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Is Film a Poor Medium for Science Fiction?

In his Wired article Forget Film, Games Do Sci-Fi Best, Clive Thompson claims that the Star Wars universe is better realized in games than in the movies. I tend to agree with that statement and would also include (from what I hear) the Star Wars books as well. There is much more room for exploration in games and books than in the few Star Wars movies that exist.

But then Thompson goes a step further and claims that all science fiction is better realized in games than in film.

Why were the games so comparatively good? A cynic would say it’s because Lucas probably isn’t as closely involved in the games, so his young designers aren’t hampered by his inane creative decisions. But I actually suspect it’s deeper than that. I think it’s because games are beginning to rival film — and even eclipse it — as the prime vehicle for sci-fi and fantasy.

An interesting observation, to be sure. It doesn’t help that a large majority of sci-fi films aren’t very good.

Thompson doesn’t mention the book medium much. I suspect he’s more of a gamer than a reader, whereas I am the opposite. Personally, I prefer the world-building of books better than movies. I find it exercises my imagination more than the lazy “here-you-go” visuals of movies. That said, I do enjoy the eye-candy of movies like Star Wars and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

All of which raises the question that asks if film is somehow just a poor medium altogether for science fiction concepts. Is this an explanation of all the poor sci-fi films out there?

I say “No” is the answer. There are some really great sci-fi films out there which dispel that belief – enough of them that it cannot be a fluke. True, the good movies are few and far between. But I think that rather than this being the result of film being a poor medium, it’s just a plethora of bad filmmaking.

What do you think? Is film a poor medium for science fiction?

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.

17 Comments on Is Film a Poor Medium for Science Fiction?

  1. Richard Novak // February 27, 2006 at 12:42 pm //

    Have to agree. Film isn’t bad in itself. Metropolis is a great picture, for example. Often you simply get product from people who do not understand the concepts involved. The U.S.-aided Doctor Who movie or even the two Peter Cushing films. Or the Sci-Fi Channel’s Wizard of Earthsea were mediocre attempts at best. Ideas do not always translate to a visual medium, where they are forever fixed. Science iction should be fluid in this regard.

  2. I don’t necessarily agree with what he is saying, and I think the problem with Hollywood is that they try to take a novel and compact it into a 2 hour thing. That has never been done well and it doesn’t really matter if its SF or some other genre – book to movie conversions on average never go well. The other problem is, for the most part, that special effects will never reach what we can create in our own minds. With that thought, I think that SF does really well when animated. Now there are very few examples of this, but I know alot of Anime is SF related, and some are quite good.

    As to being best represented in games, I don’t think I agree with that either. Star Wars games in particular have been tremendously bad in many case, but what the better ones do is let you experience the universe in your own way. And ultimately, that is true of books as well.

  3. Film is a great medium for sci-fi. The problem, just like any other genre is not with the genre, but with the chops of the creator.

    The other issue for sci-fi is that sci-fi novels don’t adapt very well. Take Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, for example. It’s over 400 pages of philosophical ramblings and intellectual masturbation. It’s funny, interesting, quirky, and chock full of character. I enjoyed it.

    But it doesn’t make great entertainment when translated to the screen. I think it’d make a boring sci-fi movie in the same way I thought Hitchhiker’s Guide was a boring movie. Quirky, funny, a blast to read… just not film material.

    Adapation is an issue for any kind of fiction, not just sci-fi. Most writers don’t write with adaptation in mind, they’re just following the muse into the genre unknowns. That’s great for all of us who reward their intellectual adventures.

    Philip K. Dick on the otherhand has had many ‘successful’ adaptations. Although the films are pretty heavily altered from their original works.

    It just doesn’t suit Hollywood very well. Partly the author’s fault, partly the fault of Hollywood. Say what you will about that. There’s plenty of blame to go around. 🙂

  4. Jeff Patterson // February 27, 2006 at 4:15 pm //

    I await Hollywood’s version of Canticle for Leibowitz, where an order of martial-arts monks protect a sacred document from desert-dwelling mutants…

  5. Jeff, irreverent as always. 🙂

    RedChurch, good points. And I’m not just saying that because they echo those stated in an an earlier essay, Hollywood and the Recycled Idea. 😉 (In fact, I can’t believe I forgot to reference that essay in the original post. Shame on me. I should be strapped to a chair, Clockwork-Orange-style, and forced to watch Battlefield Earth. :O)

  6. Gack. If they make a movie of “Leibowitz”, I’m opening my wrists. Too many favorite books have been ruined by flicks (and too many favorite movies have been ruined by remakes)!

  7. Flim is a great medium for telling stories – to the limit of what a film can do. But don’t try to ask it to do more – it won’t live up to it. You’ve got 3 hours (at the absolute most) to tell your story – and almost all of it has to be done visually. Some directors (and cinematographers) are good at realizing how to transfer the script to visuals, and some aren’t. You can’t blame all bad sci-fi movies on Lucas, nor can you say that because Lucas isn’t a superb director that all sci-fi movies will be bad. There have been planty of sci-fi films that are great. Remember: Clockwork Orange, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Alien, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys, E.T., Serenity, and The Iron Giant? These films all hold up pretty well today, a testament to quality filmmaking.

    And you can’t ignore that films are far more accessible to more people than books or games. This alone means that as a society we’ll probably prefer the movie to the book. You personally might prefer books (I know I do) but as a whole, mankind (at least the western world for now) will honor the film more. I’d bet a hundred times more people have seen The Lord of the Rings movies than read the books.

    And does it really matter where the source material comes from? No, it does not! I don’t understand how the fact that there don’t appear to be many original movie plots support the point that games are better than movies for sci-fi. It really doesn’t matter where the source material comes from – having to put it into film renders it a completely different work (except for MAYBE a stage play, but even then…)

    And Fred – I’ve made those same statements many times (about books being ruined by films) but the reality of that is – it’s ME that’s at fault here, not the movie industry. I have a totally unrealistic expectation that a movie will be able to capture the feelings I had while reading a book. No movie could ever do that, and until I get over that thinking I’m going to be dissapointed time and time again. I should go into these movies (like I, Robot) thinking, “Wow, I wonder how they will take this idea and make a movie from it?” rather than hoping it captures the book in its spirit.

    Oh and redchurch, I hope you know that the Hitchiker’s Guide books were adaptations of radio plays? The BBC TV shows were a hoot because they tried to capture the feel of the radio production (a major challenge!) I haven’t seen the film yet – have to remember to put that on my NetFlix list.

  8. Well, there are plenty of great sf movies out there. And about five times as many (or more) bad ones. But this is the case of pretty much all moviemaking. It is fully possible to make a great sf movie based upon a book, but only if the director is somewhat dedicated to the original book in my opinion. I really hate many adaptations that twists the original thing. The best example is probably Scifi Channels adaptation about Earthsea, in which Ged was White, when he was pointedly black in the books, Atuan was a good place, worshipping the powers of good, when it was decidedly a bad place in the books. In such cases i would suggest the movie or series should not claim to be based on, but rather inspired by the original work, They haven’t based it upon the original, they have merely been inspired by it.

    However, some films like 2001: a space oddessey is great because of their visuality and their story lines. In books one have to trust the storyline more, and thus it gets more undivided attention. In games one often finds the interaction mechanisms get the most attention. All of theese things often come together in the masterpieces within the genre, but masterpieces are low in stock.

    I generally like to play sf games, but they can never (or at least rarely) build a world as compledte as a book. But a movie can often go beyond the theoretical world building and produce some astonishing eye candy. Wheter or not it reflects what i had imagined it to look like that is often irrelevant to me. The point is that films make the fantastic placec accessible to those who doesn’t read as much. Thus allowing them to check out what books seems to be interesting for them.

    But a sf game is different to me. Here we construct a different universe every time. Like Twilight Imperium with its races with different characteristics and abilities. It is often unpredictable who will ally whit whom and thus the focus is more interaction and recreation rather than consuming or enjoying a finished product. A book is the more unfinished of the three medias we have discussed here. The reader must actively imagine things, where he is shown them in a movie. And in a game the players kind of hash i out amongst themselves.

    that was my two cents

  9. I disagree. In a perfect world SF novel adaptations would be few and far between. original stories (the first Star Wars, The Matrix, 2001, Forbidden Planet) almost always play better than adaptations. Sound of Thunder could be done in 15 minutes, not a two hour abortion.

    Then you get the rare beast that’s an excellent movie, but a lousy adaptation (Bladerunner and Day the Earth Stood Still leap to mind)

    I’d rather see more novels adapted as comics. The current Neverwhere comic nails the book perfectly, and the Japanese adaptation of James Hogans Two Faces of Tomorrow from a few years back was dead on.

  10. I still don’t understand what it matters where the source of the idea was. Are you aware that the movie Shrek came from a book of the same name? I doubt it – few people have read the book. Does the movie follow the book? Not really – but who cares?

    The only reason it matters is if you have read the book and have a preconceived notion as to how it should play out. Note that this is your (and my!) problem – not the screenwriter or the director.

    There are tons of bad books, movies, comics, songs, and pretty much every form of human expression. I hate to say it – but one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This applies to lots of things – especially the subjective world of creative works.

    Honestly, I like the I, Robot movie despite the fact that it wasn’t even close to the Azimov book. Who cares? The movie works fine as an easy-going sci-fi action flick. The only people who do are those who want the experience of the book to translate to the film and frankly, that’s never going to happen.

  11. Scott opined:

    I still don’t understand what it matters where the source of the idea was…..The only reason it matters is if you have read the book and have a preconceived notion as to how it should play out. Note that this is your (and my!) problem – not the screenwriter or the director.

    I disagree to a point. The only reason Hollywood is using SF books/stories is for the name recognition, either that of the author or that of the story itself. They do this to try and draw the fans into the theater and, hopefully, others as well. That’s what bothers me about Hollywood SF movie adaptations. It seems to be all about generating hype, story be damned. I, Robot is a good example. It wasn’t even called that in the original screenplay (it was called Hardwired or something), but once the studio obtained the rights to Asimov’s I, Robot stories, a quick re-write to add 3 laws references and a I, Robot, the ‘completely different from Asimov’s stories; movie was born. Totally for the name value. Same thing with most of PDK’s stories. Now, granted, sometimes this works, Blade Runner and Minority Report (for the most part) spring to mind (PDK stories both, ironically). But most of the time, not so much. Starship Troopers? If you’re going to butcher the story, why even use the name appeal of a well-known SF story? It’s all about marketing and getting as many unsuspecting people into the theaters. That isn’t my problem, that’s the studios.

  12. So JP – you’re problem is not with the movies themselves but that you feel tricked into believing they will be more like source material you are already familiar with? Or is it that you feel somebody is being exploited (the author? the fans?)

    Very few people know Minority Report and Blade Runner are from a PKD works. I daresay neither one of those films were named in order to draw in the fans – neither promoted the fact that they were PKD efforts in their marketing material. How does that jive? Could it be the filmmakers were fans of the book too and decided it would make a good movie, but ran into too many challenges making a movie the majority of people would like?

    Movie adaptations of books are hard. People want the experience to be like reading the book and it can’t be that. Thus, most people feel that whenver they make movies from a book its bad – true for mysteries or dramas as well as sci-fi. It is this notion which is flawed though – as was said above, we should see movies like this as ‘inspired by’ rather than direct ports.

  13. I feel Hollywood is exploiting the author’s, their works and the fans all to make money. I’m not surprised by this, but I don’t like it. I almost reflexively disregard any big name SF movie based on an existing work (Sound of Thunder) because I know it will most likely not be anything like the source material and it will be crap.

    I do realize that there needs to be changes to a book to adapt it for the screen. But the changes don’t have to include changing the actual story to something unrecognizeable. That’s what torques me. Just write something original and be done with it. Of course, no one would go and see it then. I’m also thinking people won’t go and see an ‘inspired by…’ film. But then again, maybe more would than would go see original SF movies. Look at Serenity. Big cult following. Original setting. Poor box office. Sky Captain too didn’t do well at the box office and that was an original story. That’s why they go with big name authors and stories, for the cache they bring. The actual story appears to be irrelevant to the decision to make a movie. Just how many people will see it? If the movie is good, that’s a bonus.

    From my perspecetive, novels should be mini-series on TV. I thought the SciFi Channel production of Dune was good. Better in many ways than that De Laurentis mess. Yes they made some changes, but they stayed close to the source material.

    I don’t feel tricked. I know that, more often than not, a SF movie based on a story will only marginally follow the source material. It seems odd to me that Hollywood would make movies based on big name authors and stories, only to drastically change the story for the film. It seems to me the author is a big name for a reason, why not use his story? Also, if its the story that is a big name, it too is that way for a reason, why not use the actual story? It can be done, see Lord of the Rings. I think part of the problem is the SF gets little repsect outside of its fans so people don’t expect much from the SF films and, consequently, we don’t get much.

  14. I think it is generally a lack of seriousness that causes sci-fi book to movie adaptations to go sour. Us sci-fi geeks take this junk pretty seriously and it is a grand insult when the producer/director/cinematographer don’t take it as serious as we do.

    Look at Sin City or Lord of the Rings. Serious people doing serious work. There was no looking down their nose at the source material and giving a half hearted approach to the movie. Hell Peter Jackson gave it “all” for LOTR and so did Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez for Sin City.

    Now the easy pot shot for lack of seriousness is Uwe Boll, but in truth I don’t think that really fits because we know he wasn’t serious to start with and was only exploiting German tax laws to cash in. But take someone who did feel that they were taking the source material seriously and came up short. One that comes to mind is Roger Christian (Battlefield Earth). While I am NOT a Hubbard fan in the Scientology way I though Battlefield Earth the book was a good read (not great) and had potential to tell a story that would translate to film well if handeled correctly. BZZZZZZZ. Try again. Not a single person took the creation of that movie seriously and it shows. The same goes for John Carpenter and (Vampires). John Steakly in my opinion is a good writer, in fact (Armor) is one of my favorite sci-fi novels ever and his penning of (Vampires) while not his best writing lended itself perfectly to film until some idiot put John Carpenter at the helm and cast James Woods who couldn’t be LESS LIKE the main character “Jack Crow” if he tried. A better casting would have been maybe Bill Paxton or Rutger Hower (–too old?) but not skinny wimpy James Woods! And this would have been caught had real fans and serious geeks been in charge of the casting and direction.

    I realize every movie can’t be a LOTR but at least put people somewhat interested in the source material in or near the helm or they all turn out like junk.

  15. Trent, you nailed it: too often the Hollywood types seem to think of it as “just science fiction,” don’t take it seriously, and end up with crap. LOTR is a good example of trying to be faithful to the source material, as is Kubrick’s 2001. And original scripts can do it right, also: Brainstorm and Dark City come to mind.

  16. How would you like that world? By book, movie or game experience?

    The other day at Wal-mart I found the Trivial Pursuit, Star Wars Saga Edition, complete with interactive DVD. The best part? It was marked down to a price a whole lot more palatable for someone on a family budget like…

  17. How would you like that world? By book, movie or game experience?

    The other day at Wal-mart I found the Trivial Pursuit, Star Wars Saga Edition, complete with interactive DVD. The best part? It was marked down to a price a whole lot more palatable for someone on a family budget like…

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