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Sf Film and LiteratureEdit
Science Fiction: Film and LiteratureEdit
by James MayEdit
Copyright 2010 James May • All Rights ReservedEdit
As a lifelong fan of both film and literary science fiction as well as fantastic fiction in general, I have long been struck by the differences in the way the two have been presented to the general public. Fantastic film in it's sparse beginnings early on in the 20th century largely resisted any influence from it's contemporary literary side. With the exception of some nicely done adaptations of H.G. Wells and seemingly endless rehashes of Shelly and Stoker, Hollywood preferred instead to rely on original screen plays which reflected little love or understanding of science fiction or fantastic literature in general although it was that literature that provided the genesis of fantastic film itself. When the boom in science fiction magazines took place in the United States in the late 1920's it was entirely ignored by Hollywood for more than 20 years. Only with the production of "The Thing From Another World", (1951), inadequately based on the great short story, "Who Goes There?", (1938), by John W. Campbell writing as Don A. Stuart and the release of "The Day the Earth Stood Still", (1951), directed by the great Robert Wise and based on Harry Bates story, "Farewell To the Master", published some 11 years earlier in a SF pulp magazine, did Hollywood take it's first dip into a story inspired by contemporary non-mainstream SF literature. "Destination Moon", (1950) slightly predated both films and was supposedly based on work by the hugely popular contemporary SF writer Robert Heinlein but there is no evidence in the film of the sophistication or nuance of Heinlein's work. Unfortunately that dip by Hollywood into the SF pulps died at birth. Since then there have been fits and starts but even now Hollywood has not fully embraced the vast treasure trove of SF literature. In looking over a couple of lists of the top 100 SF films ever made, the number of films adapted from hard core science fiction literature is only about 1 in 10 which is staggering and what would be considered the best SF novels and short stories have been ignored almost entirely.
James Cameron said of his hugely successful 2009 release, "Avatar", that he had wanted to pay tribute to works like Edgar Rice Burrough's, John Carter of Mars. "Avatar" has a more specific homage to Poul Anderson's bright short science fiction story, "Call Me Joe", published in the April, 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. "Avatar" also has a more than slight similarity to Christopher Rowley's series of SF novels set on the planet Fenrille. Like the moon of Pandora in "Avatar", Fenrille has an indigenous species who must live in harmony with a dangerous eco-system, a world forest. Like the forest in "Avatar", the one in the Fenrille series is an interconnected brain which can defend itself. The other similarity to "Avatar" is that the planet Fenrille has a fabulously expensive item obtainable only on Fenrille which mankind desires greatly and sends mercenary teams to take out of the forest, warring against the natives and their human allies. However original "Avatar" is or is not, one can only sigh in wonder at what a man like Cameron could have done with the first three novels of the John Carter series which has never been adapted; only recently have Hollywood's special effects and design people been up to such a task. Also, only in recent years has it been the case that Hollywood has had the will and writing skill and the movie going public the taste to approach more sophisticated, less action oriented science fiction such as, for example, a film adaptation of A.E. van Vogt's 1942, "The Weapon Shops", would represent.
On the fantasy/adventure side of the equation, the hard genre as represented in literature was virtually entirely ignored from the advent of sound pictures in the late 1920's and onwards. This despite the great popularity of such non-mainstream fantastic fiction authors as Abraham Merritt, Robert E. Howard and H. Rider Haggard. Hollywood was all over Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan almost from his inception but everything else in terms of literature turned into film seemed to fall in the cracks, including virtually all of Burrough's other much more SF oriented work; this latter is understandable since from a special effects point of view they were unfilmable. Later exceptions were, "Lost Horizon", (1937) and the now largely forgotten trilogy of stories which is the 1943 film "Flesh and Fantasy". Abraham Merritt did have his diabolical "Seven Footprints To Satan", (1927), made into a silent film in 1929 and his "Burn, Witch, Burn", (1933) was made into a 1936 film titled "Devil Doll" but the latter work was hardly representative of Merritt who was heavy on prose and light on story.
A handful of films that could be considered fantasy were released almost every year in the 3 decades following the inception of sound in films but the core of authors that made up what many considered as hardcore horror/fantasy as opposed to mainstream authors were really nowhere to be found. It is as if such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson and Ray Cummings didn't exist; film forays into literature were few, far between and largely ill-conceived and the original screenplay was the order of the day. While Robert Heinlein was dominating SF starting in the 1940's he simlpy didn't matter as far as filmmakers were concerned; in fairness, there is little evidence that such films would have made much money. As I said, fantastic films adapted from literature were culled from a rather more visible and mainstream group of authors and in the early days these sometimes turned out very nicely as in the case of 2 films adapted from H.G. Wells, "The Invisible Man, (1933) from the 1897 short novel of the same name and "The Island Of Lost Souls", (1932), the latter from the novel, "The Island Of Dr. Moreau", (1896); no coincidence that it took a special effects breakthrough to produce the former picture. As a whole, hard core SF fans from the 1930's to the 1950's became resigned to having nothing when it came to films and subsequently, in the 1960s, to having to resort to a much more dumbed down version of their beloved literature when it came to Hollywood.
One film of the fantastic that stood well on it's own as an original screenplay was "King Kong", (1933). Having said that, one could argue that "King Kong" borrowed from fantastic literature although in the main the film was entirely original in concept. The fecundity of the flora and fauna of Skull Island with it's attendant aura of constant menace has echoes in Edgar Rice Burrough's, "The Land That Time Forgot", serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1918. Burroughs was still at the height of his popularity in 1933 but perhaps it is both "King Kong" and Burroughs who owe a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World", (1912), especially the former in that King Kong is brought back to civilization as is a pterodactyl in "The Lost World". In terms of it's pacing and attention to detail, "King Kong" remains to this day one of the best pure adventure films ever made. For whatever reasons, Hollywood made no attempt whatsoever to cash in on the popularity of "King Kong" and the film remained very much a stand-alone effort other than the 1933 direct sequel,"Son Of Kong".
"The Shape of Things To Come", a 1933 future history novel by H.G. Wells was adapted for the screen in the 1936 release of "Things To Come", a stiff-necked and curiously entertaining film which was considered ground breaking in its day when it came to Hollywood paying a visit to SF literature; evidence of how little true SF fans had to look forward to.
When I was in my early teens in the late 1960s, I was thrilling to my wondrous discovery of fantastic literature: science fiction, fantasy and horror. I was immediately keenly aware of how much broader and satisfying an experience fantastic literature provided in comparison to films though I was at the same time totally enchanted with fantastic films, poor cousins that they were. Even such relatively childish novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs', "A Princess of Mars", from 1911 or his "At the Earth's Core", (1914), were far beyond any fantastic films made for almost 7 decades in terms of their scope, vision and imagination. There was no desire on the part of Hollywood to adapt such books to the silver screen and in any event, special effects until the 1980's and beyond were hopelessly inadequate with the exception of Ray Harryhausen who's film projects not only had nice special effects but wonderful art direction that very much enhanced the films he was involved in. I'm sure the disappointing 1975 film version of "The Land That Time Forgot" would have been a much more satisfying experience had Harryhausen been involved; Harryhausen very much understood such material.
Ray Harryhausen, the greatest stop motion effects artist ever, did much to ameliorate the lack of quality fantastic films coming out of Hollywood. "Jason and the Argonauts", (1963), is one of the most loved films among fantastic film buffs. One of my very favorite films that Ray Harryhausen ever did is "First Men In the Moon" which I also consider one of the finest SF films ever made. Harryhausen was also a great designer as well as special effects wizard and all his skills come into play in First Men. Based on the H.G. Wells novel from 1901, the film very cleverly has an original bookend story not in the novel that begins and ends in a near future, perhaps 1970, though the bulk of the film which tells the story takes place in 1899. The bookends also create an entertaining mystery whose answer is gradually revealed throughout the film. "First Men In the Moon" is a wonderfully realized screen adapation and the characterization of the 3 main protaganists is one of the keys to this, with a particularly nice performance by Lionel Jeffries as Cavor. Another standout with the production team of Schneer and Harryhausen was "Mysterious Island", (1961), based on the rather tedious novel of the same name by Jules Verne; an impressive musical score by the renowned Bernard Herrmann very much added to the film's presence.
I as well as many others also have wonderful memories of the film"The Time Machine", (1960), a much less faithful adaptation than First Men of yet another H.G. Wells work, this time published in 1895. On this occasion the strong hand behind the design and special effects is George Pal, who also directed the film. The scenes in the hero's study at the beginning and end of the film are very well done and in their way every bit as important to the film as H. George Wells adventures in the future. Named for the author in the film version, the hero in the original book was referred to simply as the "Time Traveler". George Pal also produced and did the special effects for an earlier 1953 film adaptation of Well's, "The War of the Worlds", (1898), which is another very well remembered SF film, though an utter reworking of the original story.
Looking back now into my own childhood, I remember such films as "Jason and the Argonauts" and "First Men In the Moon" as stand outs in terms of being a total package of acting, screenplay, art direction and special effects if still somewhat childish, but most films came up hopelessly short in comparison to the experience I was enjoying with my books. "Dune", by Frank Herbert was being serialized in Analog SF magazine from 1963 to 1965 and was fantastically advanced in terms of it's maturity and sophistication compared to Hollywood films in the same genre produced at the same time. It took some 40 years for the creative element and movie going public to be prepared to really experience "Dune" as a film.
I think one can immediately make the argument that science fiction literature, at it's best, going back even as far as 1938, demonstrated a sophistication and nuance that was years ahead of hollywood films of the same era. Although hollywood was capable of handling fairly sophisticated themes in it's films, for some reason science fiction in film was immediately relegated to the province of monsters films with not even a nod to what was happening on the contemporary literary side of the genre. The fact is that literary and cinematic science fiction were routinely worlds apart as early as the beginning of the 40's as exemplified by ambitious, great short fiction such as, "Universe", (1941) and "The Roads Must Roll", (1940) by Robert Heinlein, "Nerves", (1942) by Lester del Rey and "The Weapon Shop", (1942) by A.E. van Vogt.
What is generally considered modern science fiction literature began around 1940 in what has been called it's "golden age", producing stories that even today Hollywood would be hard pressed to present because of the scope and subtlety of it's themes. These stories were published in pulp magazines specific to the science fiction genre and really raised the bar in terms of what they expected from their readers. The king of the SF pulps in terms of great stories was undoubtedly Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine which has had a long life, beginning in 1930 and continuing until today. The heyday of Astounding was the 1940's when an amazing amount of all-time classic novels and short fiction was published in it's pages. The influence on it's content during it literary high tide by it's writer turned editor John W. Campbell was huge and his role in the history of science fiction literature cannot be overstated. Despite the upsurge in really good SF writing, that same decade of the 1940's saw not a single nod from Hollywood to what was happening in those SF pulps; there was a singular disconnect between the two. As in the case of fantasy literature, it was if A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov didn't exist.
I guess you could say that the so-called "golden age" of science fiction can be marked with the publication of "Who Goes There?",(1938), by that selfsame John W. Campbell, Jr., writing in this instance as Don A. Stuart. This golden age was marked by a higher literary standard and more sophisticated outlook than had been in evidence during the previous 10 years but without the sense of condecension and even shame that typified so much work in the decade of the 1960's. Rather, the writers of the Golden Age of SF loved the genre and embraced both it's higher and lower aspirations with love and a sense of pride. I don't denigrate what was published in the SF pulps from 1926 to 1938 as I believe it was all part of a natural and necessary evolution of the genre and there were some really entertaining stories published by some wonderful writers like Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton and Stanley G. Weinbaum to name a few and these stories could be big time fun.
"Who Goes There?" is a contemporary story of scientists trapped at the South Pole with a shape shifting alien they discover and accidentally set loose after it's spaceship had been buried under the ice for thousands of years and a very entertaining and celebrated story at that. In 1951, "The Thing From Another World" was released and was based on the original novella. While an entertaining film in it's own right it totally abandons the original story and all that is left is the spaceship under the ice and a now arctic location. One can easily say that the original novella had in fact not been adapted at all.
A much better film and much more faithful adaptation of "Who Goes There?" was "The Thing", (1982) which is a horrifically entertaining movie and a very nice screen play. The level of production was quite high and for my money the best film John Carpenter ever made although "Halloween", (1978), "Starman", (1984) and "Escape From New York", (1981) all get very high marks from his fans. "The Thing" proved the value of trusting in your original material and drawing from it's strengths rather than trying to improve perceived weaknesses. Many of the original stories made into SF films are all-time classics and they have that stature for a reason; best to tread lightly when it comes to the idea of improving the material and to me this has been proven again and again as the best way to go; you don't tinker with such a high level of art. I would put "The Thing" on a list of the 25 best SF films ever made. Although "The Thing" can be dismissed as a monster film it's grimness, serious treatment of the material together with the cleverness of the original story take it to a higher level.
"When Worlds Collide" is a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer first serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1932/33. In 1951 a film adaptation was released. It is the story of what happens when it's learned that a runaway rogue planet will soon colllide with us, totally destroying Earth. The rogue planet has a companion planet and scientists determine that if they can build 2 rockets, a type of Noah's Ark, it is possible a few people can cross over to the 2nd planet and survive. Wylie and Balmer were mainstream writers and not part of the SF crowd and the book reflects a more workmanlike, serious approach to it's subject matter. A sequel was serialized in 1933/34, also in Blue Book titled "After Worlds Collide" and tells the story of what happens to the survivors who reach the 2nd planet and their new home. What they discover are mysterious abandoned alien cities and also evidence that they are not alone. The sequel is a lot more fun than the first novel and though clearly reflecting a more mainstream approach to science fiction also incorporated many elements of the genre as typified by the SF pulps. With few exceptions, the decade of the 1950's was one wherein SF film was relegated to an audience of children and teenagers.
It wouldn't be unfair to say that science fiction literature has been decades ahead of it's film cousin in terms of how much intellectual content it was willing to trust it's readers with. Besides the issue of not wanting to give the movie going public more than it could handle, there was also the issue of accustoming the film going public with the "language" of science fiction. Literary science fiction has a whole host of basic scientific semantics, premises and themes that tend to be specific to the genre, it's own language if you will, and one only begins to feel comfortable reading SF as one's exposure to it's language and themes become more familiar. If, for example, your first experience with reading SF is "Dune" then good luck. Aside from this there was the simple fact that Hollywood special effects and art design was simply not up to the task of portraying the highly imaginative worlds of literary SF. In terms of screenplay adaptations there was no desire or competence to present what was going on in SF literature to the movie going public. I'm trying to imagine a contemporaneous film adaptation of van Vogt's, "The Weapon Shop" comng out in 1943 and I just can't.
Today, as I write this in Feb. of 2009, the film going public has gradually been more and more exposed to scientific premises that those on the literary side have long since been acquainted with. It has been a matter of a slow exposure and education as it were; one cannot lay the groundwork for a larger mainstream audience to become comfortable with science fiction premises all in a two hour film as it would hopelessly hamstring the film. Today, the film public is much more aware of basic SF concepts like faster than light technology, androids, artificial gravity, kilometer long space ships that are not streamlined because they operate in a vacuum, etc. and so the filmakers can get on with the job of telling the story instead of setting up basic science. The success of the 1987 film "Predator" reflected this fact. Relatively sophisticated technologicaly used by the alien had no script time whatsoever devoted to explaining what the audience was seeing. By this time the mainstream film going audience understood infra-red, heat sensitive vision, light bending camoflauge, etc., without the film having to stop and give over some kind of an explanation that would hurt the pacing of the film.
There is a lot of basic education that has taken place, especially in the last 30 years. Star Trek's spaceship, the Enterprise and some 10 years later, Star War's "star" spaceship, the Millenium Falcon, were the first filmed spaceships to come to grips with the reality that in outerspace, there is no need for a streamlined saucer or torpedo shape; in this regard, SF literature was decades ahead. This may sound trivial but it is an important part of building a credible language to draw a reader or viewer into an incredible world; even something as innocuous as landing lights on a space vehicle was beyond the ability of films to portray for decades - Hollywood simply did not know how to create a connection to our own world by means of this type of attention to detail, preferring instead to create worlds that were utterly divorced from our own reality. That is why the little detail of the Pan Am shuttle craft with IBM logos in it's interior in "2001: A Space Odyssey", (1968), and the use of landing lights in "Star Wars" is so simple and brilliant.
The first exposure the mainstream public had to the literary side of science fiction was actually in television at the end of the 1950's when such programs as "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits" and a little later "Star Trek" occasionally offered a tantalizing glimpse of the sophisticated depth science fiction was capable of. This period covered the years 1959 to 1967. Science fiction films on the other hand were a steady diet of childish monster films from the advent of their popularity in 1950 until "Star Wars" came out in 1977 altho there were, of course exceptions. Notable failures like the film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's, "Fahrenheit 451", (1966), for example, did little to draw in the movie going public to the genre.
"The Twilight Zone", (1959-64), gave the public an introduction to such well remembered writers as Ray Bradbury and Henry Kuttner and "The Outer Limits", (1963-65), though almost entirely original teleplays, did have 2 episodes written by Harlan Ellison, a very well thought of SF writer though of little consequence at that time. Though most episodes centered around some kind of monster there were several memorable episodes that did truely attain the level of fine art, evoking emotion and nuance of a kind rarely seen in the film genre such as "The Man Who Was Never Born" starring Martin Landau from the first season of the Outer Limits.
"Star Trek", (1966-69), also delivered a number of truely evocative episodes that gave a hint to the general public of the unique qualities only science fiction could manifest. A two part episode titled, "The Menagerie", cleverly and penuriously cobbled together from the original unused pilot episode was a new highpoint for SF on the screen and yet another episode titled "The Empath" is a nice blend of story and emotion. The 1950 novel "The Voyage of the Space Beagle", by A.E. van Vogt is worth mentioning in the context of the Star Trek television series. Voyage is a novel comprised of 4 short interconnected stories with the same characters on the same ship, a ship that is comprised of a large community of scientists who travel the galaxy with the mission of discovery similar to the crew of the Enterprise. Like the Enterprise the crew of the Space Beagle encounters problematic aliens. The novel is vastly entertaining.
In regard to "Star Wars", I am not saying that it wasn't itself like a children's comic book but it was not the story but rather the nice attention to detail and the technological world the characters moved about in that finally introduced the general film going public to a world that was influenced by SF literature rather than mainstream "outsiders". Though the story line of Star Wars was firmly rooted in comic strips such as "Flash Gordon" and 1940's serials, the special effects and art direction side of the film was just as firmly rooted in SF literature. Star Wars level of attention to detail was impressive; for the first time we saw people wearing clothes that had smudge marks rather than perfect aluminum foil suits. Spaceships showed wear and tear, language barriers had to be dealt with; the Death Star actually had a place to put garbage, the type of little detail totally ignored previously in SF cinema. Although the theme of the film itself did little to advance the cause of SF literature in the cinema, the props and environments of the film considerably improved the SF vocabulary of the mainstream movie going public. In the second film of the Star Wars trilogy, "The Empire Strikes Back", (1980), the "Imperial Walker's" and use of force field technology are quietly brilliant. As a side note, the failure of such convincing details aboard a spaceship are sometimes hilarious as in 1958's, "It! The Terror From Beyond Space", when, for whatever reason, a scientific expedition to Mars has loads of guns, hand grenades and of all things, cartons of cigarettes on board.
The second trilogy in the Star Wars saga started off poorly. "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", (1999) is a hopeless mess of a screenplay. The humor that was ever present in the original trilogy goes over the top in a way that makes one wonder if the film wasn't entirely aimed at 8 year olds; all it was missing was fart jokes. A character like the unfortunate Jar Jar Binks and the racing sequence in particular, with it's mindless sports humor, stretched credulity even for science fiction. The actor who plays the young Darth Vader was entirely miscast; what this film didn't need was yet another child actor with a haircut from an 80's sitcom that looked like he stuck his head in a bowling ball washing machine. The 9 yr old Jake Lloyd through no fault of his own simply wasn't up to the task and a lisping Anakin Skywalker was less than convincing as a young lad destined for greatness and evil greatness at that.
While the special effects and design of the film are very well done they're pretty much just thrown at you from a bucket and don't have that same type of fun and cleverness and simplicity of design that was so much in evidence in the first 3 Star Wars films as characterized, for example, by the Imperial Walkers sequence; any cleverness is relegated to the level of a roller coaster ride as was unfortunately done in such films as "Jurassic Park", (1993) with the unfortunate car in the tree sequence and "King Kong", (2005) in the sequence with the dinosaurs trapped in the vines. These types of scenes give one the feeling that you are being set up for some kind of a Disney ride or video game. Props in the form of trees and vines and how they can be used ad nauseum in a single scene are the star and a not so interesting one at that. As regards "King Kong", the original film was certainly a superior product and a reminder that writing is the priority and the star and not special effects. In the 2nd Star Wars trilogy attention to detail was no longer a star and the 2 sequels, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones", (2002) and "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", (2005), although better, never really recovered from the mistakes of the first screenplay. Nevertheless, there are a lot of great scenes throughout the entire 2nd Star Wars trilogy although so disconnected in quality that there is no sense of watching a cogent film. Overall, the science fiction film genre was nowhere near the beneficial recipient it had been with the first Star Wars trilogy.
It's all a matter of taste I guess but for me it all starts with the screen play and how it is presented, no easy task in any film. For example, I felt the screenplay and it's presentation in the 1999 film, "The Mummy" was one of the most brilliant screenplays I had seen in a long time. "The Mummy" is, for me, one of those films where everything seems to work at a high level. Others disagree with me and so it is.
There were some few progenitors to "Star Wars" that did a credible job at least on some level of of trying to portray a more adult version of SF to the film going public but they were mostly failures and the vast majority of SF films between 1950 and 1977 were original screenplays written by people who seemed to have never read an SF novel. If you made a list of the 100 best science fiction films ever made, virtually all of them would be films made after 1977. Before that, SF films simply could not escape the "monster complex" and low budgets.
In recent years, SF films have made huge strides in not only a willingness to turn to science fiction's literary origins but also in the ability to create screen plays that can adequately encompass some very difficult and complex themes. There have been misses: One good example of both failure and sucess in terms of a screen play adapting an SF novel is the case of "Dune" by Frank Herbert. "Dune" is one of the most thematically sophisticated SF novels ever written and the 1984 attempt to bring it to the big screen was a dismal failure for 3 reasons: there was simply no way to put the book into a single film. Secondly, the film simply didn't trust the film going public to understand the novel's complex make up and there was also the simple inability of the screen writer to write what was admittedly a very tough film treatment of a long and complicated novel. Add to this the fact that the film going public may not, in 1984, been sufficiently exposed to a basic science fiction vocabulary as it were, to have the ability or patience to grasp "Dune's" thematic concepts.
Finally, in 2000 and 2003, two mini-series encompassing the first 3 "Dune" novels were broadcast on the Science Fiction Channel and showed a real step up in terms of trusting the public's potential for absorbing a nuanced script and in the ability to write a great screenplay adaptation. The 2nd mini-series in particular, "Children of Dune", which adapted the 2nd and 3rd books in the Frank Herbert series, "Dune Messiah" and "Children of Dune", were particularly adept in it's casting and the brilliance of the screen treatment and the "Children Of Dune" mini-series ranks as one of the best and most sophisticated science fiction films ever made. The film does not kowtow to the lowest common denominator viewer with a short attention span and penchant for a monster flick. The Children of Dune mini-series challenges the viewer to step up to the plate and enjoy the more adult world that SF literature can offer without the fun aspect of SF being entirely put aside. The ambitious screen play represents a true meeting place of the written word and moving picture the like of which may never have been seen before in the history of the relationship between science fiction film and literature and as such the Children of Dune mini-series is a seminal event. It is a perfect example, in terms of a screen play, when contrasted with David Lynch's 1984 film, "Dune", on how not to be overwhelmed by a novel's subject matter and in how to trust the audience to rise to the level of the material.
"Dune Messiah", the sequel to Dune, is a particularly difficult novel to bring to the screen. Herbert delighted in dancing around the edges and not saying things outright, leaving clues, darting here and there in what amounts to a type of mystery novel. Other than that, "Dune Messiah" can be considered a treatise on government and the perils of both a despot and a democracy.
"Children of Dune", the 1976 3rd novel in the series by Frank Herbert, is a rather slim volume compared to "Dune". The fact that it took the mini-series 4 hours to portray this novel heads up the problems associated with writing a screenplay that can do even a minimal amount of justice to so complex a novel. Like "Dune Messiah" the novel itself is full of themes about society and government but never to the point of overwhelming the story. The main underlying theme of the novel provides a complimentary basis for the action of the story itself which is that of the new replacing the old and how we need to be careful about what we take with us from our past and what we leave behind. There are passages from "Children of Dune" that are quite clearly a reflection of what was taking place in government and popular culture at the time Herbert wrote the book. Herbert was obviously concerned with the subject of a new generation moving forward at too great a speed. Doing so could mean losing touch with the solid disciplines that had provided the opportunity to move forward in the first place and thus leaving that new generation in a no-man's land in terms of having a new but empty value system. That new value system might be of no use whatsoever once the original impetus had spent itself and the distance back too far to recross. New myths and values would come into play and the future become one of an uncertainty we are now afraid to embrace. The rise of an overly complex government bureaucracy is also a worrying theme in the "Children of Dune" novel.
Frank Herbert, in the first 3 books of the Dune series didn't turn his back on story and action as did some SF writers in the mid-60's. With the publication of the 4th novel in the Dune series, "God Emperor of Dune", (1981), Herbert does turn his back on story and the novel is more of a philosophical treatise about religion and goverment than a story. I think it's safe to say that had the Dune series started with such a work that none of us would ever had heard of the Dune series in the first place. I liked "God Emperor of Dune" but it's not for everyone and only a fool would ever think of writing a screenplay of this novel. Oddly enough, the action in "God Emperor of Dune" is so slight that one could easily compress it into a 2 hour film. The problem is that the story itself is a prop for long passages with a 3500 yr. old sandworm/human ruminating on philosophy and so the action that takes place is far less cogent than it could have been.
Unfortunately, the subsequent sequels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian Herbert together with Kevin J. Anderson do not carry on the tradition of a more sophisticated type of science fiction. Dune 7 and 8, which are "Hunters of Dune", (2006) and "Sandworms of Dune", (2007), read like graphic comic book novels and not very good ones at that and in no way reflect the mystery and complexity of the original Frank Herbert novels; in fact, they are 2 of the worst SF novels I have ever read. For example, in the Dune series Frank Herbert refers to a past "jihad" against thinking machines and his son and Brian Anderson translate this into giant, evil robots pulling the heads off people that would be more appropriate in an issue of "The Fantastic Four". Frank Herbert seemed to be talking about a more philosophical reliance on computers on the part of mankind than thinking machines that actually physically assailed mankind.
On the subject of trust, the issue goes beyond only trusting the film going public and screenplay writers would have done well to trust the original writers in regard to 2 SF films adapted from short fiction, both originally written by Henry Kuttner and his wife C.L. Moore. This husband and wife team are generally now thought to have collaborated on much of the short fiction written under their own individual names and various pseudonyms though the progeny is uncertain. What is certain is that 2 classics of short science fiction were published: "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", (1943) as by Lewis Padgett and "That Vintage Season", (1946), as by Lawrence O'Donnell, 2 aliases used by Moore and Kuttner. These stories were adapted into the films, "The Last Mimsy", (2007) and "Timescape", (1992), respectively. The original short stories have been included in a multi-volume collection, "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1" and also Volume 2A as examples of the greatest short science fiction ever written. Both films would have been better off trusting the quality of the original stories without padding them out with elements that took away rather than added to, the quality of the films. The short story "Vintage Season" in particular is a dreamy, scent filled, highly evocative and lyrical mystery story that ends with a bang and it stands on it's native evocative narrative and not on the story alone, original though that story certainly is. The result in the films is uneven to be sure, happy though I am to have stories so highly thought of by fans of SF literature brought into the light. Both stories would have been perfect choices for episodes of the original Twilight Zone and Kuttner and Moore did have an episode of the Twilight Zone made from their 1945 short story, "What You Need". Rod Serling certainly understood the evocative and dreaming side of SF and this sensibility was on constant display in the television series.
Long suffering fans of science fiction literature who dreamed of their wonderful genre being given the credibility it deserves have been rewarded with many films in the last 25 years, both adaptations of SF novels and original screen plays that have successfully demonstrated the capabilities of heavily layered and subtly nuanced story lines. Breakthrough films such as "Star Wars" and "Alien" began the trend, not so much in the storyline itself but in the art direction which depicted a technologically credible environment in depth. Afterall, "Alien" is just a rehash of "It! Terror From Outer Space" and "Star Wars" arguably a cowboy western in outer space. For these types of fims it is everything but the story that contains the potential for greatness but this is often par for the course for films in general.
"2001: A Space Odyssey", (1968), comes to mind as a "serious" SF film though it seems a stand alone piece that nevertheless had a great deal of influence on subsequent SF films because of it's soundtrack and special effects and changed how mainstream filmgoers viewed the genre; however it's almost documentary-like adult take on SF was firmly in the mainstream and not on the dreaming, literary side of SF. When 2001 used a classical music score it gave the film a dimension and credibility in the minds of the public in much the same way that the Moody Blue's album, "Days of Future Past", (1967), did the year before. SF and Rock "n" Roll were growing up and so was the cultural sophistication of both creators and consumer. More recent films such as the brilliant tour de force, "The Fifth Element", (1997) and "Gattaca", (1997) are great examples of having finally delivered a taste of what fans of SF literature have been enjoying all along although it is fair to say that film has it's own unique way of presenting science fiction that literature cannot. "The Fifth Element" in particular has a brilliant use of an editing language specific to film though sadly underused throughout the film industry - too often films are simply a window through which we view events rather than a language that takes full advantage of camera movement and editing though this situation has much improved in recent years. It should be said that there is a time and a place when using a somewhat static "window" in cinematographic terms certainly compliments the material it presents.
2001 has an interesting mystery story that peters out into incomprehensibility by the end of the film and one is never certain if "Hal" is part of the mysterious events or a simple computer breakdown at a bad time. From what I can gather one is supposed to think of the "monuments" as a kind of alarm that sends a radio signal to the mysterious god-like aliens who are manipulating/observing mankind's upward evolution. The encounter by primitive apemen of the first monument in the film is tied in with the point in time when humans' primitive ancestors are first able to use a tool, in this case animal bones. A piercing radio signal is subsequently sent off planet. The discovery of the monument on the moon sends off yet another radio signal to the aliens and so manipulates mankind into traveling to Jupiter where the monument there will set off yet another series of events in mankind's upward technological evolution. It is not clear to me whether the aliens are observing or actively manipulating humankind; perhaps it is observing at first and only giving a technological nudge at the end of the film, perhaps a "You have arrived. Welcome to the rest of the galaxy." moment whereby mankind is now invited to join a greater community now that it has risen to a certain technological level on it's own merits or otherwise. One thing is certain about the film, mankind is being watched and it's evolutionary rise noted, luckily by apparently friendlier aliens than H.G. Wells Martians whose, "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eye".
Art direction and special effects are at the height of their art when it comes to science fiction films as of 2009. Vistas and visions once thought unattainable have become commonplace in SF cinema thanks to great designers. One truly breakthrough film when it comes to these vistas and art direction is the supremely evocative "Blade Runner", (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. When it comes to art direction and soundtrack "Blade Runner" is perhaps unequaled in the history of SF cinema for creating a blanketing, complex ambience which wholly transports the viewer to another and entirely credible world of the future. The cogent design and look of "Blade Runner" is arguably the most seminal and influential ever seen in the genre of SF film. A near rival might be "Alien" which by no coincidence was also directed by Ridley Scott.
The remarkable thing about "Blade Runner" is that it neatly sums up in many ways why science fiction has such a unique appeal in literature and in film though in part for different reasons. In general, both film and literary expressions of SF allow for stories with combination of elements that could happen in no other genre and so expand the dramatic possiblities; literally anything can happen. In the case of SF film in general and "Blade Runner" specifically, the elements that make up film, set design, acting, costume design, etc., are allowed a much fuller expression and at that, an expression mostly not possible in mainstream films. Take sound for example: "Blade Runner" has to me, one of the most brilliant uses of sound ever seen in film. In fairness to mainstream film, they simply doesn't have the opportunity to so obviously and dramatically express sound in such a unique way. This example exists on many levels in SF film and, concurrent with the story elements, can make SF an extremely dramatic and dreamy opportunity for creative expression.
A wonderfully evocotive moment with Martin Landau in "The Man Who Was Never Born" It is worth saying that there have been a whole host of films that have had their part to play in presenting glimpses of the greatness of SF literature and or providing an elementary SF vocabulary that gradually brought the general public up to speed. Besides the obvious influence of the original "Star Trek" television series one can include amongst these: "The Terminator", (1984), "Planet of the Apes", (1968), the brilliant, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", (1977), "ET: the Extraterrestial", (1982), "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", (1982), "Predator", (1987), "The Thing", (1982), "Total Recall", (1990), "Starship Troopers", (1997), "Serenity", (2005), "The Andromeda Strain", (1970) by the great Robert Wise, "THX-1138", (1970), "First Men In the Moon", (1964), "Robinson Crusoe On Mars", (1964) and the much loved, "The Time Machine", (1960). Individual episodes of the original "Outer Limits" such as the previously mentioned "The Man Who Was Never Born" with a stand out performance by Martin Landau and a great stock musical score typical of the series could elevate the mundane to an evocative level of lyrical poetry. Even such an idiotically wonderful TV series as "Lost In Space" had it's place in advancing the cause of SF on film simply by repeating certain SF tech terms over and over again until they were firmly in the minds of the general public.Each of these film presentations and many more have proven to be stepping stones, adding to the arcana and language of science fiction in the cinema, enabling an ever more sophisticated product to be presented to the movie going public which has proved to have an insatiable appetite for the genre. People who have long loved science fiction literature have always known that the mainstream public was missing something and given the chance, would fall deeply in love with the more dreaming and literary side that is science fiction literature. Unfortunately, too many SF films come off as just that, stepping stones, where the full panoply of possibilities in science fiction is simply not realized and one is left with just another missed opportunity. Sometimes this is not the fault of the films themselves but rather it's unlucky and handicapped place in forming an SF vocabulary that was incomplete as far as the mainstream film going public was concerned.
The earlier mentioned "Gattaca" from 1997 is a standout SF film on many levels. What some few similar films had tried and failed to do in depicting a certain kind of future society is marvelously realized in Gattaca. Casting, acting, including a standout performance by Jude Law, screenplay, musical score, art direction, cinematography all come together in one of SF film's most nuanced efforts to date. Gattaca had the dual problem common in SF films of bringing the viewer up to speed on the film's tech without compromising the story and was helped in this by the public's growing knowledge of such things as genetics thanks to Time magazine articles and TV detective and science shows. Thanks to a great screenplay Gattaca was able to seamlessly introduce the required knowledge in a way that was not only not awkward but added considerably to the evocative tragedy that is at the heart of the film. Gattaca's poetic portrayal of the struggle of human frailty and emotion in an almost Orwellian future America is a rarity in SF film, perhaps because of it's financial risk, though much more common in it's literary cousin. Aside from it's SF core Gattaca is also a particularly well-made and tense mystery besides also being something of a love story. The seemingly effortless many layered presentation that is Gattaca is something that SF film has rarely even attempted to offer let alone succeed at. Science fiction's capacity to put forward and redefine human relationships in a unique light in a way that mainstream literature and film cannot is the at the heart of the strength of Gattaca and science fiction in general. Gattaca must be considered as one of the very best SF films ever made and an important stepping stone in SF film's ongoing endeavor to at once trust and educate the film going public.
When it comes to a stepping stone perhaps the greatest influence that screen treatments ever had on the general public was "The Twilight Zone", whose influence lasted many fruitful years beyond it's original run on television and in syndication lasts to this day. "The Twilight Zone" ran the gamut of the genre of science fiction, from dreamy and literate fantasy to a harder edged type of SF. Always emphasizing good writing and characterization that challenged the watcher, it is remarkable to look back and see how few klinkers there were in this ground breaking television series that was so greatly loved by the public. "The Twilight Zone" is arguably one of the most popular television series ever made and a very literate one at that.
Today, science fiction literature presents ever greater challenges to film makers. Recent SF novels such as Jack McDevitt's "Infinity Beach", (2000) and Peter Hamilton's, "Pandora's Star", (2004) and it's sequel, "Judas Unchained", (2005) represent yet another challenging step up when it comes not only to the mainstream movie going public but to screen writers and directors not to say special effects artists. So many great SF novels and short stories wait to be adapted to film that a list of them would easily run to two or three hundred. One can only imagine how great it would be to have good adaptation's of "The Mote In God's Eye", (1974), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, "Ringworld", (1970), by Niven, "The Stars My Destination", (1956), by Alfred Bester, or "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress", (1966), by Robert Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt's "The Weapon Makers" (1947) and "Lost: Fifty Suns" (1952) and I have only mentioned these more or less at random the stew is so rich. Speaking of Bester, Spielberg would have been better off bringing "The Demolished Man" to the screen than "Minority Report" which, if you're looking for an edgy high-tech detective story is far superior to "Minority Report" in my opinion. Everyone will have their own list of great SF novels or short fiction. When looking at various lists of the top SF novels of all time the variety in opinion is remarkable. Wouldn't it be great if Steven Spielberg or George Lucas decided to make "A Princess of Mars" by the hugely popular creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs? At one time the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was considered an unmakeble film project and so now the floodgates are open and seemingly anything is now within reach and ever more competent young screen writers who really get it are bringing quality and possiblities in ever greater numbers and now anything seems in reach of the brilliant special effects artists of today.
Not to be forgotten is the realm of fantasy literature which, relatively speaking, has been virtually ignored for most of the long history of the cinema. The brilliant and well received, "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, adapted from the cherished novels of J.R.R. Tolkein are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast wealth of great fantasy literature just waiting to be adapted to the big screen. The success in terms of both the production and reception of the Harry Potter novels is further evidence of the great potential of what so far has been a largely untapped well. Fantasy literature, though popular in a modern form for well over 100 years, didn't have a lasting breakthrough with the mainstream public until Tolkein caught fire in the 1960's.
Before Tolkein, fantasy literature had a great and decades old tradition of many fine novels and in widely varying form. From works that captivated the general public such as "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" (1865) by Lewis Carroll, the tales of Barrie's Peter Pan and Baum's Oz and thence to works that appealed more to folks who had a distinct taste for fantasy literature such as "Lilith" (1895) by George MacDonald, that obscure tour de force, "The Nightland" (1912) by William Hope Hodgson or the short story, "The Tower Of the Elephant" (1933) by Robert E. Howard, fantasy had a stubbornly loved place in American culture. Now that fantasy has emerged in the cinema with films that have honored the genre with quality and therefore credibility, one can only hope that someday such now largely ignored classics as "The Ship of Ishtar", (1924), by the one-time hugely popular Abraham Merritt, Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser stories or "The Eyes Of the Overworld", (1966), by Jack Vance, who is as good a prose stylist as American literature has ever seen in any genre, will someday come to the big screen. One cannot mention a prose stylist without mentioning the much loved Ray Bradbury who shared with Jack Vance the rare gift of melding clever story lines with unforgettable prose. In that same prose vein are the arcane and eldritch works of the unique and sometimes great, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. Worth noting here is the BBC's fine and one might say courageous production of Gormanghast, (2000), which was based on the first 2 books of Mervyn Peake's Gormanghast Trilogy. Those novels are, "Titus Groan" 1946, and "Gormanghast", 1950.
"The Golden Compass", (2007) "Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", (2005), are very well done and have been very well received as well. George R. R. Martin's very complicated, popular and long fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire", though having only 4 of it's projected 7 novels completed has reportedly been picked up by HBO with the intention of a mini-series; fantasy in the cinema has at long last come of age and it was the Tolkein film trilogy that opened the doors and why not; enjoyed in equal parts by both the mainstream public and by lovers of fantasy it is perhaps a particularly appropriate way to introduce fantasy in a big time cinematic way. As I earlier said, once thought to be unfilmable, the Lord Of the Rings trilogy of films has shown that, when it comes to fantasy, nothing is now beyond the grasp of the cinema.
The realm of fantastic literature, unlike it's counterpart in film, is so rich and deep and wonderful a tradition that it sometimes seems an inexaustible source of great reading though those filmmakers who dip into that tradition are sometimes misguided because they are not true fans of fantastic literature.
A recent trilogy of SF films directed by the great Steven Spielberg consist of the following: "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence", (2001), "Minority Report", (2002) and "War of the Worlds", (2005). Although I am obviously a huge fan of fantastic film and greatly admire Spielberg, for some reason these films leave me cold; I just didn't enjoy them and I'm not even sure exactly why. It seems I should have but I just didn't. All 3 films have great special effects and production values but in some manner seem over-worked and over-produced, lacking in cleverness and a sense of wonder. Perhaps a large production budget overwhelmed them and the need to be creative simply wasn't there as there was plenty of money to throw at these projects. Well, there is one element of "War of the Worlds" that did awaken my sense of wonder and that was the fantastic tripod machines and the utterly bizarre and truly alien sounds they made. So what was the problem? Am I spoiled, are the 3 films an embarrasment of riches I simply cannot comprehend? I wish I knew but the 3 movies are lacking something I cannot put my finger on. They all 3 have production values one could have only dreamed of in the 1960's. I guess it has something to do with something that seems so controlled that the very life of the film is squeezed right out of it. All 3 films were very popular and well-received. I think my quandry is a perfect example of the subjectiveness of such matters.
"Serenity", released in 2005 was, for me, a much more enjoyable film than any of the 3 Spielberg films mentioned above. Like those 3 films, "Serenity" is freed from the constraints of having to educate the movie going public in the language of SF and able to concentrate on the action. A combination of low-brow and high-brow SF, "Serenity" is packed with common SF themes and packaged in a manner that is thoroughly enjoyable, devoid on any sense of self-consciousness. "Serenity" immediately entered the short list of SF films that can be considered among the best ever made. "Serenity" is edgy and original and the complete opposite in terms of having any sense of the apologetic in it's free-wheeling screenplay. "Serenity" is an off-shoot of a short-lived TV series titled "Firefly" and together with such TV series as "FarScape", "The X-Files", "Babylon 5" and "Stargate SG-1" and it's offshoots, they have all had their part to play in accustoming the general public to a now taken for granted panoply of SF themes and it's attendant vocabulary.
"Event Horizon", (1997), "Supernova", (2000), and "Sunshine", (2007) are 3 films made from original screenplays that make the same mistake as was made decades previously. All 3 are essentially empty films that are a waste of good actors, energy, art direction and special effects, concentrating on the boring and ignoring a larger view being essentially SF in a telephone booth; even such a pot-boiler as 1963's "Voyage To the End Of the Universe" has a more interesting story and I would love to see a remake with the new special effects available. While there are SF films that are pretty much indisputable as to their merits of belonging to a top 100 list which most everyone will agree on, once you get to a certain level the divergence of opinion can be extreme. I recently saw a list on the internet of the top 100 SF films of all time and I would not have included 40 of the films although I understood why they had them on the list.
Since the dearth of good science fiction films makes it almost impossible to put together a list of 100 great movies the above 3 Spielberg films would make it onto most people's list by default if nothing else. A.I. and "Minority Report" are based on works by Brian Aldiss and Phillip K. Dick, 2 highly regarded SF writers who wrote much of their work in the 50's and 60's. My own personal take on writers like Dick and a writer such as Ursula K. LeGuin is that they tried to think outside the box for it's own sake. They attempted to intellectualize science fiction in a way that sometimes made me feel that they were ashamed of the very genre in which they worked, a type of political correctness before the term was born, especially on the part of the sometimes inept LeGuin, though it is for this very reason that LeGuin does indeed have her fans. Some writers such as Roger Zelazny and especially Larry Niven, were able to rise above transforming the genre for it's own sake while at the same time acknowledging it's past. Larry Niven has two SF anthologies of stories from the 1960's that are arguably the greatest single author anthologies ever written; I'm thinking of Niven's "Tales Of Known Space" and Neutron Star". Taking the genre of science fiction too seriously is inevitably a death knell for a story.
The problem with the type of politically correct authors I mention is that they seem to not like the story of science fiction in the same manner that so many people today do not like the story of America and so in some manner seek to disavow that story. In the 1960's an avant-garde movement in science fiction briefly held sway and while it's positive and perhaps necessary influence is undeniable and there were indeed great works created, the movement at the same time turned it's back on it's own history in a way that not everyone at the time enjoyed; the avante garde writers were at the very least often guilty of sucking the fun right out of the genre and of confusing the serious with the sober, 2 words the Oscars would do well to think about in relation to SF film. For example, "Star Wars" may not be a "sober" film, but it is certainly a serious film in the way Lucas approached the project. The problem with some "great" SF novels is that they are supremely boring and taking oneself too seriously seems especially and oddly out of place in a genre such as science fiction. Condecension in SF literature is not all that entertaining. George Orwell's "1984" and Frank Herbert's "Dune" are both great novels that are as grim as death but the authors had such obvious fun and serious though not necessarily sober intent in putting them together that we as readers can enjoy them without thinking that we are being talked down to or scolded for being idiots.
The avant garde SF writers of the 60's wanted to be taken seriously and to raise the credibility of the genre to that of fine art and above the level of pot-boilers. The problem with a desire to be taken seriously is that it often requires a "demonstration" of one's intellectual and sophisticated capabilities and these elements are sometimes at odds with simply producing good work, a problem that has wreaked havoc in the fine arts in the United States, especially in the area of photography for example but which science fiction fortunately survived, in large part because SF had to be commercially viable. The great American film director John Ford often took delight in doing the same thing as the so-called avant garde but backwards, producing films in supposedly "low-brow" genres like the Western all the while hiding formal fine art elements that were meant to not be seen by the dismissive cognoscenti even though these elements were right in front of their noses. I am assuming that Ford felt intellectuals were sometimes themselves so hopelessly biased that in watching his films they became effectively blind, ironically the very opposite of what intellectuals are supposedly trying to accomplish. I saw this type of "thinking" first hand in college in a film history class when most of the students dismissively groaned out loud when the teacher trotted out John Ford's, "The Searchers"; not what the art students were expecting and it was sad to see their expectations bankrupt at such a young age. Well, I guess that's why we go to college; the problem with most colleges is that this type of lesson is taught the wrong way and backwards. This lesson in perception is particularly apt in the case of the genre of science fiction in film and literature since it's credibility as a serious art form has long put SF first in line when it comes to criticism and a poor cousin to rather more mainstream arts when it comes to being taken seriously.
The best example of this John Ford-like penchant in SF film, though for probably totally different reasons in that ultimate monster film, "Alien", (1979), directed by Ridley Scott. "Alien" is riddled with background noise purposefully put into the film which almost no one at the time noticed because it was just a stupid "monster" movie. For whatever reasons, "Alien" is pervaded with a theme of sexual violence and even perversion that is reflected in elements of it's art direction and design and even some segments of the story itself. There is so much sexual overtone built into "Alien" that I could never do justice here in attempting to describe the many and varied ways the theme was built into the film. As a contrasting example, the sequel to "Alien", "Aliens", (1986), a film that is in it's own way arguably as good as it predecessor, takes place totally on the surface as a straightforward action film; any themes "Aliens" can lay claim to outside of the story itself can be considered almost an afterthought while "Alien" was built from the ground up to be the vehicle it was. In the case of "Alien" it is a film that scolds the intellectual cognoscenti right back and reminds them that fun and entertainment does not automatically make one a hillbilly nor preclude or confuse the words "serious" and "sober".
2009's "Avatar" though not particularly original science fiction in terms of it's ideas was hugely popular. Filled with trite stereotypes or potent archtypes, as you prefer, long since explored in SF and mainstream literature, Avatar nevertheless conveys a healthy "sense of wonder" by it's wonderful use of special effects and production design. Avatar is a reminder of the importance of the visual side of science fiction. In the heyday of the science fiction pulps a good cover artist was worth his weight in gold. A good example of this is the relationship between the popularity of the 1960's Ace Paperback presentations of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the superb cover art by Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel. Cover art has been a crucial element in science fiction literature ever since the advent of the science fiction pulps in the 1920's. At that time the cover artist Frank R. Paul was the first of a long line of artists who have proven til the present day how a visual supplement to written story can capture the imagination of readers.
Avatar acts as yet another stepping stone in trying to present a more credible SF world; it's use of language and presentation of an atmosphere humans cannot breathe in a way that doesn't hamper story makes that story just that much more believable and ramps up the movie going public's SF vocabulary just that much more.
Films of the fantastic is a genre going through a renaissance. Part of the reason is because of a backlog of work that was never done in the past because the level of special effects and screenwriters simply weren't up to the task. This has created rather something of a sense of urgency and enthusiasm singular among all other genres of film.
Here is a list of science fiction films in no particular order that I have found particularly important/enjoyable:
The Andromeda Strain 1970 War of the Worlds 1953 The Time Machine 1960 Gattaca 1997 Star Wars 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977 The Thing 1982 The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 Blade Runner 1982 Alien 1979 Serenity 2005 Children of Dune First Men In the Moon 1964 Predator 1987 Terminator II: Judgement Day 1991 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968 Back To the Future 1985 Planet of the Apes 1968 2010 1984 E.T.: The Extraterrestrial 1982 Forbidden Planet 1956 The Fifth Element 1997 Avatar 2009
Here's another list, this time literature:
The Foundation Trilogy 1951-53 Isaac Asimov 1984 George Orwell 1949 Fahrenheit 451 1953 Ray Bradbury Caves Of Steel 1954 Isaac Asimov Ringworld 1970 Larry Niven The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress 1966 Robert Heinlein The Martian Chronicles 1950 Ray Bradbury Infinity Beach 2000 Jack McDevitt The Mote In God's Eye 1974 Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle The Stars My Destination 1956 Alfred Bester Beyond the Blue Event Horizon 1980 Frederik Pohl Flowers For Algernon 1966 Daniel Keyes A Canticle For Leibowitz 1959 Walter M. Miller, Jr. The Reality Dysfunction 1996 First of the "Night's Dawn" trilogy Peter Hamilton Eon 1985 Greg Bear The Demolished Man 1953 Alfred Bester The Door Into Summer 1956 Robert Heinlein A Princess of Mars 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs The Lost World 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle Neuton Star 1968 Short Story Collection Larry Niven Tales of Known Space 1975 Short Story Collection Larry Niven The Dying Earth 1950 Jack Vance Dune 1965 Frank Herbert The Hugo Winners: Vols I & II 1972 Hothouse 1962 Brian Aldiss The High Crusade 1960 Poul Anderson The Nightland 1912 William Hope Hodgson The Weapon Makers 1947 A.E. Van Vogt Triplanetary 1948 E.E. Smith Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vols 1 & 2A & 2B 1970-73 Mission To the Stars (The Mixed Men) 1952 A.E. Van Vogt The Empire of the Atom 1957 A.E. Van Vogt Legion Of Space 1934 Jack Williamson Fury 1947 Lawrence O'Donnell (Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore) Palace (1996) by Mark Krieghbaum and Katherine Kerr. Sequel: The Eyes of God (1998) by Mark Krieghbaum In Conquest Born (1987) by C.S. Friedman The War For Eternity (1983), The Black Ship (1985), part of the Fenrille Series by Christopher Rowley
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