by James Patrick Kelly
You may have read someplace that writing short fiction is not the most lucrative way to earn a living. Perhaps you read it here! Now it’s true that, after a story slides into one of the coveted spots in Sheila’s table of contents, it might someday be reprinted. So, yay! Double dipping! However, while appearances in a Best of the Year collection, or a theme anthology, or perhaps an edition of one’s own collected work, are always welcome, they hardly cover the rent. But even though none of us expects to get rich, I do believe that in the dustiest corner at the back of every writer’s mind glimmers a dream of a fabulous income-changing Phone Call from Steven Spielberg www.dreamworksstudios.com/about/executives/steven-spielberg. Or Ridley Scott http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridley_Scott. Or Christopher Nolan www.dga.org/craft/dgaq/all-articles/1202-spring-2012/dga-interview-christopher-nolan.aspx. Or at least some suit from HBO, Netflix, or Amazon.
And it does happen, even to humble short story writers. As I write this, we are mere months away from the release of the movie-ization of my friend Ted Chiang’s celebrated “Story of Your Life,” which was first published in 1998 in the anthology Starlight 2. Ted’s novella went on to win the Sturgeon Award www.sfcenter.ku.edu/sturgeon.htm in 1999 and the Nebula Award www.sfwa.org/nebula-awards in 2000, and has been reprinted many times since, most recently in a reissue of his collection Stories of Your Life and Others www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/538163/stories-of-your-life-and-others-by-ted-chiang/9781101972120. The title of the film based on Ted’s story has been changed to Arrrival www.arrivalmovie.com; it is directed by Denis Villeneuve www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/venice-arrival-director-denis-villeneuve-925854 and stars Amy Adams www.amyadamsfan.com.
While SF writers who have sold work to Hollywood are usually happy to cash the checks, more than a few have been disappointed by what actually makes it onto the screen. The ideas that drive some of our best literary efforts do not always survive the transition to film or television. Take the money and run, is advice I’ve heard again and again from disenchanted colleagues. But perhaps not this time. With a budget of some fifty million dollars, Arrival is definitely a major motion picture, but by all reports it’s not the overblown eye-candy typical of recent science fiction extravaganzas. After viewing screenings at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, critics are using phrases like “a thriller of ideas” and “dreamy, freaky, audacious” and “a close encounter with the best of intelligent, thoughtful science fiction.” Ted has read the screenplay and has expressed high hopes for Arrival in this fascinating interview www.electricliterature.com/the-legendary-ted-chiang-on-seeing-his-stories-adapted-for-the-screen-and-the-ever-expanding-916a9530e598#.re2c6is36 with Meghan McCarron www.meghanmccarron.com: “The process for the ‘Story of Your Life’ adaptation has been relatively smooth, I think; not fast—it’s been five years since I was first contacted—but there haven’t been too many cooks involved. It seems like the project has managed to avoid the typical Hollywood disasters you hear about. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Me too, Ted!
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I was surprised when I started to tally up the SF stories that have been made into movies. I knew two that were first published in Asimov’s off the top of my head, and I could think of a couple of others. But noodling around the internets, I’ve been reminded of movies I hadn’t realized began as stories. Before I point you toward a few of the better known ones, let me mention a couple of websites I use all the time to find movies online and decide whether to watch them. Can I Stream It? www.canistream.it says it “is a free service that allows you to search across the most popular streaming, rental, and purchase services to find where a movie is available.” And the peculiarly named Rotten Tomatoes www.rottentomatoes.com is an aggregator of movie reviews, perhaps best known for its Tomatometer™, which gives each movie a grade from 0-100 percent based on the critical consensus. (For the record, although Arrival has not yet been released as I type this, several respected critics have reviewed it based on preview showings at film festivals. It currently sports an astounding Tomato-meter rating of 100 percent!)
And now, let’s go to the movies!
“The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick www.philipkdickfans.com was first published in the January 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe www.philsp.com/mags/fantastic_universe.html. There have been a number of movies adapted from Dick’s fiction—most but not all from the novels. Although Dick himself never received the Phone Call from Spielberg, since he died in 1982, Steven Spielberg did bring his version of the story to the big screen in 2002 as Minority Report www.foxmovies.com/movies/minority-report. You can stream it from the usual rental sites for a fee. It was well-received with a Tomatometer score of 90 percent, although some Dick purists are disgruntled with the liberties that the screenwriters took with the original material. However, as Spielberg himself said, “The Philip K. Dick story only gives you a springboard that really doesn’t have a second or third act. Most of the movie is not in the Philip K. Dick story—to the chagrin of the Philip K. Dick fans, I’m sure.”
In the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction www.sfsite.com/fsf, Daniel Keyes www.danielkeyesauthor.com/dksbio.html published one of the best loved stories in the SF canon, “Flowers for Algernon” www.escapepod.org/2015/04/20/ep490-flowers-for-algernon. The story won the Hugo Award and was followed in 1966 by the Nebula award-winning novel Flowers for Algernon. Keyes’s book has been translated into twenty-seven languages, and has sold more than five million copies. Since its original publication, it has never been out of print and is to this day a staple of high school reading lists. The film version CHARLY www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/22803/Charly premiered in 1968 and was directed and produced by Ralph Nelson http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Nelson. It earned Cliff Robertson www.cliffrobertson.info an Academy Award for Best Actor and was a hit with critics and audiences alike, with a Tomatometer rating of 71 percent. In addition to CHARLY, “Flowers for Algernon” adaptations have included French and Japanese movies, a stage play and a musical; it has also inspired several record albums and dance pieces. In 2000 an American television movie version, Flowers for Algernon www.rottentomatoes.com/m/flowers_for_algernon, was directed by Jeff Bleckner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Bleckner. Inexplcably, you can stream neither CHARLY nor the inferior Flowers for Algernon TV movie at the present time.
Just a year before the magazine that would bear his name launched, Isaac Asimov www.asimovonline.com published one of his best-known stories. In our Bicentennial Year of 1976, “The Bicentennial Man” debuted in the anthology Stellar-2 www.amazon.com/Stellar-2-Science-Fiction-Stories/dp/B0012G7AHM. A year later the novelette won both the Hugo www.thehugoawards.org and Nebula Awards. Part of his classic robot series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_series_(Asimov), Asimov teamed with Robert Silverberg www.majipoor.com to expand it to a novel called The Positronic Man http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Positronic_Man. The movie Bicentennial Man www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfDlQ-Q12rg premiered in 1999; it had a one hundred million dollar budget and was directed by Chris Columbus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Columbus_(filmmaker). Unfortunately, it did not impress either the critics or audiences, scoring just 37 percent on the Tomatometer, perhaps because of its sentimental third act. You can stream it for a fee or watch it for free if you subscribe to HBO or Xfinity.
Orson Scott Card www.hatrack.com introduced Ender Wiggin to the world in the August 1977 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact www.analogsf.com. Encouraged by a Nebula nomination for “Ender’s Game,” Card expanded his story in 1985 into one of the most successful—if controversial—SF novels of all time, Ender’s Game http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ender%27s_Game. His novelization swept both the Hugo and Nebula awards, as did its 1986 sequel, Speaker for the Dead www.hatrack.com/osc/books/speakerforthedead/speakerforthedead.shtml. All through the eighties and nineties rumors flew about a potential sale of movie rights, but Card was protective of his masterpiece and insisted on writing the screenplay himself. Although he produced about six different scripts during those years, ultimately Ender’s Game www.endersgamemovie.com was written and directed by Gavin Hood http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gavin_Hood, with Card stating that the script was 100 percent Hood’s. The movie opened in 2013 to mixed reviews with a Tomatometer rating of 60 percent. Although it was the top grossing film in the US in its opening week, Ender’s Game did not have the legs to earn back its $115 million cost. Variety www.variety.com/gallery/box-office-disappointments-of-2013/#!2/undefined included the film in its list of the “Biggest Box Office Flops of 2013,” but stream it from all the usual sources for a fee and judge for yourself!
I was a barely published newbie when Asimov’s www.amazon.com/Asimovs-Science-Fiction-Magazine-Spring/dp/B000YHCVWE debuted in December 1977, so of course I went out to score the premier issue and study what looked to be an important new market. One of the stories I read was “Air Raid,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Herb Boehm. Turns out that Boehm was actually one of the hottest new writers of the Seventies, John Varley http://varley.net, who reportedly had adopted a pseudonym so that he could appear twice in that first issue, once as himself and once as Boehm. In 1983 Varley expanded his story into a well-received novel called Millennium http://varley.net/novel/millennium_novel. Meanwhile he was working on a screenplay that did not see production until it was filmed by the British director Michael Anderson http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Anderson_(director) in 1989. Anderson worked from a butchered version of Varley’s screenplay and Millennium www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7v9ozrTkMI the movie received no love from critics or audiences, with a Tomatometer rating of just 11 percent. According to one snarky critic it “plays out much like someone trying to drunkenly explain the plot of a Doctor Who episode they haven’t seen in several years.” So perhaps it is no great loss that you can’t stream it, although you can see it for free if you are an Xfinity cable subscriber.
“Enemy Mine” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enemy_Mine_(novella), by Barry Longyear www.barryblongyear.com, was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’s September 1979 issue and won both the Nebula and the Hugo the following year. In 1985 Wolfgang Petersen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Petersen directed the film version. It got a mixed critical reception, racking up a 59 percent on the Tomatometer. Alas, Enemy Mine www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRUdNhYoP_U was a box office disappointment and failed to make back its forty million dollar cost, although some blame this on 20th Century Fox’s wrongheaded marketing of the film. Despite this, it’s worth a look and is widely available for fee-based streaming.
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Happy watching, dear readers. Oh and by the way, Messrs. Spielberg, Scott, and Nolan—I’m standing by the phone and waiting to take your call!
Copyright © 2017 James Patrick Kelly