Book Covers: 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'Dune.' Movie Posters: 'A Boy and His Dog,' 'Soylent Green'

This week finally sees the release of Youth in Revolt, the film version of C.D. Payne's 1993 novel. Considering the book's length (about 500 pages), director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Gustin Nash faced the unenviable task of deciding what should remain and what should be excised. How do you make a 90-minute film that pleases the novel's legion of fans while remaining accessible to a larger audience that has never read it?

It's a challenge familiar to sci-fi fans. We've probably all experienced that moment of utter disbelief that a favorite story or novel has been twisted and mangled beyond recognition. But when the filmmakers get it right, honoring the spirit and creating a work that lives apart from its inspiration, it's magical. Regrettably, I don't read as many novels nowadays as in my earlier years, so I've never read the source material for some of my favorite science fiction films (e.g. Children of Men, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes). Still, it was difficult to narrow my choices down to just ten. Here's what I ended up with: a list of my ten favorite sci-fi adaptations. What are yours?

1. Slaughterhouse-Five
Screenwriter Stephen Geller took on a near-impossible job, adapting Kurt Vonnegut's wondrous novel, which was inspired by Vonnegut's real-life experiences during World War II. Oddly enough, George Roy Hill's direction is as sprightly as you'd expect from the man whose previous film was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet Hill's jaunty approach was exactly the right way to capture the spirit, the basic trajectory, and much of the flavor of the novel, producing a picture that feels both tied to the year in which it was released (1972) and transcendent of time and place.


2. The Thing
Bill Lancaster stuck closer to Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s fine 1938 novella, than the 1951 film version, which makes John Carpenter's so-called remake more like the first film version. As I've written before, the picture is "dread on ice ... Carpenter crisply establishes the action and then makes the dangers explicit by showing an even more disturbing 'where did that come from' scene than Alien. The dangers become internal as the burly, edgy, angry men turn on one another, which may be the greater horror."

Book cover: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'3. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott may not have been able to realize his vision for Dune, but found a dazzling way to showcase a much darker view of the future. The script, credited to Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, takes flight from Philip K. Dick's evocative 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? while grasping its internal essence. The work of Scott and his crew in creating a nightmarish vision of Los Angeles in 2019 suggests the decline and fall of civilization.

4. A Scanner Darkly
Published in 1977, Philip K. Dick's novel had deep resonance, neither condemning drug culture nor embracing it blindly. (The afterword acknowledges a long list of friends who were left damaged or dead from drug use.) Richard Linklater's rotoscoped animated feature takes a very sane approach, conveying some of the tragedy and much of the magic of the phantasmagorical world Dick created.

5. A Boy and His Dog
I can't say it better than I said it before: Harlan Ellison's superb novella furnished the basis for L.Q. Jones' very good (and mostly faithful) film version, starring Don Johnson as Vic, a young survivor driven more by his hormones than any stray intelligent thoughts in his head. Fortunately for Vic, his guide through the wastelands is a telepathic dog named Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), a most unlikely-looking super-canine. An "R-rated, rather kinky tale of survival," the poster promised. Indeed.

Book cover: 'Starship Troopers'6. Starship Troopers
Just so you know: the original didn't have a naked coed shower scene. Yup, Robert Heinlein might still be grumbling from the grave over Paul Verhoeven's lusty big screen adventure. Edward Neumeier's script pays lip service to Heinlein's 1959 novel -- including some lines of dialog and the names of characters, places, and starships -- and follows the general plot, but invents the characters out of whole cloth and twists the themes. Heinlein's book is a chore to read, more a series of lectures than anything else; in this case I'll take Verhoeven's version any day of the week.

7. The Andromeda Strain
Michael Crichton's best-seller makes for electrifying reading. Following just two years later, Robert Wise's filmed adaption, scripted by Nelson Gidding, took only a few liberties; Kate Reid's character was a man in the book, but it's not like they sexed up the role. Instead, the thriller rides the contours of the novel and delivers a taut ride. The TV miniseries adaptation takes a far more hysterical, effects driven approach to the material.

8. Fahrenheit 451
Is it about censorship or about how TV "destroys interest in reading literature"? Whatever Ray Bradbury's original intentions, Francois Truffaut's 1966 adaption (screenplay by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard) remains a fascinating and gentle artifact of the wild and woolly 60s, with Julie Christie essaying dual roles as an inspirational sprite and a disengaged marital partner. It's the latter role that embodies Bradbury's early 1950s fear that TV would provide "factoids" without context, distraction without understanding.

Book cover: 'Make Room! Make Room!'9. Soylent Green
Harry Harrison's cautionary 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! reads quickly and memorably, creating lasting images of a terribly overpopulated world. Transformed into a big screen drama by writer Stanley R. Greenberg and director Richard Fleischer, the result is only slightly above average in the police procedural routine of its narrative. What elevates it is, of course, the invention and "true nature" of "Soylent Green" -- with the eternal warning cries of Charlton Heston reminiscent of Kevin McCarthy's warning in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- and the presence of Edward G. Robinson. Dying of cancer, the great actor gives a stirring, haunting performance.

10. Dune
I loved Frank Herbert's novel and hated David Lynch's movie -- at first. Over time and repeated viewings, including the extended, unapproved-by-Lynch edition, I've grown to respect and admire individual sequences to a considerable degree. Dune may be one of the great unfilmable science fiction novels, but it inspired the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott to spend years trying to make it. The wildly imperfect theatrical version fairly bursts with more creative vision than fits in the frame. Many people prefer the Sci Fi Channel miniseries for its greater fidelity to the source material, but faithfulness is for marriage, not for movies.

categories Sci-Fi