Blame ‘Star Wars’ if You Think Science Fiction Is Brain Dead

The huge success of the George Lucas franchise has convinced Hollywood and audiences that sci-fi need be no more than action movies in space. Sci-fi authors beg to differ.

David James/Lucasfilm

In 1974, Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman published a science fiction novel called The Forever War that used outer space as a metaphor for the conflict in Southeast Asia. The book won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards—the genre’s top honors—and has never been out of print. It has also been optioned for the screen almost continuously—Channing Tatum was attached to star as recently as a year ago—yet no film version has ever made its way into theaters.

Three years after The Forever War hit the bookstores, Star Wars, a movie directed by a young man named George Lucas and featuring a cast of mostly little known actors was released. A canny mashup of Joseph Campbell mythology, Flash Gordon serials, and an Akira Kurosawa film called The Hidden Fortress, the movie became a smash success and has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry featuring sequels and prequels (the latest, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opens December 15), books, toys, clothing, and other tchotchkes. It has also helped define, so far as the motion picture industry is concerned, exactly what science fiction is all about—to the detriment of literary sci fi writers like Joe Haldeman.

“When you say ‘science fiction’ to Hollywood,” says Marc Bernardin a TV writer and podcaster who has been an editor for The Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times, “they see space opera and laser beams.”

Or giant robots, killer androids, alien slime things, and humans with super powers. What Hollywood doesn’t see is what makes literary sci fi unique: it is a genre of ideas, and in the hands of top practitioners like Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, William Gibson, and others, sci fi is a futuristic lens used to view subjects like race, gender, politics, and how technology is changing humanity.

“Hollywood groupthink is anathema to the nature of sci fi, which is a cerebral philosophical exploration of humankind and puncturing the limits of our imagination,” says author and film critic Thelma Adams. “I think the central concept here is that Hollywood, Cap H, is as terrified of sci fi as it is of an alien invasion. And that’s because the studios, as they have been increasingly corporatized, become absolutely risk averse in a way that they haven’t always been.”

“Science fiction is different from other kinds of narrative,” Haldeman told The Daily Beast. “It’s difficult to be true to a complex idea and communicate that idea. You don’t have to look much further than money. The default scheme for science fiction [in the film industry] is pretty low, about 6th grade. There’s not much ambition to do anything. Once you have that much money riding on a project, you don’t want to take chances.”

In other words, stick with the tried and true, the proven money makers—franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, and the endless movies based on DC and Marvel characters. Ignore classic sci fi like Isaac Asimov’s geopolitical Foundation books, Robert Heinlein’s fish-out-of-water classic Stranger In A Strange Land, and Octavia Butler’s slavery time travel novel Kindred, or tie them up in a development hell that can last for decades.

“Hollywood has a problem of too many cooks,” says Christopher Morgan, an editor at the sci fi/fantasy publishing house Tor/Forge. “You have to get your stuff sold, so you have to make compromises, and I think Hollywood focus-groups itself out of a lot of good films.”

Part of the problem in this risk averse atmosphere is that studios can point to a number of major book-to-film translations that failed, and use that as an excuse not to pursue similar projects. Director David Lynch’s 1984 film of the Frank Herbert classic Dune was a notorious mega-budgeted bomb, (Arrival director Denis Villeneuve has signed to take another crack at the book, which was also filmed as a mini-series in 2000 by the Syfy Channel). The 1995 Johnny Mnemonic, based on a story by cyberpunk author William Gibson, earned a meager 13 percent rating from rottentomatoes. The 2002 remake of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was widely reviled. And the 2013 Ender’s Game, based on Orson Scott Card’s novel, satisfied neither critics nor audiences.

'2001' is arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made, and a primer for how to make mind-blowing sci fi that speaks to both the eye and the mind.

“When you look at the track record of movies based on science fiction books, they are not often box office performers,” says Bernardin. “Part of the problem is when you live in the sf world, the desire of bringing it to the screen shaves off those great ideas. Idea is not an easy thing to sell.”

Of course, occasionally you do get a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, probably the template for nearly all intelligent science fiction film ever since. Based on a story by Arthur C. Clarke, director Stanley Kubrick’s film not only featured lush photography and special effects that still look great nearly 50 years later, but the film’s storyline was a philosophical meditation on human evolution. It is arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made, and a primer for how to make mind-blowing sci fi that speaks to both the eye and the mind.

More recently, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was full of intelligent thoughts about communication with aliens and the vagaries of time. And this February will see the release of Annihilation, based on the critically acclaimed creepfest by Jeff VanderMeer about an alien force that has taken over an area on Earth and cut it off from the rest of the world.

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Plus, when in doubt, you can always go to the works of Philip K. Dick, possibly the most filmed sci fi author (Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc.), although, says Bernardin, the movies made from his books “bear little resemblance to the books themselves. There is always an idea at the center of his books—slave robot revolutions, debating the nature of AI, implanted memory—that is interesting. Here’s the little bit we love, and we can leverage it to our bosses. That is an easier sell.”

“Dick is a very cinematic writer,” adds Morgan. “He was vivid with language, and being efficient with language means you don’t have to work hard to translate it to an image. You can also distill Dick down to fundamental questions. Sci fi is good at saying ‘What if?’”

What this all means is that when it comes to sci fi adaptations, TV is now the primary go-to place. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was made into a Syfy Channel mini-series, and Netflix has optioned John Scalzi’s futuristic military novel Old Man’s War. Next year HBO will debut a new version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (previously filmed by Francois Truffaut in 1966), starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon; Altered Carbon, based on the cyberpunk novel by Richard Morgan, is set to air on Netflix in February, and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a series set for 2018 on Amazon (Amazon’s Man In the High Castle, also based on a Dick novel, has been renewed for a third season).

Why TV? “You get room to breathe,” says Morgan. “You’re not limited to two hours, and it’s cheaper. You can afford to take risks, and to find the audience.”

“Who cares about theatrical [releases] when television has produced wonderful shows like The Expanse,” says Adams, referring to an epic Syfy Channel series based on novels by James S.A. Corey. “Episodic television allows for a level of character and philosophical development that suits sci fi in a way that the heavy blockbuster format doesn’t.”

When it comes to optioning new literary projects, however, it seems production companies are still going with what they know. Tor/Forge’s Morgan says, “Hollywood is gravitating towards space opera, like Old Man’s War, and most are going to TV. Studios are realizing there is easier money in the smaller screen.”

And there’s easy money in Star Wars too, thanks to the almost numbing familiarity of light sabers, Jedi, The Force, wookies, Starfighters, and other aspects of what has now become a nine-film franchise, with more to come. But it is this very familiarity that has made TV the place for the science fiction adaptations.

Marc Bernardin imagines studio types looking at a relatively unknown futuristic novel and thinking, “’I don’t know how to sell this to Belgium, how will it sell in Latin America?’ The genius of Star Wars is that it’s easily salable, and the same with Marvel projects. You can craft a TV trailer that’s easy to understand. But that’s also why sci fi goes better on TV, because you have time to live it. The demands of a two-hour movie are such you can’t find what’s in the shadows. It’s a very contained experience.”