NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 148, Winter, 2000.
MIKE: When the American Film Institute released its list of the Top 100 Films, I, being a compulsive listmaker, made a list of my own Top 100. I was not surprised to see that the American Film Institute and I had only 26 films in common. What did surprise me was that I had only two science fiction films on my list, neither of them in the top 75.
So I started looking to see if I had any fantasy films at all, since I prefer writing and reading science fiction to fantasy—and I was amazed at the number and quality of fantasy films I’d listed: Harvey, Field of Dreams, The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia, a couple that could be fantasy depending on your definition—They Might Be Giants and All That Jazz—and even All That Money Can Buy, a film version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
I found that I loved Ray Bradbury’s fantasy films—Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit—and found Farenheit 451, the science fiction film based on his novel, to be boring and pretentious.
So I had to ask myself: there’s no failure of imagination here, not with so many outstanding fantasy movies . . . so why can’t they make good science fiction movies?
There was a time when the answer was easy: the special effects were so poor that an audience couldn’t suspend its disbelief. But in this day of The Matrix and whatever Industrial Light and Magic can create, that’s no longer valid.
But no matter how much praise you heap on a science fiction movie, it just doesn’t stand up under the kind of scrutiny you’d give a mystery or mainstream film.
You want an example? Take Blade Runner (and someone please explain the title, since I never saw a blade or a runner in the whole damned movie). Great future Los Angeles; it really put you there. Nice enough acting jobs, even if Harrison Ford was a little wooden. Wonderful sets, costumes, effects.
But it’s dumb. Why in the world is Harrison Ford risking his life to hunt down some androids that are going to expire in two weeks anyway?
How about E.T., the highest-grossing movie of all time until it was passed by a couple of even dumber ones. Everyone loves E.T. Well, everyone but me, anyway. Again, consider the spaceship-sized holes in the plot:
1. If E.T. can fly and/or teleport, why didn’t he do so and reach his ship before it left him behind? (Answer: because this is what James Blish calls an idiot plot. In other words, if everyone doesn’t act like an idiot, the story’s over in 3 minutes.)
2. What mother of teenagers walks through a kitchen strewn with empty beer bottles and never notices them?
3. Why is a divorced working woman living in an $800,000 US home in one of the better L.A. suburbs? Granting that Spielberg is a multi-billionaire, couldn’t he have gotten one of his research people to find out how real people live?
4. Why does E.T. die?
5. Why does E.T. un-die?
6. When E.T. finally calls home, wouldn’t you think there’d be some kind of power surge somewhere in the area? I mean, his call is overtaking a ship that’s traveling at light speeds.
And these are examples of the good science fiction films.
So why can’t the movie industry produce a Lawrence of Arcturus or The Maltese Vegan? Why must even the good ones have flaws that no science fiction editor would tolerate?
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
BARRY: These are sound and interesting questions. I’ve asked them myself.
When I saw Blade Runner in l982 I came back from the Rialto Theatre in Ridgefield Park in quite a state and prepared for the sainted and level-headed Robert Silverberg, my friend and correspondent, a list of at least 20 points of plot and character which struck me as manifestly absurd . . . this was the stupidest film I had ever seen, dumber than the old Saturday morning lineup, Superman serials and Three Stooges ten-minute routines. How could they do this to the audience, how could they do it to a reasonably intelligent, ambitious novel by a first-rank writer who had in the text not perpetrated any of these stupidities? Was it all a plot to make me miserable?
Silverberg’s reply was to this effect and if I’ve misrepresented him I’ll be welcome to correct in the next installment: yes, Blade Runner didn’t make a whole lot of structural sense and the motivations were more than questionable. But the picture felt right, it had the right look, here at last was a film about the future which was not cheerful, which was not upbeat, which presented an extrapolated Los Angeles in the darkest terms and in terms which made the background at least consistent. This was worth more than a credible plot.
If I generalize from that response and I’ll risk so doing, I’d say that’s part of an answer: science fiction film is being judged by a standard different than that applied to film in general. It always has been. Filmmakers and audiences have collaborated on this . . . the audience, and that ranges from children to Robert Silverberg in his maturity and anyone between, does not make demands of science fiction films that would be made of non-science fiction. If it’s weird, bizarre, has neat special effects, is either way up or way down, delivers something extrapolative and engineered, well, characters and a good plot would help but the background effects themselves might be enough. Certainly, the filmmakers from the beginning—I take the time of origin of the category science film as sometime in the late l940’s: Destination Moon, The Thing, This Island Earth—have seemed to operate from that position.
But there are a lot of contradictions, here. For one thing, Blade Runner was a commercial failure. It may—in the so-called Director’s Cut, and in midnight showings to a cult audience in Los Angeles almost twenty years after its original release—have crawled into the black, but it was not at all successful in first release. The producer who accepted the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in Baltimore in l983 thanked the audience and said something like “I’m glad you people liked it because nobody else did.”
Destination Moon, on the other hand, did pretty well. The Thing, on a low budget, did outstandingly well and was remade by John Carpenter (at several hundred multiples of the original budget) in the late l970s and apparently did fairly well. The Thing is pretty much of a hash (not at all faithful to Campbell’s originating novelette, “Who Goes There?”) and Destination Moon is fairly accurate so you can no more generalize about success than failure.
Film makers have as a group never really understood science fiction. The exceptions are Kubrick, whose A Clockwork Orange and 2001 are probably the two best science fiction films, and Ridley Scott who at least caught its spirit in Blade Runner (I reluctantly and finally agree with Silverberg). George Lucas kind of understands it, I think, but not at any point of the field’s evolution past, say, l950 and the end of the Foundation series. That may be a coincidence (because as you point out fantasy has had pretty good luck beginning with James Whale’s Frankenstein) and we may simply be awaiting the first group of superannuated science fiction fans to move in with money and passion.
But my oh my, so much filmed SF is terrible that you have to wonder. The Puppet Masters and Martians, Go Home! were terrible films of classic (hate that term) science fiction novels. Decades ago, the Sheckley-based The Tenth Victim did okay (Hollywood hyperbole; the short story was called “The Seventh Victim”) but that was a transplanted James Bond film and it was all Ursula Andress anyway. Starship Troopers was at least an attempt, but Verhoeven did something very strange and very confirmatory of good old auteur theory by directing against the script for the first half; every image, every scene is a mockery of the text. Freejack, a film based on Sheckley’s Immortality, Inc., didn’t last a week in the theatres.
The Bicentennial Man opened and departed quite quickly recently and we are still like Isaiah’s troops waiting against the morning.
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
MIKE: Well, one of the first problems I see is that every single film you named except for The Tenth Victim was adapted from a novel, and that’s a tough order even for films where entire futures and civilizations don’t have to be explained and justified in a painless manner. There’s more than enough material for a two-hour movie in almost any 20-page short story; there’s far too much in almost any novel.
The second problem is that, as the saying goes, Hollywood never met an old idea it didn’t like. Did Star Wars make money? Then let’s have dozens of mindless films that look like Star Wars, with a plethora of evil beings in masks, and really stupid weapons like light sabres in an era of computer-enhanced handguns, and by all means let’s have cute robots.
The Fifth Element wasn’t much of a movie. Dumb as dirt, actually. But it was so nice to see a future that wasn’t swiped from Lucas or Roddenbury’s vision that it was like a breath of fresh air. (No, it wasn’t original. It was based on the look of French comic books. I know. At one time Santiago had a French producer and he loaded me down with a dozen of the same comic books to show me what he wanted the galaxy to look like.)
A third problem is related to the second: once you’re a hit, they can’t buy enough of you. Hence, because Destination Moon, on which Heinlein worked, was a success, decades later they’re still buying the brand name. Never mind whether The Puppet Masters looks (and sells) like a fourth remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or that Starship Troopers could just as easily be called Ken and Barbie Go to War. To Hollywood all authors are interchangeable until one proves he can make them money, and then he’s a cherished commodity for the rest of his life. And beyond.
Take a look at Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner didn’t do him a bit of good; it lost money, and Hollywood cares as much about the Hugo and the Nebula as we care about the Most Valuable Player in the Canadian Curling League. But Total Recall, based as loosely as possible on Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” made a ton of money, and suddenly it seems that every time you pick up a copy of Locus you see where Hollywood, which really doesn’t know one story from another, has just optioned another Dick story for six or seven digits.
Good for Heinlein and good for Dick, and it’s impossible to resent either of them garnering recognition and money even posthumously, but the simple fact of the matter is that not everything they wrote or everything Hollywood options from their estates is good movie material. (Yes, you can get around it by jettisoning almost everything that made the story memorable, as in Total Recall . . . but then, why buy it in the first place?) So a lot of their expensively-optioned material goes unmade—a plight which is not unheard of. They’ve been trying to adapt Alfie Bester’s The Demolished Man for better than 40 years now, without success. I’m sure that writers and executives have lost their careers over this project, but the truth is that some books and stories simply can’t be adapted for the screen.
There are a lot of good stories out there, stories that would make excellent movies. Not necessarily the ones that pros and fans want to see, because—forgive me, but it’s the truth—95% of them don’t know how Hollywood functions, or what would make a good movie. Certainly the idea is not the key for the kind of audience Hollywood has to reach to show a profit.
It does seem rather sad, though, since we’ve reached the point with computer effects that just about anything a writer can imagine can be put on the screen in a believable manner.
Except, alas, good stories.
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
BARRY: Your note on The Demolished Man amuses me.
A few years ago, in connection with the opening of the Oliver-Stone-film-before-the-last-Oliver-Stone-film (which of course was Any Given Sunday) there was a long Sunday Times interview; Stone said that he had had The Demolished Man under option for many years and had almost done it but had decided sometime in the late eighties that his time for it at least had passed and he’d passed on the property. The Demolished Man by Oliver Stone! Ben Reich, you see, thinks that he’s an industrialist, some kind of magnate, but what he doesn’t know is that this memory wipe has stolen his real identity which was Head of the Psi Congress (he was the world’s greatest telepath and they stole his ability too), he thinks that Prestign will help him but Prestign is really the guy who betrayed him and did the memory wipe and then killed Reich’s father but Reich didn’t know it was his father but anyway there’s this girl who could have saved him from the memory wipe, his daughter in fact, but she ran away and Prestign says that Reich ought to avenge himself on the person who abandoned him who by the way is his father and Reich goes out to kill but it isn’t his father you see and Reich—
Maybe it’s a good thing that Stone did pass on it. But then again if Stone had made it in, say, l984, you can be sure that the loudest laughter at the premiere, the roars and peals of laughter would have come from probably the only guy to stay around through all of the closing credits, that being Alfie Bester.
Total Recall of course is a good example of what I call the Uncertainty Effect which has always dominated Hollywood. We are Uncertain. The film probably succeeded because Schwarzenegger in an action role sends grosses through the roof and there are terrific special effects—but then again maybe it succeeded because of the story? Okay, there was no story that made any sense . . . but then maybe it succeeded because of Phil Dick? Phil Dick wrote the underlying property, right, even if only the basic idea and one fragile scene remained, so you can’t be absolutely sure that it wasn’t. Anyway, if you’re going to throw fifty or seventy-five million dollars into a production budget for a science fiction property, you want Schwarzenegger or someone like him and you want top special effects and while you’re at it, just to be sure, on the l/l000 chance that somehow it was Phil Dick, you’d better take one of his properties. I mean, who can be sure? We could all be out of work tomorrow. Think of Frank Capra or Veronica Lake.
The result: Imposter a 5000-word story which sold to John Campbell in l952 (Phil Dick’s one and only sale to Astounding or Analog) is purchased for $550,000 US. It will have been released before this exchange appears. I would wager that it failed, but I am Uncertain too. Home Alone opened to bad business on the first weekend and terrible reviews. Who knows?
Well, let us stipulate that it is the System itself which forces most science fiction on film to be terrible. Can it be altered? Is there anything to be done? Science fiction has plenty of moles already smuggled deep into the system . . . we all know their names, two of them have won seven or eight Hugos and Nebulas between them. One of them has already had a couple of films adapted from his first-rate work You might be another (then again you might not . . . I am Uncertain). They haven’t been able to change that system. Can you? Can anyone? Would you have any suggestions? Could anyone with less than a few hundred million to put up as front money have any real effect?
Besides, pace Mike, nothing in the abstract is funnier than the sport of science fiction writing itself.
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
MIKE: The biggest problem we confront is the fact that, thus far, science fiction fans (and by this I mean the fans of science fiction movies) have proven to be the least critical group in the history of the cinema. They will pay good money to see just about anything labeled “Sci-Fi.”
How else can you explain the fact that Armageddon—which, if it was a man, would have an IQ that could freeze water—was the Disney empire’s top grosser last year? Or that for all its bad press and (deservedly) terrible reviews, Godzilla topped $100 million US in domestic earnings alone? Or that George Lucas could turn out what might arguably be the worst big-budget SF film of the decade and still gross close to a billion US dollars worldwide with it?
I would like to think the independent producers I work with are different from most studio execs (they actually read books, so I know they’re different), but the fact remains that 90% of Hollywood is convinced if you give the audience lots of special effects and call it “Sci-Fi” they’ll pay to see it no matter how bad it is—and damned if I can prove them wrong.
Still, I think—I hope—we’re on the verge of a breakthrough. We’re between generations right now: the older one, which thinks all science fiction films must have a) a doddering scientist, b) his beautiful daughter, and c) a final line stating that there were some things that man was not meant to know (over and beyond how to write a cogent screenplay, that is) and the younger one, which grew up in a world that wasn’t afraid of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury, that had always accepted science fiction as a legitimate form of literature and entertainment, that has been reading Le Guin and Silverberg and Sheckley and Pohl and Bester (all names unknown to the older generation) since they were kids.
As the new generation gains power in Hollywood, two things will happen: one, you’ll see a lot more imaginative films (you’re seeing them already), and two, a few of them, at least, will be well-made. (Don’t scoff; when was the last time Hollywood made a lot of anything well?)
Look at 1999. Okay, there’s still no Lawrence of Arcturus . . . but you had The Matrix, which will change the way a lot of SF films look for years to come; you had Tim Burton recovering from that idiot Mars Attacks to direct his sixth fantastic film, the very stylish and showy Sleepy Hollow; you had Sixth Sense, which along with being a Hugo nominee was actually an Oscar nominee; you had Galaxy Quest, whose unappreciated importance is that it was just as hilarious to the man on the street as to the fan at the convention, demonstrating just how much of an inroad the microcosm has made into the consciousness of the macrocosm; you had The Phantom Menace, which would have walked off with the Hugo and the special effects Oscar almost unopposed two decades ago, and which didn’t even make the Hugo ballot, while losing every Oscar it was up for, which if nothing else shows that SF films are a little better than they used to be and audiences are a little more discriminating. Indeed, the one thing all of those films, except perhaps the Lucas, had in common was that they aspired to become Pope—which is to say, they were done with care, with thought, and with artistic ambition. None of them quite made it, but you had a couple of bishops and maybe a cardinal. What you didn’t have, again except maybe for the Lucas film, was the science fictional equivalent of Porky’s or Halloween, a piece of junk ground out solely for money, with no respect for the field.
Over the years, Hollywood has developed a serious distrust of prose writers, and not without cause. Prose writers are interested in words, and Hollywood is in the business of images. Science fiction writers in particular are a magnet for distrust, because they deal not only in words but in ideas, while movies deal in emotions. 98% of the audience doesn’t go to the theater to think, and SF writers who cling to the notion that the idea, or even the plot, is the most important thing, find their screenwriting careers to be of very short duration.
There is a term I’ve heard from almost every producer and director I’ve worked with. The term is “Hollywood logic.” Roughly translated, it means “Don’t explain it, don’t justify it, just say it and get on with the story.” I hate to admit it, but it works almost every time. (Or, getting back to my earlier point: why in the world would Harrison Ford risk his life trying to “retire” a quartet of replicants who were due to die in a week or two anyway? But if you just say it, and get on with the story, no one even thinks of that until they’re out of the theater.)
There was a Tony-winning Broadway musical called City of Angels (no, it bears no relation to the movie of the same title), which is about a mystery writer who is in the process of selling out to Hollywood. The director, who is the moral villain of the story, at one point sings a song about the difference between books and screenplays, and the audience is supposed to be horrified by his callousness (which they are; it’s a very mean, very funny song). But there’s a stanza in there that is so dead-on true that whenever I’m working on a screenplay, I print it out and tape it on my computer. It goes like this:
Don’t cling to the words
To which you gave birth.
Remember how many
A picture is worth.
And that’s the crux of it. We are wordsmiths. We love words. We try to find new ways to use them. We’re not likely to find a painting that will move us as much as a prose poem by Bradbury or Delany or Leiber.
We are, in fact, the very antithesis of what Hollywood wants, what Hollywood produces, and what Hollywood is supported by. And as long as there are writers and books, I suspect we always will be.
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
BARRY: So what’s the answer, Mike? Turn over the properties to the screenwriters and directors, take whatever option or pickup money there is for our own properties, and let it go? That seems to be the thrust of your argument and it really isn’t a bad argument. Remember Hemingway’s statement on how to deal with Hollywood—drive up to the California state line with your property, throw it over the state line, catch the bag of money they throw back, and drive away quickly. Or the line Larry Block quotes from some novelist who told, “Did you see what they did to your novel?” “They didn’t do anything to my novel, it’s still on the shelf where it’s always been.”
The Puppet Masters and Martians, Go Home! are still there; whatever happens to them in the future (I can tell you that Martians, Go Home! continues to sell very well in Europe and just made a new sale in France for a price in several multiples of the original USA advance) the sad fate of those films will have absolutely nothing to do with the course of the work. The Great Gatsby was the basis of a very expensive, very failed Redford movie in l974 and a very expensive, very dull Metropolitan Opera commission finally produced in l999; the novel is blameless and sails on toward the green light majestically. The Naked and the Dead was the basis of a truly terrible film in l958. Does anyone (except Mailer, who called it the worst film ever made) even remember? Science fiction and cinema have independent courses; occasionally they intersect, sometimes they intersect in a hugely profitable, culture-changing fashion (Lucas, E.T., Alien), more often they intersect unhappily (Freejack), very occasionally they intersect anomalously (Blade Runner), why should any of us worry about this? Whatever has happened is likely to happen again and again through the lifetime of the copyrights and then (Pride and Prejudice, Emma) well past.
But of course we do care. “We” being the audience for these essays, the readers of the SFWA Bulletin, the practitioners of the genre. What we want is to see it on the screen, what we glimpsed so starkly in our dreams—ah, I am going to misquote Ruthven in “Corridors” now—what we saw in the nights of our dreams; dreaming of the light against the light, trying to get back there, trying to see it real. See Ben Reich before us, see Lije Bailey and Daneel Olivaw trying to work out a murder before the robot pogrom begins. See Kuttner’s dark, clanking, vengeful robot, see the Keeps of Venus, the Woman who was no woman born. We’ve caught it a few times. That one terrible interrogatory scene in Total Recall when the protagonist sees that drop of sweat on the forehead of the supposed psychiatrist who is calmly telling the protagonist that he imagined the whole thing. But there is that sweat. That “good night little Miss” in The Bicentennial Man. Susan Calvin, caught in the clutch of the First Law when the robot-man says he loves her. The cold, spinster anthropologist clutching the ugly little boy she will not let become a Neanderthal again, alone.
We want that, we want to see that, we want those nights back. Nesse Dorme, we shall not sleep until they come again. Not in our lifetime, probably, but I find myself saying what Bill Warren wrote in an essay in the Nebula Awards volume a decade ago, summarizing the year in SF film, talking of the future. “They are coming. They will be coming. I tell you that it will happen.”
Wouldn’t it be a lovely thing?
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
MIKE: Yeah, it’s coming. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. The fog-shrouded alien planet in Alien. The cocktail lounge in A Clockwork Orange. The diva, the inner-city traffic, even the cruise ship’s bunks in The Fifth Element. The Cop Who Walks Through Walls in Terminator 2. The evolution of the human race as a bone flies up and a ship, waltzing to the “Blue Danube,” flies down in 2001. And even to this day, the wonders of the Krell in Forbidden Planet. No one’s ever put it all together, though Kubrick came close a couple of times.
I think what you need, first and foremost, is a director with Kubrick’s or Spielberg’s or Cameron’s clout, a man who cannot and will not be swayed by imprecations and threats of studio heads, a man whose track record makes him “fire proof” the way a handful of authors are “editor proof.” Only that way can we get a film for adults when studios know that Blade Runner lost money and pablum like Star Wars and Star Trek are box office gold.
Then we need someone, a director or producer, who understands that you don’t need a stunning science fictional concept, but rather an appealing story that just happens to be science fiction. A Case of Conscience or The World of Null-A will never get made, and if God drops everything else and they do get made, they’ll fold within a week . . . but simple stories like Cliff Simak’s Way Station or Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp (to name just two of many) could, if properly done, make a bundle and save us from an endless parade of cute robots, pointy ears, and infantile plots.
Bill Warren is right. It’s coming. But I don’t know when, and neither does he. I feel like an ancient Israelite. Every time a new science fiction movie comes down the pike, I want to ask, “Are you the One? Could you possibly be the One?”
Well, mystery fans asked that for four decades before The Maltese Falcon. Western fans waited six decades for The Searchers and The Magnificent Seven. Fans of the musical theater waited a whole century for Steven Sondheim to change their world. It’ll happen here too.
But probably not tomorrow.
• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •
About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.