The SDI Lecture Hall

"The Doctor Is In..."

Books in Film Part III:
Return of the Return and the Spinning Heinlein

With the Oscars gone again, and a fresh batch of Hollywood atrocities slated for the rest of summer and the fall, we move on to address the final arena of adaptive tragedy: genre fiction. Much maligned by the literary world already, called (at best) pulp or (at worst) trash reading, those authors that bravely soldier forward with science fiction, fantasy, and horror could at least count on the film industry to vindicate them, right? Right?! I mean, sci-fi and horror are huge box office draws. so surely someone with a sharp new idea for said genres would see film-makers dying to bring their masterpiece to the screen, wouldn't they?

Well, kiddies, the answer is a complicated one. Yes, Hollywood runs out and snatches up the film rights to anything that hits the genre bin and stays out of the discounted remainders for more than a month. Sometimes tempted with hefty advances, many writers of such stuff gleefully sign away (often without reading the fine print) rights to their genre fiction magnum opus. Sounds great, no? Perhaps. But all too often, the resulting movie is so far divorced of the original work of fiction, it is nearly unrecognizable to not only the author, but the hordes of readers who show up to see a great book made into a movie.

There are a number of problems that cause this travesty, and we will attempt to address a few of them, as well as point out some of the more glaring offenses committed by the boobs at the studios. Perhaps we'll even suggest a few possible remedies. Ready? Ok.

1) Even though it's genre fiction, plot and character matter.

This particular ill occurs because as soon as you introduce monsters, lasers, or magic into a screenplay, studios hurl a 9-digit effects budget at it, and go find a slew of cheap cast members, and hand the screenplay over to the resident "action" hack to "spice it up." What Hollywood fails to realize (along with the literary establishment) is that genre fiction isn't popular because it's got lasers and monsters and magic. It's popular because, despite the unusual conditions, people still basically wrestle with the same problems, insecurities, and random turns of events that life hands out to all of us. Yeah, effects are keen, but if your acting talent pool is shallow enough to wade in, you'll never pull it off, and people will stay away in droves. Word-of-mouth runs the genre fiction world, since nobody really sinks a great deal of money into advertising these books. So when the first batch of die-hard book fans goes out, plunks down money they could have used to buy another book, and sees a movie that sucks rocks, you'd better fricking believe that before they go to bed that night, all their genre-geek friends will know not to waste their cash.

Example: My favorite sci-fi punching bag, Starship Troopers. If you haven't seen it, don't. Unless of course you've never even heard or Robert Heinlein, in which case, go ahead. It's a decent 90 minutes of kewl aliens and SS-style space marines blowing the crap out of each other, with some really wicked eviscerations thrown in for fun, and a coed shower scene to boot. However, for those out there that know the Admiral's work, run. Run directly to the studio that produced this pile of shite, and bang on the gate with pitchforks and torches demanding the screenwriter's entrails in a Hefty sack. Why so venomous, you might ask (particularly if you don't know me)? Heinlein's book is a brilliant coming-of-age story, complete with parental conflict, self-doubt, growing pains, and effective character maturation. The movie is a brainless CGI deathfest. I've played network Quake games with more plot development. I'm pretty sure if you visit RAH's grave these days, you can still hear the whine of him making about 200 rpm's six feet under.

2) If the author didn't write a sequel, don't film a sequel.

This one always hacks me off, but then again, very little doesn't. I understand that as a movie studio, you're really looking for franchises, not just stand-alones that come up, have their fifteen minutes, and disappear. In the realm of genre films/fiction, audience loyalty is a dominant factor in production/publishing decisions. (If you don't believe me, go to the bookstore and try to find a fantasy novel by a new author that doesn't say Book 1 of the NextBigThing Trilogy, or some other such nonsense.) At this point, the problems of print and film diverge, however. When I buy a new scifi or fantasy book, I inevitably find myself wondering when the hell someone will get off their ass and produce the promised sequel/finale/whatever. When I see a scifi or fantasy film, I shudder at the thought that the sequel is just around the corner, probably as a direct-to-video release, and it promises to be even more pathetic than the original. Yes, before you blow a gasket, there are exceptions. Despite Jar-Jar, I look forward to the next Star Wars installment. I get an adrenaline rush just thinking about Matrix 2. However, I have endured far too many Pet Semetary II's and Sometimes They Come Back For More's in my day, and cannot stress passionately enough how badly I want someone to disintegrate Ripley, along with all traces of her DNA, so that I never again have to sit through an installment in the twice-as-long-as-it-should've-been Alien franchise. At bottom, unless the story merited a sequel in print, it probably doesn't merit one on film.

3) Careful with that graphic novel, Eugene.

I know, it doesn't usually count as genre fiction, but dammit, it should. Comics have come a long, long way since the Golden Age, and are finally coming into their own as a unique art form standing at the razor-thin line between written and visual arts. Of course, this means they are now twice as vulnerable to predatory production companies. I don't think I need to address WB's Batman franchise, as Widgett has dedicated more virtual ink to that collective dungheap than any other topic we've touched here. Herein lies the problem, in more general terms that apply to all comic adaptations: we're dealing with GRAPHIC fiction here, kiddies. If Widge and I read the newest Bradbury yarn, we end up with slightly divergent ideas about the look/attitude/attire of the lead characters. If Widge and I pick up the newest issue of JLA, there are no dissenting opinions. Somebody PROVIDED us with the requisite visual cues and impressions, taking the task out of our fevered little imaginations all together. Why then, do movie studios insist on changing the fundamental look of their comic movie characters? Nipples on the batsuit? Nicholas Cage as Superman? The Punisher with no big skull on his chest? Qua? The great thing about comic characters, and one of the things that attracts many of us to them, is that they LOOK so damned cool. So why change them? When we go to see a comic adaptation, we go because we want to see what those heroes would look like in living, screaming, 3D color, not because we want to see how badly the costuming department could screw it up.

4) Sometimes They Blow Up.

Lastly, don't trifle with the endings. Yeah, Hollywood wants feelgoods, and movies that don't completely bum the audience out. Fine. This does not mean that the entire cast should escape unscathed, despite the fact that only one character managed to claw his/her way out of the book intact. If the author in question felt strongly enough about it to axe one of his or her precious living creations for the greater good of the storyline, then by Forbin, somebody has to go tell Joe Moviestar that he's not gonna make it out of this scene, and I don't care what his agent negotiated or how much you're paying him. Heroes die. Sad fact of life. As long as they die heroically, it shouldn't matter. So stop with the kid gloves and give Rex Raygun the laser to the brain, because the story damned well demands it.

Whew. All right. I think that about wraps up my lecture on books in film. I hope it was informative, and I hope you were taking notes. There's going to be a quiz later. Those that fail will be flushed out the airlock.

The Doctor is out.

-Doc Ezra