Screen Dreams, the Sequel
by James Patrick Kelly
One of my favorite science fiction list sites is Classics of Science Fiction <csfquery.com>. I often recommend it because of the way it finesses the problem of subjectivity in ranked lists. The editors do not claim that they are presenting the best works of science fiction, but rather the most remembered “based on how often they are cited by awards, best-of lists, polls, editors, scholars, and other sources of recognition.” Here’s their take on the top ten classic science fiction novels <csfquery.com/SearchResult?category=book&list=1&mincite=12&sortby=7> in order.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1951-53)
Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
While anyone might quibble with the order here, or object that this novel or that belongs in the top ten, it says here that this is a respectable list, although skewed toward older work.
It would make sense that readers of these fine novels might pay to see their faves translated to the screen. Indeed, many have been—with mixed results. Maybe the most successful was the 2015 miniseries Childhood’s End <rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/how-childhoods-end-finally-made-it-to-tv-66628>. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been adapted for both TV and film many times; the best iteration was Nineteen Eighty-Four <rogerebert.com/reviews/1984-1984> made in the eponymous year (1984 film), although 1956’s black and white 1984 <youtube.com/watch?v=fpGThhWTW2E> has its moments. (Fun fact: this film was secretly funded by the CIA <framescinemajournal.com/article/keeping-it-all-in-the-nuclear-family-big-brother-auntie-bbc-uncle-sam-and-george-orwells-nineteen-eighty-four>!) The Martian Chronicles was adapted as a meh miniseries <musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2020/05/18/revisiting-the-martian-chronicles-tv-miniseries> in 1980 that Ray Bradbury described as “just boring.” Although the 1968 film Charly <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charly> won an Oscar for its star, Cliff Robertson, its luster has faded over the years, while a 2008 made for TV movie of Flowers for Algernon <rottentomatoes.com/m/flowers_for_algernon> was a dud. Neither of the Le Guin novels has been adapted for the screen, nor has Miller’s masterpiece. Despite many failed projects, Niven’s Ringworld remains optioned but unproduced.
As I write in the fall of 2021, the other two classics on the list are having their moments. The miniseries Foundation <tv.apple.com/us/show/foundation/umc.cmc.5983fipzqbicvrve6jdfep4x3> is dropping an episode at a time on AppleTV. Reaction is mostly positive, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% <rottentomatoes.com/tv/foundation>. It’s being praised for its ambition and IMAX quality world-building. Naysayers complain about what has been cut from the source material and that there are too many humorless and distant characters. One critic snarked that “watching it felt like I was in a meeting.” Nevertheless, the lords of Apple seem pleased, insofar as they have greenlit a second season <variety.com/2021/tv/news/foundation-renewed-season-2-apple-1235083578>. Like many of you, I’ve become a binge-watcher <geekforthewin.com/everything-binge-watching> in this Age of Netflix—but no more than two episodes a night, thank you! Since all the episodes of Foundation are not yet available, I have yet to watch. But I do look forward to it.
Which brings us to Dune: Part One <dunemovie.com>, the highly anticipated film by Denis Villeneuve <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Villeneuve>. Dune has a checkered history and, like the Foundation Trilogy, had long been considered unfilmable. That reputation did not discourage David Lynch <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lynch> from making the effort in 1984. Alas, his quirky Dune <dune.fandom.com/wiki/Dune_(1984_film)> bombed at the box office and was excoriated by many critics and fans. Lynch himself disowned the film, citing creative differences with his producers. Like Lynch before him, Villeneuve has pared the sprawl of the novel by eliminating characters and side plots and, most significantly, filming only half of the book. Hence the title. Part Two is promised before the closing credits and in fact has also been approved <indiewire.com/gallery/dune-part-2-release-date-cast-plot-details/theatrical-release>. This Dune has set pandemic record for box office earnings for Warner Bros., despite its hybrid opening in theaters and HBO Max. While it has been largely well-received, there have been fierce dissenters. See Critics divided over Denis Villeneuve’s ‘dazzling’ and ‘boring’ sci-fi adaptation <independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/dune-review-round-up-denis-villeneuve-b1914281.html>. I’m puzzled by this, because nobody knows yet whether Villeneuve will stick the landing in Part Two. I do think that its early release on television has done this half-Dune no favors artistically; it wants to be seen on the largest possible screen. I caught it at my local multiplex, and enjoyed it, although it is perhaps a film more to be admired than loved.
You may recall that this is not the first time we’ve looked at film adaptations. “Screen Dreams” was written just a few months before the 2016 debut of another Villeneuve film: Arrival <metacritic.com/movie/arrival>, adapted from Ted Chiang’s celebrated “Story of Your Life” <wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_of_Your_Life>. I’d not yet seen Arrival when I wrote that column, so I had no way of knowing that it would become one of my favorite sf films of all time—if not the favorite. Even now, as I replay it in the theatre of my mind, I experience not only the elusive sense of wonder that the best science fiction evokes, but also the powerful emotions of a deeply human story, which often eludes creators in this genre of ideas.
Since watching Villeneuve’s Dune and bouncing my own reaction off the many contradictory reviews, I’ve been thinking again about Arrival. It occurs to me that maybe it’s easier to adapt short fiction than it is to adapt novels. Although there is no one-to-one correspondence, a double-spaced manuscript of a novelette, for example, might be between thirty and fifty pages, while most film schools teach that the screenplay for a feature should be no longer than a hundred and twenty pages. And one of the most often repeated complaints about adaptations is that too much gets left out. So, is that the case?
While it turns out that just a few handfuls of short stories have been adapted for sff feature length films, hundreds have made the jump from print to television, mostly in anthology series. And since we’re all short form fans here, let’s pause for a quick look at some of those shows, starting with this List of literary sources for anthology television series <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_literary_sources_for_anthology_television_series> for your viewing and reading pleasure.
Of course, the eight million pound godzilla of science fiction anthologies was Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone <twilightzone.fandom.com>. There have been four series with that name, although Serling was only involved with the first. Shot in black-and-white on skimpy budgets, most of it holds up amazingly well. Indeed, the eerie theme music by Marius Constant <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marius_Constant>, Serling’s deadpan and unnerving introductions, and the deft writing have made it a fixture of popular culture. Twilight Zone (first series, 1959-1964) <paramountplus.com> included one hundred and fifty-six episodes, many based on stories by the trio of Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Thompson. Other fine individual episodes were adapted from stories by Damon Knight, Ray Bradbury, and Jerome Bixby, to name but a few. Check out Twilight Zone episodes based on short stories <imdb.com/list/ls059801508> for the complete list. Twilight Zone (second series, 1985–1989) <paramountplus.com> ran to sixty-five episodes, some based on stories by Tom Godwin, Joe Haldeman, and Robert Silverberg among others. Use this episode list <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Twilight_Zone_(1985_TV_series)_episodes> as a reading guide.
Twilight Zone (third series, 2002-2003) <paramountplus.com> lasted only one season; its forty-three episodes were produced mostly from original scripts. A promising reboot, Twilight Zone (fourth series, 2019-2020) <paramountplus.com> was recently produced and hosted by the prolific Jordan Peele <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jordan_Peele>, but was canceled after two seasons and twenty episodes. Again, almost all were original scripts, except for a remake of Richard Matheson’s classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
The success of The Twilight Zone led various publishers to bring out print anthologies collecting the stories that gave rise to the episodes. In fact, the demand was so great for these books that writers were hired to adapt the teleplays into fiction. Check out Bookshelf Essentials: Stories from the Twilight Zone <twilightzonevortex.blogspot.com/2018/01/bookshelf-essentials.html> for another TZ reading list.
Twilight Zone paved the way not only for its direct sequels, but also for the many anthology shows that followed over the decades in Rod Serling’s footsteps, all still available for your streaming pleasure. Here are a few of the highlights:
The Outer Limits (original) <pluto.tv>, 1963-1964: forty-nine episodes, two based on science fiction stories by Harlan Ellison and Eando Binder; the rest were original scripts.
Night Gallery <nbc.com/night-gallery/episodes>, 1969-1973: forty-three episodes based on science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories by Joan Aiken, Fritz Leiber, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others.
The Ray Bradbury Theater <pluto.tv>, 1985-86 and from 1988-92: all sixty-five episodes were written by Ray Bradbury, based on his own work.
Monsters <amazon.com>, 1988-1991: seventy-two episodes based on stories by Robert Bloch, Maureen F. McHugh, and Lisa Tuttle, among others.
The Outer Limits (rebooted) <therokuchannel.roku.com>, 1995–2002: one hundred and fifty-two episodes, some based on science fiction stories by Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, James Patrick Kelly, and many others.
The Hunger <hbomax.com>, 1997-2000: forty-four episodes based on horror stories by Poppy Z. Brite, Gemma Files, and Graham Masterton, among many others.
Masters of Horror <tubitv.com>, 2005-2007: twenty-six episodes based on horror stories by Dale Bailey, Joe R. Lansdale, and James Tiptree Jr., among others.
Masters of Science Fiction <youtube.com>, 2007: six episodes based on science fiction stories by Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, and John Kessel.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams <amazon.com>, 2017: ten episodes based on Dick’s work.
In 2019 Netflix debuted the wonderful Love Death + Rockets <netflix.com>; it was recently renewed for a third season. All the animated episodes are based on sf short stories by writers working right now <culturedvultures.com/stories-that-inspired-love-death-robots-s2> and all are under twenty minutes long, making this series something like flash TV.
Wait! What was the question again? Oh right, are short stories really easier to adapt for the screen than novels? Having assembled the applicable research materials, I leave proof of the proposition as an exercise for the reader.
Copyright © 2022 James Patrick Kelly