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Bringing Heinlein's Lunar Revolution Home: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress As a Major Motion Picture

Producer Thor Halvorssen talks about the forthcoming Fox movie based on Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

"Message movies," film producer Thor Halvorssen says, "are didactic, trying to educate about an ideology, a philosophy, instead of telling a story about characters and their struggles."

Halvorssen is talking to me about a film he’s producing based on Robert Heinlein’s classic 1966 novel of a libertarian revolt on the moon, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (It's the book that popularized the libertarian catch phrase "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch," or TANSTAAFL, as a slogan for its revolutionaries.) "If what you are looking for is a message movie, you will be disappointed. This is an amazing story of struggle against government tyranny by a group of people who want freedom and the right to determine their own futures. You can call that ideological if you want, but I just call it a great, great movie."

Fans of science fiction writer Heinlein and libertarians—two circles with a large overlap—were simultaneously excited and unsettled at the announcement two weeks ago that 20th Century Fox intends to make, with Bryan Singer (most famous for his work on various X-Men movies) attached to direct, a movie version of Heinlein’s The Moon is Harsh Mistress. (In 2007, I wrote a Reason feature about Heinlein’s complicated, multi-level appeal to libertarians.)

Devoted book fans often rightfully fear Hollywood’s rough, leveling hands wrecking what’s unique and delightful about their literary loves. Heinlein heads tend to react with a shudder to Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 Starship Troopers, widely seen as more a burlesque of Heinleinian ideas than a skilled instantiation of them. Fans of the pure Heinlein jolt sniff the leeching of its unique qualities already in the film’s bland announced working title of Uprising.

Last week I met with Halvorssen, one of the film’s producers, who got the option from the Heinlein estate in 2009 and found a home for the project at major studio Fox. We talked by the pool at the Hollywood Standard Hotel about the film, the fans, and the philosophy.

Halvorssen wants to get some things on the record "before things get out of hand with fanboys or anyone else who has already decided their own view on a project they know nothing about." (He seems well aware of the two-edged sword of a built-in enthusiastic audience for a property, particularly one whose enthusiasm is at least in part based on ideology.) "It's important to be open and not allow for doubts to cloud people’s perceptions. We do want all the goodwill we can get [from the book’s existing fan base] and don’t want people doubting our commitment to make a big, fun, entertaining movie that captures the essence of Heinlein."

He considers cavils about the prospective title Uprising silly, noting it exactly describes what the plot concerns—an uprising against tyranny, that happens to be on the moon. Heinlein’s title, he says, might be a bit too "odd and bizarre" for the mass audience a big budget studio feature needs to capture beyond the book’s fans. He believes those fans will find the movie under whatever title.

Halvorssen is experienced with bringing libertarian-beloved science fiction classics to screen; he produced in 2009 a short film based on Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-egalitarian fable "Harrison Bergeron," under the title 2081. He founded the Moving Picture Institute (MPI) in 2005, an organization dedicated to helping build and support movies that, in the words of their slogan, "promote freedom through film."

Halvorssen has no official link with MPI anymore, but he honors its role in giving him experience in making various previous documentaries, all essentially "about revolution against tyranny, against totalitarian systems" set in worlds from Estonia to Russia to American universities. "MPI was my film school as a producer, and while MPI is not involved in this production in any way, they were so central to my development as a producer that I can say this is not just my credit, it’s their credit."

Halvorssen knows that in film industry terms, he’s on a different level than his production partners. He’s amused how the announcement in the movie trades listed the three producers as Bryan Singer, one of the biggest adventure/thriller directors of our time; Lloyd Braun, former chairman of ABC; and Thor Halvorssen. “Who?” he imagined many thinking.

Halvorssen’s avocation is unusual among Hollywood players: full-time human rights activism, via the Human Rights Foundation and the annual Oslo Freedom Forum. The latter is a yearly confab known to some as the "Davos" (or "Woodstock") for human rights activism, a place for people to tell direct stories of their oppression under some of what Halvorssen considers the world’s worst tyrannies, from Angola to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Venezuela (his family’s native land, whose government illegitimately imprisoned his father and shot and wounded his mother) to Iran to Bahrain to North Korea to Equatorial Guinea ("one of the worst tyrannies on the planet, and no one hears about it"). The event provides a place to hear from and celebrate "real live heroes, not just symbols of survival and the nobility of the human spirit but actual active Mandelas in the making, Solzhenitsyns in the making."  

Halvorssen realizes his filmmaking team has to walk a fine line adopting this most libertarian of Heinlein works; libertarianism so-called (he stresses "libertarian" is not how he self-identifies, preferring "classical liberal" or "anti-fascist") is not Hollywood’s favorite ideology. Still, he is sure that his Fox/Singer team is on board with what’s really key to the Moon story.

Still, "anyone expecting quotations from political tracts in this movie will be sorely disappointed," he says. Even though one of the book’s central characters, Bernardo de la Paz, does have a tendency toward political lectures in defense of "rational anarchy," I ask?

Halvorssen detects I’m trying to get him to get specific about what elements of the novel will or won’t be in the finished product. But its screenplay, being written by Marc Guggenheim (currently an executive producer on the CW show Arrow, the writer of the Green Lantern movie, and someone who, Halvorssen says, "has a perfect understanding of what the book is and he is a brilliant writer") is still being perfected, Halvorssen says.

Such questions, he warns me, are a "non-starter" at this stage. (The film does not yet have a set date to start shooting.) "What will, what won’t happen, what’s in, who's out, what we are redacting" are things he’s not going to discuss now. He doesn’t want to worry about fans out there starting to take notes on, "Oh my, they eliminated the plot element of sexual liberation which in the 1950s might have been an amazing plot point but nowadays would be, yawn….that sort of thing is not the issue, the issue is capturing the essence of the story."

Halvorssen is thrilled to have Bryan Singer on board. "He could have just been a producer, so that he chose to direct too is huge. This is his next movie after the next X-Men movie." (His 2014 X-Men film was number 6 for the year in worldwide gross.) "Getting him was like throwing a dart and hitting bull’s-eye the first time. His [production company’s] guys are like warriors of story, obsessively focused on story, story, character development, character development. I don’t think there has been a single discussion on politics in the entire time I have been on calls with them, which has been dozens of hours."

While Halvorssen grants that open classical liberalism isn’t something you find in a lot of Hollywood power players, he says he’s gotten no bad reactions or pushback based on his Human Rights Foundation or Oslo Freedom Forum work. "If people want to I.D. us as anti-dictatorship, looking to overthrow, using peaceful resistance and education, overthrow foreign powers that oppress their people, they are at liberty to take that interpretation because it happens to be true," he says, though he stresses amid this revolutionary talk that "I’m a non-violence fanatic."

Whether or not his colleagues on this film project agree with all his political goals is irrelevant, he says. Though he’s never had occasion to talk politics specifically with Guggenheim or top Fox execs, he says the "words 'libertarian ideas' have been used by the writer several times. We are not unaware of what the book is and certainly not unaware of the reason why we are doing this." Love for Heinlein runs deep among Hollywood storytellers; "the number of studio executives who have called Lloyd [Braun] and said, 'Oh man, that’s what I wanted to do,' have been several."

Halvorssen is proud one of his recent human rights endeavors, in alliance with one of his earliest financiers and a co-producer on the Moon movie project, venture capitalist Alex Lloyd, is featured this month in Wired magazine: sending balloons over North Korea with anti-regime propaganda, U.S. dollars, and copies of the regime-mocking controversial film The Interview.

"The guys taking on the North Korean government also happen to be making a Heinlein picture," Halvorssen says, proudly.

"Is a movie about fighting tyranny conservative or liberal or libertarian?" Halvorssen asks. "It’s quintessentially American, that’s what it is. This is not going to be a film about politics. This is going to be a great big entertaining movie about the struggle for freedom on the moon by a group of devoted idealists who have an amazing story fighting against tyranny.”

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  • Auric Demonocles||

    Somehow I missed the announcement a couple of weeks ago. It must have been in the alt-text.

    But dammit Pro Lib! They're onto us!

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's too late for them. Our base on Ceti Alpha V is secure.

  • Redmanfms||

    I'm 90% certain it will suck.

  • thom||

    I'm 90% certain the movie doesn't actually get made.

  • ubik||

    Who owns the Heinlein estate, there were no children from Heinlein's marriage?

  • Warren's Strapon||

    This guy, maybe.

  • Rasilio||

    There is a foundation that owns it. If you are really interested I could get you the names of it's members as I am in several Heinlein dedicated Facebook groups that have members of the foundation in it

  • ubik||

    Thanks for those replies. Just wondered who or what had control of it.

    Rasilio: you have any recommendations for best site to keep up with news on RAH's work?

    I grew up reading early Heinlein and love those novels. Something happened though, and for me beyond a certain point he became all but unreadable...starting with Friday.

  • Rasilio||

  • Rasilio||

    And if you happen to win the lottery you can buy this...

    http://www.virginiaedition.com/

  • kV||

    Great, there goes my watch fund. But on the plus side, i think i can convince my wife of the value of books much easier than i can convince her of the value of a "stupid watch that you have to wind every time you wear it."

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    What was after that?

  • ubik||

    Sorry meant "The Number of the Beast" and not "Friday.

    Found the TNOTB totally unreadable and remember wondering just what had happened to a great storyteller. Was just looking at his bibliography and come to think of it "Time Enough for Love" was a bad omen of things to come.

    After "Friday" there was:

    Job: A Comedy of Justice

    The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

    To Sail Beyond the Sunset

  • ||

    Foundation was Asimov, silly.

  • GroundTruth||

    No kids. In "Grumbles from the Grave" (posthumously published memoirs) RAH mentions a story in which he told someone that he and Virginia were unable to, and the awareness of that as general possibility for any couple shows up in "Time Enough for Love".

    Yeah, I'm a Heinlein addict.

  • ubik||

    So GroundTruth, what's your opinion of his later works?

  • Robert||

    Hir opinion in particular? In mine, he generally improved over time.

  • ubik||

    Robert, Really you liked the later stuff?

    You actually managed to get through TNOTB?

  • GroundTruth||

    The Beast took a while to get through, and the first pass left my head spinning, but actually, I find that it provides as good a cosmology (?) as anything else I've ever heard suggested. And, after a first read, once you figure out what the heck he's doing, it's as much fun as any of the rest it.

  • Robert||

    It's as with "Peanuts" comics, the audience divided between preferrers of the early & late stuff. I haven't yet read To Sail Beyond the Sunset, but the others ubik listed are superb to me. Beast wasn't his absolute best, but well up there in my estimation.

  • ubik||

    Ha! Peanuts, another childhood obsession. Just loved that strip as a kid. The strip was greatest when all the characters were interacting and before snoopy more or less took over.

    I have a first edition hardback of TNOTB wonder if its worth anything.

  • ubik||

    Jesus H. C....checked on AbeBooks.com and the asking price is $935.00 for a first edition hardback!

  • GroundTruth||

    I enjoy them, repeatedly. At some point I'll need to replace copies of The Moon..., Time Enough..., The .. Beast, The Cat... and To Sail Beyond...; the covers are starting to fall off.

    The only fault I have is that Lazarus Long is his archetypal strong character, so all of the better characters in any of the Howard families (by birth or marriage) are really just Lazarus-"lites". To some extent, he simply re-wrote the same book over and over, just "filing off the serial numbers and giving them a new coat of paint".

  • ubik||

    Thanks for the reply GroundTruth.

    My favorite RAH novel is Starship Troopers.

    A guilty confession, though I've read most of the early works haven't actually read TMIAHM, need to check it out soon.

  • Montestruc||

    Heinlein's wife's will set up a perpetual trust that funds prizes for commercial development of space. Think about that when buying a Heinlein book or a ticket to see a movie that pays a royalty to his estate.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    OT (but very special): One-use monocles!

  • lap83||

    unlubricated? TIWTANLW

  • Charles Easterly||

    "Curse your Teutonic preparedness!!"

    Thanks SR.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The film STARSHIP TROOPERS cannot qualify as a burlesque. A burlesque makes fun of various points of the original, rather thansimly ignore most of it.

  • Rasilio||

    The sad thing is Starship Troopers almost works as a very good B Grade stand alone movie. If they removed the name and went back with the original title the had for the project (Bug Hunt on Planet 9 or something like that) it would have been awesome.

    But calling it Starship Troopers just ruins it because when I see a movie that is made from a book I expect it to have something beyond a handful of character and place names in common with the book

  • np||

    That's why it's probably a good thing the title will be Uprising or whatever else here. I will be surprised if tanstafaal is even mentioned in the movie.

  • np||

    *tanstaafl*

  • ||

    The worst part is, it might get mentioned. The problem is that there are too many ways for a group described as "warriors of story, obsessively focused on story, story, character development, character development" to fuck it up.

    If it is mentioned, it will be dismissed or glossed over in a "I don't want to talk about time travel" moment or we'll have a second or two of silence where one character, not necessarily the right or relevant character, nearly breaks the fourth wall, utters the phrase, and the plot moves on entirely.

  • Form 27B/6||

    It will be mentioned at lunch time - in an ironic tone.

  • Robert||

    I'm bored when an adapt'n has too much in common with what it's adapting. I prefer to get a rise when I recognize something in the original that's been given a twist in the derivative.

  • Fatwa Arbuckle||

    Given Hollywood's emphasis on "bankability", Gilbert Gottfried as the voice of Mike and Christoper Lloyd as Prof are not outside the realm of possibility.

  • Fatwa Arbuckle||

    And Will Smith as Manny, whose social arm will be pink because "space racism".

  • ||

    He’s amused how the announcement in the movie trades listed the three producers as Bryan Singer, one of the biggest adventure/thriller directors of our time; Lloyd Braun, former chairman of ABC; and Thor Halvorssen.

    Lloyd Braun sold more computers than George.

  • Mokers||

    Serenity now...insanity later.

  • Robert||

    I hadn't even noticed in the article that Lloyd Braun was behind this. His being a producer raises its prospects several notches in my estim'n. He has a knack for picking winners. I keep wondering if he knew what Lost was really about, but suspect he did.

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    Stop making up contractions.

  • Robert||

    You'll wish you'd saved some up when you hit the char. limit. But nooo, by then you'll have rejected them all, & they won't come back to you.

  • Sérgio M||

    Is war has lasted many years and should last much more. Mainly because of government.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    I assume he'll drop the bogus Russian accent, the only really irritating part of Heinlein's book.

  • Robert||

    Irritating? I loved it! While I was reading it & for weeks afterward, I kept thinking & talking to myself in a Russian accent.

  • Xeones||

    In Soviet moonbase, accent has YOU!

  • Mokers||

    I like Starship Troopers as pure camp. I mean do most people remember anything more than the co-ed showers? I've been able to get a few friends to read the book and they are all amazed at how different it is. However, the movie is the reason I started reading RAH, and so I can't be too pissed at how terrible a representation of the book it was.

    I love the Moon is a Harsh Mistress (wish I could get it on Kindle!). If the movie gets some people to read the book, it will be worth it.

  • ||

    I liked Starship Troopers (the movie) as a bucket of cold water for people who thought V for Vendetta was a deep, meaningful, and unifying political commentary.

  • NidhoggRocketman||

    To be fair, the original V for Vendetta graphic novel is great. I keep amazing people by showing them the original version of V's televised speech when he takes over the TV station. The movie is an abomination, but what do you expect from the Wachowskis?

  • UCrawford||

    Nobody ever gets Alan Moore's books right for film. V for Vendetta probably came closest, but it wasn't that close.

  • Rich||

    do most people remember anything more than the co-ed showers?

    What is big bug sucking brains out, chopped liver?

  • Rasilio||

    Wait Dina Meyer's naked breasts were in that movie and have not yet been mentioned and you go there?

    WTF is wrong with you man

  • PapayaSF||

    The best part of the movie was the scene when the orbiting spaceships are hit by the bugs and then collide. A nice bit of space opera. And the fake propaganda bits were well-done.

    The worst parts (beyond the raping of the original story) were the stupid infantry tactics (I kept wanting to yell "SPREAD OUT!") and the bugs who could fart fireballs into orbit, despite their apparent 50 mph speed.

  • Windypundit||

    I kept thinking, "If only the mobile infantry had invented roof technology for their fortress..."

  • PapayaSF||

    Yeah, that was another one.

  • Loki||

    I remember a young, hot Denise Richards being practically the only female cast member to not take her shirt off. And it's not like she had some principled anti-nudity stance either, as anyone who's seen Wild Things knows.

  • Loki||

    Eh, maybe I'll give them the benefit of the doubt since at least one of the producer's understands the concept of freedom and realizes that the book has libertarian ideals in it.

    I still expect them to do something stupid though, like instead of rebelling against "the government" the moon will be ruled by a big evil mega-corporation instead. To do otherwise would cause any progs in the audience to have an aneurysm. "B-b-but... the government is all of us, how can the government be evil? Why would people want to rebel against the government... does not make sense... AAARRRRGHHH!!11!!!!!"

  • ||

    Don't. If you read between the lines the guy is very careful to avoid indicating that there will be anything "libertarian" about it except the general concept of an uprising against the government.

    He won't describe himself as a libertarian. He won't say if Bernardo De La Paz is in it. He keeps talking about how all they are focusing on is the plot and the character development. He explicitly says there won't be any political speeches. He even downplays the group marriage arrangements.

    The only thing he will qualify it as is "anti-dictatorship".
    Doherty was trying to nuge him to reveal something about the politics and he wouldn't go there. That is in itself revealing.

  • ||

    So basically, he wouldn't tell you to what extent, if at all, he was planning to be faithful to the spirit of the novel. He wouldn't sign on to saying there was going to be anything "libertarian" about it.

    I expect an action flick that hits the major plot points but excises the politics. In other words, I expect it to be robbed of it's soul.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    Another project for the Heinlein estate--

    find someone to re-write "Coventry" in Islamist guise.

    I thought of "Coventry" when I read of kids raised in Western countries who slip away to join ISIS or other murderous groups, and then wish to come back. Some are disillusioned; if they come back, they would make decent neighbors. (Just as some of those deported by Attorney General Palmer to Soviet Russia in 1918-1920 came back disillusioned.) Others remain violent and disloyal; a prudent West would keep them out.

    In Heinlein's "Coventry," those who wished to return had to go through psychiatric screening, to make sure they really were ready to respect the rights of their neighbors. In science-fiction land, polygraph technology could be made 100% accurate. Perhaps it is time to take a new look at polygraph technology. Twenty years ago, for example, facial-recognition technology was considered a pipe-dream, but today it has value.

    An accurate polygraph should never be used to send someone to prison, but it would be reasonable for non-punitive purposes, eg excluding foreigners with dubious intentions.

  • PapayaSF||

    Interesting.

  • ||

    Well, this is going to be shit.

  • Robert||

    I love burlesques like the movie adapt'n of Starship Troopers, and I think Heinlein would've enjoyed it too.

    Equatorial Guinea ("one of the worst tyrannies on the planet, and no one hears about it")


    Except fans of Illuminatus!. Bob Shea told me Fernando Poo was picked for a location after it came to either his or Bob Wilson's att'n as a funny name place pointed out by a neighbor's child on finding it on a map. At the time, they had no idea about what was going on there, but were intrigued when they found out, and even more so later when life imitated art.

    There were lots of clever-cute clues on TV serial Lost that Fernando Poo (now Bioko) was the setting for most of the action. Among them was the name Craphole Island. Craphole—Poo, get it?

  • Robert||

    Also, it was probably the inspiration for Carlotta in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. That fictitious island nation is in the same place relative to the S. Amer. continent as Bioko is in to the African continent. Shea, & especially Wilson, had a lot of unstated (& unrewarded $-wise) influence in Hollywood.

  • GroundTruth||

    Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

    I know there is a wide space between the movie called "Starship Troopers" and the recent movie adaptation of "Atlas Shrugged", but those seem to be the endmembers of what can be expected, and both were flops when it came to increasing the flock of libertarians.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    JJ Abrams destroys Star Trek, and now these clowns are going to make a mockery of TMIAHM. Damn, I feel old. Why even bother with attaching Heinlein's name to the damn thing? Why not just a make a derivative "rebellion" story and be done with it? If you're not going to include the elements of the book that make that book different from others, why bother with the pretense of an "adaptation"?

    Are there really enough Heinlein fans such that courting them is a significant enough marketing boost, when it seems you're really planning on pissing off a good many of them?

  • Rasilio||

    Given that they appear to be changing the name of the movie this is likely what they are doing.

    It sounds more like they are making a movie inspired by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress rather than making a Moon is a Harsh Mistress movie

  • PapayaSF||

    Compromises must always be made. The computer tech in the book is long obsolete. Plus, one page of a screenplay (dialog, action, description, or a mix) is about one minute of screen time. So even a two-hour movie is going to be cut down a lot from any decent-sized novel.

  • GroundTruth||

    The computer tech in the book is long obsolete

    Really? Met any sentient computers recently?

    Yes, the specifics of hardware have been long exceeded, but I'm not aware of the net "waking up" yet. (Thank the gods!)

  • gracejhom||

    my neighbor's mother makes $86 /hour on the internet . She has been fired from work for 8 months but last month her check was $12427 just working on the internet for a few hours. see it here..............

    ➜➜➜➜➜ http://www.netjob70.com

  • Montestruc||

    The moon is a harsh mistress is not really a novel about a libertarian revolution. The society was libertarian as the warden and Authority would allow any sort of government to form, and had no desire to make or enforce rules other than about their immediate short term concerns.

    One ex prisoner kills another? So what not the warden's problem. So a state of nature of men with no government resulted.

    The rebellion was about food riots in 6-7 years and cannibalism soon after if the impossible drain on lunar natural resources did not stop.

    The position of Mannie writing a memoir long after was a sadness at the end of a libertarian society he grew up in.

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