Reader Request Week 2006 #1: SF Novels and Films

All right, let’s take a second go at beginning the Reader Request Week here at the Whatever, as the first attempt yesterday went all explody on me. The question today (and yesterday, before the crash) was from Alex Holden, who asked:

Why are movie adaptations of SF novels generally so awful? Would you want to see movies from your novels? If yes, how would you prevent Hollywood from ruining them?

These questions — no offense Alex — start from what I think are erroneous premises, which are that movie adaptations of SF novels are generally awful, either considered as a class or relative to the performance of novels in other genres, and that novel authors not only can prevent Hollywood from ruining their works, but indeed are competent in the task of keeping Hollywood from ruining their novels. So let’s look at each of these.

First, are movie adaptations of SF novels (and other SF lit, including short stories) generally awful? Not necessarily. Here are some pretty good adaptations, in no particular order: Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, The Thing From Another World, Frankenstein, Solaris, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Boys from Brazil and (yes) Jurassic Park. And this is without lumping in fantasy (which has rather quite a lot of excellent adaptations from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings) or comic book/graphic novel-derived movies (Men in Black, Superman, X-Men). To be sure, there are some spectacularly bad SF lit adaptations — Dune and Battlefield Earth spring immediately to mind — but taken as a class, SF lit turned into movies has a wide spectrum of success, from wildly successful to abysmal.

Relative to other lit genres, SF lit is no worse off either, as Hollywood’s record with other genres is equally scattershot. For every Battlefield Earth there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities; for every Blade Runner there’s a Godfather. If I had to pick a lit genre that has suffered the most in the hands of filmmakers, I would probably have to go with crime fiction, which is deeply abused by Hollywood and has been for decades. I mean, my God. Look what they did to Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease. SF is not doing so bad compared to that.

A better question here might be: Why can’t Hollywood consistently adapt novels into good movies? And there are a number of reasons for this.

1. Some novels suck. See: Battlefield Earth. If you’ve got garbage going in, you’re likely to get garbage going out.

2. Conversely (and perversely), some novels are too good. A couple of years ago I advanced the theory that great literature doesn’t make for great movies, because the written version is already the highest form of that particular story; there’s no film version of War and Peace that replaces the book, for example. Same with 1984 or The Great Gatsby. The best book-to-film adaptations are the ones where the book is, well, eh — and thus the movie is able to become the better and more definitive version: The Godfather is the quintessential version of this; Jaws is another excellent example.

Related to this: 

3. Some literature suffers from "step-down," which is what happens when a brilliant author is adapted for the screen by a less-than-brilliant screenwriter; if the screenwriter doesn’t actually get the book, naturally there are going to be problems. Now, the converse is also true: Some mediocre authors have their work improved by screenwriters who write better than they do. The screen version of The Bridges of Madison County is rather better than the book version because Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the script, is a substantially better writer than Robert James Waller, who wrote the book.

4. Some lit, regardless of quality, is unfilmable as written. Film is a primarily visual medium; novels are a primarily intellectual medium. People like to talk about seeing a novel unfold in their heads like a private movie, but a written work also allows access to thoughts, emotions, internal states and narrative omniscience (or narrative direction, at the very least) that film generally doesn’t. This is not to suggest film is the lesser medium, as film can do things literature generally doesn’t, too. It does mean that some literature is so much in thrall to its medium that it’s difficult to make the jump. But that doesn’t means some filmmakers aren’t willing to try. And thus you get a not-great version of a great book.

This is why, incidentally, wildly reinventing a lit work for film is not always a bad thing. Blade Runner is I suspect a far better picture than a straight adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? could ever be. Given how enthusiastic Philip K. Dick was about Blade Runner, one suspects he may have thought so, too.

5. Novel writing is essentially a one-input proposition: The writer writes, and then an editor suggests changes if needed. In movies, the producers, directors, stars and studios all have input… and the poor schmuck writer has to listen to and accommodate them all (check out William Goldman’s classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade for confirmation on this). Given this it’s often a miracle a movie based on a book has anything to do with the book at all. Filmmaking, at least on the major studio level, is all about "collaboration" — which is to say a lot of the time everyone has to whip out their dick and piss in the stew until it has a flavor they claim to like. The problem is, outside of Hollywood, not everyone likes piss-flavored stew.

6. Sometimes the filmmakers don’t actually care about the work on which their film is based. They may simply need a property that works for a particular star; they may need something easily adapted into a low-dialogue, high-action film that sells to international markets; they might have bought a property to keep someone else from buying it; they might buy it because the genre the novel is in is hot today and they want to get a hand in before it cools down; they might buy it because some country has created a tax shelter involving films, and the filmmakers need a property — any property — to jam into production in order to launder their investors’ money (this is, incidentally, how the horrible, horrible director Uwe Boll made so many virulently bad movies based on video games over the last few years). There are lots of reasons to make a movie that actually have nothing to do with its story.

Now, on to the other thing, which is authors keeping filmmakers from ruining their work. There is only one sure-fire way to do this: Don’t sell your work. If no film is ever made of your work, then they can’t screw it up. Now, they can’t make a great film out of it either (or even one that’s just, you know, okay), and that is indeed a bit of a downside. But if your goal is to avoid having a bad film made of your work, that’s how you have to do it.

Why? Because typically speaking, once you sell the film rights to the work, that’s the end of your involvement. Oh, the filmmakers might let you come to the set sometime, and then the studio might fly you and your spouse out for the premiere, and you’ll walk down the red carpet to the vast indifference of fans and paparazzi alike. But, really, once you cash that check, you’ve been handed your hat and shuffled off to the door. Thanks for your story, we love it, see you later.

Nor are filmmakers entirely wrong to do so. The number of novel authors who have any sort of experience or competence in filmmaking is, well, low. Filmmakers take to novelists dictating the terms of the treatment of their books pretty much like authors would take to the lumberjack who chopped down the tree used to make the paper that the rough draft will be printed on coming over and suggesting that what the book really needs is a scene where a lumberjack has sex with Jessica Alba. See, you’ve been paid. You’re done. And now the filmmakers are going off to make their movie. Fact: When people think of who made Jaws, 99 times out 100, they think Steven Spielberg, not Peter Benchley.

Yes, some authors get to dictate certain things before movies get made of their books. And when you sell as many books as JK Rowling or John Grisham or Michael Crichton, maybe they’ll let you do that, too. Until then, alas, they’re pretty much going to ignore you once your agent seals the deal. Because they can; it’s in the contract.

Now, one way around this is to get involved in the production in some way, generally as the screenwriter (or at the very least, the screenwriter who takes the first stab at the script). But this doesn’t mean that one then saves one’s writing from grevious harm. For one thing, writing scripts and writing novels are two different writing skills, a fact which is indeed underappreciated. Someone who writes novels is no more necessarily competent to write a screenplay than a guy who makes a really great steak on a grill is competent to bake a delightfully light puff pastry. Maybe he can, but the one skill does not automatically suggest the other. To be sure, lots of writers can do both novel and scripts — Larry McMurtry, who took home an Oscar on Sunday (for adapting someone else’s work, no less) is a fine example here, as is the previously mentioned William Goldman — but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption.

Even when an author is involved it does not necessarily follow he or she is the best steward of the work in film. John Varley, a writer whose work I enjoy immensely, was actively involved with Millennium, based on one of his stories. The movie is pretty bad. HG Wells wrote the screenplay for Things to Come, and it’s indeed a significant film in the SF Canon, but it’s not a patch on other adaptations of his work. Moving outside the SF genre just a little bit, Stephen King’s work is a film genre unto itself, and while there are many highs (Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me), one has to admit that one of the lows would be Maximum Overdrive, which King adapted for the screen and directed himself (I suspect that King — who seems a good judge of his own stuff — might agree to this assessment, although I further suspect he had a lot of fun doing it anyway).

On to me. Would I want Hollywood to make films of my books? Sure I would. That would be one less mortgage I would have to worry about. Would I expect that the books would make it to the screen as they are written? No. I say that with confidence because I know that if I were adapting my books as films, there are moderate-to-significant changes I would make, so I can’t imagine that actual filmmakers wouldn’t want some as well. Would I want to be actively involved in the production? I haven’t the slightest idea. If they actually want my ideas toward adapting the books I would be happy to give them (and to take an associate producer credit!), but if they just want to give me a big fat check and send me on my way, I suppose I wouldn’t complain all that much.

Which is not to say I’m interested in being indiscriminate about who I sell my movie rights to. Being a film critic for 15 years gives me some knowledge of who makes good films and who doesn’t (and having just written a book on SF film, even more so). Let’s just say that the only serious demand I would make to a producer who wants to buy the rights to my books would be to attach a rider on the contract that specifies that if Paul WS Anderson is picked to write and/or direct, I get an additional and instant $2 million payout; if it’s Uwe Boll, $10 million. Given what would inevitably happen to the story in their hands, I think that’s reasonable compensation.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)

56 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2006 #1: SF Novels and Films

  1. Reading “Adventures in the Screen Trade” was vastly enlightening to me. Among other things, I resolved after reading it to just cash my check and quit worrying about it, should anyone ever call wanting to make a movie out of one of my books — I’m not going to try to write the screenplay because I don’t know jack squat about writing screenplays. I don’t think in those terms. I think I could learn, but there’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve, and it’s not one I’d want to try to hike up on a deadline.

    (Philip Pullman apparently got asked whether he was terribly upset at all the changes they were making to his books for the movie versions, and he blinked at the interviewer and said something like, “They paid me a lot of money. They can make whatever movie they want. It won’t change the books.”)

    My favorite example of wasted potential is the movie version of The Postman. It’s a great book, IMO, and while it needed some revision for transfer to the medium of film, the premise and character lent themselves to the medium pretty nicely. But the person who made the movie was Kevin Costner, who is quite possibly the least disciplined filmmaker ever. The movie version of Postman was hours too long, filled with totally unnecessary sidelines like the visit to the rock star’s mountain hideaway (which was kind of neat but still, WTF?) David Brin apparently loved the movie — and honestly, I think if I’d written the book and gotten that movie out of it, I’d have loved it, too. But it was destined for commercial failure because Kevin Costner doesn’t know how to edit, and refuses to let anyone else edit, either.

  2. I should note that my resolution to not try to write the screenplay is in the hypothetical reality where I’m rich and powerful enough that I could make a demand like that and get it. Rather than the reality where my phone is not exactly ringing off the hook as representatives for Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee battle for the rights to make movies from my work. *sigh*.

  3. Slightly off topic John, but do you know what happened to the movie rights for Snow Crash? It seems tailor made for the movies (well, except for all the exposition about ancient languages in the middle) and I’m surprised it wasn’t made during the cyber-punk era back in the 90′s. I really want to see the Deliverator on the big screen.

  4. Adventures in the Screen Trade is informative and enjoyable; Goldman certainly knows how to tell a story. But for my money, you can’t beat The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon, an account of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities. This book, written with Brian DePalma’s cooperation (you’ve got to give him credit for that), is not only a lot of fun, but is the best account I’ve ever read of how well-intended group efforts can go completely off the rails. This is a better how-not-to-succeed-in-business book than most of the stuff churned out by retired CEOs and management consultants.

    And anyone who thinks that their opus is screwup-proof should read Carl Hiassen’s Striptease, easily one of the funniest books written in the last 50 years, then see the movie.

  5. Well, no book with more than 300 pages should ever be considered to be made a movie. If it is? then it never should have been a book. The mediums are in conflict for that reason alone.

  6. No compilation of the horrors of SF adaptations is quite complete without a reference to Johnny Mnemonic. The screenwriters didn’t even have the excuse of trying to cram a three-hundred page novel into two hours, and the set director should simply have been flogged.

  7. Another good adaptation is the recent “I Robot.” Instead of trying to faithfully adapt the book; they took the theme and made an action movie of it. A movie that, although wildly different to the book, stayed true to the book’s theme.

  8. Well, with I, Robot what they did was they bought the right to the title and then pasted it onto a script that had already been written, which only somewhat touched on Asimov’s work. I like the movie just fine as a movie, but I don’t really consider it much of a follow-on to the work in question.

  9. I suspect you might want to put Paul Verhoeven on your “bonus payments” list too, at least if it were Old Man’s War he were making, just because of the botch job he did on Starship Troopers. On the other hand, he did do pretty well with Total Recall (another Phillip K. Dick adaptation) and RoboCop, so maybe not.

  10. I’m not sure Snowcrash (or any Stephenson at all, really) lends itself to movies. There is simply too much detail provided by the writer that would not translate into a good dialogue.

    I am, however, convinced that it could be made into an excellent anime. If only the group that did Cowboy Beebop could get their hands on it…wow.

  11. Another author who has had success in both Film and literary work is Richard Matheson.

    Regarding Stephen King, if I remember correctly, he was trashed (drunk) during the filming of Maximum Overdrive. I am sure he still had fun, though.

  12. Well, actually, I like Starship Troopers the movie quite a bit, I just don’t pretend it has much of anything to do with the Heinlein book. I doubt Verhoeven would want to do OMW, but there would be far worse directors.

  13. There’s much to cavil about in your list of good adaptations of SF novels — mostly to do with whether a resulting good movie necessarily means that it is either good SF or a good adaptation –but the howler of the batch is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Surely you realize that 2001 was not a case of a novel being adapted into a film, but the reverse? The novel was written based on the screenplay, not the other way ’round.

  14. Ulrika:

    “Surely you realize that 2001 was not a case of a novel being adapted into a film, but the reverse? The novel was written based on the screenplay, not the other way ’round.”

    Surely you realize that 2001 was loosely based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” (originally published in 1951) and was later expanded into a novel in concert with the development of the screenplay? Well, okay, then. Glad we’ve gotten that sorted out.

    We can certainly agree/disagree on what are good movies, but don’t call me out on facts if you don’t have your own facts straight, if you please.

  15. Field of Dream probably qualifies for fantasy more than SF, but it’s a much better movie than the short stories it’s based on.

    As for the length of book/quality of movie argument posted by Wickedpinto above, I look at the Harry Potter movies and wonder. I liked the first two adaptions very much, I thought the third was horrid and the fourth, some 600 pages, was adapted about as well as it could, with the “if only they’d taken 10 minutes more and done ________”. I also think about Possession by A.S. Byatt, another novel that didn’t suffer from the transistion unless you count the casualities of several minor characters and a couple of very long poems. So I’m not entirely sure I agree with Wickedpinto completely, but he does have more proof on his side than I have on mine.

  16. Well, no book with more than 300 pages should ever be considered to be made a movie.

    Well that would have disqualified Lord of the Rings, but I understand your sentiment.

    The most faithful adaptation ever would have to be The Shawshank Redemption – the film script was pretty much a photocopy of King’s novella, while the cinematography perfectly reflected the imagery from the story.

    I think OMW and TGB would make really good SF movies, and probably wouldn’t need much alteration either.

  17. Because typically speaking, once you sell the film rights to the work, that’s the end of your involvement.

    I read something about this on another writer’s blog (lost the link, sorry). The novelist had sold the rights to his book, and he called the screenwriter to talk about some of the changes they were making.

    Screenwriter: You don’t understand the process.

    Novelist: There’s a process?

    Screenwriter: You sold the car. Now you want to drive the car. But I’m going to drive it.

    ——-

    Oh, and I liked Starship Troopers, too, but I didn’t have a lot of love for the novel.

  18. Re: Snowcrash

    Paramount had a deal back in ’95 to make a movie, but it never happened. I was involved in the companion video game which also wasn’t finished.

    I think that both film and game technology have advanced to the point where they could be made today, but it doesn’t seem likely.

  19. …don’t call me out on facts if you don’t have your own facts straight, if you please.

    Ah, I love a man who can take correction with good grace. I’m sorry I didn’t run the entire history of the movie for you, but nothing I said was factually incorrect. As you admit, the film is loosely based on an earlier short, but the screenplay was a collaborative new effort, and in terms of straight adaptation of the same story from one format to another, it was the book that came from the film.

  20. Ulrika:

    “Ah, I love a man who can take correction with good grace.”

    Well, first, it’s not a correction, as I’m not wrong; it’s just you trying to be a pissy trivia queen. Second, I took it with about as much grace as it was given, Ulrika. You’ll note that the comments information says “The proprietor generally responds to commenters in kind. If you’re polite, he’ll be polite. If you’re a jackass, he’ll be a jackass.” You’re in the jackass category, I’m afraid.

    “I’m sorry I didn’t run the entire history of the movie for you, but nothing I said was factually incorrect.”

    Uh-huh. All you did was suggest I was factually incorrect, since you called what I wrote a “howler,” which my dictionary defines as “a glaring error.” Which naturally I take umbrage to, particularly when I was not factually incorrect, and because the sentence of which this “howler” was part answered the following question I posed:

    “First, are movie adaptations of SF novels (and other SF lit, including short stories) generally awful?”

    I added emphasis there to aid in your apparently poor reading comprehension, Ulrika. As the sentences specifically addresses short story adaptations as well as novel adaptations, your “correction” is due either to your inability to read, or your need to be a bossy miss know-it-all. Suggesting that the screenplay is not based on the earlier work is factually wrong on its face; whether the resulting novel came from the film is neither here nor there to what I wrote.

    So in addition to not “correcting” me on facts that are not wrong, try also to read and reasonably comprehend what you’ve read before you do any further “correcting.” It’s annoying to have to smack you down more than once in the same thread.

    This would be your cue for a snarky comment and further ineffectual weasling on what you wrote, Ulrika. Have at it.

  21. This is a little off-topic and I’m not trying to start a flame-war, but what did you like about the Starship Troopers movie? I hated the movie! :D

    Even if I get past the fact that it bastardized the book, it just felt wrong in so many places. The only thing I can say I liked about it was the special effects, but fx have come along so far that I can’t be wow’d by them any more.

    A longer rant would really get into travelling light years to drop an almost purely infantry army onto a planet with next to no support. There’s only one scene where we even see the concept of air cover. No artillery or armor. And often the humans just drop into an area and cluster together without any cover. Basically, the humans are dumb in almost every battle and that just really turned me off.

    I could get into other complaints, but best to stop now. :) I really am curious to know what you liked about it, though.

  22. Another good example of a successful adaptation is LA Confidential. The screenplay perfectly distilled a rambling novel. They are equally good, in my opinion, and just different takes on the same story.

    In the unlikely event a book that I wrote is made into a movie, I would really hope to be included in the process, not because I know better and have any clue about how to contribute, but because I enjoy observing the moviemaking process. (I love the addition of “extras” to DVDs!) A tour of the set, a chat with a producer/screenwriter/actor/director about what they hope to bring forth in the story (not so I can critique though) would satisfy this fan-girl’s heart. Just to feel included, even if it were just a token pat on the head would, at this point, be awesome.

  23. John, do you think you could expound on just why it is that screenwriters do what they do in the way that they do it? Specifically, to use the Harry Potter adaptations as models, why do you think that Steven Kloves chose to change dialogue that could have been pulled straight from the text, without any obvious reason…Do you think that screenwriters/adapters feel compelled to make changes for the sake of changing anything?

  24. Kiz
    So I’m not entirely sure I agree with Wickedpinto completely, but he does have more proof on his side than I have on mine.

    John (the guy who lets us talk at all)
    Well that would have disqualified Lord of the Rings, but I understand your sentiment.

    First Kiz, I LOVE being agreed with, I don’t usually return to threads, just drop a statement and bail, unless it’s a joke thread, and it’s AWESOME that one of the threads I found enjoyable included me getting a compliment. WHEEE!!! and as far as the 300 page limit, thats a bottom limit. As far as Harry Potter, Rowling’s a hack anyways, it’s easy to remove pages from mediocre books, to create mediocre movies.

    John, The lord of the rings would have been a great many pages shorter if all of the descriptions of smoking pipes, and singing songs had been removed, I would wager less than three hundred, and in fact I think all but the first was less than 300 pages, at least in paperback.

    As an aside,

    Johnny mnemonic sucked, both of them did, WHERE THE HELL!!! is the Neuromancer movie?

    Or “beggars in spain” or any of the BRILLIANT short stories in the various annual compilations.

  25. I have to agree with Codrus on this one John, Starship Troopers was a veritable sludge of chunk-spewing wasted celloid.

    I particularly liked the Troopers brilliant tactic of clustering in a circle around the bugs and blasting them, without any concern of accidentally chewing up their opposite number on the other side of the circle. Ugh.

    Very. Bad. Movie.

  26. Re: The Starship Troopers weigh-in…

    Before I joined the Marines, I thought Starship Troopers was a pretty excellent action movie. Plenty in it, besides, to see that it wasn’t to be taken strictly on its face since, as you’ve mentioned before, Verhoven digs on those fascist themes and he makes a meal of it in Starship Troopers.

    After I joined the Marines, I watched it and wondered how the hell any humans survived the movie at all. The simple concept of “dispersion” (or “combined arms”) seems lost on the elite military of the future. Whether Verhoven was trying to say something there, or just being lazy in those scenes, I’ll leave to others.

  27. wickedpinto:

    “John (the guy who lets us talk at all)
    Well that would have disqualified Lord of the Rings, but I understand your sentiment.”

    Actually that’s John H who said that, not me.

    Jas:

    “John, do you think you could expound on just why it is that screenwriters do what they do in the way that they do it?”

    I really have no idea — it really depends on the screenwriter and also on movie. As regards Steve Kloves and the Harry Potter films, if I had to guess it would be that Kloves figured it would be easier not to have to try to integrate someone else’s dialogue with stuff he wrote himself. Since it’s my (possibly incorrect) understanding Ms. Rowling has at least some sort of script approval one way or another, I suppose she doesn’t mind.

    Codrus:”but what did you like about the Starship Troopers movie? I hated the movie! :D”

    Hold on — I’ll get to that in a second.

    I’m back: I had to switch computers to pull this up from my archives. This is a review I did of the Starship Troopers movie when it comes out. It pretty much says what I think of the film.

    Paul Verhoeven is a director who can give you everything you want in a movie, as long as you want too much of it. He’s made five films in English, not one of which could remotely be described as “restrained”: Robocop and Total Recall spilled more of the red stuff than a bloodmobile in a four-car pile-up, and Showgirls gave viewers as much sex as it was possible to have without actually doing it onscreen. Basic Instinct, of course, was a whole lot of both — kiss kiss bang bang ad infinitem.

    This isn’t a criticism of Verhoeven. It’s just a fact. Paul Verhoeven makes movies like tuberculosis patients make fever dreams: vivid, disjointed, with all the human emotions pumped up so far that they bleed into each other like a swirl. A lot of people confuse it for camp, but Verhoeven isn’t out there, winking to the audience. He’s as serious as a heart attack. It’s what makes him unstoppable — if Verhoeven had actually tried to camp up, say, Showgirls, his head might have exploded right then and there.

    Starship Troopers is more of the same, for Verhoeven and for his audience. It’s one-half cornball teen drama, one-half unspeakably violent science-fiction action film. Verhoeven treats both halves of the film equally importantly, which is bound to be profoundly irritating for the folks who have come to see guys with guns shoot up some bugs. But that’s what you get with this director. It’s not all or nothing — it’s just all, period, end of sentence.

    The movie is based loosely on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, and follows the same general plotline. Spoiled rich kid Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is finishing high school and rather aimlessly drifting into Harvard, when he gets sidetracked by his best friend Carl and girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) who are joining the Federal Service. The service is futuristic armed force, which is occupying its time battling The Bugs, a semi-sentient race of giant insects. The bugs want the same real estate humans want, and are either not programmed or not inclined to be nice and share.

    When the insects get mad, they hurl asteroids towards earth with the hope of splattering a major city or two; the humans retaliate by shipping a couple hundred thousand troopers to a Bug planet and shooting everything with more than two legs. As the movie begins, the bugs are having more success with their formula than the humans are having with theirs. We follow Johnny and his pals through the last days of high school and then boot camp training, after which we transfer to the battle zone, where bugs abound and humans have a tendency to lose their heads (and arms, and legs) in the heat of battle.

    Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, his screenwriter (with whom he also did Robocop) kept the structure of the book, but they didn’t bother dealing much with the book’s intent, to which the structure was tied. The book was a cover for Heinlein, a proto-libertarian, to lecture personal and political responsibility to his clutch of young, fervent readers. The movie doesn’t have much time for that — it pays the mildest of lip service to the concepts of the book and then covers for the rest of it by envisioning the future as pop culture fascism, complete with newsreel-type government infomercials, which look something like Nike ads done by Leni Riefenstahl.

    It’s in line with Verhoeven’s other glimpses of the future; you could plot a direct line between the fascistic corporations of Robocop and Total Recall to the planetary government in Troopers — and no doubt some desperate film student will, one day, for a thesis. But it’s likely to annoy true Heinlein fans. Heinlein was occasionally confused with being a fascist, just like Ayn Rand, a writer who Heinlein, for better or worse, shares most of his reading audience with. He wasn’t (neither was she, for that matter, though sometimes you have to wonder) but this film isn’t going to help his reputation much on that score.

    Without Heinlein’s political noodlings, there’s not much call for the high school and boot camp half of the story (where, in the book, Heinlein did most of his philosophizing). But Verhoeven leaves it in anyway. You have to figure Verhoeven wanted to leave the scenes in to give the audience time to get into the character’s heads — and indeed we get a lot of that, particularly through Johnny and Carmen, who break up, find new lovers, lose friends and grow up, all at typically high Verhoeven volume. But all this does is give the audience time to think about how shallow these people really are. Verhoeven has populated his movie with kids who are fun to look at but who don’t appear ever to have had a thought in their pretty heads — either the characters or the actors who play them. Everybody looks perfect, and perfect people don’t have to think. Why go for the A+ when you get the A automatically? (This, by the way, would have sent Heinlein into a tizzy.)

    Only two characters appear to have anything above rudimentary thinking skills at all. One is Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who has a crush on Johnny and follows him into the federal service; She’s not thinking well — one has to wonder what she sees in Johnny other than his hunky, square jaw — but at least she’s making the attempt. The other is Carl (Neil Patrick Harris, looking like a fresh-scrubbed Quentin Tarantino), who is psychic and who gets a job reading the minds of the aliens. In the late part of the film, when the film really overloads on the fascistic imagery, Carl wanders around in a getup that makes him look like a SS officer — Dr. Doogie Mengele, M.D.

    The reason for having such a good looking cast becomes clear in the second half, when Verhoeven takes all these perfectly sculpted, achingly desirable kids and feeds them to the vast army of 30-foot bugs, who gleefully rip their beautiful bodies into kibble. Verhoeven finds more ways to dismember the cast than you would have thought humanly possible (which is why, perhaps, he has the bugs do it). To be fair, the Bugs are beautiful too (credit special effects wizard Phil Tippet, who makes the Bugs the most believable computer-generated creatures to date — they look real enough to make people afraid of spiders twitchy for a month), and they get blown apart just as frequently.

    The battle scenes are marvelously violent, action-packed and actually arousing — the sort of scenes where most guys end up leaning slightly forward in their seats, breathing shallowly through the mouth and hoping they don’t have a reason to suddenly stand up. But more than most, they’re scenes where it doesn’t pay to bring your brain along for the ride. This is the sort of film where they go after two-story high insects with rifles that hardly look powerful enough to bring down a bunny at 30 yards. It makes for fun battle scenes, but you have to think that after the first encounter with the Bugs, someone would have had the same sort of epiphany that Chief Brodie had in Jaws, when he saw the great white for the first time and said, “We need a bigger boat.”

    But let’s remember: this isn’t really a movie, it’s a fever dream. As fever dreams go, this one fits the bill — it’ll stick to your brain long after you drag yourself, dazed, out of the theater. That’s the sort of impact Paul Verhoeven seems to like making on his audiences. No one would say he isn’t doing just that.

  28. David and Deano pretty much are hitting on some of the major points I didn’t like about the movie. A big one being that the bug’s tactics seemed to immediately call for air-strikes and arty from our troopers. I mean, if the bugs are going to all gather in big groups, why not drop mortar shells on them? :)

    Maybe it is just me, but I never really saw the fascist side of the novel. There’s one section that comes close (where paraphrasing, it talks about people who don’t or can’t contribute), but on the whole, I always felt that the theme of the book was service.

    If there’s a complaint about that part of the book, it would be that the characters aren’t very sophisticated and there aren’t really any opposing views shown. In that respect, other fiction that covers the same ground (OMW,TGB, Chtorr novels) is more ‘balanced’.

  29. My post was written before you reposted your review.

    Reading that, I don’t see where you liked the movie. :P If anything, it rips into the same problems I had with the movie.

    You do hit one of my main points, which is the battle scenes were amazing so long as you didn’t actually think about what the humans were doing.

    Anyway, it most definitely isn’t a thinking movie. :)

  30. One horrible, horrible thing that has to be mentioned here is the for-TV version of “Wizard of Earthsea”. There’s been a lot of debate around about whether LeGuin did, or didn’t, have the right to blast the film (see her website if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but none whatsoever about the quality of the movie, which was crap. Unfaithful crap.

    I admit to only having seen the trailer, and can recall making only two comments during the entirety of it. The first, at the very beginning, was “That’s supposed to be Ged? Ged’s not white!” The second, at the very end, was “That wasn’t Earthsea.” And so it wasn’t.

    Making movies of books is a chancy business, but when you piss all over a famous childhood experience you shouldn’t be surprised when it flops.

  31. kat:

    “Making movies of books is a chancy business, but when you piss all over a famous childhood experience you shouldn’t be surprised when it flops.”

    True in a general sense, although in the case of Earthsea (if I remember correctly), it did very well in the ratings for SCI FI.

  32. I’m sorry, but _Minority Report_?

    I know these things are all according to taste, but not a good example. If the original question was about the goodness of SF books turned into movies, this is a clear example of a /bad/ adaptation.

    I mean, they subverted the freaking ending so it was completely opposite of the text. The whole point of the minority report was whether it was accurate or truthful, and the film coerced that into the usual hackneyed story about corruption uncovered at the last moment so our hero can save the day.

    Not exactly what the author intended in his rather ironic story. He was obviously intending to tell a story that was at odds with that sort of hero story.

    And what the heck was that whole “I’ve been blinded by someone who clearly wants to kill me, but instead he’ll let me eat rotten milk” section in the middle? Did that have a purpose?

    One of the worst film adaptations of a PKD story I’ve ever seen.

  33. But let’s remember: this isn’t really a movie, it’s a fever dream. As fever dreams go, this one fits the bill — it’ll stick to your brain long after you drag yourself, dazed, out of the theater. That’s the sort of impact Paul Verhoeven seems to like making on his audiences. No one would say he isn’t doing just that.
    Him and Lars VonTrier. (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville)

    The thing that Verhoeven does that amazes and astounds me is his genius for displaced (or at least misplaced) eroticism. Dina Meyer is a really good looking woman, but naked and in the shower *shrug* not erotic. Compared to how John describes the action-scenes… you get the point *ahem*.

    Showgirls is stuffed straight full of of sex and female nudity, but somehow it’s stunningly unsexy. I have a hard time imagining how difficult it is to make Gina Gerson unsexy. (Renny Harlin apparently took notes for Driven).

    At a party where I didn’t know many people, I ended up watching the movies that had been put on by the host “for background noise.” That turned out to be Showgirls, and then Caligula. I wouldn’t say that I was rendered impotent by this combination and duration of terribly unerotic sex, so much as things which would normally be sexy ceased to be. I wonder if that’s what it feels like to be a woman (I’m kidding! Please don’t hurt me).

  34. kat:
    “Making movies of books is a chancy business, but when you piss all over a famous childhood experience you shouldn’t be surprised when it flops.”

    Well, making sequels should work in the same way, except they generally DON’T flop, despte the best efforts of writers and directors.
    Star Wars 1,2&3
    Matrix 2&3 (not so much a childhood thing…)

  35. John – going back to your original post – #5 was laugh-out-loud funny! (‘course, after a double rum-and-coke, lots o’ stuff is funny.)

    Re: the general discussion on Starship Troopers – I’d have to say that the original book is many things, but “novel” ain’t one of them. It’s really a political diatribe, and a poster child for “unfilmable.” Verhoven made the best movie possible by skipping the politics and just filming the shoot-em-ups.

  36. John:

    True in a general sense, although in the case of Earthsea (if I remember correctly), it did very well in the ratings for SCI FI.

    Really? I was going on the IMDB user comments… I only skimmed the first five pages, though. Maybe the positive reviews were further back.

    And the SciFi channel remains to me “those people who canceled Farscape”, anyway. ;)

    Scott: Yeah, the sequels thing sucks. I’m still wondering why people go to watch the new Star Wars movies; I saw the first, and it was nowhere near good enough for me to put 5-6 hours of my life into watching the followups. Nice exploding thingies were not enough to make up for Annoying Racist Comedy Relief, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot in the movie beyond those two things.

  37. Kat: If it’s any consolation, Lucas did drop the ARCR in II and III. Granted, he replaced it with more lame-ass wooden dialog, but JarJar kept his mouth zipped and his slapstick comedy somewhere where we didn’t have to experience it. A small improvement.

  38. John — Actually, “Sentinel” isn’t credited. If 2001 were an adaptation, it would have been credited “Story by Arthur C Clarke”. Since no characters, no schenes, and no events, but just a basic idea, come from the short story, I’m not sure you’ve got your own facts straight.

  39. DAMN! I thought I got a hit from the bigguy, no sweat, John H. is enough. Thanks John H. (I read the posts, not the attributions general, and I screwed up)

    Starship Troopers the movie was a complete defilement of the book. If you don’t know a single friggen thing about sci-fi fiction novels, then you might enjoy the movie, if you read the book and liked the movie, you have SERIOUS issues within yourself.

    However, I think that I owe Starship Troopers a debt of grattitude. NEVER will I be coaxed into seeing a crappy hack flick that is titled after a book. NEVER, unless it is a crapy hack book in the first place (oddly I thought queen of the damned though packed with horrible acting was a good flick, GOOD, not actually good, good as in entertaining, but it’s hard to do anything but improve on rices chapter long love scenes desguised as interaction) I owe that to Starship Troopers.

    “Dune” I thought was GREAT! I don’t know why, that sort of lazy filming did a good thing for me, I know it is just my own taste, but the original dune was OUTRAGEOUSLY over the top in it’s “interpretation” there are a lot of problems with it, but the CONCEPT stayed true, though all of the easy arguments were destroyed.

    “wierding” isn’t yelling at a modified phaser, but muad dhib was still muad dhib. stuff like that. Dune, as laborious as it is, is FAR better than Starship Troopers.

    Random, last act of the night.

    Rest well. :)

  40. Huh.

    I consider Dune and Battlefield Earth were both opposite examples of lit adaptations.

    The film Dune was rather better than the book (or at least more readable–I found I could at least finish the movie anyway), and Battlefield Earth sort of struck me as a perfect correlation to the book: equally terrible in _two_ different media.

  41. John,

    Off topic a bit, but, can you speculate on how you would adapt OMW to the screen. I know, your not a screen writer, but you’ve mention aspirations in that area, so you must have thought about it. Rather than throw in my two cents, I’d just like to hear your ideas.

  42. Charles Martin:

    “John — Actually, ‘Sentinel’ isn’t credited… I’m not sure you’ve got your own facts straight.”

    You know, leaving aside the fact I’ve been a professional film critic for a decade and a half and that I very recently spent a year actively researching the history of science fiction film for a book on the subject and therefore might in myself be reasonably considered an authority on the subject of science fiction film, let’s just say that if I don’t have my own facts straight on this one, neither does the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, the Guardian newspaper, or, for that matter, the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation. And Arthur C. Clarke himself would be wrong, too:

    Stork: How many of the ideas came from you? How many came from him? What was the working relationship on the script?

    Clarke: After more than a quarter of a century its hard for me to remember who decided what. I’m sure of one thing though, the title 2001, was Stanley’s. And I still don’t know whether he realized, which I didn’t at the time, that 2001 was the first year of the new century and the new millennium. We began by selecting about six of my short stories which I thought might have material that we could use. But in fact we only used one of them, “The Sentinel” which was about the discovery of an alien artifact on the moon.

    And so, on further review, I hope that you’ll agree that yes, indeed, my facts are straight.

    I’ll further note that aside from the Britannica link, all the links above noting this fact were easily Googleable. Isn’t the information age wonderful.

    And no, it’s not too much to ask people to do a little basic research on a subject before they come over and openly wonder if I “have my facts straight,” because you know what? I don’t like the implication that I am either ignorant or a liar, particularly in an area in which I’ve been working professionally for fifteen years. If you’re going to suggest I am ignorant or a liar (or, less malignantly, merely mistaken) in such an area, it’s best to come with information bolstering your argument, because otherwise — quite clearly — I’m going to get pissy about it.

  43. To me, the best book to movie adaptation was Watership Down. One of the few films ever to capture the magic and the theme of the novel without cutting too much.

    And it had just as much death and gore as any non animated feature as well as political lectures on communism and military facism. The way the Efrafa warren gave up up all it’s freedoms for security under Woundwort is particularly relevant today and comes across just as clearly in the film as the book. Not bad for a story about a bunch of rabbits:o)

  44. “wierding” isn’t yelling at a modified phaser, but muad dhib was still muad dhib. stuff like that. Dune, as laborious as it is, is FAR better than Starship Troopers.

    It’s funny… I never fully appreciated David Lynch’s Dune until I saw the Sci-Fi Network “hyper-fidelity, scene for scene” Dune. All of a sudden I was struck with how much more clearly Lynch understood the novel than the people who made the mini-series…
    Fremen… in the open desert… without stillsuits… to watch the sunset. *pop*

  45. I thought the SCI-FI Dune series was okay, myself, although it had some deficiencies and I think ultimately was not more compelling than the Lynch movie. I don’t like the Lynch movie, but it’s certainly ambitious in a lot of interesting ways.

  46. SciFi’s DUNE: right, I remember that now. I recall enjoying it when I watched it, but didn’t retain much (if anything) from it.

    In contrast, Lynch’s Dune has stuck with me since 1989. (And I love forced-perspective VFX. Also, it has one of Carlo Rambaldi’s finest–by far–puppets. Oh, and some very early CG!)

  47. Starship Troopers: at first, I didn’t like. But’s grown on me. And I think we see very little of the book in the film because, originally, the book had nothing to do with the movie.

    Actually, it’s one of the better Verhoeven movies, I think.

    Man. If I saw what my future self would be doing back in 1999, I would have gone forward in time and just killed myself.

    Weird.

  48. Hi.
    So how come you don’t mention what may be the finest SciFi film of what may be the finest SciFi novel? I mean, of course, A Clockwork Orange. I think your suggestion that the best novels can’t make the best films can be refuted by a sufficient number of examples. Eg while it’s true that Gone With the Wind is a far better (Civil War) film than novel, Cold Mountain is a great film of a great (Civil War) novel. So is The Red Badge of Courage. And it’s not only novels with lots of action that film well. I thought Emma Thompson’s adaption of Sense and SEnsibility was a great film. I’m told by Bengali-speakers that Pather Panchali is a great novel.
    Coming back to ACO, I think it falls into a small and distinguished class of SciFi that people who aren’t into SciFi as a genre can enjoy seeing/reading. Other titles in this class include Brave New World and The Space Merchants (but emphatically not 2001). Anyone else agree?

  49. John Wilson:

    “So how come you don’t mention what may be the finest SciFi film of what may be the finest SciFi novel?”

    Um, because I’m not obliged to note every single possible iteration of an example when I choose to make my point?

    I happen to agree the movie adaptation is excellent, although Anthony Burgess hated it.

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