Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 2

September 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2016

Yesterday, I took a quick survey of the number of feature films based on the work of several different science fiction grand masters, taking into account some of their TV adaptations as well. Now, I conclude that all of the stuff I wrote about adds up to…

Well, not very much, I guess.

The truth is that numerous factors make it difficult to adapt many of these novels and stories properly. For one thing, to be blunt, some of the science fiction grand masters’ writing just isn’t very good. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to single out two, were not exactly known for their lively characterizations.

Moreover, much of the grand masters’ work offers little in the way of cultural and sexual diversity. This is especially true of the oldest stories by the oldest writers. (A notable exception is Ursula K. Le Guin’s many explorations into radically different future societies.)

Also, many of the concepts in these stories are extremely challenging to portray on screen with any depth. 2001: A Space Odyssey is highly acclaimed, but it is also glacially paced; its running time is just shy of two and a half hours, and long stretches of the film are entirely or nearly devoid of dialogue. As for what exactly happens at the end of Kubrick’s movie, well, that’s pretty opaque. Blade Runner diverges radically from Philip K. Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; consequently, the movie explores different themes than the ones Dick invoked. And how exactly does one explain the mind-bending science of, say, a black hole without getting something that comes out a little bit silly, like this scene from Event Horizon?

Moreover, for many years, special effects simply weren’t good enough to convey in convincing fashion the wondrous, exotic sights that the grand masters were trying to conjure. That’s much easier to do now, with the advent of computer-generated imagery — although it still takes time, money, talent and effort to make CGI look really good.

There is, of course, plenty of good material to be mined. I think Andre Norton’s Solar Queen series, about the interstellar adventures of independent traders, would be a terrific basis for movies or TV. Robert Silverberg has written numerous novels that might make for fun and/or interesting movies; that’s true too of Le Guin and perhaps even more so of Isaac Asimov, whose related Robot and Foundation sagas could make for some truly epic movies. I also believe that Frederick Pohl’s Gateway books and stories could be the launching point for terrific adventures.

I’m not nearly as familiar with the writing of many of the other science fiction grand masters who I named yesterday, but surely there are more intriguing tales that have yet to be adapted for the cinema and TV.

I started writing this two-part post in an effort to evaluate Robert Heinlein’s legacy as a science fiction writer, at least when it came to popular culture in the form of movies. I set out to argue that his impact fell far short of his literary reputation, but I actually came to a somewhat contradictory conclusion: that literary merit or impact has very little relation to results in the film and TV world. In other words, Heinlein would have little reason to hang his head if he were comparing the scope and success of his screen adaptations to those of his fellow masters.

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