Science Fiction and Movies

July 14th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

It appears we are having one of those wishy-washy moments we often talk about. Minutes ago, we typed a sentence to the affect that world-building in novels is critical no matter if a work is set in Manhattan or South Central Los Angeles. We very nearly used the example of science fiction novels, but thought that too obvious. Well, we’re going there anyway. For those who can’t read our mind, no harm, no foul. For those who can, we’ll try to resist our impulses in the future.

We start with a quote from later in the article:

“The problems that have plagued ‘Ender’s Game’ are the same that have plagued other award-winning science fiction books,” [Orson Scott Card] says. “Science fiction is set in a world contrary to our reality, so you have to have an explanation. And explanation time on screen is unbelievably dull.”

While we understand Card’s point (especially given the saga of Ender’s journey to the big screen), we think back to Star Wars, the first. We were thrown willy-nilly in a world outside our reality and told to swim. We caught on (heck, some of us saw the film multiple times because we so enjoyed this new world). Hollywood, by and large, does not have a lot of faith in the ability of audiences to discern things, and that makes science fiction books a rough sale. Perhaps if they focused less on world building and more on story building, they’d be pleasantly surprised. Oh, and apropos of our next favorite quote, fewer explosions would be nice, too:

It’s also what the books themselves are about. You’d hardly know it from a lot of what appears on screen, which tends to ape either “Star Wars” space opera or “Alien” slime thing horror, but current literary sci-fi is concerned with issues of race, gender, sex, religion and technology’s effect on humanity. Which is not what Hollywood seems to be interested in.

Then we have this idea:

Simply put, “it’s tough to turn a novel into a movie,” says [Greg] Bear, who has had several of his futuristic works optioned but never produced. “A book like ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is almost 200,000 words long and has a lot of incidents in it. How do you pare that down?”

“The stories are complex,” adds Bonnie Hammer, president of cable TV’s Sci Fi Channel, which has been aggressively pursuing literary properties like “Dune” and Le Guin’s “Earthsea” for adaptation as miniseries. “Because of their complexity,” she says, many of these books have stories that “often can’t unfold well in two hours.”

Well, yes, you could argue the same thing about Gone With The Wind. Lots of stuff there that didn’t make it into the movie (though, based on our recollection, they certainly tried). We have an old family joke where our youngest sister says she doesn’t like to read the book because it ruins the movie. Funny kid. Movie adaptations of books are, by definition, lacking in nuances. Even To Kill a Mockingbird.

We love to hypothesize (facts, well, you can have them; conjecture’s where it’s at), and think it’s not that science fiction books are too hard to adapt. We don’t believe it’s the lack of excellent material. We think it all gets back to the explosion thing. Pretend for a moment that you’re a Hollywood executive. You have three secretaries. A big office with a vintage movie poster or two, unless you have actually produced a major hit on your own — then you have a one sheet from that film. Your own bathroom steps away from your desk. Perhaps a small kitchenette. Lots of complex phones. Rich woods, everywhere, except where you have leather. Real execs spare no expense — neither should you).

Okay, ready. You’re a Hollywood executive and you’re considering a science fiction movie. You immediately focus on your demographic: teenage boys.

After all, women won’t be interested. Older men? They still like explosions, but less often these days. Plus, everyone knows they don’t make movie-viewing decisions. Girls? Don’t worry about them; we’ll give them a fluffy chick flick. Yes, we must get the teenage boys. There are lots of them. So they end up trying to adapt a novel that contains, oh, thoughtful social commentary into a shoot-’em-up outer space Western. Hollywood sees science fiction and immediately assumes blockbuster. We think if Hollywood saw science fiction and considered it in the same manner they consider books like Cold Mountain (which we tried valiantly to read) or, gasp!, The Notebook, maybe we’d see more science fiction books adapted, with the side benefit of, yes, more incisive films.

  • A sci-fi shy Hollywood: Far-out literature, even the classics of the genre, often gets lost in a cinematic black hole, even though galactic films are loved. (Note: extremly irritating, odious registration, including demand for payment, will likely be encountered. We’re very sorry about that.)

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