By Ryder W. Miller
The science fiction universe (especially if one is including fantasy and horror) can be vast and overwhelming. There are galaxies that have never been visited, alien civilizations who have never been contacted, and many fantasy worlds still left to explore. There are authors who we never have time to read, and classic books that we have never opened. Cinema has offered the science fiction community new ways to explore this universe, but film adaptations are filled with their own issues and problems.
For those who work in print, be they writer or critic, there may be a personal path or evolution that one takes in relation to the cinematic adaptations of science fiction works. There may be diverging paths up ahead, but some roads can be anticipated.
So Many Galaxies
The first step for many may be that film adaptations provide a way to remain gain familiarity with a larger number of books than if film adaptations of science fiction books weren’t made. I do not think I can make the time to read the whole //Harry Potter// saga, but I am happy that I will be able to get the gist of the stories on the big screen. The desire to keep abreast of all that is published is one of the selling points for these adaptations. Knowing these stories allows one to connect with a larger community.
But often fans are dissatisfied or annoyed with film adaptations of their favorite books. The films do not tell the whole story, or they tell it differently than the book. There are missing characters, and certain issues or ideas are not addressed. Sometimes the spirit of the film adaptation is different from the original. You cannot judge a book by its cover – or its film adaptation.
On the big screen we can visit Solaris, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts, but these landscapes are now parts of the action, rather than vast places full of life. Much of the appeal of Middle Earth for the reader was the outdoor setting, the connection with nature, but there is not a lot of time to commune with nature in the film adaptation because of all the action.
Science fiction film adaptations have been both exciting and spectacular. People sit at the edges of their seats while the fates of worlds are decided. Our imaginations alone cannot create all the details of the visual candy science fiction films can present on the big screen, but film adaptations sometimes present different stories than the original book.
Bladerunner takes the heart of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and adds music, action and cinematography. In Ridley Scott’s of the story version, major themes are not fully explored – or are ignored completely. In the book, Decker is married, he hopes to buy a real sheep and he goes to the desert for a spiritual communion. Bladerunner is great fun, but Philip K. Dick refused to rewrite the story for a companion book to the movie, and Dick’s original book was instead kept in print.
Bladerunner is amazing visually and musically. There are memorable and profound moments but, like many adaptations, it does not have the depth and scope of its source. Similarly, the film version of Solaris does not fully capture the intellectual nuances of Stanislaw Lem’s classic, nor does it fully capture the sense of romantic longing. And Middle Earth seems disparate in the recent film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
At some point we realize that film adaptations have given us a choice between film and books. Film is a different medium than books, with a different history and different artistic rules and constraints. After being disappointed with adaptations, you realize that if you want to converse intelligently about a book you need to read it rather than see the film.
Movies are fast paced, visual, musical, theatrical and action-filled. And movies can expand a story’s audience. As Peter Beagle noted about The Lord of the Rings, there is a shared sense of community with others who have read the work, and with the success of the movies this sense of community has grown even more. I can now talk about the tale with others who did not read the work, but might spend the time to see the movies. Books are more deeply felt. There is more room for explication in a novel. Movies are immediate and take advantage of many other art forms.
We are lucky to have both literature and the cinema, but those who are true to books have things they need to explain to the people they dragged to the film adaptation. Fans of the books are also likely to have complaints. The book will say some things differently than the movies in some situations. If there was something you wanted a friend to get from a particular story, you may have to just say it because it won’t necessarily be in the movies.
Actually it is the Novella or Novelette, in many cases, which is the better piece of literary work to adapt to film rather than the full novel. Filmmakers apparently realize the benefits of not having to be responsible for retelling a full novel. There is less of a guideline to follow in a smaller work. There is less that needs to be changed, and there are less people who can speak authoritatively about how things were changed. Whole sections needed to be removed from The Lord of the Rings, and Solaris, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Many of the new Philip K. Dick film adaptations have been based upon works in the shorter form rather than full novels.
Here the path ends for the fan. They can either decide to read only books or appreciate the offerings of both books and film adaptations. Some may decide they’re only interested in science fiction books that are adapted for the big screen. Some may only have the time for the film adaptations of certain authors. If you have seen all the films do you really know the author who wrote the books on which the films are based? Some great films have been made of Stephen King’s work, but his books were also written for the scream.
One may eventually come to the conclusion that the machinery of the film industry, with their large staffs and creative teams, want to do things their own way. They have organized the show. They have found the financing. They also have many people to answer to. And there is also always the book to go back to if one does not like the product that film industry produces. The success of a film may be enhanced by its association with a respected book or a respected writer.
Film has left the Tolkien fan with a new quandary. Should one reread the trilogy or should they just see the movies. The films only takes twelve hours, but the film watcher visits fewer places in Middle Earth and meets many less denizens there. You can see the outdoors in your mind in the books, and with all the explication in the book there is more time to enjoy it. In comparison, much of the film is occupied with warfare.
For the critic or writer interested in cinema, as opposed to someone who is content only to be a fan, there are new paths ahead.
Those Philip K. Dick Moments
For the writer of literature, film is a new medium to study and explore. One can write stories that they would like to see made into films. One can offer to write screenplays of books that have already been published. Film with a different set of values is competing with the written word. Film has provided other avenues for storytelling.
Film has provided consternation for critics, especially for the fans of the books that the films have been based upon. Writers, including journalists and critics, are reacted to, sometimes in the body of an artistic production, whether book or film. For those actively involved in criticizing the media there is sometimes this sense that you have been noticed.
Erik Davis pointed out at a Philip K. Dick presentation at Alternative Television Access in San Francisco that a key quality to Dick’s success was his ability to present a situation where a character does not know what reality is. Davis has attributed these moments in many recent films to the credit and legacy of Philip K. Dick. For the writer or critic, they may experience these moments where they do not know if the reality is that they are being reacted to in the art or the phenomena is a coincidence. Film production does not exist in a vacuum, and writers react to what surrounds them. Sometimes artists fight back against their perceived enemies of the past or the present. The fan has similar moments when a recommended film has something to say to them or about them.
I have seen things on the big screen and at the academy awards, which have made me pause. Call it synchronicity, call it coincidence, call it paranoia. There are those Philip K. Dick moments for those who work in the medium where they do not know if the message was intended for them. I wrote an article about The Lord of the Rings on the Internet, and there was a strange joke about it at The Academy Awards. I have a common last name, which has been mentioned in a number of science fiction movies including 2001, Beyond The Event Horizon, and Alien vs. Predator. They were probably referring to Walter Miller or P. Schuyler Miller or Arthur Miller. I am relieved to think so. But that is part of the magic of all writing in that it can represent one’s general experience. Fans have these moments when films are recommended, but those involved in the production and criticism of these works have extra reason to pause. One may see the depiction of this in the movie In the Mouth of Madness. I have also wondered about the books of honor chosen for Potlach 13 (Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner) and Potlach 14 (A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick). What should I do if Potlach 15 decides to pull in the fans with a work by Walter Miller or Spider Robinson in 2006?
The Bad Film Auteur
Film like drama, but unlike books, is not the kingdom of the writer. Film is the medium of a whole gang of artists including set designers, editors, actors, musicians, cinematographers, but especially the director or auteur. Writing provides the source material, but it is shaped and manufactured by those who ready the story for the movie-going audience. Philip K. Dick has been adapted widely because of the appeal of his literary questions: what is real, and what is human?
But when one brings an old story to the screen it needs to fit a new medium and a new time. Some films are redone because the message is still relevant, but the work needs to be changed in order to appeal to a modern audience. The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, can presently be adapted to tell the story of an invasion – not from Mars (which we now know is not the home to an imperialistic alien society), but from any one of the millions of other planets out there in space. A strict reproduction of the book would not work for modern audiences because it has been dated by scientific discoveries.
Also, books are sometimes inappropriate for film audiences. I doubt that most people who have read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions would be interested in bearing witness to all of its profanities at the movie theatre. A similar thing could probably be said about A.E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle, with all its sexual references early on – but it would be a timely book to adapt to the big screen.
In this time where there seems to be a breakdown in the separation of church and state in this country – especially with some of the religiosity that comes out of The White House – it would be great to see a film that reminds people of Darwin, evolution, and that we live on a small planet in a vast cosmos. Reminding people of evolution might also remind people that many species of plants and animals are being wiped off the face of our planet. There are many biologists who would love to write a screenplay about Darwin to remind the public and politicians of this, but for the science fiction fans there is also Vogt’s extrapolation.
For a screenwriter, The Voyage of the Space Beagle offers itself as a medium to explore the history of biological science and its detractors in modern times. Those who adapted The Voyage of the Space Beagle could remind us of our place in the circle of life and the universe. Being restricted to earth means we are also an endangered species. The Voyage of the Space Beagle does have its exciting and profound moments, and could provide the source material to revisit this subject.
This takes us to the end of the trail, where one is interested in pursuing projects in film, whether it is to produce a great novelette or try to get a producer to see the potential of a classic work of fiction. One may prefer to be the director or writer of a film, rather than a novelist or short story writer, in order to reach an audience that does not have the time to visit every literary galaxy out there. Books can provide the fan base to pursue film projects for those who have similar goals. Some may like a piece of literature so much that they would want to see it duplicated perfectly on the screen. Go ahead and try.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental journalist, eco-critic, and writer who produced a student documentary. He is also the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He was on a panel which discussed the film adaptations of science fiction books, especially those of Philip K. Dick, at Potlach 14. He has been published in IROSF, RAINTAXI, The Bloomsbury Review, and the San Francisco Review of Books.