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)