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[GUEST POST] Alexander Hammond on The Murder of ‘Rollerball’

Alexander Hammond is an inveterate writer, traveler, cynic, occasional magician, sometime hypnotist and reluctant bon vivant. He’s passionate about fantasy, SF and humor writing, astronomy, quality cinema, the environment and wildlife and he occasionally pretends (normally unsuccessfully) to understand cosmology. Tales from the Edge of Forever is his third book but his first published work of Fantasy fiction under this name. His non-fiction has also been syndicated in many international newspapers and publications, but imaginative fantasy writing is his first love. He can be found at his blog, on Facebook and via his Twitter handle @ahammond2011.

Rollerball: Murdered

As a teenager, when I wasn’t dealing with acne and serial rejections from the opposite sex, I was reading science fiction…voraciously.

Accordingly, whilst trawling a bookstore one day, I came across William Harris’ book of short stories, Rollerball Murder. The title, combined with an intriguing cover illustration, convinced me to spend my hard earned cash. A decision I initially regretted.

The majority of the stories weren’t SF at all but the final one…the eponymous “Rollerball Murder”, was and it rocked my world. A mere 5,000 words of tightly written prose, describing a dystopian future and a game whose savagery and violence held me spellbound.

A few years later Norman Jewison came along and made the picture. This was the man who’d helmed some serious movies at that point in his career: The Heat of the Night, The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair to name a few. What would he do with “Rollerball Murder”?

Well, the first thing he did was lose the ‘Murder’ part of the title…and the second thing he did…was to knock the project out of the ballpark.

All the dynamic elements of the short story were there and expanded upon intelligently and with panache. Bone crunching and visceral violence were effortlessly lifted from the book and put on the screen in jaw dropping detail. No lacklustre faux CGI in the seventies, just real stuntmen and exquisitely directed action sequences.

Counterpointing the mayhem, the back-story of a planet run by cold and aloof executives and faceless corporations was elegantly portrayed. The casting of John Houseman and Sir Ralph Richardson a masterstroke, playing against the slightly wooden interpretation of Jonathon E by James Caan and James Beck’s doomed ‘Moonpie’.

Oh, and of course I fell in love with Maud Adams.

I left the movie house stunned at what I’d seen. A well nigh perfect movie to my young eyes. Time has not changed this view.

If one looks up retrospective reviews of this work, you’ll see most would agree with my assessment. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. At the time it was eviscerated, lambasted and decried. I read slack jawed as various critics tore apart this magnificent project, focussing on the then ground breaking violence.

Even at that age I realised they were missing the point. The movie was almost buried with invective and disappeared fairly quickly. James Cann, evidently still licking his wounds a few years later, remarked, “It was probably a few years ahead of its time.”

Never a truer word spoken.

Jewison picked himself up and continued to make movies, F.I.S.T. and Moonstruck amongst them. James Caan went on to distinguish himself in Misery and The Godfather (and many others), Maud Adams was a Bond girl twice and James Beck?….well he did at least get the Dallas gig.

I was delighted as time went by (a fair bit of time I must say) that slowly this movie started to get the appreciation it deserved. Video releases then TV and DVD and subsequently fan sites on the net gave people a chance to either re experience this movie, or indeed see it for the first time. Sensibilities and appetites also changed, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed at MGM.

Enter the studio and John Mctiernan and the ‘remaking’.

I’m not against re-imaginings. Sometimes they can work well, Batman Begins is an excellent example. Superman Returns is an example of when they don’t. For my own part I didn’t see how the original could be improved upon.

I was prepared to give Mctiernan the benefit of the doubt. This after all was the man who brought us Predators, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and, coincidentally, the superb updated remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. (We’ll forgive him The Last Action Hero.) With a pedigree like that what could possibly go wrong?


Mctiernan’s “re-imagining” (his words not mine), involved literally losing every aspect of the source material and the original movie, save for the inclusion of a violent game involving a metal ball. A game portrayed so badly it was genuinely impossible to understand what was going on. Oh, and he kept the character of Jonathon E, played by Chris Klein.

I’m sorry but CHRIS KLEIN? I’m sure he’s a wonderful chap in real life; indeed he seemed to be so in two of his previous ‘high profile’ outings, American Pie and American Pie 2.

As the unwholesome mess bore no resemblance to the short story or Jewisons movie, I see no need to deconstruct it here, as to do so would be an irrelevance. In short it was an unwatchable pile of equine excrement. A fact with which the critics concurred. and so did the viewing public…they stayed away in droves.

What’s the point of this article? The point is that new generations of people will inevitably not know of the original, and will associate the Mctiernan effort with the title and not Jewisons fantastic achievement. Please, if you’ve not seen the original…do so. Sure a few minor tech aspects have dated slightly but the story, production design and the action are still beyond compare.

Mctiernan murdered “Rollerball Murder”.

Until very recently, Normal Jewison was something of a hero of mine. After all he’d made the original and lifted all the relevant aspects from the source material carefully and with skill.

Sadly, last week I read an interview with him and these are direct quotes:

So, I tried to create a world in which Rollerball would be the big thing to get rid of all of the violence in people. It all started by me going to a hockey game in Chicago. We sat down and literally invented a game. We invented a sport that we thought would be played in the future, so that’s Rollerball.

There’s more but I won’t belabour the point. No mention of the source material.

Revisionist history. I felt Rollerball had now been murdered not once but twice.

See the original for yourself…it’s magnificent!

11 Comments on [GUEST POST] Alexander Hammond on The Murder of ‘Rollerball’

  1. You’re right.  Jewison’s Rollerball was a cinematic masterpiece.  It was jaw-dropping awesome on the big screen.

    The use of classical music in the original is part of what makes it hold up so well after all these years.

  2. You are indeed correct. And yes, the music (which I lamentably negated to mention) is amazing. Bachs Tocata and Fuge id D minor and others….

  3. Agreed.  A classic that should never have been touched.  At least your article is doing the right thing and steering people to the original.

  4. Yes, a truly brilliant movie is Rollerball.


    If I had a time machine, one of the groups of people I’d edit out of history would be the idiots that perpetrated that remake.

  5. Thanks for this tribute to this old favorite that rarely gets the recognition it deserves.  The scene where all record of the 13th century was lost was classic & prescient.

    Can’t say I agree about the remake because I am fortunate to have never seen it.

  6. Yup, Sir Ralph Richardson at the top of his game….

  7. Terrific post here. I’m going to have to check out the original Rollerball. I never thought I’d say that, but you’ve intrigued me!

  8. Excellent article. (So may film re-makes are utterly pointless.)

    Loved the computer in the original _Rollerball_.  “We’ve lost those computers
    with all of the  13th century in them.

    Not much in the century –
    just Dante and a few corrupt popes.

    But it’s so distracting and annoying.”


    Brilliant film.

  9. thanks Alexander, for a thoughtful essay on the multiple versions of Rollerball.  I only recently saw the McTiernan version and I feel your pain.  The original film and short story need to be rediscovered.  Doing some research for a podcast about “Rollerball”, I emailed author William Harrison to get his thoughts on the remake.  He wrote back with a terse email that he has never seen McTiernan’s version and has no intention to do so.  

    There’s also a 1970’s radio-play of the short story, but the reader is a little stiff to be convincing as Jonathan E. 

  10. Thanks for the info Kevin. I didn’t know about the Radio Play. I look forward to checking out your podcast…and yes, pain is the only word for it!

  11. Melissa Bradley // June 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm //

    Great article about a truly exceptional film that should have never undergone the re-imagining process.  And figures Jewison would take credit for the creation. Revisionism again. Sounds like he went to the school of Disney.

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