The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Hollywood’s Classic Sci-Fi Fixation

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Ubiquitous blogger (and former Brainiac) Joshua Glenn has an excellent new series running over at io9 on pre–Golden Age science fiction novels, which he notes have been “cruelly neglected” and condescendingly pooh-poohed, even by noted historians and sci-fi writers (like Isaac Asimov). But at least someone is paying attention: Hollywood.

Introducing his second entry on the “10 Best Apocalypse Novels of 1904-33,” Glenn writes: “With Wall-E director Andrew Stanton starting work on a film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, and with Hollywood adaptations of Brave New World and When Worlds Collide also in development, it’s time for us to give you a crash course in books from this seminal era in science fiction.” Needless to say, Glenn’s fun, erudite squibs on lesser-known novels by H.G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, and Karel Capek are essential reading.

Of course, Hollywood is still in thrall to its sci-fi Golden Age screenwriters of the 1950s, some of whom were not hacks, but talented writers on the studio payroll. On Monday, MTV News noted that J. Michael Straczynski, a “Babylon 5” creator and the writer of Clint Eastwood’s missing-child period melodrama Changeling, intends to adapt Forbidden Planet, a film with an interesting literary pedigree, for producer Joel Silver. As you may remember, Planet concerned a proto-Star Trek-like scenario about the search for a lost spacecraft whose lone survivor, Dr Mobius, marooned on a distant planet called Altair-4, creates an Edenlike world from the techno-junk of a super-intelligent alien race. Cyril Hume, a veteran MGM screenwriter who penned a number of the early Tarzan movies, based his 1956 sci-fi story on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (In a sense, the “original” Forbidden Planet was itself an adaptation of a 17th-century play, updated to the 23rd century.) Hume, a descendant of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, was a novelist in his own right (The Wife of the Centaur) and a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby he adapted for the 1949 big-screen version. How’s that for belletristic synergy?

Steven Spielberg, master of family-friendly spectacles, revisited H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 2005. But the first filmed version of Wells’s classic 19th-century novel, directed by Byron Haskin in 1953, was written by a British playwright and short-story writer named Barré Lyndon, who was installed in Hollywood after the success of his first stage play, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. Although one could argue (perhaps rightfully) that the alien-invasion film’s true author was special-effects wizard George Pal, it would not have quite the same haunting power without Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s opening and closing voiceover narration, or the scrupulously lean, almost Morse-code-like lines of dialogue that punctuate the ray-blast action. Lyndon, of course, is better remembered for his work on The Lodger and The Man in Half Moon Street, but he left his impression on Worlds nevertheless.


On the nearer horizon is Twentieth-Century Fox’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring real-life alien Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, which debuts in mid December. The 1951 original, about an outer-space visitor who warns earthlings their planet will be destroyed unless it can bring an end to its wars, was directed by genre innovator Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People, West Side Story), who went on to helm The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Script writer Edmund H. North based his anti-nuke sci-fi scenario on a tale called “Farewell to the Master” by pulp author Harry Bates, which was first published in Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine Bates edited in the ’30s. For his Fox treatment, David Scarpa’s reworking of the North script appears to give the story a timelier, more environmental twist, at least as far as I can tell from the sneak-peek clips released this week.

Hokey outer-space films and bleak, near-apoclaypse scenarios have long been a staple of Saturday-afternoon network programming, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood is mining its B-movie past and tailoring genre favorites to 21st-century anxieties. But all of this sourcing and borrowing gets me thinking about the power of branding. If a writer takes a basic story idea, retains a few character names, and produces something that drastically retools the plot, situations, and settings so it barely resembles the original, then what we have, perhaps, is a remix, not a remake. Straczynski, for instance, tells MTV News that his Forbidden Planet is “not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not exactly a prequel. You’ll have to see it. It’s something that no one has thought of when it comes to this storyline.” What’s the point, then, of calling it Forbidden Planet? Film producers, always conscious of the bottom line, know a title will benefit at the box office not only from big-name stars but also from the “brand name” of an old classic, whether or not (younger) viewers know the provenance.

At least the makers of The Invasion (2007) acknowledged this dynamic by dropping part of the title of the film that inspired them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But does anyone notice? Or care? Maybe not. Or maybe, like Robby the Robot, we’re just distracted: “Sorry, miss, I was giving myself an oil job.”


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:50 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the kind words about my io9 series!

    Josh Glenn

    February 4, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    • You are welcome! I’m always keen to read your intelligent thoughts on cultural and philosophical matters of interest. The io9 series was splendid.


      February 4, 2009 at 9:07 pm

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