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MIND MELD: What Makes a Successful SciFi/Fantasy Book Adaptation? Why Do Some Fail?

Books and visual media (TV/film) are different, so telling the same story in each must inherently be different. But some TV/Film adaptations of sf/f books succeed better than others.

Q: What makes a successful sf/f book adaptation? Why do adaptations sometimes fail?

Read on to see a variety of viewpoints…and be sure to tell us your opinion!

Jennifer Pelland
Jennifer Pelland is a Nebula-losing short fiction author who aspires to be a Hugo-losing author some day. Her first collection, Unwelcome Bodies, was released by Apex Publications in February of 2008. Much of her fiction is available online, and can be found at her website:

My first inclination is to say that a good adaptation needs to be faithful to the original without feeling like it needs to reproduce every comma and apostrophe. Boiling a 500-page novel down to two hours of cinema (anything over two hours involves really soulful leg jiggling for those of us who like to stay hydrated and thus is cruel) is an impossible task if you try to reproduce every little bit of the original. But then I remembered Blade Runner, which is wildly different from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and, in my opinion, wildly better.

So I guess I need to revise that answer. A good book adaptation is like pornography — I know it when I see it. I think it helps when the people doing the adaptation have a deep love for the original material and a strong vision of what they’d like to do with it. Sometimes, that vision clashes with the original material (as in Starship Troopers, where Paul Verhoeven used over-the-top parody to make a film that had the opposite message of the novel — and for the record, I liked the film better than the book). Sometimes, that vision humanizes a very cold and analytical novel (as in the George Clooney adaptation of Solaris, which I also loved, and not just for Clooney’s butt). And sometimes, you get Dune. Meh.

But no matter what the scriptwriter and director do, there’s no way to please all of the book’s fans, no matter how hard they try. So I’m happy so long as the author gets a big, fat check, and the movie is entertaining in its own right.

John Varley
In the 1970s John Varley was called “The new Heinlein” by some. He wasn’t the first, and there have been several other new Heinleins since then.

It’s a mystery, isn’t it? A lot of it has to do with who is adapting it, directing it, designing it, etc. But I believe the major thing is what I think of as the Lonesome Dove effect. Most good novels, SF or not, are so rich they absolutely defy a 2-hour treatment. When the director has time, even if he’s not a well-known auteur (and maybe it’s best if he isn’t, and Simon Wincer certainly isn’t), he can create what has to be one of the most beloved book adaptations of all time. It was the same with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was time to tell the whole story.

One idle afternoon a few years ago I decided to make a list of the science fiction films I have liked, for one reason or another. (I made a separate and longer list of fantasy films I like; for some reason fantasy seems to work better on the screen. But I’ll limit myself here to what I write: SF.) Here is the list…and I emphasize that this is all the SF films I have ever liked, up to about 2004. I haven’t updated the list, but I’ll say I haven’t liked much in the last 4 years. I pretty much hated The Dark Knight.

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  2. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
  3. Alien (1979)
  4. Aliens (1986)
  5. Alphaville (1965)
  6. Altered States (1980)
  7. Back to the Future (1985)
  8. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
  9. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
  10. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
  11. The Blob (1958)
  12. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
  13. Brazil (1985)
  14. Carrie (1976) *
  15. Children of the Damned (1963) *
  16. La Cité des enfants perdus (City of Lost Children) (1995)
  17. A Clockwork Orange (1971) *
  18. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  19. Contact (1997)
  20. Dark City (1998)
  21. Dark Star (1974)
  22. The Day of the Triffids (1962) *
  23. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
  24. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  25. Deep Impact (1998)
  26. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
  27. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  28. Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)
  29. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  30. First Men in the Moon (1964) *
  31. The Fly (1958)
  32. Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon) (1929)
  33. Galaxy Quest (1999)
  34. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) *
  35. King Kong (1933)
  36. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
  37. The Man in the White Suit (1951)
  38. The Man with Two Brains (1983)
  39. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) *
  40. Men in Black (1997)
  41. Metropolis (1927)
  42. Miracle Mile (1988)
  43. Monkey Business (1952)
  44. Morons from Outer Space (1985)
  45. Primer (2004)
  46. Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
  47. Repo Man (1984)
  48. The Road Warrior (1981)
  49. RoboCop (1987)
  50. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
  51. Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) *
  52. Sleeper (1973)
  53. Star Wars (1977)
  54. Terminator (1984)
  55. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
  56. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  57. Things to Come (1936)*
  58. THX 1138 (1971)
  59. Time Bandits (1981)
  60. The Time Machine (1960) *
  61. Tremors (1990)
  62. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
  63. Village of the Damned (1960) *
  64. Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)
  65. The War of the Worlds (1953) *
  66. War of the Worlds (2005)
  67. Young Frankenstein (1974)

The ones with asterisks beside them were adapted from novels, or sometimes borderline novellas, as in the HG Wells. Look at how many were original screenplays! Then make your own list of novel adaptations that failed miserably (Starship Troopers) or had little to do with the original material other than the core idea (most of the Philip K. Dick adaptations).

I believe that the best prose source for film adaptation is the novella, novelette, and short story, unless you have ten hours screen time to play with.

Christopher David
Christopher David is a former software engineer who is currently taking refuge in the world of academic publishing. You can find out what’s currently on his mind by visiting his Cynical-C Blog.

When I first was sent this question, my initial response was that the movie must stay true to the book. After letting that idea rattle around in my head for a bit, I realized that not only was that a half-assed answer but it wasn’t even close to the truth.

Plenty of successful movie adaptations diverge from the plot of the book to such an extent that they are practically two different stories. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train was adapted to the screen from Patricia Highsmith’s book of the same name and although it isn’t science fiction, it is a perfect example of a movie that is so different from the book it was adapted from that you can enjoy both without the other giving away the ending.

Some film adaptations are so successful that they overshadow the novel. Everyone knows the movie Planet of the Apes but most people are surprised to find out that it was based on a novel written by Pierre Boulle who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai which was also turned into a successful movie in a different genre.

There aren’t any definitive ways to make a successful adaptation of course. Making movies is complicated with too many variables which may go wrong such as miscasting, unable to obtain proper funding, or too much input from executives worried about bottom lines.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings seems to be the best example of all the pieces coming together. Besides somehow convincing New Line Cinemas to finance the filming of all three movies simultaneously, Jackson was able to channel his inner Tolkien fanboy and devoted his efforts to staying as true to the book as possible. (Shhh! Nobody mention Tom Bombadil) Jackson even put in the extra effort and hired famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe. Finding people who have passion the works is the next best thing you can do if the author is unavailable. You may be able to quibble of some parts of his adaptation but you can’t accuse him of not being a fan and loving the books.

Some authors seem to be near impossible to adapt to film. I’ve seen a few attempts to adapt Kurt Vonnegut’s novels to the big screen and there always seems to be too much lost in translation. Perhaps it’s because in Vonnegut’s books, most of the action takes place in the minds of characters, not in the plot. It makes for fascinating reading but it proves exceedingly difficult to film.

The clear cut winner to making a successful adaptation is to get the viewer to watch the movie before they read the book. Reading is intimate. We let our imagination interpret a character or setting and we fill in the blanks with our own personal experiences. Movies remove those abstractions and box characters into a physical construct in the form of an actor. Everybody who sees Lord of the Rings as a movie sees Gandalf as Sir Ian McKellen but everybody who reads Lord of the Rings as a novel sees Gandalf a little differently. These personal interpretations of characters and plot alike are fairly big challenges for adaptations of popular and beloved novels.

James Davis Nicoll
James Davis Nicoll is a former role-playing game store owner, a freelance game and speculative fiction reviewer. He also works as a first reader for the Science Fiction Book Club.

The key to a successful adaptation by a Hollywood company, at least in terms of the reaction of fans of the original work, is accepting the inherent limitations of the visual SF genre as it currently exists. SF that does not conform to what has worked in the past will be altered to correct this so it’s best from a fan’s point of view to use source material that won’t require or encourage extensive modification.

Most lengthy works will not get the Lord of the Rings treatment and fans of long books should be aware that most of the original work will be cut. Novellas and short stories may seem promising but there’s no real hope that short works are considered worth optioning by Hollywood unless the author has a proven track record in film. Fans of short fiction are rare (Devil Ray home games attract three times as many people as buy newsstand copies of Analog, the most widely read English language SF magazine) and irrelevant to a film’s bottom line.

Lengthier books present more opportunity for the director and writers to replace parts of the original with what they think are better ideas but short works are not immune. See Jumper, where a serviceable revenge plot was scrapped in favor of a tedious murderous-cult plot. In contrast, Total Recall was faithful to “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, although the creators of the film then appended another ninety minutes of additional material onto the end of the novella.

It helps less than you may think if the people involved in the film respect the original material. The screenwriters behind The Puppet Masters wanted to do a faithful adaptation but other factors intervened.

There’s also not much point in adapting daring or edgy works. Film and TV SF are risk averse thanks to the large amounts of money involved, the number of people whose approval is needed to get a project to completion and the hypothetical prejudices of the target market for SF, young white males. Elements that might alienate that audience, like the casual nudity in The Puppet Masters, will almost certainly be excised long before the work is released.

Non-white protagonists are seen as undesirable by the people who make movies: the Filipino protagonist of Starship Troopers was aryanized for the film and the Sci Fi Channel’s version of Earthsea was careful to cast white actors to play what were originally dark skinned characters. Non-white protagonists appear to be acceptable only when they are criminals like Ghosts of Mars‘ Desolation Williams or Pitch Black‘s Riddick, or in the case of Asian characters, if they are some sort of martial artist. Otherwise, don’t expect to see dark skin or epicanthic folds on the leads unless the actors playing them are superstars like Denzel Washington whose star power transcends their race.

Female protagonists are tolerable to the extent that they act like male protagonists.

Bisexual women are acceptable because teenaged boys won’t object to two pretty women macking on each other (female protagonists will be pretty by the time the work hits the screen) but forget about getting an SF book with openly gay men in it to the screen.

Visual spectacle is highly desirable.

Lefty politics are acceptable if their expression involves killing people. This is why V for Vendetta was a big budget film and The Lathe of Heaven wasn’t; V might be a damn dirty anarchist but he’s a damn dirty anarchist who enjoys stabbing people and blowing up vast quantities of real estate and that makes all the difference.

Anyone who is a fan of SF that falls outside these borders should be alarmed when their favorite books are optioned. Experience shows us that visual SF is a procrustean genre and source material that does not fit its needs will be altered until it does. Fans of boundary-challenging SF should avoid any films or TV series supposedly inspired by their favorite work since the works will almost certainly be mutilated in the process of getting them onto the screen.

Joseph Mallozzi
Joseph Mallozzi, along with his partner Paul Mullie, is the executive produce/showrunner for Stargate: Atlantis. He also runs a Book Of The Month discussion at his website.

The instinctive reaction to a question like this would be to stress the importance of remaining true to the original source material but, truth is, two of my favorite SF movies were adaptations that strayed significantly from the books upon which they were based. The film version of Children of Men was markedly different from the P.D. James novel and, while I enjoyed both, I have to say that I was able to appreciate them as separate entities. The same can be said for the movie Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? I recently read Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, an excellent work of noir dystopian SF, and was shocked to discover that while the book makes mention of soylent steaks, there is never any suggestion these rations are anything but soy/lentil-derived protein. In the film version, however, the protagonist makes the horrifying discovery that “Soylent Green is people!” The movie spun the story off in a different direction and it worked. In a similar vein, while very similar in terms of story, the original Planet of the Apes and Pierre Boulle’s book Monkey Planet contain different but equally enjoyable twists. And then, on the other hand, there’s the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes with its nonsensical plot, deus ex machina ending, and memorable salute to the Great Emanchimpator Ape Lincoln. In this case, the adaptation failed miserably. Why? Well, simply put – because it wasn’t any good!

People need to accept the fact that books are books and movies are movies, each to be appreciated on their own merits. In a best case scenario, they compliment one another and, hopefully, draw potential fans from one to the other. In a worst case scenario, they are utter tragedies that leave fans bemoaning the fact that, say, David Lynch was ever given the green light to make Dune.

My advice to filmmakers is to avoid getting caught up in the details of the source material and just concentrate on producing a good movie. Make the movie, not the book because, let’s face it, if you go down that route, you’re just begging for direct comparisons and, at the end of the day, the book is always better.

So what makes for a successful sf/f book adaptation? Piece of cake. All you need is a great script, a visionary director, talented actors, a terrific crew, and, more often than not, a lot of money.

Derryl Murphy
Derryl Murphy‘s next story, “Ancients of the Earth,” will be released in Tesseracts 12 this autumn. His short novel “Cast a Cold Eye,” co-written with the excellent William Shunn, comes out from PS Publishing some time next year. Supposedly a short film is being made from one of Derryl’s earlier short stories, but he’ll believe it when he sees it.

Let me go with the second question first. While often there are damn good reasons why adaptations sometimes fail, sometimes there is no accounting for the fickle, movie-going public. It seems pretty obvious to me that this is a minor consideration, since Hollywood is the very definition of Sturgeon’s Law, but still, sometimes I suspect that it holds.

But failure, of course, does not necessarily show up as strictly a fiscal accounting, unless of course you are working from the studio’s point of view. Yeah, many SF/F/comic book (to stretch your definition a bit) adaptations don’t do big guns money-wise, but the real question for the fans is, Are they any good? Dune was a movie that was probably a failure in both counts, although it surely was an interesting failure. 2010 was also a bit of a dud, but I personally quite liked it, if only for its attempt to hold to Kubrick’s realistic vision of space travel and for Helen Mirren’s Russian accent.

A more problematic failure is The Golden Compass. This one was probably doomed from the beginning, what with all the fuss evangelicals and hard-line Catholics were making over it before its release, and indeed, it was an expensive movie that didn’t make back enough of its nut to justify completing the trilogy. I’ll admit that I enjoyed the movie, enough so that I own the BluRay DVD, but that I was also disappointed by it. The director’s view of Pullman’s world was, I think, pretty amazing at times, and yet at other times was rather bland. There was an implied concession that his own ability to visualize and elaborate on the author’s amazing flights of fancy and fantasy were truncated, either by budget, studio intrusions, script, or lack of imagination. Likely a combination of all of the above, I suspect.

So what makes an adaptation successful? Money is important, yes, but mostly a firm and loving hand. I’m going to share a secret with you here: I’ve never managed to read The Lord of the Rings books. I’ve read The Hobbit three times, once for myself, once for class, and once to my younger son, but the trilogy itself is so stultifying and boring that I never could get going on it. Too late now, I suspect.

But the movie! I was there opening day, and as Gandalf rode his cart into Hobbiton, the feeling that washed over me could only equate to a sense of finally having come home. Here I was, seeing a world that had been created whole and with deep love and respect by a filmmaker who had the guts to do it his way, and who had somehow managed to sucker the money guys into following his path.

The word “respect” is the one we need to focus on. A work does not need to be note for note. In fact, I would venture to say that that is impossible, unneeded, and even ill-advised. Film is different than literature. It is an art form in its own right, and deserves a chance to show itself to us as such. But a director who respects the source work, who pays attention to the little things, is a director who already has a leg up on any other possible hack.

There’s one other adaptation I could write about, but I already have. Children of Men moved me deeply, and I blogged about it and about a ridiculous response to it, which you can find here.

Tim Holman
Tim Holman is Publisher of Orbit in the US (where he is based) and in the UK. Following the successful launch of Orbit in the US last year, it has recently announced its plan to double the size of its list over the next three years. Orbit is the biggest SFF imprint in the UK. Orbit’s blog can be found at

I have to say that I don’t think the issues are specific to the genre. Whether we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice or The Lord of the Rings, there are the same basic pitfalls.

The most obvious of these, perhaps, is that what makes a particular novel work might not be relevant to a screen adaptation. An author’s or narrator’s voice, for example, will probably not play such a significant role in a screen adaptation. Similarly, the narrative devices and tricks a novelist can use to good effect are likely to be different to those that work on screen. Novels, movies, and TV series, might share a narrative, but they are entirely different media, presenting different challenges and opportunities to their creators. And of course these creators themselves (novelists, directors, producers, actors, etc.) are different people. Their skills are different and the level and style of artistry they bring to the creative process will be different. I’ve always assumed that I’m more likely to enjoy an original movie than an adaptation; no matter what I think about the novel on which the adaptation is based.

Is there a particular aspect of this question relating to SF and Fantasy? If so, perhaps it’s the fact that SF and Fantasy is so often exciting on the page because the writer has managed to conjure up images (as well as ideas) that are entirely new to the reader. On the screen, that magic will take a very different form – or be lost entirely. Do I want to see an orc or a Culture ship on screen? I probably do, truth be told, but I’m pretty sure that something would be irretrievably lost when I did. I wouldn’t have my own picture in my head any more. Or at least it would itself be adapted in some form. I’m sure this is true of all book-to-screen ventures to some extent (the hero might “look” different and almost certainly disappointing, the accents might be different, someone’s house will be painted a different color…), but I suspect that it’s particularly true when a novel has already created its own sense of wonder.

If there is a generalization to be made, for me it would be that a successful adaptation is going to be one that creates something genuinely new and different to the original. Blade Runner is, technically, an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but, in the end, it bears little resemblance to Dick’s paranoid vision of a consumer-driven future. Ridley Scott, in making Blade Runner, focused on a very narrow slice of Dick’s novel and expanded on the bit of plot and imagery he selected, creating one of the few films in this category that is universally acclaimed. But, in the end, Scott’s film feels so different from the source material that it strains the definition of adaptation. How faithful must one be to the source material before the original question here loses all meaning? Ultimately, do we care whether or not Tom Bombadil would have made The Lord of the Rings a better film?

I can’t prove it, but I’ve got a feeling there might be an inverse relationship between the likely successfulness of an adaptation and the brilliance of its source material. Take a great book, it’s very likely to be massacred on screen; take a dull novel and something dazzling might be crafted from it. Adaptations really do have to adapt the material – they can’t just recreate it in a different media.

Nick Sagan
As a screenwriter, Nick Sagan has been hired to adapt a number of science fiction/fantasy novels, including books by Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin. He’s the author of three science fiction novels (Idlewild, Edenborn, Everfree) and co-author of a non-fiction book about technology (You Call This The Future?) He’s also written or co-written about a dozen TV episodes, mostly SF/F related. And it’s his birthday this week. You can find out more about him at or

Because disappointing adaptations are all too commonplace, it’s tempting to approach this question from the perspective of an aggrieved fan. “Hollywood doesn’t get it.” “They changed everything.” “How could they ruin such a great book?” As a fan of great books (and especially great SF/F books), I can’t help but be sympathetic to this point of view, and yet at the same time I think it’s of limited value when it comes to answering this question. Fans don’t greenlight movies. Nor do critics, authors, or even screenwriters. Studio executives do.

Imagine you’re a studio exec with greenlight power. You’ve risen up through the ranks to the point where you’re capable of saying yes to a major feature film. You’ve “made it” the way few have. Now you’ve got a pretty good thing going-wealth, glamour, fame, hobnobbing with movie stars, etc. Naturally, you want to stay in this position of power for as long as possible. What’s the surest way to lose it? If you said, “putting out movies that flop,” you’re partly right. Too many flops will get you replaced. But actually it’s okay to fail now and then as long as your decisions appear to be prudent and justifiable.

For example, The Last Action Hero (1993) did disappointing box office and wasn’t received well by critics, but it’s a justifiable movie to the extent that executives could point to the mountain of money previous Arnold Schwarzenegger movies had made. With such a huge draw in the leading role, it seemed like a safe risk, even if things didn’t turn out that way. Similarly, Warner Brothers put Home Alone (1990) in turnaround only to see Twentieth Century Fox pick it up and gross $285 million in theaters, but the argument to put it in turnaround was justifiable to the extent that this Macaulay Culkin kid was an unknown, and John Hughes’ best years seemed to be behind him.

These are high stakes. Unlike books which can be published relatively inexpensively, feature films are fantastically expensive to produce, requiring tens or hundreds of millions, and as SF/F movies tend to be special effects driven, they’re nearly always on the high end of the scale. As a studio exec, you want to take a risk on a big budget genre movie because the potential reward is so great (many of the highest grossing movies of all time are SF/F), but you want to be able to justify your decisions later and minimize your risk as much as you can.

Adapting a book helps lower your risk. Studio execs like the prospect of a built-in audience-and they’re comforted by the fact someone already put money into the idea, so they’re not the first to take a chance-that’s why so many novels and comic books get snapped up by Hollywood. Unfortunately, you can’t make movies with the intent of just pleasing the core fans of a book-there simply aren’t enough of them. Unless the work you’re adapting has the readership of a Harry Potter, you need to adapt it in such a way that mainstream moviegoers will be just as willing to plop down their hard-earned money.

You increase your chance of winning over those mainstream moviegoers (so the wisdom goes) by adapting the book so the script doesn’t seem terribly different from other successful screenplays. Yes, you need the script to have unique elements that can draw people in, but you don’t want it to deviate from conventional three act screenplay structure to the point that it seems so unfamiliar to moviegoers that it constitutes a risk. (And you can’t just use the book’s structure-it was crafted to be read over a period of days, while the movie has to compress all that drama into an hour and forty five minutes, give or take.) The challenge for screenwriters here is in translating the “soul” of the book. Can you preserve everything cool and special about it, while also shaping it into a configuration that helps studio execs feel comfortable spending a fortune on it?

It’s not easy. Many can’t pull it off. Far too often, risks get minimized to the point that the guts of the original piece get entirely cut out. Precious little of what’s wonderful and magical about Susan Cooper’s award-winning The Dark Is Rising can be found in its unsuccessful adaptation, The Seeker (2007). You can see the worry at work. “Is it set too far in the past?” “Let’s modernize it.” “Will American audiences relate to a British protagonist?” “Let’s make him an American.” “Will kids today really get these Arthurian elements?” “Let’s cut them out.” On and on. I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they had good intentions, but they gradually distilled the essence of the book until it suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Yes, it looked enough like Harry Potter that they could be reassured that kids might want to go see it, but they lost the heart of the book in the translation.

On the other hand, a successful adaptation doesn’t have to be entirely faithful to the book. Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s adaptation of The Shining (1980) deviates from the novel in many ways, but despite the perfectly understandable complaints of some Stephen King fans (including Stephen King himself), it’s widely considered one of the best horror movies of all time. The essence of what gave the book its power carries through to the film. King would go on to make a miniseries that’s more faithful to the book, and while it’s enjoyable, there are few who would claim that it’s critically or commercially superior to the original film.

When I was first starting out as a screenwriter, a friend in the biz likened adapting a book to serving a meal. It’s an indelicate and somewhat cynical analogy but there’s some truth to it. Here’s this beautiful animal-the book-and your job as a writer is to transform it into a delicious meal. That involves “killing the animal” by making all the changes you need to in order to make it a commercial screenplay. But how will you do it? Mechanically, like a soulless slaughterhouse? Or respectfully, the way a hunter-gatherer might, appreciating the power and the beauty of the animal, humbly thanking it for the sustenance it provides, and praying for its spirit?

Gary Westfahl
Gary Westfahl, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, is the author, editor, or co-editor of nineteen books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits, the three-volume The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction. He is a regular film reviewer and commentator for the Locus Online website, and in 2003 he earned the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship.

As the reviewer for Locus Online who normally covers films based on science fiction novels and stories, I have had more than enough opportunities to ponder the question of what goes right – or what goes wrong – when Hollywood employs a work of science fiction literature as its source material. In approaching this subject, I am, first of all, increasingly comfortable with the notion that we are effectively dealing with two separate narrative genres which might be termed text-centric science fiction and media-centric science fiction. The contrasting characteristics should be clear enough to most informed observers: text-centric science fiction, one might say, is unemotional, idea-driven, unpredictable, and disturbingly committed to challenging the status quo, whereas media-centric science fiction is passionate, character-driven, predictable, and comfortingly dedicated to preserving the status quo. Needless to say, most text-centric science fiction comes in the form of prose fiction and most media-centric fiction comes in the forms of films and television programs, but obviously there are some exceptions: Star Trek novels are of course media-centric, while rare films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) could be considered text-centric. And, although I have a personal preference here that goes without saying, I choose to avoid arguments to the effect that one form of science fiction is better than the other; rather, they are simply different genres, and people should be free to enjoy one or the other without being condemned as, say, elitists or philistines.

Thus, instead of asserting, as one might, that film adaptations of science fiction stories and novels routinely homogenize, dumb down, or trash their source material, one might better say that works of text-centric science fiction are necessarily being translated into works of media-centric science fiction, and leave it at that. And, from that perspective, most film adaptations indeed “work,” since filmmakers generally add all of the valiant heroism, violence, emotional hooks, and jazzy special effects that are essential ingredients in media-centric science fiction. I suspect, though, that the real question I am being asked to address is whether such adaptations “work” for devotees of text-centric science fiction, and the obvious answer is this: when the source material contains interesting, unconventional ideas, and when those ideas somehow survive the process of translation to figure in the released film, then the result is a film that can be appreciated by people who generally prefer text-centric science fiction.

Consider, for example, Total Recall (1990), which for the most part spectacularly departs from its source, Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966), in order to present a standard conflict of good versus evil, a plot generally consisting of a series of exciting chase scenes, and so many violent deaths as to defy any efforts to count the corpses. And yet, in that scene where a psychologist calmly confronts Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid and announces that all of the film’s preceding events were actually his own hallucinations, the film is suddenly raising intriguing questions about illusions and reality that are central to Dick’s work; and the film’s conclusion is also thought-provoking, as Quaid effectively rejects his original true personality in order to embrace the fake personality that was imprinted upon him, another Dickian moment illustrating the elusive nature of our own identities. The result is a film that is fitfully interesting almost in spite of itself. As a contrasting example, consider Children of Men (2006), which is an admirable film in many respects; unfortunately, the filmmakers viewed the story of P. D. James’s novel The Children of Men (1992) primarily as a pretext to consider how responses to the threat of terrorism can lead to totalitarianism, which I suppose is something worth examining but is far duller and more conventional that James’s more novel explorations of how people would live in a world without children, a topic that the film, perversely, generally contrives to ignore.

The broader problem is that it is often difficult for intriguing ideas to persist through what are today the innumerable stages of filmmaking, from the first draft of the script to the final, released film. A good object lesson is the film I Am Legend (2007). After watching and reviewing this generally deplorable film, I was surprised to learn that the film had originally employed a version of the surprise ending of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel: the apparently mindless and vicious plague-altered mutants were revealed to be intelligent beings who represented the new, dominant form of humanity, meaning that Will Smith’s Robert Neville, previously intent upon murdering them all, was the true monster of the story. Unfortunately, preview audiences reportedly hated the ending, leading to a reshoot that recalled the conclusion of a previous adaptation, The Omega Man (1971), in which a dying Neville messianically bequeaths a cure for the plague to his female companion. On the face of it, this appears to represent yet another instance of Hollywood jettisoning a source’s provocative, unsettling concept in order to instead provide familiarity and reassurance. And yet, after watching the original ending online, I must say that I agree with those preview audiences: since the filmmakers had spent almost two hours using every trick in the how-to-make-a-blockbuster book to effectively demonize the mutants, their abrupt attempts to portray the mutants sympathetically were inept and unpersuasive. Even when making a determined effort to remain faithful to source material, it would seem, Hollywood has trouble dealing with interesting ideas.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on MIND MELD: What Makes a Successful SciFi/Fantasy Book Adaptation? Why Do Some Fail?

  1. The latest Jules Verne film adaptation got me back into his books.  I just found a new release of one of his undiscovered classics – The Green Ray translated by Karen Loukes and published by Luath Press.  It’s wonderfully original sci-fi and so much better than the all the movies.

  2. Stick to the source material and usually you will be successful.

    As a matter of fact, I can not think of any adaptation that did not succeed when they stayed very close to the source material.

  3. Well, while it is my favorite of all the Bond films, <i>On Her Majestry’s Secret Service</> sticks absolutely to the source material, the only Bond film to do so, and was a box-office flop. (<i>Thunderball</> is very close to the book as well, but since the film preceded the book, it doesn’t count.)

    That being said, when we limit ourselves to films of only the past few years, it does seem that the ones that are the most faithful are also the most successful and those that stray, flop.

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