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.

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

  1. Additional notes I didn’t want to put in the body of the entry:

    1. For the record, it is fine that this fellow thinks it would make a better series than a movie, even if he misdiagnoses the reason I optioned it for a film. People are allowed to have their opinions, and this one is fairly benign. I expect that some of you might think it would be better as a TV series, and that’s fine too.

    2. Although, since it’s currently optioned as a movie, not a series, you’re kinda out of luck about that, sorry.

    3. As a more general comment, I think the “desperation” assessment, while inaccurate in my specific case, is also probably wide of the mark in the case of most writers who do get options. I know lots of authors, and in my experience of them, very very few were so desperate for either Hollywood money or adulation that they uncritically optioned their work (there are rather more who optioned their work poorly, due to lack of knowledge, or fear that they’d not get another offer, but that’s a separate issue). Nearly every writer I know who options does so in a considered fashion as best they can. So I chalk up the “desperation” comment to lack of understanding about how this stuff works on the ground.

    4. Likewise, the blog writer discounts another author’s positive comments about an adaption the blogger didn’t think was particularly good, which I think also shows some inexperience. One, as a practical matter, it’s foolish to badmouth a movie or series made from your work while it’s still active, even if you dislike it, because a) it might end up being successful, and then you look not only like an asshole, but ungrateful and wrong; b) if you get a reputation as an asshole to the people adapting your work, you make it harder to get other things adapted. We already have one Alan Moore, folks. He’s a legend who can get away with it. You very probably cannot.

    Two, even a bad adaptation can still help you sell lots and lots of books, and the follow-on book sales are ultimately where authors are probably going to make most of the money from the adaption (it’s a rare author who gets gross points). If someone made a terrible adaptation of one of my books and as a result I sold a million more copies of that book than I would otherwise, you know what? Imma say good things about it, too.

  2. Eh, could go either way. I do not feel strongly.

    The one concern I’d have is that I don’t think I want to see Lock In filmed unless it’s done “Hardcore Henry” style through Chris’s literal viewpoint. Of course it’s not up to me, though.

  3. Dunno. Also “dunno” will be the answer to just about every question about the OMW movie at this point other than “is it optioned” (yes) and “are you happy with everything so far” (also yes). Mind you, the other possible answer aside from “dunno” is “can’t say.” Because, uuuuuuhhhh, I can’t say lots of stuff.

  4. Moving a story from one medium to another is really hard! That’s why I get so excited when I see it done well. Best one ever, in my opinion, is Fun Home. From a graphic novel to a Broadway musical? Actually, yes. I had my doubts, but it works beautifully

    I guess my point is the quality of the transformation is more important than the medium into which it is transformed.

  5. “101 uses for a dead goat” as a Broadway musical? Sign me up!!

    Things change from book to movie to TV, if it looks good, is fun,and doesn’t completely brutalize the source material, I’m fine with it.

  6. How does optioning work, technically speaking? Is it basically just a straightforward contract negotiation, or are there stages where you get to be involved in the production process?

    Also, I too would prefer OMW to be a TV series, but that’s because I think it’s a cool universe (technically multiverse, considering how skipping works) and I want to spend more time in it than a couple movies can give me.

  7. I tjhink I could enjoy seeing OMW as either a movie or a series, if it was well done. Given the small proportion pof option’ed works that are actually produced, and the even smaller proportion that are done well, I’m not holding my breath. Books would do just fine, thanks.

    John wrote above that “…as a practical matter, it’s foolish to badmouth a movie or series made from your work while it’s still active, even if you dislike it,…”

    I think that is true only in limited circumstances. When a movie or series is seriously untrue to the parent work, and perhaps even harms it, an author can and perhaps should write critically of it. The case in my mind is the comments by Ursula Lwguin on the movie adaptation of her Earthsea books. See https://web.archive.org/web/20041127070008/http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Earthsea.html In particular her comment “I can only admire Mr Halmi’s imagination, but I wish he’d left mine alone. ” and her related comments on the subject of “belief” as the key division between groups in Eathses in the film (but not in the books) are IMO quite well taken, When this sort of issue arises, “badmouthing” is almost required it seems to me. One hopes this is rare, although I can think of other examples. Tolkien’s comments on the Ralph Bakshi version of the Lord of the Rings comes to mind.

  8. I think one of the more successful movie adaptations of a popular book was Red October. They told the same basic story, they incorporated the important points from the book (even to the first officer dying at the end) and while there were things cut, they were mostly internal monologue kinds of things.

    In SFF, I think Fellowship Of The Ring was also quite successful. They cut the Tom Bombadil excursion and you know what? That was fine since it was always a funny little side piece with no real consequence for the rest of the series. They also cut the council meeting where they debated what to do with the Ring and which provides a rationale for why it must go to Mordor… I was less fine with that since I thought the rationale might have helped people who’d never read the book… but again, that’s a nitpick. The film did capture the book and brought it to life very well.

  9. Series tend toward padding; movies tend toward streamlining. Either can be good or bad depending on the source and the skill of the adapters. I look forward to (hopefully) seeing this project *happen* in whichever form it takes.

  10. I didn’t realise OMW was currently in its third iteration as an adaptation. I’d be curious to know how the various treatments have dealt with, well, the fact that everyone in the book is, you know… green?

  11. Actually, given that this is the third optioning, were John desperate for money, his best bet would be to hope this one fails, so he can keep optioning it ad infinitum. After all, making a movie is no guarantee of any future income; optioning, re-optioning, and re-re-optioning might be a more viable business model!

    /s in case anyone is wondering.

  12. I really enjoy adaptation as it’s own creative skill. I’ve taken part in some fan-fic adaptation (adapting a written work for a theoretical TV series) and it is delightful and challenging and frustrating lining up a long story into a series of episodes, each of which has to individually fit the mold of a 3 or 5 act episode on its own as well as fitting in to a season arc as well as (for an older work) increasing the diversity of the roles as well as so many other challenges. It’s easy to go wrong, and “slavishly following the source material” is the easiest way to go wrong.

  13. Books are books, movies are movies, TV series are TV series… I loved OMW but have no idea as to what I would think of the outshoots… I hope I would love it, but who knows??? I also hope I get the chance to find out.

  14. I can only surmise that perhaps the blogger wanted a series over a movie because a series may ultimately be longer.

    Either way, I know I would love to see OMW on the screen, and the same wiht Lock In, Collapsing Empire and, perhaps most especially, Redshirts and Little Fuzze (gee, what a mashup THOSE TWO would be!).

    Either/or, best wishes that, eventually the screen adaptation DOES happen (even if it’s just a screen adaptation of your latest laundry list…)

  15. While I was still (barely) a teenager, I paid for, and sat through, a shockingly awful adaptation of a SF novel I’d enjoyed.* Ever since, I’ve been skittish about movie adaptations – but I gather that for the majority of its audience, it was fairly well regarded, at least for a while; of course, they had no idea how thoroughly the novel had been trashed. The studios’ goal is to bring in that wider audience more than to please readers who enjoyed the source material.

    *Logan’s Run (1976).

  16. I’m good with movie.

    Then a series based on the movie.

    Then a Broadway musical.

    Then a remake.

  17. Lee Kelly. Avatar worked with everyone being blue. If they wanted to avoid unfair comparisons to Avatar, they could just ignore the pigmentation.

    In The Expanse, they have mostly ignored the visible differences between Belters, Earthers, and Martians.

  18. Movie or series isn’t really a problem with any work. What makes a Very Fine Movie or a Very Fine Series is a Very Fine Story Teller combined with a Very Fine Cinematographer. Given any source material, that combination can be successful.

  19. “‘yeah, I see where they made changes and why, but they still kept the heart of the story.'”
    We all hope for this, but when has it ever actually happened?

  20. OMW was somewhat short, and felt like the world-building to put a bunch of stories in, and you wrote a bunch of stories in it, which to me feels like a TV series, but if it turns out to be a movie with room for sequels, cool. Just – please don’t let them put Jar-Jar in the prequel?

  21. I hope they do a good job of casting John Perry. In the Jack Reached movies they cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher,who I have to admit did a good job with it, but he is patently not Jack Reacher. Jack Reached is blond, over six feet tall, and built like a brick outhouse. Tom Cruise is – not. A

  22. The canonical example of Doing The Whole Book on video is the Colin Firth version of “Pride And Prejudice.” Which took six hours for a SHORT novel, and still didn’t get everything.

  23. The “concern” I have is not if “Old Man’s War” should be made into a book or a movie but can you, in fact, separate this one book from the entire series? Maybe I’m greatly influenced by the simple fact that I came across an UNBELIEVABLE deal on the 6-part box set (sorry dude but I really ripped you off!) and proceeded to rap/bidly read them in succession with nary a break. In my own mind then – despite its dark and twisty corners and chasm-like blank areas – I can’t separate ‘Old Man’s War’ from ‘The End of All Things’ without losing something of one and all of them. It is for me nothing less than a significant sci-fi canon of a continuous tale of redemption, loss and ultimately triumph of a universe full of living, loving and often rather bizarre beings!

  24. what are there … 5 books plus a bunch of shorties (really enjoyed the one you released in episodes) .. set in the OMW’s universe?

    could do a nice pilot followed by several seasons of episodes ala ‘The Expanse’. My preferred way to watch ‘adaptations’ but that’s just me.

  25. Sometimes, I think that a movie works best to tell a story. It has a beginning, middle and end and leaves you satisfied if done well. Like rereading a favorite book, rewatching a favorite movie can provide a satisfying comfort. I’m not a fanatic, I go to the movies for entertainment but I am most satisfied when the movie hews close to the storyline.
    A series may well pervert the story with the need to come up with additional plot material that may or may not be suggested by the original book.
    Having said all that, I would settle for a limited series to allow the story to be told completely without being compressed into a 2-3 hour movie.

  26. Well, good novel means the translation to movie could be great or suck. Same with translating to a series.

    Just look at movie reboots where the original was great and the reboot sucked. Same story, one sucked, one was great. Willy Wonka with Gene Wilder: great. With Johnny Depp: uh weird.

    So definitely go with whatever deal is with people you trust and feel good about their past work, not whether its movie or series.

    The first few chapters of old mans war could be compressed into something like the vingette at the beginning of “Up”. I mean 60 years compressed down into maybe 5 minutes, and every time I watch it in “Up” I get choked up.

    Maybe take out some of the Mary Sue stuff about John. Sorry, but a copywriter isnt going to outstrategize a military general, like John did in the boot camp scene. That rang of the “children are better than adults” nonsense in Enders Game.

    Star Wars ep 4 gives luke one quick scene of training with a lightsaber, and his piloting skills were backstory. Show dont tell sometimes is the wrong advice.

    So with the right amount of compression, the novel could definitely work as a single movie.

  27. It’s like when people were worried about the Lord of the Rings movies and whether they’d be faithful to the books and all I could do was roll my eyes. Movies 100% faithful to the books would require three more movies and lots and lots of very dry and boring scenes to watch. The movies were a good telling of the tale, if not an great retelling of the books.

  28. Several people have mentioned that a possible problem with a series based on the book is that there would be a temptation to add material to the story that the series tells. A series that takes that ‘up to 11’ could be quite interesting, a ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’/’Redshirts’ approach, in which all of the series is about things that happen ‘off camera’ in ‘Old Man’s War’ – an exploration of the universe limited only by the necessity of explicitly not contradicting anything in the books.

  29. Saith Michae:

    > Jack Reacher is blond, over six feet tall, and built like a brick outhouse. Tom Cruise is – not.

    The narrator of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is an Irish kid with “a mop of carroty red hair.” Morgan Freeman is – not. That’s why they call it an “adaptation”…

  30. Chris: “when people were worried about the Lord of the Rings movies and whether they’d be faithful to the books and all I could do was roll my eyes.”

    Farimir got fucked over in the movie, though. And absolutely nothing they did to him in the movie was an improvement from the novel.

    dg: “narrator of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is an Irish kid with “a mop of carroty red hair.” Morgan Freeman is – not. That’s why they call it an “adaptation””

    Yeah, but the narrator in shawshank doesnt need to beat the shit out of people he runs into. Jack Reacher’s character is defined by that. And Tom Cruise is a a 5’7″ 170lbs pipsqueak.

    It would be like having Chewbacca played by Warwick Davis. The “pull the arms off a gundark” line wouldnt make any sense.

  31. I think some of the concern is that there’s been quite a few bad adaptions of sci-fi that were clearly crunched to fit a movie’s timeframe to their detriment, including several the author publicly supported (hello, The Golden Compass). Though…perhaps I should say “at least claimed to support”-your point about authors generally not wanting to crap on adaptations is well taken. Still, the recent move has been to adapt sci-fi/fantasy into a longer series to avoid it being overstuffed. So I will say I’m a bit surprised that “movie” is the direction this went rather than series, but it sounds like you have a good amount of input, which feels generally preferable to…well, not…and are satisfied with the direction.

    Helps that it’s being done by Netflix, who don’t need to worry about runtime (hello, The Irishman!) quite as much as a traditional studio and won’t feel compelled to cut things out to get below some runtime in order to play an extra time per day per screen.

    This was a admittedly rather meandering way to say: Yay, it’s still being made, the author is on board, this works for me!

    Also, seconding Robert; a stage musical with songs by Coulton would be fantastic.

  32. Some authors have had great luck with adaptations. All of the various projects based on Joe Lansdale’s books and stories have managed to stay true to the intended themes. Stephen Kings stories have been all over the place. Just as long as we don’t get The Postman, cause that was an abomination. Most of the time the movies are just OK

  33. John, could you maybe go a little bit into how options operate? It’s a term I’ve heard a lot, but I don’t know how they work. I kind of assume someone contacts your agent and says “Hey, we want to make a movie (TV series/Broadway show/ballet) based on this book!” so they give you money but they have to actually make the work within a specific amount of time (and then give you more money?) or else the option expires and you can shop it around to someone else. Am I at least sort of correct?

  34. As for adapting for moving pictures, regardless of frame rate, there was a book my college writing classmates passed around back in 1995-ish, to the point that the teacher we borrowed it from got annoyed at how beat up it was. Since I had zero intention of writing screen scripts, I have long forgotten the author and title. Sorry.

    The author took a classic French short story and challenged the student-reader to adapt it for screen. With due respect to French literature classics, certain changes were no-brainers and unavoidable. The change I still remember: Having an antagonist for the hero to struggle against. The classic had worked fine with speaking parts for only the hero and a helpful prostitute.

    As regards the “film vs TV series dichotomy being pretty much a false one” I suppose that was pioneered in Britain and Japan: At my local anime convention, TV cartoon series are shown more than movies. (Made to be shown in order, with a pre-planned number of episodes leading to a conclusive, perhaps tragic, perhaps weepy, ending—as Babylon-5 was conceived to be, until the suits lost their nerve)

  35. Curious about the mechanics of these sorts of option deals. Specifically, Does Netflix have all the rights or just the movie rights to Old Man’s War. In other words, could, say, HBO buy the TV series rights to Old Man’s War right now, or is it more of a blanket option.

  36. I think Redshirts would work better for a Broadway musical and be downright awesome. Just think of the anguished songs as they start to realize what’s going on!

    Of course, the Collapsing Universe series would also be good – just imagine Kiva’s songs. :)

  37. Wishing you all the best, John, although when my Genie shows up and let’s me wish for a single SF property to get made into a series (preferably by the FarScape team), I’m going with Barrayar. No offense, but as exciting as OWM is, it just can’t compete in the decapitation category.

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