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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 30
Filming the Unfilmable

In the late 70s, Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien, met with Harlan Ellison to discuss the challenges of turning Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel Dune into a movie. Ellison assured Scott it couldn't be done for a variety of reasons, notably the impossibility off translating a sprawling epic like Herbert's full of complex ideas and themes, into two hours of watchable cinema. As he recounts on page 224 of Harlan Ellison's Watching, he informed Scott, "It's just King of Kings with sandworms." Perhaps Scott believed him, because he abandoned the project for another science fiction movie, Bladerunner, from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?... which, ironically, also had a string of directors (Martin Scorsese among them) who simply failed to find the proper way to adapt it.

Alien Harlan Ellison's Watching Bladerunner

None of this surprises those interested in the history of cinema. Unrealized adaptations of great novels clutter soundstages across the globe. Often the movies in question seldom rise from development hell because of budgetary concerns (see Orson Welles's planned retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for RKO Pictures) or because artistic ambitions exceed studio of filmmaker grasp (Terry Gilliam, perhaps sensing the Herculean task needed for a successful cinematic reinterpretation, ultimately passed on Alan Moore's Watchmen). Some cannot overcome the structural challenges (as screenwriters working on shelved film versions of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination found), while others lose the actors initially attached to the projects. (For which we occasionally should be grateful; would anybody really want to have seen Scott direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend?) True, in several cases (Dune, Watchmen, I Am Legend) the project moved into production, but in most cases lacked the spark that drove the original subject matter.

Then there are those books that, because of their very structure, or for their insular nature, or other reasons, simply never would make good movies in the first place. For example, I doubt anybody would, or indeed could, reimagine Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo or Galaxies for a multiplex or even art-house audience. While I love Norman Spinrad's Child of Fortune, it works in part because of Lingo, the language spoken by its characters, and the verbal pyrotechnics therein, and seems an unlikely candidate for adaptation (which I also could say of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, John Clute's Appleseed, and M. John Harrison's Light). Even novels as seemingly straightforward as Frederik Pohl's Man Plus and John Crowley's Engine Summer face an uphill battle in attempting to bring them to the screen, not least of which because both play games with points of view. And on and on. Some books, I convince myself, are simply untranslatable.

Orson Welles Terry Gilliam Escape from New York

And then I think of David Cronenberg, and I wonder if, perhaps, I'm too hasty with my assessment.

Genre fans know Cronenberg. (If they don't, then I despair for them.) Launching his career with odd, uncompromising horror movies like They Came from Within and Rabid in the 70s, he went on to make odd movies with unusual sf content like The Brood and Videodrome, springboards for his conceptual philosophy of the New Flesh. When I came across his work in high school, he seemed like a perfect fit: his vision of the human body in transformation offered me a compelling visual companion to the artwork complimenting the fiction in Omni and the works of writers such as Richard Kadrey, Michael Blumlein, Pat Cadigan, and John Shirley. I may not have always understood it, and often I've seen a particular Cronenberg movie only once (I'll likely never watch The Fly again -- not because I didn't like it, but because the images are so scored into my brain that I'll never need to revisit them). Even better, he seemed to have a kind of intellectual bent that far too many other genre filmmakers lacked. Sure, John Carpenter's Escape from New York pulled out all the visual stops, but only budget separated it from most other B-movie fare. Cronenberg's Scanners, on the other hand, possessed a good deal of subtext, from the next stages of human evolution to the perils of corporate power.

Naked Lunch So when I heard, in 1990, that he was filming an adaptation of William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, I responded by enthusiastically at what he might bring to life -- so much of what he had done previously seemed heavily influenced by Burroughs anyway -- yet still wondered how he possibly could make it work. For all of the novel's brilliance, it unfolds like a jagged kaleidoscope, images and events occurring seemingly without cause or effect, and the subject matter, jammed to its Mugwump gills with addiction, homosexuality, and perverse monsters, felt too extreme for most mainstream audiences. Maybe he could make it work, I thought, but I didn't see how.

Cronenberg, of course, delivered. True, he simply excised many of the novel's passages, but in doing so also added a plot that made a certain degree of sense, characters with which one could, if not like, at least identify, and a villainous plot to prey on the addictions of the United States. The movie's blend of 50s noir, esoteric creatures (the living typewriters turned out to be, by turns, charming and disturbing), and descent into madness pulled off the impossible: filmed an unfilmable novel, and did so brilliantly. It surprised almost everyone.

Even more surprising was his ability to do it again in 1996, this time with J.G. Ballard's Crash, and then again with Patrick McGrath's Spider in 2002. Neither of the books had anything in common, except that they dealt with ideas and themes that would make them challenging adaptations. And yet, inexplicably, Cronenberg managed the incredible feat of creating compelling movies from both novels. Granted, critics appeared to receive both coolly, and both disappointed at the box office, but Cronenberg deserved credit for facing the difficulties of making these movies head on and unflinchingly. For all of their faults, both are difficult to forget.

I don't remember when I first heard that Cronenberg planned to adapt Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis to the screen. Though I respected and admired Cronenberg's work a great deal, something in me rebelled at turning DeLillo's short novel to the screen. The prospect of transforming it into a feature film, at least on paper, made more sense than attempting to do so with Underworld, The Names, or White Noise (Cosmopolis is shorter than all of them), yet I couldn't see how Cronenberg (who wrote the screenplay) could take DeLillo's oblique characters, obtuse ideas, and dense (in the worst sense of the word) philosophy and possibly make it work. Still, I told myself, this is Cronenberg. He can do it.

Alas, he couldn't.

They Came from Within Scanners Cosmopolis

Though Cronenberg works well with actors, his story of vain billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattison) suffers from characters who speak in enigmas. They make observations about the world that sound like caffeine-addled college students who have absorbed their Introduction to Postmodernism without actually understanding it. Though Packer has sex at least twice during the movie, it all seems perfunctory and, surprisingly for a Cronenberg movie, oddly lacking in eroticism. Packer holds meetings in his car with a number of random individuals, but they all seem as interesting as a philosophy professor's notes after they've been shuffled. The entire book (and the movie) might have been modeled on James Joyce's Ulysses, but it represented the worst in meandering art-house fare. It felt like Slacker for the one percent, and only seemed to prove that even the most slender tales can defeat an excellent filmmaker.

None of which, of course, deterred my admiration for Cronenberg, or convinced me that he has lost any of his gifts. True, he adapted an unfilmable that should have stayed that way, but that doesn't mean he, or someone else, won't be able to find the right approach for something even more difficult. Perhaps Cronenberg will tackle Philip K. Dick at some point. Or perhaps Ridley Scott will solve the riddle of how to recast Joe Haldeman's The Forever War as compelling cinema. They've done it before. No doubt they can do it again.

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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