Remaking History – how Hollywood closed the book on science fiction

There’s no business like show business, allegedly, but increasingly it would seem that the business that show prefers to be like is itself.   While sequels, remakes and spinoffs have always been a part of the movie business, never before have release schedules been so dominated by material that seems to sidestep originality and innovation in favour of more of the same.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the studio system ensured that movies would receive guaranteed distribution through block booking into cinema screens controlled by the studios, and stars were beholden by long term contract to perform regardless of quality of the material they were offered.

The Day The Earth Stood Still

The Day The Earth Stood Still

From the mid thirties to the late sixties, the Motion Picture Production Code, sometimes called the Hays Code, set strict guidelines as to the acceptable and unacceptable content of films; together with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of un-American activities through the fifties, the result was a stifling atmosphere that repressed individuality and stifled creativity.

There was the occasional defiant stand, such as Robert Wise’s sympathetic call for world peace in The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which he cast the blacklisted actor Sam Jaffe as Professor Barnhardt, but more representative of the time was the George Pal production of The War of the Worlds, with the Martians representing the threat of communism, and the defeat of the invaders from the red planet almost directly attributed to the intercession of God on the behalf of America.

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds

It wasn’t until the late sixties that independent film production and distribution began to shift the balance back in the favour of those who saw beyond the limitations of establishment film, both in low to mid budget independent work, sometimes self financed, such as George Romero, John Waters, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, and the major works of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and so forth.  Rather than being assigned prepared projects with stars already attached, they developed their own ideas and participated in the entire process of film creation, collaborating with actors, writers and designers, sometimes even editing their work themselves.

Yet the success of the films of that era, and the home video market that followed it, catering to the youth explosion as the affluent baby boomers of the post war generation had children of their own, changed the game to one of winners and losers, where a successful film in the realm of Jaws or Star Wars, could literally make a studio a fortune.  While the fruits of those visionary filmmakers were coveted by the studio heads, they could not afford to risk the possibility of failure to please the audience awaiting the next golden egg.

So it became that studio actions are calculated on the box office performance of previous releases of the same pedigree: certain actors are regarded as “bankable,” not necessarily through talent, but because they have featured in films that were successful.  So it is that trends emerge; following the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the next decade was dominated by science fiction; more recently, the Harry Potter films have inspired other children’s fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia and the less well received adaptations of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and Eragon.

It has become apparent that rather than take risks on unfamiliar or original material, out of preference, the studio’s preferred option is a direct sequel, a remake if sufficient time has passed and they are the holder of the rights, or simply a reissue with additional footage or rendered for 3D.  For those on the outside who spy an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon, the latest hideous trend in low budget entertainment is the mockbuster, where lowbrow becomes an industry in and of itself, with product such as Sharktopus and Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus marketed solely on the basis of how awful they are.

Despite increases in the processing power of computers mean effects can be rendered more cheaply than ever before and digital filming removing the need for expensive film stock and prints entirely, the overall cost of producing a major film has never been greater, to the point where the entire future of a studio can be determined by the success or failure of a single project.  Hollywood likes to play the long game, for example the five film platform that has been built by Marvel and Paramount to launch the superhero teamup The Avengers in summer 2012, but that aversion to risk does not predicate that films cannot be challenging.

There are some studios who will take that risk: New Line did it when they chose to finance The Lord of the Rings, a major three film undertaking that would not start to return money to the coffers until production of all three was complete.  The gamble paid off, and the overwhelming box office of The Fellowship of the Ring offset the investment of all three, allowing the two sequels to march straight into profit.

Peter Jackson, who will return to Middle Earth in December 2012 with the first part of The Hobbit, is a rarity in modern film production, a maverick who has gathered around him a team of trusted creative collaborators with sufficient clout to make movies their way.  Unfortunately, he is one of the few who can claim such status in an era where focus groups and accountants have the power to override experienced directors and writers, and the marketing campaign and opening weekend returns of a film will determine its fate, rather than the actual quality of the product.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

Another such individualist is Christopher Nolan, who tested audiences with Inception, and they rose to the challenge of that intelligent and complex film, and will do so again this year with The Dark Knight Rises.  That is likely to be the zenith of the superhero films of varying quality that have been a staple of the last few summer seasons, but it is ironic that for characters who have lasted half a century, the film versions are regarded as having such a short shelf life that Spiderman is to be rebooted ten years after it was launched, with the same fate rumoured for The Fantastic Four.

Outside of comics, it would seem that children’s fantasy literature is the preference for adaptation, but is that simply studios following a trend hoping the audience will follow?  Certainly Potter, Narnia and Middle-Earth ha
ve done well, as has the televised Game of Thrones, but other than Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, adult fantasy adaptations such as Solomon Kane or the recent remake of Conan the Barbarian, both Robert E Howard characters, were not so well received.  It is also important to bear in mind that The Golden Compass drew criticism for its deviation from Philip Pullman’s source novel The Northern Lights, specifically the studio’s insistence that the anti-religious themes were removed, and that the planned sequels of the following novels were not produced.

2010

2010

The resistance to major adaptations of science fiction novels dates to the mid eighties, where both Arthur C Clarke’s 2010 and Frank Herbert’s Dune did not perform to expectations.  Since then, there have been a mere handful, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact and Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, both relatively faithful to the source material, the poorly received Battlefield Earth (L Ron Hubbard) and Timeline (Michael Crichton), and I, Robot, which took little from the source save Isaac Asimov’s title.

The idea that an audience might wish to see something new, original and innovative that they had never experienced before is one that the risk averse major studios are resistant to.  Instead, despite there being many highly regarded cinematic novels which have never been adapted for the screen, the preference has been to fall back on brand recognition of previous film versions by offering remakes – The Time Machine, Solaris, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, The Stepford Wives.

The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids

I Am Legend is a peculiarity among these; the third screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s source novel it is the first to use the original title, yet is actually a remake of the second adaptation, the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man.  Both that and the new Will Smith version, along with the Tom Cruise starring The War of the Worlds, are hideous misinterpretations of the text.  Similarly, the BBC’s recent adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids took great liberties with the text, and is considered inferior to their own 1981 version.

The two areas where science fiction film adaptations have shown success are in “slipstream,” those where a fantastical element sets the scene, but the plot is driven by the emotion of the characters rather than the science fiction trappings, such as P D James’ Children of Men, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, and the ongoing endeavour to translate the short fiction of Philip K Dick to film, with Minority Report, Next, and The Adjustment Bureau among the most recent.

The Children of Men

The Children of Men

While we should be grateful for this at least, more disturbing is the other trend emerging in science fiction film over the last decade, those films that draw their inspiration from videogames and toys.  While Silent Hill at least had a visual style, the Resident Evil films have decomposed faster than the residents, and even those few who desired to see Doom on the big screen were disappointed.

In the decade since Cecil B Demented called for bad cinema to be punished, we have actually arrived at the nightmare he envisioned.  An intelligent audience with critical faculties are not a desired audience of advertisers; out of preference, empty vessels waiting to be filled with refined sugars are more desirable, so those are the masses the studios seek to satisfy.

It is small wonder that so much of a film’s budget is now devoted to a saturation marketing campaign to persuade all who are susceptible to such ploys that a forthcoming release is an event they must participate in, when it is apparent that the primary audience for such material is those who have no desire other than to watch explosions and car chases in films based on amusement rides, toys and games, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, and Battleship, setting sail this summer.

Why are Hollywood executives insistent on the lowest common denominator in their creative decisions?  Is it an attempt to recreate their childhoods, glamorise them somehow, these producers who can only look backwards to toys and games and shows they once enjoyed?  Are they so insecure as adults that they must regress to infancy, or do they simply have no imagination or originality of their own?  Are there sufficient teenagers today who remember the videogame Asteroids with such desperate, driving passion to justify a film, for Universal studios are actively developing such?

The Haunting

The Haunting

Who in a modern audience of teens to twenties, the target audience for a Keanu Reeves film, is familiar with The Day The Earth Stood Still?  It was made in 1951, and with the prejudice against black and white films, how many of them will recognise anything other than the title?  Of course, perhaps that was intended to work in the films’ favour, as they would have no way to compare the wretched remake against the majestic calm of the original.  For another example of this theory, compare the black and white 1963 Robert Wise adaptation of The Haunting with the misconceived effects saturated interpretation of the same Shirley Jackson novel that Jan de Bont inflicted upon an undeserving audience in 1999.

A remake, sequel or reimagination should not be dismissed out of hand simply because that what it is, but the truth is, those that warrant praise are few and far between, and most fail to capture either their original or the desired new audience.  It is ironic that two of the most successful have been based on two shows whose strength and original approach to the genre redefined televised science fiction in their original aired versions, one British and one American, both born in the changing social and economic climate of the sixties, where appliances and gadgets began to make science and technology an everyday experience for many.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who

Doctor Who was the best known science fiction hero on British television for over twenty five years, a show whose l
exicon had passed beyond the cognoscenti into common parlance, and who had already been the subject of a failed attempt to revive it in the mid nineties.  When Russell T Davies relaunched the show with the full support of the BBC in its historic Saturday teatime slot in March 2005, could anybody have predicted that it would become the success story of the year, winning praise even from the executive who was instrumental in the suspending the original show?

The new show was not without detractors or flaws, but the end result achieved what it sought to do, becoming an integral part of the childhood of a new generation who are now excited by just the sound of the TARDIS materialising, and he has reminded many adults why he was important to them at the same age: in this time of ambiguous and compromised values, the Doctor will always stand fast to his conviction of what is right, he will defend anyone whose cause he believes in, and he will never abandon anyone he considers a friend.

One of the chief joys of the Doctor was that he could land anywhere, anytime, so there was no reason why anyone watching could not feel themselves to be a part of his world, and finally the budget and production values matched the intention, which had long been compromised by the BBC’s downgrading of the original to the point it became a shameful parody of itself before cancellation in 1989 seemed almost merciful.

And the Star Trek bandwagontrail to the stars rolls on.  The continued success of that globally recognised name, forty five years after first broadcast, is down to the almost limitless possibility of the format – “Space, the final frontier… to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and the essentially optimistic and humane vision that countered the fear of the future that many saw as the only outcome of the Cold War.

Star Trek The Next Generation

Star Trek The Next Generation

The seven seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation were probably among the most successful brand relaunches ever, so successful that it launched further spinoffs and a subsequent film and novel series, and it was a tribute to the talent and determination of the teams both in front of and behind the cameras that they achieved this.

It is important to remember that both of those shows are continuations, building on earlier foundations and adapting the setting to a modern audience rather than slavishly devoting themselves to elements that no longer worked, and neither did they pander to viewers, but expected them to pay attention and follow the story.  It was only when Star Trek moved back from syndication to network as flagship of UPN with the launch of Voyager that the remit changed from boldly going to appeasing family audiences and advertisers, and stagnation set it.

Yet eight years after the last episode of that show aired, in the summer of 2009, Star Trek was not only recreated, it went on to become the most financially successful film in that series, surprising and delighting fans and general audiences worldwide, many of whom would not have believed that such perfect recasting roles that almost define the word “iconic” would have been possible.

What the new production team understood was that for a remake to work, it cannot be timid; while it must respect what went before, it cannot rely on inherited goodwill, rather it must be strong enough to stand alone and win its own audience, while reminding those who loved the original just why they loved it.  In simple, it must be the very definition of bold.

Compare for a moment that revival with the suggestion of a remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a proposal which successfully united every faction of fandom and the media in universal condemnation?  “Into every generation a slayer is born,” the mythology tells us, and we know this well, for it was our generation she was born into.  The brand recognition is certainly there, for we know and love her, but as we have access to her complete adventures on handy digital discs to be revisited any time we see fit, we are unlikely to forget her any time soon.

That show is considered to be on of the most consistent and accomplished achievements of recent years, smashing barriers of gender roles and genres, and the need to recreate it in any way would necessitate that the offering would have to be unequivocally superior, a realisation that may finally have occurred to studio heads, as recent reports indicate that the idea has now been laid to permanent rest.  Importantly, it was already a relaunch of an idea squandered in an unsuccessful film; having been done once, it didn’t need to be done again.

Caprica

Caprica

Far from that outright hostility, there was mild initial resistance directed towards another surprising reinvention of recent years of a more faded property, the update of Battlestar Galactica guided by Deep Space Nine’s Ronald D Moore and aired by the Sci Fi Channel, but this faded almost immediately upon broadcast.  Daring to address issues of modern politics, religion, identity and slavery, it forced the audience to question their own positions on those subjects along with their assumptions of what science fiction programming can be and racked up critical acclaim in the process.

So why then did that same channel, by then renamed SyFy, sabotage the follow up, the prequel series Caprica, by imposing a six month long midseason hiatus which dissipated the momentum the show had worked to create, then showing only another four episodes before suspending broadcast of the final five until the following year, yet allowing them to be aired on the Space channel in neighbouring Canada?

Was the renaming the channel to distance itself from the science fiction genre that it was once proud to champion?  Judging by the recent press release for their as their as yet untitled new “scripted” show (another sad indicator of the state of the television industry, where an actual script has become a selling point, as opposed to the many shows that are presumably just made up as they go along), they also seem to have lost interest in originality.

“After decades of war, the newly formed Unity Democracy orders a volatile mix of humans and trans-humans to lead the Starship Defender on an expedition in search of lost worlds requiring law and order.”

Produced by Robert Hewitt Wolfe, another former Deep Space Nine writer, how is this to stand as a unique and exciting proposition alongside the many shows we have watched and enjoyed our entire lives, Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Farscape, Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, aspects of all of which are captured in this abstraction.  Perhaps it is unfair to judge a show on a one line pitch, but where is the unique selling point that made the network choose this proposal over all the others on offer?

Dune

Dune

I say that with the caveat that this new show may possibly have a twist so bold as to make bluray seem as quaint as Betamax which the studio have cannily chosen to concea
l until closer to the airdate to prevent others from borrowing it, but why not spark interest and engage debate by hinting at their revolutionary spin, even if they refuse to reveal it?  It is unlike a marketing department to divulge anything without as much drama as can be achieved.  Why actively court bad word of mouth, or at the very least indifference, for the first impression of your new show?  The conclusion, for now, is because it will be another formulaic space show devoid of inspiration.

This is a shame, as before it changed its name to SyFy, the Sci Fi Channel was one of the few homes to major adaptations – Frank Herbert’s Dune and Children of Dune (which also comprised Dune Messiah) and Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, and it is the other cable channels which have followed suit, AMC with The Walking Dead, and HBO with True Blood and Game of Thrones.  The only literary concession to be found on network television is CW’s offerings of The Secret Circle and The Vampire Diaries, both based on the young adult books of L J Smith, which even the most fervent of admirers of their charms would admit are not in the same league.

American Gods

American Gods

A key difference between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy can simply call on magic, or the equivalent thereof, to explain why something happens, whereas science fiction must be able to explain the background.  As a result, science fiction novels can be denser, and so harder to adapt to a filmed medium, and are perhaps better suited to the miniseries format.  HBO have already confirmed plans to bring Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to the screen in this way; what other novels would lend themselves to that treatment?

My suggestion would be a large scale space opera with a strong narrative, sweeping scale, epic locations, engaging characters, revenge, betrayal, deception, a convoy of ships ferrying frozen colonists between worlds while pursued by a mysterious black ship, only to find their destination has been ravaged by an unstoppable plague that affects both flesh and technology, featuring an assassin suffering from a religious indoctrination virus, a woman modified to look like a zebra and a psychotic dolphin.

Chasm City

Chasm City

The novel is Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, set in the same universe as Revelation Space and featuring many of the same characters; this would actually be an advantage, as it is a standalone story, so could be produced without a commitment to the larger universe, but would allow much of the backstory to be established should the success of the project warrant the adaptation of the main sequence of novels.

Another advantage is that there are twin narratives; that of the mission of Tanner Mirabel, charged with avenging the death of the wife of his arms dealer employer, and the voyage to and foundation of the colony of Sky’s Edge.  That second strand, of how Schuyler Haussmann ensured that his ship would be first of the convoy to arrive and became the god figure of the cult that permeates the world is experienced by Mirabel as a series of dream sequences as a result of the indoctrinal virus which has infected him.  While the two narratives are tied, much of that parallel story could be held from broadcast for inclusion in an extended bluray edition, as was done with the releases of The Lord of the Rings, giving an enhanced experience that would boost sales and directly fund further production.

John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars

As it stands, there are at least two major science fiction adaptations due over the next fourteen months, but the first of those, John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of John Carter of Mars is in fact more in the vein of a fantasy adventure, the only science fiction element being the location, which has been removed from the title of the film as though Disney were afraid that viewers would be alienated.

That will be followed a year later, in March 2013, by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; while a Hugo and Nebula award winner, the novel has also attracted criticism for the moral vacuum the stock characters exist in, their casual attitude to violence and fascistic overtones, though it is worth remembering the same was said of Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and in 1997 Paul Verhoeven took those elements and created a satire on the military, politics and the media.

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Another science fiction adaptation this year is Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, originally taken from Philip K Dick’s 1966 novelette We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, though this of course is a remake of the 1990 film version, also from Paul Verhoeven.  More hope is held for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, due to enter principal photography early this year under the direction of Vincenzo Natali, who has proved his ability to handle off kilter science fiction on Cube, Cypher and Splice.

And what of the further future?  There are at least four other acclaimed science fiction novels that are in some stage of production, whether optioned, in active development, or in the limbo known as develop hell.  In chronological order of publication –

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which won the 1973 Nebula Award and 1974 Hugo Award, which David Fincher has been actively pursuing with little progress for several years; Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, winner of the 1975 Nebula Award and the 1976 Hugo Award, which Ridley Scott has stated he wishes to film in 3D, a tool he has worked with on his forthcoming return to science fiction, Prometheus; Vonda N McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, winner of the 1997 Nebula Award, originally developed as a screenplay simultaneously as the time the novel was written, and still in development according to the writer late last year, and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, winner of the 2003 Philip K. Dick Award, optioned shortly after publication and still actively in development, though the author declined to name the high profile screenwriter working on it.

The Moon and the Sun

The Moon and the Sun

Whether any or all of these will ever be produced remains to be seen, but it is certain that the possibility is more exciting than what is currently being offered to us.  Maybe bad science fiction is particularly disappointing to those of us who love it because we are of a nature to look further than most, and are consequently victims of our own high expectations.  While it is always to be applauded that the success of Harry Potter has encouraged children to read fantasy, there is no career path from there to wizardry.

Instead, as the love of the early science fiction work of Verne and Wells excited and inspired the amateur rocketry groups who eventually laid the early foundations of the space programme, were a new generation to have their imaginations inspired by the greatest modern works of science fiction, they could become the theoreticians and engineers who may bring those bright futures to reality.

Over the past year, Geek Chocolate has spoken to many writers and contributors, asking them to propose science fiction and fantasy novels that they believe would be good source material for film or television mini-series adaptations, and a partial list follows.  We would be delighted if you would use the comments section to offer your own nominations.

Thank you to Les Anderson, Iain M Banks, Becky Dillon, Adam Dworak, Kevin Gilmartin, Ken MacLeod, Chris J Scott, Charlie Stross, Maggie Symon and Andrew J Wilson for their suggestions.

  • The Stars, My Destination

    The Stars, My Destination

    Non-Stop
    – Brian Aldiss (AJW)
  • The Foundation trilogy – Isaac Asimov (CJS)
  • Consider Phlebas – Iain M Banks (BD, CJS)
  • The Stars, My Destination – Alfred Bester (IMB, AJW)
  • The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (AJW)
  • The Whole Man – John Brunner (MS)
  • Time for the Stars – Robert A Heinlein (LA, BD)
  • Citizen of the Galaxy – Robert Heinlein (AJW, BD)
  • City of Illusions – Ursula Le Guin (AJW)
  • The Star Fraction – Ken Macleod (CJS)
  • The Ship Who Sang – Anne McCaffrey (MS)
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller (KM, LA)
  • Tumithak

    Tumithak

    Ringworld
    – Larry Niven (CS, IMB)
  • Marrow – Robert Reed (CJS)
  • The Mars trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson (CJS)
  • Snowcrash – Neal Stephenson (BD)
  • The Laundry series – Charlie Stross (CJS)
  • Tumithak – Charles R Tanner (AD)
  • Otherland – Tad Williams (BD)
  • Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny (CJS)

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