Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 1

September 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2016

In 1975, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented its first ever Grand Master Award to the prolific Robert Heinlein, who ultimately authored 32 novels and 16 anthologies. The writer, who died in 1988, is probably best known for his novels Stranger in a Strange LandThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Starship TroopersLocus, a trade magazine for the science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing industry, named Heinlein its all-time best author in 1977, 1987, 1988, 1998 and 1999.

Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961, was a precursor to the sexual revolution and helped define the free-love hippie aesthetic; it also introduced the word grok (to understand profoundly and intuitively) into the language. Just two years ago, Heinlein was the subject of a 624-page authorized biography.

Heinlein was one of the indisputable legends of 20th-century science fiction, but he’s had surprisingly little influence on the world of movies. In the 35 years preceding his death, only a single Hollywood production was openly based on his work — 1953’s Project Moon Base. (That said, The Brain Eaters, released in 1958, was an uncredited adaptation of Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters; the author sued the producers and settled out of court, according to the invaluable Internet Movie Database.)

Since Heinlein’s death, only two major films based on his work have been made. They are 1994’s The Puppet Masters, which I quite liked when I saw it on video many years ago, and 1997’s Starship Troopers. There have also been a pair of low-budget (and I believe direct-to-video) live-action Starship Troopers sequels and one animated tie-in as well as two TV productions of note: the three-episode miniseries The Red Planet, also released in 1994, and a one-season, 41-episode animated TV series, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, which debuted in 1999. (Weirdly, at least according to IMDb and my recent viewing of Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, Heinlein appears not to have been given any credit for either of the live-action sequels.)

To be fair, Heinlein is hardly the only legendary science fiction writer to have made vanishingly little impact in Hollywood. Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) wrote more than three dozen science fiction novels (many of which were for young adults) and about that many short-story collections. But it wasn’t until 1999’s poorly received Bicentennial Man that any of his books were the basis for a big-budget Hollywood feature. That was followed in 2004 by the very loose adaptation I, Robot.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008) wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey as Stanley Kubrick was filming the seminal 1968 movie of the same name. (Kubrick’s film was actually released a few months before the book.) That’s considered to be one of the great features of all time, and yet his work has directly inspired only one other Hollywood movie — 1984’s often overlooked 2010: The Year We Make Contact. There may yet be an adaptation of Clarke’s award-winning 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama, but for now, that ranks among the great unmade science fiction movies.

Search IMDb for the names of other science fiction masters and you’ll also come up with slim pickings. Poul Anderson gets one TV or film credit of any kind; the novels and short stories of Brian Aldiss (1925–present) inspired all of three movies; Robert Silverberg (1935–present) has but a single feature movie credit — his script for the adaptation of Asimov’s Bicentennial ManFrederik Pohl (1919–2013) has one movie and four episodes from three different TV anthology series; Damon Knight (1922–2002) gets credit for a grand total of two TV episodes — one he himself wrote, and the famous Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” which was based on a Knight short story.

Stacked up against these numbers, fellow science fiction legend A.E. van Vogt’s eight writing credits, all for TV episodes or short movies, seem quite the princely amount; so too do the two movies, three TV movies, one television miniseries and one TV series pilot inspired by the novels and stories of Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–present). Andre Norton (1912–2005), one of whose novels spawned two Beastmaster movies and a three-season, 66-episode television series, seems to have made an even bigger splash in Hollywood. (Richard Scheib’s invaluable film review site notes that the Beastmaster movies are entries in the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery subgenre, although Norton’s novel is space opera.)

By way of contrast, Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) — whose writings often crossed genre boundaries into fantasy, mystery and straight-up mainstream fiction — has seen his writing adapted into multiple movies: Fahrenheit 451The Illustrated ManSomething Wicked This Way Comes (which actually was brought to the screen in both 1972 and 1983), A Sound of Thunder and Chrysalis. That’s leaving aside numerous short films that have been based on his work, as well as a handful of television movies and various TV series and episodes. (A Canadian TV anthology series that ran from 1985 through 1992 even bore Bradbury’s name.)

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982) has been even more successful, spawning 11 feature films by my count. The roster begins with the popular and critical hit Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released the year of Dick’s death, and encompasses Total RecallScreamersImpostorMinority ReportPaycheckA Scanner DarklyNextScreamers: The HuntingRadio Free Albemuth and The Adjustment Bureau. Dick’s creations are also the basis for a forthcoming Blade Runner sequel and two recent (if evidently short-lived) TV series: Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle.

All of which adds up to… well, I’ll get to that in a forthcoming post.

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