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Movie Go Round

Phlogiston Thirty-Five, 1993

Quite a lot of SF films have been made from whole cloth -- they are not films of books. Most, as you would expect, are unutterably dire though occasionally, as with Star Wars they work well.

Some SF movies have been plagiarised from SF books without acknowledgment. The most famous example is probably Alien, the makers of which were sued by A. E. van Vogt for ripping off one of the novellas from Voyage of the Space Beagle.

Many SF books have been turned into films that didn't work, though Invasion of the Body Snatchers (from the book by Jack Finney) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (from the book by Richard Matheson) are not too bad. However you should avoid just about everything else including so-called classics like The Shape of Things to Come which is preachy and slow moving where it ought to be exciting and prophetic. Also the things that have come about are a very different shape from those things that the film predicted and as well as being boring it now seems na´ve and laughable; a not uncommon fate for SF films.

The list of SF film-of-the-book failures is never ending, but some of the high spots (or low spots, depending on how you view it) are:

The Day of the Triffids from John Wyndham's novel trivialises the book to an enormous extent, introduces some totally unnecessary love interest and reveals that sea water is some sort of universal solvent (it certainly dissolves triffids anyway, to the accompaniment of vast hissings and much steam). I knew there was a good reason why I didn't like swimming in the sea.

Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison's novel Make Room, Make Room again trivialises its subject matter. The book was a serious warning about the dangers of overpopulation, the film is a pseudo-horror story about cannibalism.

Dune from Frank Herbert's novel is just dire. How dare they make it rain at the end? That was a stupidity on a par with not giving the wookie a medal at the end of Star Wars. It ruined the whole thing retrospectively.

Shortly before he died, Philip K. Dick saw the first draft of the screenplay for Blade Runner which was based on his novel Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep. He said that it made him feel like changing his name, emigrating to Russia , and denying that he had ever been a writer.

By reducing books to a lowest common denominator, by removing much of the depth and subtlety, by elevating unimportant details into major plot threads and by introducing spurious elements such as love interest, the film makers usually succeed in ruining the whole project. I find this profoundly annoying because it is simply not necessary (I hate waste). Why can't they have the courage of the writer's convictions and aim at a higher level?

Stephen King books have been a prolific source of SF movies. They are mostly terrible films, with two honourable exceptions. Misery and Stand By Me, are superb though neither of them have anything at all to do with SF or fantasy. I urge you to seek them out. Misery is based on the eponymous novel about a deranged fan kidnapping her favourite author and forcing him to write a sequel to her favourite book, and punishing him hideously when he fails to satisfy her (it must be every writer's nightmare). Stand By Me is a film of the novella The Body from the collection Different Season and it concerns four young boys on the verge of puberty who go out into the forest to look for a dead body. It sounds unpromising material but it builds into a magical, lyrical experience. I would never have thought it possible.

I also have high hopes for The Tommyknockers which has recently been filming here in New Zealand .

Paradoxically some SF movies have turned the tables and books have been written based on the films. Probably the best of these is Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov. He did such a superb job of turning that very tedious film into a brilliant book that it has seldom if ever been out of print and the myth has arisen that the film was actually based on his novel! Well it wasn't. The film came first and he was asked to write the book in order to promote the film. He succeeded in completely overshadowing it.

However most film "novelisations" are as bad as you might expect them to be, particularly the ones written by Alan Dean Foster (which is most of them, he seems to have cornered the market). Orson Scott Card did quite a creditable job with The Abyss, but he is an exception, not a rule.

A great number of SF books have never been filmed -- and would probably be quite dismal if they were. Many will almost certainly never be filmed for reasons of terminal weirdness or technical difficulty. Stanley Kubrick is on record as having said that if it can be written he can film it, but I would be willing to bet that even he would have enormous difficulty with books such as A Clash of Cymbals by James Blish which deals with, among other things, the destruction of the entire universe and the beginning of (possibly) several more.

Two and a half SF books have, however, been filmed brilliantly. These are Forbidden Planet from the play by William Shakespeare, A Clockwork Orange from the novel by Anthony Burgess, and 2001 from the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. You could, with justification, deny that this last is a film of a novel since both book and novel grew almost simultaneously as both Kubrick and Clarke contributed to the other's project (see Clarke's fascinating The Lost Worlds of 2001 for more information on this). However one is unequivocally the work of a film maker and the other is unequivocally the work of a novelist. The assertion is close enough to the truth.

I find it interesting that the last two were both filmed by Stanley Kubrick. It seems to me that he is someone who is particularly sympathetic to the SF point of view. Even his other films skirt around the edge of the subject. Consider Dr Strangelove (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb) and The Shining. Even Spartacus flirts with it (I'll swear I saw Conan in the background).

Forbidden Planet, of course, only half way counts since it is a film of Shakespeare's The Tempest with SF trappings. Nevertheless that is close enough to qualify it -- The Tempest is a magnificent fantasy story in its own right. I saw it again a few years ago as part of the BBC's epic bardathon (a project over several years to show all of the plays). Michael Hordern played Prospero, and it was a wonderfully moving and emotional performance.

I've always loved movies. That's an odd statement to come from someone as non-visual as myself. As I think I've explained before, visual images leave me largely unmoved. I much prefer the print media. Nevertheless I subscribed to Sky television as soon as it appeared because a channel devoted to nothing but movies was just too attractive to resist.

The first time that I ever went to the cinema was to see a Disney movie called (I think) The Vanishing Prairie. I was about three years old and my mother decided it was time I learned about cinemas. I retain no memory of the event, but my mother said that I paid very little attention to what was happening up on the big screen. It seems I was much more fascinated by the fact that my seat was on springs and when I stood up it folded back all by itself. I spent the whole three hours of my visit to the cinema standing up, sitting down, and standing up again.

Thus began a life long fascination with movies. Every Sunday afternoon at home I would sit glued to the radio listening to a programme called Movie Go Round which played excerpts from current movies and reviewed them. It was only much later on in life that the surrealistic aspects of listening to movies on radio dawned on me. At the time, I was hooked.

Movies were the high spots of my teenage life and the cinema was a place of constant pilgrimage. I smoked my first cigarette in a cinema and got my first grown up kiss in a cinema; and in between I saw a lot of wonderful films.

In the intermission, ladies with trays around their necks would appear, and you could buy ice cream and crisps and a most revolting orange juice called "Kia Ora" which I never saw on sale anywhere except cinemas. It was advertised with a silly little cartoon which played on the big screen as the ladies appeared. A horrible little cartoon character was exhorted thus: "Aurora, Aurora, ask the girl for Kia Ora". Once (I must have been about ten years old) I bought a choc ice from the lady and discovered I didn't like it. So I carefully took all the chocolate off and put it in my pocket, then I ate the ice cream. My mother was less than pleased to find my pockets full of melten chocolate and for a while I was banned both from the cinema and from ice cream. (The magic of visiting the cinema -- we called it "going to the pictures" -- has been captured superbly in the mainstream novel The Picturegoers by David Lodge, all of whose books I recommend unreservedly).

At university I joined the film club and saw, to quote a friend, "far too many foreign films about starving peasants". I remember an underground movie called Geography of the Body which we all went to see because we thought it might be dirty. It may well have been -- it was hard to tell. Certainly the camera spent an inordinate amount of time exploring a naked female figure -- but it did it all from a distance of about half a centimetre with a magnifying lens, and all you could see were enormous pores and the occasional hair which looked like a steel rod.

What criteria should one apply to a film? What critical yardsticks can be brought to bear? Personally I demand the same from a film as I do from a book (the two media are inextricably linked in my mind). Namely it should make sense, the characters should be well realised, it should preferably move me emotionally (though not cynically manipulate my emotions like all those terrible "disease of the week" movies do). Finally it should have something to say. That is not to say that I require the thing to have a message. As Sam Goldwyn was wont to remark, "If you want a message, hire Western Union". But I do want something more than the unutterably trivial which is why movies such as Rambo and Terminator leave me utterly unmoved since they are merely excuses for big muscles and special effects all of which are very dull without something coherent to tie them together. I cannot see any value at all in a film whose sole purpose is to show off the technical expertise of the stuntmen and the special effects department. It is all too easy to fall into the special effects trap with an SF film. After all, wasn't it the "Gosh -- wow -- sensawunder" effect that attracted you to SF in the first place? And there is no denying that a properly made SF movie will undoubtedly stretch the special effects people far more than a more mundane film would. Start with the destruction of the universe and build up to a climax.

Films have a much more difficult job to perform than books because they manipulate an extra dimension. You can actually see what is going on instead of having to picture it in your mind. Paradoxically, that makes it harder for the film maker, rather than easier. When you are reading a book, your imagination has no budgetary or technical constraints. It can fill in all the corners for you without fear or favour and reading a well written passage can be an amazing sensuous experience as the action plays out in your head. When translated to a film screen, the same scene can often seem thin and artificial compared to what you had visualised in the privacy of your mind. This is a challenge few film makers accept with relish. Fewer still ever manage to bring it off with any degree of confidence. One reason that Kubrick succeeds so brilliantly in his SF movies is that he rises to this challenge and masters it in spite of breaking all the other rules of good movie making. 2001 consists of virtually nothing but special effects and there are no human characters of any significance in it. Only the monolith (a Big Dumb Object to use a critical term coined by one of the contributors to the new edition of the Nicholls encyclopedia) and HAL the computer can really be considered to be characters in any traditional sense. Yet still the movie works, still it never fails to move me almost to tears. The scene where Moon Walker throws the bone into the sky in triumph just has to be one of the all time great scenes.

Similarly with A Clockwork Orange, he took a book that was written entirely in a future slang and somehow managed to translate that faithfully into visual terms. It remains a cinematic tour-de-force and I always thought it was a shame that the film was vilified because of the violence it portrayed. It had important truths in it. The antics and attitudes of Alex, the thug from the future, are becoming more familiar to us in our everyday lives. The film may not have set out to prophesy, but as an aside it succeeded there as well.

There are some SF books that have never been filmed, but they ought to be. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs would be a brilliant action and adventure film. Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester would stretch the special effects people to the limit and beyond and still have an exciting story to tell. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and City by Clifford D. Simak would be profound and important works.

And just for the sake of silliness, someone should film Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison. It would be a comedic tour de force and would probably win prizes.

If it was filmed properly, of course.

About the budget cut...

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