Science Fiction: SF on the Screen
Whatever happened to Who? The movie, that is?
There really was such a film. Judy-Lynn del Rey, among others, saw preview screenings (she thought it stank!). Maybe the producers decided it was so bad they wouldn't release it.
If so, it would have to be really abominable—judging from the average quality of "science fiction" movies, and television shows, that do get released. Which brings us to a painful, but important subject: why are science fiction movies and shows so bad?
One might simply refer to Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of everything is crud, and point out that most movies and television shows in any genre aren't very good either. But for SF, the percentage of bad adaptations for the visual media is more like 99 percent.
In what other field can you count the good examples on your fingers, without even having to worry about toes? And while tastes may differ, it would be hard to find anyone other than a dedicated monster movie fan who could come up with more than a dozen classics.
We have some typical examples on television this year. Probably the most publicized is Planet of the Apes, which started out as a Swiftian satire by Pierre Boule, spawned a series of movies—each more ridiculous than the one before it—and has finally degenerated into pure monkey business on the tube.
We've had The Six Million Dollar Man, which is an entertaining adventure series at least—but scarcely more than that. And if you want to count it as SF (few knowledgeable fans would), there's The Night Stalker, which appears to have a short life ahead of it—how many weeks in a row can you use the same plot about vampires or werewolves in the midst of a modern city without even the most superstitious viewers giving up on the series?
In the movie field, we seem to have at least exhausted the run of giant ants, grasshoppers, lizards and the like that used to threaten mankind. The plot of the last such attempt, Night of the Lepus, was worthy of the March Hare—but apparently it didn't bring in enough lettuce to encourage a sequel. Maybe they're still exploiting the theme in Japan; if so, let's hope their next export is called Destroy All Monster Movies!
But to get back to our original question: why are SF movies and TV shows so bad? The main reasons are (a) lack of money and (b) lack of imagination.
Robert A. Heinlein once said no producer in his right mind would risk spending the amount of money it would take to make a real science fiction movie. He should know—he worked as technical advisor to Destination Moon in 1950.
Well, some producers have tried, even if they weren't in their right minds. But unlike science fiction writers, they can't count on the usual SF audience to make their investment worthwhile, which accounts, among other things, for the strange contradictions and strange reception of 2001 a few years ago.
It was called a "space odyssey," but if that was what 2001 had been it might have failed at the box office. Stanley Kubrick, who didn't believe in the rationalistic philosophy of SF in any event, turned it into an excursion into psychedelic mysticism that turned on the youth crowd and made the movie a runaway hit.
Hard-core SF critics weren't so sure it was a classic. While praising the technical perfection of the movie, for example, Lester del Rey was contemptuous of those who found the finale a "mind-blowing" experience. "It takes very little to blow some minds," he observed.
Arthur C. Clarke, whose novelization of 2001 is much clearer than the movie—and also less praised by mass-media critics—avoids trying to explain the meaning behind his collaborative screenplay with Kubrick. "All interpretations are correct," he says. But he has privately agreed it would be a nice idea if somebody filmed a "straight" version of Earthlight.
Clarke's involvement shows that putting a professional SF writer close to the production won't necessarily guarantee a good SF movie, though it has helped on occasion.
H.G. Wells, for example, wrote his own screenplay for Things to Come—and followed it up with a series of memos on subjects like costumes, sets, music and integration of theme and image. His constant interference with producers, directors and cast drove them all crazy—but Things to Come turned out to be an SF classic, and it otherwise might not have been.
Heinlein, besides being advisor and co-screenwriter for Destination Moon, had one other advantage: the director's son-in-law was a rocket engineer in San Diego, and if anyone objected to Heinlein's insistence on technical accuracy, nepotism was on his side. Twenty years earlier, Fritz Lang had enlisted the services of no less than rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth to tell him how to make Woman in the Moon.
But no amount of expert advice or money can make up for lack of imagination, as Harlan Ellison discovered when he tried to midwife a series called The Starlost, inspired by Heinlein's "Universe" and various imitations thereof.
Ellison is usually the mortal enemy of "hard" science fiction, but he had enough integrity to want to do The Starlost justice. Nobody else did, however.
He had carefully worked up an outline based on the series heroes trying to locate the lost controls of the runaway starship they were on—and not finding them until the last episode.
But before he knew it, the producers destroyed the integrity of the series by having the controls discovered in the second or third episode. Don't worry, they told Ellison—they could keep up suspense with a search for the backup controls. On questioning them, he learned they thought backup controls were what would make the starship back up!
(The Starlost, by the way, used leftover models from Silent Running—a much praised movie. Good as the models and sets were, it had suffered from such witlessness as an "ecologist" hero who never figured out until the very end that plants need sunlight!)
"Name" stars don't always help an SF movie, either—Joseph Cotten was once trapped into an unbelievably awful screen version of From the Earth to the Moon.
Occasionally, a film will turn out well seemingly by accident. Forbidden Planet was excellently done, though the theme was basically more Shakespearean than science fictional, and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos was brilliantly adapted as Village of the Damned. Neither SF writers nor technical experts were involved in either case—it was just a matter of thorough professionalism by those involved. Producers, directors, writers and cast simply used their own intelligence.
In contrast to such intelligent films, the term "mindless" seems almost too mild for exploitations of current fads like Wild in the Streets, appeals to xenophobic fear like The Thing, The Invaders and UFO, or Irwin Allen series like Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel.
Gene Roddenberry's dedication, and the assistance of "name" SF writers made the early Star Trek a reasonably intelligent—if not profound—series. After the first season, the program tended to degenerate: too many excursions onto "allegorical" worlds inexplicably populated by ancient Romans, Nazis, 1920's gangsters and the like.
But what could Roddenberry do? A lot of science fiction ideas would either go over the heads of most viewers, or be impossible to realize technically. Try to create an alien being, for example, that isn't obviously just a man in a monster suit or a rubber model!
Even putting aside the question of the trouble and expense of technical work involved in translating SF ideas to the visual media, how is any producer to convey, for example, what is happening in a story that begins: "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.…" (from Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain")?
A movie has been made even from Finnegan's Wake—the very obscurities of the mainstream avant-garde are familiar to film makers, if not film audiences. But the novel experiences that are accepted in SF are so beyond the range of those in typical mainstream fiction that it is difficult, if not impossible, to render them on the screen without being clumsy and pretentious—as in the case of Zardoz.
Small wonder, then, that it is more popular to film warning stories with near-future settings—On the Beach, Fail Safe, They, and the like. Unfortunately, these don't always turn out very well, either.
Perhaps the increased popularity of written SF will make a difference. When Woody Allen submitted his script for Sleeper to Isaac Asimov for advice, Asimov didn't have to give any. Ideas like cryogenics and anti-utopian states are familiar enough by now to at least be handled satirically on the screen, and Sleeper was the best SF movie of 1973—unlikely as the source would have seemed a few years ago for such a venture.
But even in the best of circumstances, it's going to take money, imagination and integrity to produce more quality SF movies and television programs in the future. Science fiction is a field in which you just can't cut corners and still end up with anything worth seeing.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction: SF on the Screen".