superman I and II, Batman, X-Men 1 and 2) and many are not (The Batman Sequels, Superman III and IV, Supergirl, The Hulk, Daredevil, Catwoman, The Punisher). Some fall in-between (Spawn, Hellboy). I suppose it is debatable whether the good outweighs the bad, but usually any SF fan can name ten worthwhile SF movies.

Question for the reader: What are your top 10 favorite sf films and why?

The future looks bright with several SF/F titles being optioned or in production (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock, Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman) and several comics as well (Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Elektra, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, The Flash, Plastic Man). And, not to be left behind, young adult fiction and children’s fiction have a few upcoming goodies: His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, Lemony Snicket, Eragon, Curious George, and Where the Wild Things Are.

I say, keep adapting SF stories. The misses may mar the landscape but the hits are oh-so-wonderful. And as a bonus, it brings a whole new audience to an otherwise forgotten piece of quality entertainment. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?

Television Adaptations of Books

Almost as controversial as film adaptations of SF books are television adaptations of SF books. Why not as controversial? Well, most people write-off a horrid television adaptation as a victim of a smaller budget. The assumption is that it takes money to make good science fiction. To some extent, that’s true. Science fiction (strange planets, space travel, gadgets and sense of wonder) usually means special effects, a pricey component of a film. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a George Lucas bankroll.

Television does bring something to the table though besides annoying commercial interruptions: story length.

Often a “television special” will be the format of an adaptation. TV marketing weasels will also bandy about the terms “mini-series”, limited-run series”, “special television event” and the like. But the idea is the same: it’s longer than the average theater film. This could be a huge boon to the telling of a story of appreciable length. Mists of Avalon (a book I maintain that I enjoyed immensely, even after my so-called pals lobbed CFL [“Chick-Fiction-Lover”] grenades at me) was a 6 hour, three-part “TV event”. A big story, 1000+ pages, deserves a whole lot of screen time.

Of course, broadcast length does not ensure quality. No, no, no. Take the TV adaptation of the SciFi Channel’s Dune. Gone were the film version’s repetitive “fear is the mindkiller” internal whisperings of Paul Atreides, a definite plus. But for me, the series fell flat. It was an ambitious attempt that was visually pleasing, but overall, a bit of a snoozer. So much so that I didn’t even bother with the sequel, Children of Dune, which was a mishmash of Frank Herbert’s next two book sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Another lengthy adaptation is the SciFi Channel’s Riverworld (based on the Philip Jose Farmer’s series) which also left me bored. Time will tell how the upcoming “four hour television event” Earthsea will fare.

But not all television adaptations are piecemeal events spanning several nights. Others are one-shot movies. The Lathe of Heaven (based on the enjoyable Ursula K. le Guinn book) was quite pleasing. Also, A Wrinkle in Time, while not great, was at least watchable.

Question for the reader: What are your top 5 favorite television movies adaptations? Your top 5 worst?

Aside from the movie format, many a television series have been launched from novels and comic books, either directly or through a pilot. These include:

Some of these enjoyed a long run, others didn’t. And quality? Well, as a youngster, I just loved Batman and Superman. And Wonder Woman? Well I’m not sure about the quality on that one; the only thing I remember was Lynda Carter.

Looking back at this list, I see that most of these have their origins in comic books rather than novels. Sure, the list is not comprehensive, but I am hard-pressed to name any more television series based on SF novels, which leads me to believe that serializing a novel for television over several seasons may be a difficult thing. Although, Stephen King’s The Dead Zone seems to be doing fairly well.

Question for the reader: What are your top 5 favorite television series adaptations? Your top 5 worst?

Film Adaptations of Television Shows

Idea recycling can also take the form of television series being made into a feature length film. The original Star Trek enjoyed some successes decades after it was cancelled. Star Trek: The Next Generation ended their series to concentrate on feature films, with varying degrees of success. Other television shows that have been remade for (or adapted to) the big screen include:

  • Lost in Space – Not very well liked by most, although I liked it.
  • The Twilight Zone
  • The X-Files

There are also a host of animated TV shows that have made it (or will make it) to theaters:

Upcoming titles:

Question for the reader: What are your favorite SF movies that made the leap from the small screen to the large screen? Your least favorite?

Television Remakes of Older TV shows

Sometimes older TV shows are redesigned and/or updated. Shows like the following have seen at least 2 incarnations (not including spin-offs). Some even switched from animated version to live-action versions or vice-versa.

Television Spin-offs of Movies

To be complete, I wanted to talk about TV spin-offs of movies. But the only SF/F/H titles I could come up with are Stargate, Star Wars: Clone Wars and Tremors? Can anyone think of any others?

Big Screen Remakes of Movies

Perhaps the most suspect of unoriginality is the remake. For the life of me, I can not figure out why there was a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. What was the point? Other film remakes, which met with varying degrees of success, include:

  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Dracula
  • Frankenstein
  • Godzilla
  • I am Legend – Based on the excellent Richard Matheson story. The first adaptation in 1964 starred Vincent Price and was called The Last Man on Earth. The second adaptation in 1971 starred Charlton Heston and was called The Omega Man.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • King Kong
  • Metropolis
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Solaris
  • The Thing
  • The Time Machine

Here are some upcoming film titles that are in development…again.

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Logan’s Run
  • King Kong – Yet another version. The next Peter Jackson project.
  • War of the Worlds – A Spielberg/Cruise project.
  • The Fly – Brundlefly! Brundlefly!
  • I Am Legend – Yet another version, this one stars Wil Smith.

Final Thoughts

Sure there were stinkers. Yes, Battlefield Earth was atrocious. (L. Ron Hubbard would be spinning is grave if he weren’t stuffed and mounted at the Scientology headquarters.) But there were some real good movies and shows based on “un-original” science fiction stories. If we dismiss the remake or adaptation as garbage without even giving it a chance, we are doing ourselves, as science fiction fans, a disservice.

The lists I outlined above are by no means comprehensive. It might be interesting to form a more inclusive list of adaptations/remakes/spin-offs/etc. and see which ones were successful (financially, critically, personally and with fans) and which were not.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

18 Comments on Hollywood and the Recycled Idea

  1. John, WOW!! When did you have time to type all this up?

  2. Outstanding job John – great points, well articulated and backed up with the facts.

    And just to be clear, L Ron is spending a few years dead for tax reasons – I expect to see him back and writing more books any day now.

    I agree with Orson Scott Card about the fact that books don’t make great movies if you don’t figure out a way to make the exposition flow well with the film – otherwise it does become dull. Peter Jackson has shown that’s it is possible to do it well through voiceovers or special scenes.

  3. I also think that SF is a mental medium. Being words on a page, you have to supply the pictures. Second, SF, especially space opera, deals with things that can be vast in size or scope, which, ironically, fit well within a person’s mind, but not on the big or small screens.

    I do think that, with the advancement of CGI that movies are moving into an area where large scale SF stories can be told. LotR is a good example. Another one I think will look great is Sky Captain. As Hollywood figures out how to use new tech in its movies, we’ll see more stories that will rely on CGI for their settings, vehicles, etc, being made. I really look forward to seeing Iain Banks on the big screen. Of course, an implacable, unstoppable killing machine like the Shrike would rule on the silver screen!

  4. So I will offer a question: Is a story considered SciFi if its simply told in a scifi setting? For example, Romeo and Juliet as a theme with the whole tragic love thing going, but if I put it in space does that make it SciFi. I know its probably a simplistic question, but its something I wonder about.

  5. Good question, I’d say, maybe, but almost certainly. Except when it isn’t…

    Actually, I think setting something ‘in spaaaaaace’ gives it a SF feel, even if it isn’t SF. See Event Horizon, which is a haunted house, wait for it!, in spaaaaaace…..

    So, for most people, the likely answer is: anything in space is SF regardless. The SF fanbois might argue otherwise.

  6. And I would be one of those arguing fanboys.

    We?ve posted definitions of science fiction before; there are many of them floating around. And I?ve said this before, but in a nutshell, I believe something is classified as sf if the speculative part of the fiction is integral to the story. The key part here is “integral to the story”.

    Using this strict definition, I?ve heard arguments that Star Wars is not science fiction; it?s Cowboys & Indians in space. The claim is that the setting alone is what makes you think of it as science fiction. And I believed that for a while. However, as Scott and I were discussing last week (in the real world?there is life outside the blog, apparently), it?s difficult to argue that something like the Force can be removed from the story without changing it significantly.

    Star Wars aside, IMO the best science fiction is built around has a key idea that is speculative in nature. The setting alone just doesn?t cut the mustard.

  7. The interesting thing about the Force is, its really fantasy or mysticism – not sci-fi.

    However, Star Wars had lightsabers, spaceship combat, and the destruction of a fantastic planet-busting moon-sized space-station. How could you argue these elements aren’t science fiction or weren’t integral to the plot? There isn’t any old west equivalent to a planet-buster – is there?

  8. No, they did not have planet-buster weapons in the old west, although the giant, steam-powered spider in The Wild Wild West came close. But I don?t think a weapon is integral to the plot. It?s just a prop. Replace the lasers with pistols, the light sabers with swords, the spaceships with horses, and you have a western. OK, with the swords you have a samurai western, but still.

    Again, this is someone else?s argument here. I juts find it difficult, but not impossible, to swallow. As it were.

  9. I think the whole thing is left up to the reader or viewer in the end. While I see Star Wars as a science fiction movie – others see Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai movies with whiny guy. Which is why I asked my question about a known theme placed in a sci fi setting (which ties in very well with John’s other post about literature if I say so myself.) I think its still sci fi – I mean you can take many sci fi stories and put them in a contemporary setting and then its not sci fi anymore.

  10. That’s why the “integral to the plot” critera. Take Minority Report (Please. Ba-dum crash!). You cannot have the same movie by removing the three seers. Without them, the knowledge of the future cannot be known and Pre-Crime wouldn’t exist.

  11. A thought about series spinoffs from movies…anyone remember the planet of the apes cartoon show?? it was on in houston right before Thundar the Barbarian…now lets hear it for seventies campy cartoons! was there a an actual live version of it as well?? I’m thinking there was.. hmm..

  12. More on this topic:

    In the article “Misunderstanding Asimov” in the August Locus Magazine, discussing the movie I, Robot vs. the Asimov stories, there’s an interesting quote by Bruce Sterling:

    “The thing that makes science fiction cinema is special effects…but science fiction is also about futurism, trend spotting, and a lot of other items that are of no use to Hollywood.”

  13. I suppose he means other things like: plot, story, etc…

  14. does anyone remember the name of the short lived t.v show from the late 80’s or early 90’s about several men from the old west who are transported to the modern day. There were about five main characters and they were bounty hunters or such in their own time and they used those skills in modern day. It probably did not last for more than five shows. any feedback would be great….

  15. One Dune and the director’s credits…there are two versions. The David Lynch version is the one you saw in the theatre and on DVD.

    The Alan Smithee version was the television version where they added back into the film footage that had been removed.

    They did so without Lynch’s input, so the use of the Alan Smithee nomiker (it is a named used by directors in general to express their displeasure).

    Me, I like the Smithee version better than the Lynch version. Watching the Lynch version was like reading the book by ripping out two pages for every one you read. The Smithee version is more like reading 1.5 pages for every 1.5 pages you shred.

    Maybe someday somebody will wave enough money at Lynch, and he’ll “bless” the Smithee version (or better yet, restore more footage).

  16. Fred Kiesche // March 20, 2005 at 9:39 pm //

    …and speaking of Alan Smithee…

    I see on Amazon that there’s a new “expanded” DVD Dune coming in May. It seems to be the theatrical version and extra stuff…so is this the Lynch blessing of the Smithee version?

    Or will we see it? Some of the reviews (how can you review something that isn’t out yet?) on Amazon seem to indicate that it’ll be delayed or is even vaporware. We shall see!

  17. I have to necro this one – you gotta read The Straight Dope’s take on this!

  18. what is the name of the short lived show of the 80’s or 90’s that was about a posse from the old west being transported to the modern day

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