Thursday, 19 February 2009

From Page to Screen

There has been some discussion of late in the blogosphere about film adaptations of science fiction novels. Everyone has a favourite they'd like to see on the silver screen, but it's a process that usually results in failures. After all, how many good, faithful film adaptations of sf novels are there?

David Lynch's version of Frank Herbert's Dune was a bit of a mess. Stanisław Lem wasn't happy with Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation of his Solaris. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner doesn't actually bear much resemblance to Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. There are notable differences between François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - not that Truffaut's film was all that successful. And Paul Verhoeven deservedly took the piss out of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, although that didn't go down too well with many sf fans (myself not included).

And those are films I happen to think are very good.

The quality of the original novel is almost immaterial to the quality of the film adaptation. Yes, a good novel can make a good film, such as A Clockwork Orange. But even a dull novel can make a good film, like The Children of Men.

If there's one common factor to successful adaptations, it's that they take great liberties with their source texts. Faithfulness simply doesn't work. Which makes you wonder why anyone would want to see their favourite sf novel on the silver screen. Because the end result won't bear much resemblance to the book. I like David Cronenberg's films of JG Ballard's Crash and William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch - both "unfilmable" novels - but they're more like addenda to the novels than adaptations of them.

So when people put forward sf novels they think will make good films - as io9 has done here - it's axiomatic that most choices won't make the transition unchanged. Or appear in any form much resembling the source text. It's not just the size of the story; a 600-page novel can't be squeezed into 120 minutes. It's also the structure. Films have three acts - it's the ruling story paradigm in Hollywood. A novel's story has to be twisted and bent to fit this. A movie also demands a romantic subplot. And clear character arcs - very clear character arcs, because there's not going to be much room for deep characterisation. The story also has to have strong narrative impetus, because it needs to keep bums on seats.

With these factors in mind, here is my list, in no particular order, of five science fiction novels which I think will make entertaining films.

Ringworld, Larry Niven
The setting itself is impressive enough. The sheer scale of the ringworld will keep people watching. But there's also a very simple story buried in the novel, and it lends itself well to adaptation: Louis Wu and his comrades crash on the ringworld, and then they manage to escape. This can easily be slimmed down to 120 minutes. Throw in the romantic subplot between Louis and Teela Brown, and you have perfect adaptation material.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
This novel is essentially The Count of Monte Cristo in space, and they've made plenty of film adaptations of Dumas' book. It has everything you need for a good movie - an arresting opening sequence (Gully Foyle left to die on a wrecked spaceship), Gully Foyle's character arc, arresting visuals (the burning man), and romance (Foyle and Olivia Presteign).

The Undercover Aliens, AE van Vogt
This is one of my favourite novels, and one of the reasons I like it so much is because it has such great cinematic potential. It's certainly not one of van Vogt's best novels. It's an appealing mix of California noir and pulp sf, although the plot is just plain silly. A small town lawyer, Allison Stephens, stumbles across a conspiracy run by a group of people centred around the big house owned by the family which founded the town. These people turn out to be immortals - a gift from a robot ship which has beeen buried beneath the house for millennia. Stephens' first introduction to the group is via the beautiful Mistra Lanett - so there's your romantic subplot. Throw in a penthouse apartment which turns into a spaceship and the mystery surrounding the identity of the late family patriarch's nephew, and you have perfect film fodder...

The Santaroga Barrier, Frank Herbert
Like The Undercover Aliens, this is another sf novel set in a small town in which all is not as it appears. In this case, a psychologist is sent to Santaroga to find out why its inhabitants appear to be immune to marketing and advertising. There's the conspiracy running the town to unravel, several attempts are made to kill the hero, and he runs across an old flame and rekindles their romance. No great visuals, perhaps, but then there weren't any in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Equator, Brian Aldiss
This is essentially a spy story tricked out as science fiction. It opens with a secret raid on an alien base on the Moon, but ends in the jungles of Malaysia. The opening alone should keep the audience glued to their seats. But when the raid goes wrong, and the hero has to figure out what happened... There is, of course, a romantic subplot. The aliens are humanoid, but different enough to stand out; and the final scene takes place at an enormous automated pumping station. It's also a short novel, so there's no need to leave great swathes of the story on the cutting-room floor.

Looking at the books I've chosen probably says quite a bit about the sort of films I like. None of the above require huge amounts of special effects. But then films dominated by special effects often suffer in other areas. Like story. And acting. And direction.

Yes, there are many spectacular scenes and/or artefacts from sf novels I'd like to see on the silver screen. But. Either the stories would lose so much in adaptation I see little point in trying. Or there's not enough story there in the first place. I'd love to see the eponymous alien artefact in Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, but there's no real story in the novel. A team explores Rama. They fail to discover who built it. Or why. Rama leaves the Solar system. The End. If Rendezvous With Rama ever does appear in the cinema, that story won't survive the transition. At least the five novels I've chosen above stand some chance of being faithfully adapted. Mostly.


gary gibson said...

Rama could work just fine by tacking on an explanation, which a good director and screenwriting team could come up with. Leaving it as a mystery works fine in the book, but for a relatively commercial movie something else might be required, unless someone like Soderbergh or Aaronofsky got to produce or direct. Plus, shortening the title to just 'Rama' would look good on a poster. Like I said in a previous comment I think the idea of Rama the book far exceeds the execution, so I don't care if the story gets hacked about a la Bladerunner for the sake of a more filmic narrative. But yes, if done right, it could be a great movie.

I always thought Zelazny's Damnation Alley (ignoring the stunningly lamentable Seventies version I only distantly remember) was the greatest Kurt Russell/John Carpenter collaboration never made. 'My name's Tanner. Hell Tanner.' Oh yeah.

Ian Sales said...

If you rip out the central premise or BDO, and build a story around that, then how is it an adaptation of the book? Isn't that what happened to I, Robot? (Admittedly, that was a short story, not a novel.)

Rojse said...

I've only read "The Stars My Destination" and "Ringworld", but all of your selections sound like they could be made into decent SF movies, if some care and effort was put into them.

If I was going to add to that list, I would put in "The Demolished Man", much for the same reasons as you nominated The Stars My Destination.