Perhaps more than any other genre, the science fiction realm has had to stomach some of the worst adaptations of its superlative works. I was a big fan of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in middle school, and was thrilled to hear the film was being made into a full-length feature. Obviously, as a committed fan of the book, I was disappointed when I finally saw the final product. While the film has become a cult favorite, and the special effects still hold up, the social commentary inherent in the novel were glossed over in favor of B quality monster movie scripting. With my fellow nerds, we contemplated what could have been if the text was treated as the high art we deemed it to be?
The last year has been remarkable for documentaries about failed film projects, specifically in the science fiction/comic book realm. Currently streaming on Netflix is David Gregory’s Lost Soul about the production mess behind the making of The Island of Dr. Moreau featuring Marlin Brando and Val Kilmer. Last year saw the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a look into the Chilean director’s attempt to bring Dune to the big screen in the 1970s. The final film in this trilogy of failure is one close to my adolescent heart: The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? I honestly recommend all three documentaries to anyone interested in the properties they investigate, as well as those who routinely ask themselves why Hollywood seems prone to making crap over art.
I remember seeing The Island of Dr. Moreau in theaters back in 1996. I enjoyed it at the time, even if some of the film’s choices and deviations from the text were perplexing. As the Internet was in its infancy, I was not aware of the unbelievable dilemmas that went into making the film. Richard Stanley was a rising star in the indie scene, and was brought on the direct the film. It soon became apparent that he was too green for a film of this scale, but it was likely a blessing to be removed from the project. Val Kilmer was at the height of his power as a Hollywood star, and dictated the terms of the script and directing. Everyone involved in the production wanted to work with Marlon Brando, but quickly learned the man had no interest in the film and would make executive decisions at every turn that made little sense in the context of the movie. Too many cooks in the kitchen ruined what could have been a fine film, but at least we have this piece of film to add to our collective consciousness.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a different beast. While many have seen the poorly adapted David Lynch film staring Sting, the book’s transition to the screen sat in production hell for over a decade as Alejandro Jodorowsky put together a production team of visionary special effects artists, set builders, and designers. At one point, H.R Giger, Salvador Dali, Orsen Welles, and Mike Jagger were all on board with the project. Noticeably, the film never came to be, but the designs and storyboards eventually made their way into subsequent projects such as Alien, Star Wars, and Terminator.
I was big comic book fan in my teenage years. It is hard to imagine today, but it was rare to get a superhero property made into a motion picture. It was even less likely to get a faithful adaptation that you could be proud of as a fan of the genre.
I would read Wizard Magazine every month, a periodical staple to any comic fan in the 1990s. It was there that I first heard DC was planning to return Superman to the big screen under the direction of Tim Burton. The film, titled Superman Lives, would tell aspects of the Death of Superman story arc, which was immensely popular in the 90s. Burton just completed two successful Batman films, which were the truest renditions of the dark, brooding superhero popularized by Frank Miller. It also isn’t surprising (based on his previous work) that Burton wanted a post-modern take on Superman, with the character seeing a psychiatrist and coping with his godlike persona. What was unexpected was the casting of Nicolas Cage as Superman himself. Much like Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film languished in production until it was finally abandoned. We were blessed with production photos of Nick Cage as Superman however.
Each documentary gives us a window into why established properties or stories fail when transferred to the big screen. The narrative on the page exists in the mind of its creator; they tailor the world to their whims and demands. Revisions are made to create storyline coherence. In the case of each film, you see that movies simply don’t operate in that manner. Each director, producer, and actor has a say in the final product, and thus changes are made to appease each player. Sometimes that collaborative process is what makes a film great (Star Wars being a prime example), but these three films are a testament to what can happen when committees make art.
As much as I hate the over-reliance on computerized special effects in today’s film industry, there is something to be said of the creative power these tools have given filmmakers. Jodorowsky’s Dune was simply ahead of its time; there is no way his grand vision could have been achieved with the tools present in the mid 1970s. By giving a slew of capable artists the opportunity to realize some of their aspirations during the film’s production, he brought into creation the cornerstone of the special effects industry that eventually created some of science fiction’s greatest films. His version of Dune was never made, but its best elements did not go to waste.
These films should also validate that we, as science fiction fans, should be careful what we ask for. Some of our favorite texts work in the format they exist in, but the transition to film is a byzantine process. It requires more than adapting the text to the language of film; the financial requirements of the studio may turn the work into something it isn’t. Yet, the success of superhero films has shown that these once “nerdy” properties have an appeal far beyond those who were introduced to these characters in comic books decades ago. Perhaps more complicated science fiction texts are now poised to become blockbuster movies.
Or maybe we shouldn’t push our luck.