Why, Yes, In Fact, Old Man’s War Could Make a Very Fine Movie

This morning I came across this blog post, by a fellow who read Old Man’s War and loved it, which is lovely, and then discovered that it’s been optioned as a movie and thinks this is a mistake, that it should be a series instead, which, meh. He also determines that the reason I optioned it for a film is that I must be desperate for the sweet love and adoration of Hollywood. Which, lol, no.

So, let me talk about this for a second, and why, in fact, I believe that Old Man’s War could make a very fine movie.

To begin, and as background, let’s recall that Old Man’s War has been under option before, both as a movie and as a television series, the former at Paramount and the latter at Syfy/UCP. It’s now at Netflix as a movie rather than a series. In both of the previous cases people spent time and money developing them and commissioning scripts and trying to get them done, and it just didn’t happen.

Why not? Because sometimes in Hollywood (read: nearly always) it just doesn’t happen, and that’s just the way it goes. Currently things are coming along nicely at Netflix, and I’m (reasonably) optimistic about the state of things — but it still might not happen, because, again, that’s just the way it is. If it doesn’t happen this time then we’ll send the property out there again. Then maybe someone else will option it, either as a movie or as a television series, depending on their particular interest and also what they think can get made, and the whole dizzy ride will start over again.

Given the history of the property, in fact this fellow already got his wish: I did option it as a series. And to be clear, when I did, I was no more or less desperate then, than I was this time, when it was optioned as a film. It just… didn’t get made. When the next people who wanted to option it came around, they wanted to make it into a film rather than as a series. I thought that was fine and I let them.

Why did I let them? In no particular order:

1. Because I liked the people who were involved (both personally and as business people) and thought they could do a creditable job with it;

2. Because the terms and conditions of the option deal were congenial to my own plans and interests;

3. Because I like money and lots of it;

4. Because I strongly believe there’s a way to make a very fine movie from Old Man’s War.

And I do, although I will note (and perhaps this is to this fellow’s point) that a two-hour movie will not cram the entire complexity of the novel I wrote into its 120-minute running time. I mean, to be bluntly honest, a two-hour movie could get a lot of it — Old Man’s War’s plot and prose are neither dense nor intricate, and the book itself is written in a three-act structure which (theoretically at least) should make it super-easy to turn into a movie script. It ain’t Foucault’s Pendulum. But inevitably not all the book will make it into the movie.

And that’s fine, and as it turns out, necessary. Movies are not books. Movies are adaptations of books, for another medium entirely. When filmmakers try to make their movies simply a “faithful” version of the book that runs at 24 frames a second, the results (speaking as a former full-time professional film critic) tend to be dreadful more often than not. I don’t want a movie of Old Man’s War that’s a retread of what I’ve already done in the book. What I want is an adaptation and interpretation of what I’ve written that’s interesting and exciting, and is faithful to the idea and feel of the universe I created. What I want is a movie that people who loved the book can watch and say “yeah, I see where they made changes and why, but they still kept the heart of the story.” That can absolutely be done. To the extent I’m involved with the production, preserving that heart is what I see my role as being, even as changes, deletions and additions necessarily come about.

But if you did a series, you wouldn’t have to cut anything and you could still keep the heart of it! Oh, my sweet summer child. Just because a TV series is longer doesn’t mean it would be any more faithful to the books, either in detail or in tone and feel. TV series aren’t books, either. They are also adaptations of a work into a different medium. Sometimes they nail it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do both, just like movies do.

(Also, you know. The movie vs TV series dichotomy is a pretty much a false one at this point in the history of entertainment. Hey, if Old Man’s War is really successful as a movie, guess what? They’ll make sequels! And those sequels can follow the books, or catch up with parts of the books that weren’t in earlier films, or go off into places the books never got to, or weren’t able to spend any time on. And because this is Netflix, maybe some stories in the universe might eventually become… TV series! Seems to me there might be precedent for movie franchises spawning TV series, and vice versa.)

Regardless of whether Old Man’s War (or any book) is made into a TV series or movie, it won’t be the book. It can’t be. If you demand that it must be, you are going to be disappointed coming and going. I can’t help you there. Fortunately, the books are the books, so no matter what happens with a movie, or TV series (or video game, or graphic novel, or Broadway musical, or whatever), you’ll always have those.

Since I neither want nor expect either a film or TV version of my work to be exactly like the books I write, I’m open to the idea that they be adapted to either — or both! — and that the result will be its own thing, separate but complementary to what the books already are. I think that’s exciting, actually. Especially since, unlike nearly all of you, I know what’s going on with the current adaptation and I’m pretty happy with it, and would be happy to see it, finally, go all the way into production. We’ll see, or we won’t. Either way, the books will still be there, and I will be fine, and not desperate.

RIP, Neil Peart

What a drummer. A dab hand with lyrics, too. He will be missed.

In memorial of his passing, my favorite Rush song. Lyrically very appropriate for the day.

New Books and ARCs, 1/10/20

A new year and a new stack of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound! What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!

The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

If you think you know the horror genre — or at least, you know the greats of the genre — then Jess Nevins has news for you: You’ve probably only scratched the bloody, screaming surface of a genre that goes back literally millennia. He’s here now to tell you what he uncovered while writing his latest book, Horror Fiction in the 20th Century.

JESS NEVINS:

Horror fiction—that is, fiction intended to frighten—is a peculiar beast. It’s as old as human popular culture—the Epic of Gilgamesh has horror elements, and the Epic is over 4,000 years old—but it’s held in low esteem by mainstream critics and readers. Horror fiction appears in every genre of literature, but attempts to create a precise definition of the horror genre have been surprisingly contentious affairs. The horror genre is universal, but what horror readers have traditionally seen is a fraction of what is out there.

It’s that latter point that struck me when I started writing Horror Fiction in the 20th Century and stuck with me throughout the book. I’ve been a horror reader all my life, but it wasn’t until I read Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s anthology, What Did Miss Darrington See? (1989), that I realized how much I’d been missing. Most of the stories in Miss Darrington are horror, written by women in the first half of the twentieth century. I was fascinated by the stories and went to the standard horror fiction reference books to learn more about the authors.

Those books were silent on these women or mentioned them only in passing. More rigorous attempts at research revealed two things: first, that there were a lot of women horror writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, far more than I’d ever heard of; second, that these women were—through critical ignorance, happenstance, or deliberate action—written out of histories of the horror genre, despite the quality of the women’s work and their significance to the genre.

Discovering this vast array of ignored writers was like a spelunker squeezing through a tight crack in a cave wall and discovering a mammoth cave system, missing from all maps, stretching out for miles in every direction. My Big Idea was to explore the far reaches of the cave system and cover it all in detail—to write a history of the modern horror genre that included everyone important, not just the authors and works that appear in the standard histories.

Sometimes I have the outlines of a book firmly in my mind from the beginning, and can write the book within those outlines. Horror Fiction in the 20th Century wasn’t like that. Every cave I entered had further tunnels to crawl through. There were female authors of horror fiction to be considered, but also women who were known as mainstream writers but who occasionally dabbled in horror, with excellent results. African-American literature had its share of works of horror, as did Latinx literature, and Native American literature, and Australian Aboriginal literature, and LGBT literature, and all of those needed to be included. A number of the Gothic Romances of the 1960s and 1970s were written to frighten. I could not ignore horror fiction in comic books and roleplaying game fiction and Young Adult fiction. And there were many horror writers who produced sustained excellent work, but through no fault of their own are now completely forgotten. They, too, deserved a place in my book.

Most of all, there were the horror writers from outside the Anglophone world. Of whom there were many. So many, and so few translated into English. I realized that if I was going to write a history of the horror genre in the twentieth century, I would have to include horror writers from around the world, and not just those from the United States and the United Kingdom. A lot of intense research and difficult translations followed, but in the end I was able to include the major non-Anglophone horror writers and works in my book.

Reading all these new-to-me authors and works shaped my thinking about the horror genre itself and my reactions to the standard reference works on and histories of horror fiction. Too many of them, it seemed to me, relied on received wisdom and traditional judgments to guide who would be included in the encyclopedias and histories and who would be excluded. Viewed from a twenty-first century perspective, the results were problematic: too many mediocre white male horror writers; too much space devoted to English-language horror; too much repetition of received wisdom; too much rejection of new understandings of gender, sexuality, and race; too much regurgitation of tired and discredited ideologies and biases.

I didn’t set out to write a revisionist history of horror fiction, but in some respects that’s how Horror Fiction in the 20th Century turned out. I do pay due homage to the generally-accepted greats in the genre, from Algernon Blackwood to Thomas Ligotti. But what I also do is devote significant attention to overlooked, underserved, and ignored authors, and point out where traditional critical narratives about horror fiction are misguided or incorrect. For example, I argue that H.P. Lovecraft was a popularizer more than an innovator, and the inheritor of a tradition rather than a writer without precedent. This is a revisionist argument—but one that is based on facts, inasmuch as this kind of argument can be based on facts.

The Big Idea for Horror Fiction in the 20th Century was to write a truly global history of horror, and what I hope readers take away from my book is an appreciation for the wonderful variety of the horror literature of the world. The American and English horror authors we know so well—the Ambrose Bierces and Richard Mathesons and Robert Aickmans and Caitlin Kiernans—are very good. But so are Silvina Ocampo and Jehanne Jean-Charles and Dino Buzzati and Ge Fui and Mieko Kanai. The horror genre isn’t Anglophone, isn’t something only men read and write, and isn’t limited to hoary tropes, motifs, and plot dynamics. The horror genre is global, nimble—and glorious.

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Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.