July 14, 2004
A Sci-Fi Shy Hollywood
Far-out literature, even the classics of the genre, often gets lost in a
cinematic black hole, even though galactic films are loved.
By Lewis Beale
It's not as if "I, Robot" had "cinematic" written all over it. First
published in 1950, Isaac Asimov's classic science fiction novel is a series
of interlocking short stories about the development of robot technology and
the nuances of the Three Laws of Robotics, the rules governing robot
behavior. It's visionary, to be sure, but also talky and clumsily written.
So when the film version of "I, Robot" opens Friday, don't be surprised if,
other than a reliance on the Three Laws as a plot device (the First Law says
a robot can't harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to
harm), the story bears little resemblance to Asimov's work. The film, which
stars Will Smith as a detective investigating a murder that may have been
committed by a robot, simply "takes its inspiration from Isaac Asimov's
vision of a robotic future," says co-producer John Davis.
In other words, Hollywood loves science fiction movies, but it's seriously
conflicted about science fiction books.
Of the 51 novels that have won the Hugo Award, science fiction's highest,
only two — "Dune" and "Starship Troopers" — have ever been filmed, to mixed
results. And even though 15 of the 25 top-grossing films of all time are
works of fantasy or science fiction, just seven of them are based on
previously published material (five of those are either "Lord of the Rings"
or "Harry Potter" titles, the others are "Spider-Man" and "Jurassic Park").
Still out there in limbo, either not optioned or in a development stalemate
that has lasted for decades, are classics like Robert Heinlein's "Stranger
in a Strange Land," Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," Orson
Scott Card's "Ender's Game," Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" and
William Gibson's "Neuromancer."
"I don't think Hollywood thinks of print science fiction" when it looks for
properties, says Patrick Neilsen Hayden, a senior editor at Tor Books, a
major publisher of science fiction and fantasy titles. "Hollywood is a
machine that reaches out into the culture to determine what's hot and what
they can mass market. They don't think of print science fiction at all,
because they're not tuned to that level of discrimination."
Well, sometimes they are. Certainly, Ray Bradbury has long been a cinematic
favorite. Films have been made of "The Illustrated Man," "Something Wicked
This Way Comes" and "Fahrenheit 451," and a remake of the latter is in the
works, with Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") set to direct.
Then there's Philip K. Dick, the current "it" boy of sci-fi (even though he
died in 1982), whose obsessive novels and short stories about the nature of
consciousness have been the basis for "Blade Runner," "Total Recall,"
"Minority Report" and other films. "A Scanner Darkly," the latest Dick
adaptation, starring Keanu Reeves and directed by Richard Linklater,
recently finished production and is tentatively set for a fall 2005 release.
Dick's current popularity, says author Greg Bear, stems from the fact that
most of his works are set in the present or near future, so "they're not
that expensive to make and the ideas are about paranoia and loss of self,
which have always been a Hollywood staple."
But Bradbury and Dick are simply planetoids in a very large literary
universe. When it comes to sci-fi projects, the studios seem to prefer
original visions like "The Matrix" or "Star Wars," comic book adaptations or
films based on popular video games. Literature is sucked into a black hole.
And the reasons for this have as much to do with the perils of adapting any
written material as they do the particularities of the science fiction
Novels too complex?
Simply put, "it's tough to turn a novel into a movie," says Bear, who has
had several of his futuristic works optioned but never produced. "A book
like 'Stranger in a Strange Land' is almost 200,000 words long and has a lot
of incidents in it. How do you pare that down?"
"The stories are complex," adds Bonnie Hammer, president of cable TV's Sci
Fi Channel, which has been aggressively pursuing literary properties like
"Dune" and Le Guin's "Earthsea" for adaptation as miniseries. "Because of
their complexity," she says, many of these books have stories that "often
can't unfold well in two hours."
It's also what the books themselves are about. You'd hardly know it from a
lot of what appears on screen, which tends to ape either "Star Wars" space
opera or "Alien" slime thing horror, but current literary sci-fi is
concerned with issues of race, gender, sex, religion and technology's effect
on humanity. Which is not what Hollywood seems to be interested in.
"Science fiction can be awfully abstract," says Hayden. "It's more
conceptual than filled with big colorful cinematic imagery."
"The thing that makes science fiction cinema is special effects," says
author Bruce Sterling. "People who want to make top-grossing Hollywood films
want to use sophisticated effects to produce something that looks
spectacular on the big screen. But science fiction is also about futurism,
trend-spotting and a lot of other items that are of no use to Hollywood."
'A carnival mirror'
Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter ("A Beautiful Mind") who has
co-written the "I, Robot" screenplay with Jeff Vintar, believes another
factor affecting sci-fi adaptations is that "science fiction has a tendency
to be less than conventional in terms of narrative. It holds up a carnival
mirror to ourselves and that innovation exists in the world and the
narrative structure. So when you combine an unconventional narrative with an
enormous price tag, that might not be the best idea."
It's not that these works aren't being optioned. Hayden estimates 20% of his
top titles are picked up, but almost none make it to the local multiplex.
Undoubtedly, they fall by the wayside for the same reasons thousands of
other projects do: There isn't a good screenplay, no top director or star is
attached or they're simply too expensive to produce.
And for all too many of them, there's simply a lack of brand-name
recognition. "Studios love pre-sold titles," like famous comic characters,
"because it takes the risk out of making a movie," says "Robot" producer
Davis, "and it's easier to market them."
Explanation can be 'dull'
Then there are books like the Nebula Award-winning "Ender's Game." Card's
1985 novel, about a genius child trained in high-tech war games who saves
Earth from an alien invasion, has been translated into dozens of languages,
sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and is a staple of junior and
senior high school reading lists. It has marketability to spare.
Card says that if the book, which has had steady, if not spectacular, sales
over the years, "had sold as fast as 'Harry Potter,' they would have made it
into a film that fast too." Instead, "Ender" has been optioned several times
and has been a tough sell because, says Card, "you have child protagonists
and it has technical explanation."
The project is currently at Warner Bros., with Wolfgang Peterson attached to
direct, and a finished screenplay is expected later this year for what Card
hopes will be a 2005 production date.
"The problems that have plagued 'Ender's Game' are the same that have
plagued other award-winning science fiction books," he says. "Science
fiction is set in a world contrary to our reality, so you have to have an
explanation. And explanation time on screen is unbelievably dull."
Still, the genre refuses to go away. And as long as the publishing industry
keeps pumping out speculative fiction, there is hope that some of it will
find favor with the studios.
"I think Hollywood finds a vein of ore and taps into it, and that's happened
recently with the Marvel comics [Spider-Man, X-Men etc.]," says Goldsman.
"That happened to Philip K. Dick. At a certain point, it will happen to
science fiction novels in a broader way."
Adds Tor Books' Hayden: "It seems Hollywood always lags behind print science
fiction by a generation or so, but it does seem to be progressing. The
quality of stories that Hollywood has tried to screw up recently has
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