This year’s summer movie slate is full of sequels and remakes of existing properties. As science fiction/fantasy fans we know there is a wealth of written material that deserves to appear on the big screen or on TV. The recent news that Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos is being adapted for the silver screen is welcome, even as we’re sceptical about the final result. Our question this week:
I like Dune as much as the next science fiction fan, but I find it disappointing that Hollywood keeps remaking the same stories instead of tapping into the wealth of science fiction literature. I’m not sure that every story can be easily translated into film, particularly if it features many non-humanoid or posthuman characters. I also think that there is a glut of action thrillers and SF-horror movies. Keeping that in mind, here are a few SF stories that I’d like to see on the big screen:
– I think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash could make a brilliant movie, if a screenwriter could be found who could pare the plot down to feature film length without eliminating the humor. What makes it enjoyable to me is that the over-the-top characters and settings – the reluctant hero Hiro, who is an excellent swordsman in both the real world and online, the badass teenaged skateboard messenger, the evangelist who wants to take over the world through speaking in tongues, the mafia-run pizza delivery business, the decaying crowded freeways, tacky strip malls and gated ‘burbs covering Southern California, the giant “raft” of refugee boats drifting along the coast – seem almost plausible. And of course there is the appeal of the Metaverse itself, where computer geeks can don an avatar of their own creation and are at the top of the social hierarchy.
– Connie Willis’s time travel novels are among my favorites, so I’d love to see them made into movies. The Doomsday Book would make a moving drama, with its contrast between young historian Kivrin’s experiences in the medieval village beset by plague, and her colleagues fighting the influenza epidemic in future Oxford. The ending is probably not upbeat enough for a commercial SF movie, though. On the other hand, I think Willis’s much lighter time travel comedy of errors, To Say Nothing of the Dog, could be fun light entertainment. I like to imagine it filmed in the style of a Merchant-Ivory production (maybe my fondness for period pieces makes me different from the “average” SF fan, though).
– The theme of environmental destruction in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is as timely today as it was in the 1970s, as are the issues surrounding the ethics and technical limitations of cloning. While the multigenerational scope of the novel is probably too broad for a single movie, I think that it would work to focus the story on Mark, one of the few “singletons” in the survivalist colony of clones .
– My choice for an outer space flick would be Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. It’s got dangerous exploration of space and unknown worlds, flawed main characters, tense interpersonal relationships in the close quarters of the alien asteroid spaceport and, and, of course it the dramatic ending with the characters’ ships trapped by a black hole. While the novel doesn’t really have a feel-good ending, it could be combined with “Heechee Rendezvous” to provide a happy resolution to the story.
– Finally, my nostalgic entry is Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage. It features a teenaged girl whose coming of age story involves the development of both physical and mental toughness as she fights to survive on an unfamiliar planet. Perhaps it is out of date now, considering it was published 40 years ago, but I include it in my list because it made a big impact on me when I read it as a 13-year-old. It was the first (and one of the few) SF book I read that featured the heroics of a girl, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
– I was going to also suggest Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, but a search turned up that it’s already in the process of being made into film by Morgan Freeman’s production company. I’m looking forward to it.
I actually think that many SF novels can only be faithfully reproduced as miniseries, rather than 90 minute moves. That doesn’t mean that SF novel-based movies aren’t possible, but that they are necessarily something different than the original. Bladerunner is a great film, but it’s only loosely based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It’s not just that typical SF stories are sprawling in time and space, but that the speculative part of the speculative fiction is usually cut in favor of action. Personally, I would love to see the SciFi channel produce more original miniseries based on classic SF, rather than filling up their schedule with ghost buster “reality” shows and wrestling, but I’m not holding my breath.
The idea of what stories are “deserving” troubled me a little. It is true that as SF fans we know of countless books and short stories that we’d be excited to see on the big screen, but on the other hand do these great stories “deserve” to have their narrative’s stripped in order for the Hollywood machine to approve them for mass consumption?
Every single time we get excited about one of our beloved books making it to the cinema, we fail to remember the distillation process that is necessary. During an adaptation a screenwriter must take the story down to it’s bare bones while picking out all the major scenes and then presenting it back in 120 pages or less, equating to about 20,000 words. Considering most books are five times that length at the low end, you can see why many adaptations of science fiction novels seem to leave us fans wanting more. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to an epic SF novel. Even the best adaptations have readers up in arms for leaving out major characters, slashing development of the protagonist, and skipping over plot points that have us all scratching our heads. But in the end this is the process required in order to take a book to the screen. The filmmaker will always hear at least one person say, “The book is better than the movie.”
A book or story is an individualistic experience, while a film is something shared by a room full of people simultaneously. In any adaptation, readers are almost always jolted by the difference between their individual interpretations of the original text versus that of the filmmakers. It’s problematic, but again it’s an unavoidable part of the process. The question is if we as SF fans want to put our favorites up to the perilous process and unavoidable looting of story. It’s important to remember that for every Blade Runner there is … well, I’ll leave out the list, but I bet you could rattle off ten less than exceptional SF adaptations right now.
That is why I think original screenplays are more “deserving” than adaptations when considering SF for the movies. Original screenplays are conceived from the start to fit into the strict structure that works well for mass-market cinema, and thus might actually turn a profit. When a film based on an original screenplay is presented to the audience for the first time, everyone is immediately put on the same page-they see and experience everything the filmmaker intended from the way the characters appear, to the world around them, and even the ships that they travel within. If the movie is good, then the concepts, universe, and characters can further be explored in books, TV series, short stories, video games, and the like.
On the other hand I think books can make fine TV mini-series. It’s a great way to get an SF book up on the screen while giving enough time to fully develop the story. Although the book would still need to be torn apart to fit the format, it gives the producers much more room to fit in all the good stuff and preserve the SFness (if that’s even a word).
But then again, despite all the perils, I do get excited when my favorites get turned into movies. If I were to pick one that I’d like to see live and in color, I’d choose Ringworld by Larry Niven for the simple fact that I just love the book. Although I think it would be near impossible to turn it into a two hour movie, it would work great as a mini-series (shout-out to the SciFi Channel).
I’ll admit that my first impulse was to behave like a kid in a candy store. I want this (Larry Niven’s Ringworld), this (James P. Hogan’s Giants of Ganymede), and this (David Brin’s Uplift War) without end – but as I really thought about it, my mind went in a different direction with a little more practicality tempering it In the end I went for a balance for books that I felt would both be interesting to me as a fan and which were stories that could be told successfully in film, yet still find an audience if done well.
Greg Bear’s The Forge of God quickly came to mind since I’ve always been a fan of Bear’s ability to tell a sweeping epic with a reasonable sounding base in science yet with a Golden Age sense of wonder. The story begins with a contemporary human setting and builds into the sweep of science fiction so it can take the potential viewers along in the journey more successfully. It is also a rousing end of the world epic, making for a very thrilling ride. The conclusion is satisfying in itself, but forward looking enough to allow for either an ending there or lead to the sequel, Anvil of the Stars, where you are pushed toward even grander scale science and greater sweeping vision.
Julie E. Czerneda’s Beholder’s Eye is another science fiction title I’d love to see given the movie treatment. With her background in biology, Czerneda has a wonderful feel for creating alien races, which thanks to recent advances in special effects and CGI, could really be used to strong effect in the transition to the big screen. The story itself concerns a race of shape shifters who are hiding from an ancient enemy while trying to maintain the secret of their existence from the human and alien worlds they live in, which would allow for strong plot development to pair with the intriguing visuals.
Garth Nix’s Sabriel is a great antidote to the Hollywood’s current myopia that fantasy is mainly either Tolkien or Harry Potter. Nix’s book is a dark and compelling young adult fantasy about a young girl’s inherited duty to fight an undead menace against daunting odds. It is filled with just enough horrific elements mixed with complex characters and storytelling to be a draw to a variety of audiences. And, frankly. I believe the world of film would be just that much better for having the character of Disreputable Dog in it.
Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place is one of my favorite fantasy books that is rarely thought of as such. Often, when you think of science fiction and fantasy being adapted to film, you think of grand special effects in big studio epics. But there’s also a place for the smaller more personal independent studio productions. Beagle’s book is a subtle story about a man who is hiding from life by living in a graveyard and befriending the spirits there who have not yet moved on from life. Like those spirits, he drifts in a nether world not quite of the living nor of the dead, but in the course of the story he reconnects to life. It is much more a tale of people, life and the small quiet struggles of individuals instead of heroic evil slaying battles, which I suspect could make for a very touching and intriguing film.
While I enjoy the occasional remake, there are many novels that I’d love to see brought to the big screen. Now that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series has begun to unfold in film in an incredible way, the next books that I wish would be adapted are Lewis’ science fiction trilogy – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. With today’s special effects and CGI and the right people at the helm, I think it may finally be possible to do the trilogy justice.
I’d also love to see Robert Doherty’s (pen name of Bob Mayer) Area 51 series adapted as movies. This science fiction series, above any other, reads like you’re watching a movie. It wouldn’t be any stretch to bring them to film. I could see the series as major blockbusters, complete with hard military action, aliens, and a giant conspiracy. Fresh stories with big twists, and plenty of action and adventure – that’s what I love most about science fiction films. And when someone asks me for a science fiction recommendation, Area 51 is the first I mention.
And as a huge Wonder Woman fan, I’m waiting impatiently for her to be immortalized on film the way Superman and Spider-Man have been. Lynda Carter was great back in the day, but I’m ready for the next generation: without the spinning, arm-waving jumps, granny panties, and “invisible jet” that leaves her completely visible.
John Meaney’s Nulapeiron Sequence of Paradox, Context and Resolution. Why – because it has the expansive world-building of Dune, the martial arts and swashbuckling sword fights of Star Wars, and the kind of immense SFnal set pieces that beg for wide-screen adaptation, and it happens to be damn smart too. But only if some scifi-equivalent to Peter Jackson can take the whole trilogy and sneak off to the edge of the world to film it on a huge budget without studio interference. Failing that, I’d love to see it done as anime.
Then I’d like to see Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity books get made. What’s not to like about Elf rockstars and female bodyguards jousting it out in the Arizona desert on kawasaki bikes? Seems like a perfect Joel Silver project to me. And a video game.
But the truth is, what I’d really like to see are more contemporary SF works getting made. I don’t think we need another Asimov pseudo-adaptation or a third-Dune. It’s odd that contemporary fantasy is getting made right now (Stardust, Golden Compass, Harry Potter, Larklight, Temeraire, the list goes on….) but SF cinema still seems to lag decades behind it’s literary counterpart. I just saw Danny Boyle’s Sunshine recently, and while there were things to admire in it, it’s really just a mash-up of 2001, 2010 and Event Horizon. Whereas every other SF film is a retread of Aliens, Blade Runner or Aliens meets Blade Runner. Hollywood seriously needs some new models. I’m really tired of people in gray sweat suits running around ships’ corridors chasing second-rate HR Giger knock-offs. Star Wars, for all that it’s narratively bankrupt, at least delivers big, bright, eye-candy, and I hear it’s done all right. So – new blood, new material, new landscapes. And I wish they’d take them from this years SF novels, or even this century’s.
That being said, I suspect James Cameron’s Avatar may shake things up, as will Hyperion if done right (or even interestingly wrong), and then theres that SF trilogy Ron Moore just sold to UA (and he knows his roots). As I’ve said before too, the more technology improves and costs drop, the more of everything – good, bad, and just plain weird – there is going to be, both coming out of Hollywood and coming from everywhere else, so while there is always going to be crap, simple numbers means there is also going to be more good stuff than ever before. (And I know of at least four of our Pyr authors who have things under option, about to be under option, or in development, so hopefully some of that will pop too.)
Finally, go look at Stephan Martiniere’s covers for Kay Kenyon’s The Entire and The Rose quarter – thus far Bright of the Sky, A World Too Near, and City Without End. Tell me that doesn’t scream wide screen. Or hey, how about Tobias Buckell’s Crystal Rain? Wouldn’t even be a hard shoot – just an excuse to head down to the Carribean and throw in some CGI spaceships….
To make a splendid science fiction book, a novelist needs to satisfy two standards. First, it has to be a good story, by which I mean, it has to have interesting characters, a coherent plot, good pacing, thematic unity, a satisfying conclusion. Second, it has to be a good science fiction story, by which I mean, it has to have an element of the unknown, a sense of wonder, a scientific speculation, a wild possibility, presented with all seriousness and treated realistic authenticity. A story is good science fiction when the realistic ramifications of an unreal idea are played out in the drama.
To make a splendid science fiction movie requires a third element: visual spectacle. While there are science fiction movies that don’t involve spectacle and color, special effects, space battles, and aliens, it must be noted that movies are a visual medium. A science fiction movie that does not involve spectacle and special effects is not taking advantage of the primary strength of movies.
So, to answer this question, we must look at which books are not just good science fiction story, but which also involve a rich visual spectacle.
First and foremost, the Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith deserves film treatment. This is the grand-daddy of big-concept space opera, and it has never been correctly brought to the screen. (A Japanese anime from a few years back hardly scratched the surface of the available material).
We fans have been waiting for a big screen treatment of Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs since roughly 1930, and now the special effects technology can match what we have always imagined. Sophia Loren may be too old to play Dejah Thoris these days, and no other actress has the looks and the screen presence to pull it off.
Much as I personally dislike the book, I also have to recommend Stranger in a Strange Land for film treatment. You can get lots of interesting special effect shots of Mike the Martian killing innocent policemen with his mind-powers, or shots of curvaceous starlets in a various states of undress which is basically all the book has in it.
Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe also has both science fiction goodness and big-budget spectacle in it, if so complex and subtle a book could somehow be turned into a screenplay without being ruined.
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny contains both action and spectacle. I have always wanted to see on film the scene where Corwin and Bleys fight their way, one swordfight at a time, up the stairs crawling up the side of Mount Kolvir, an enemy on each step.
The Demon Princes series by Jack Vance is likewise full of mystery, action, spectacle. The dialog is already written, and already memorable. Count of Monte Christo in Space! What more do you need? Again, the “Planet of Adventure” series starting with City of the Chasch begs for big screen treatment.
Ringworld by Larry Niven. You have Kzin and Puppeteers and the Great Arch looming up in every shot.
Wizard of Earthsea also should be made into a movie. And I mean a real movie, based on the books, not a travesty calculated to offend fans. STARSHIP TROOPERS also should be made into a movie, and I, again, mean a real movie, based on the book, and not an travesty calculated to offend and insult fans.