Films That Could Have Been

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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

86 thoughts on “Films That Could Have Been

  1. Lost in La Mancha is another great failure-to-make-of film, about the production (as far as it got) of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of The Man of La Mancha. A number of scenes in that one made me cringe in sympathy, feeling the anguish of everyone who had worked so hard on a scene, only to see it fall apart…

    Slightly connected, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is great fun, and centres around the fictitious making of a film version of the Laurence Sterne novel.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • I thought the Alien 3 this-is-not-a-directors-cut included in that set is actually pretty good. Not good loke the first 2 but you at least can get a sense of the vision. The movie disappointed me greatly when I first saw it but over time there are elements of it I’ve grown to appreciate. Fincher really got screwed in that whole process though.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I watched it again recently; it wasn’t bad. It was a departure from what people expected coming out of the second film, and it never recovered from those preconceptions.

          I do feel the special effects were a significant step down from the previous film. They tried doing less with large alien props, and moved to overlays and early digital graphics, and you can tell.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • The biggest difference for me between Gilliams La Mancha and the flicks Roland noted was Gilliam’s would been really interesting and new even if it wasn’t good. I think the other films, except maybe superman were doomed for a lot of reasons from the start.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I also saw something about the making of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – which apparently came very close to collapsing under its own weight and not being released (Robin Williams, for example, is uncredited in that one, because he thought it was going to be so awful he didn’t want his name on it).

        It was interesting to see how a few of what seem in the movie like just clever ideas, were actually decisions made at the last minute because they couldn’t afford to do the thing they’d originally intended. The design of the city on the moon is one that I specifically recall.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I think almost collapsing under its own weight describes Gilliams typical filming. But he is fantastically creative and unique so i give him points for that. I wonder if he is one of those guys who needs some limits, like money, to bring out his best. If he had a cool 100 mil he might create the most genius thing ever or still end up over budget and with newer and bigger problems.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • Gilliam needs limits in the form of an accountant or board overseeing him and making sure he stays within budget and on time. Just giving him a limited budget would not work because he will need direction in making sure it is spent well and not just on one thing.

              Quote  Link

            Report

  2. Very true. The problem with Dune is that is was always to big of a story for one movie. It worked better in the mini-series version on tv a few years ago. Brando…geez there was a guy who milked his well earned reputation for genius into a well earned reputation as a selfish bored diva who treated people like crap.

    It is amazing with all the tools movie makers have now we haven’t seem more new and exciting projects. There is so much potential to create new worlds and universes but most movies are content to hang around the solar system and recycle action movie plots. The movies like Avatar and ST got of this little world but sadly were lacking in the story and script thingee.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. 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

    Not sure about this – did the state of the technological art really advance THAT much between a theoretical Jodorowsky Dune in the mid-to-late 70’s, and the actual 1984 Lynch film? Whatever else you want to say about Lynch’s Dune, visual effects weren’t really its problem.

    And as you note, Alien used Giger to fine effect back in 1979. Not to mention, if you’ve seen The Holy Mountain or El Topo, you know that Jodorowsky is a filmmaker who doesn’t necessarily need a huge budget or hi-tech effects, to achieve incredibly-striking imagery.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Just based on the story boards and grand scope Jodorowsky talks about in the documentary, I just can’t see it as a film in the 1970s. Even films like Star Wars, which did a good job creating a universe that felt lived in and real, would have been small next to Jodorowsky’s vision.

      As for the 1984 film, it did have some fine effects for its day, but it didn’t capture the bigness of the earlier sketches and designs.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  4. Dr. Who has managed a good few stories from short story to television.
    Some work better than others (the one about the Family of blood is something I still need to read…)

    Like it or leave it, science fiction — with its incessant, often poorly done (by which we mean rampant at the start), worldbuilding — has a very hard time transitioning.

    Welcome to the Space Show is fantastic science fiction. So is Ghost in the shell: Standalone Complex.
    [I like anime, it’s special effects are fabulous]. Crest of the Stars. Cowboy Bebop. Trigun.

    All of them hardhitting, futuristic leaps of the mind.

    Now, the wing commander movie failed because it was an elaborate troll of the director. (this followed two video games, one of which included using a dildo as a flying instrument (one has to consider the previous hires of the female actresses to understand why this was quite so funny — and the look on her face!). There were many lulz on set.)

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Wasn’t Starship Troopers just an unrelated film that had a close enough plot to the Heinlein novel that the producers thought it would be a good business decision to buy the rights to the book so they could use and capitalize on it? I also thought that the director wanted to parody what he saw as the militarism of the Heinlein novel rather than play it straight. This is why the protagonist became a white man rather than a Filipino.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Science fiction and fantasy movies also had to climb out of there B-movie origins. Even with improved special effects and the success of Star Wars, it still too two decades to get science fiction movies to really win mainstream success. Before Star Wars, the idea of going to a science fiction or fantasy if you weren’t a teenage boy or a kid was weird with a few exceptions like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was probably the first truly well-crafted artistic science fiction movie with a good script, director, and cast. Even as science fiction movies became big bucks earners, it took them a long time to really shed their B-movie origins unless they were specifically aimed at the family audience. E.T., Indiana Jones have A movie level treatment while other science fiction movies of the time are stuck as B-level movies.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. I have come around to the conclusion that Starship Troopers, the movie (and, of course, only the first movie) is a valid interpretation of the idea of the book, even if completely at odds with Heinlein’s authorial intent. One definitely has to look at in the same light as Robocop, and not say, Nu-BSG, which is possibly the most straight up Heinleinian work, even though he’s not the source.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. Sometimes even science fiction fans had a difficult time taking science fiction seriously. When I was a geeky teenage boy, I managed to find a back issue of Dragon that had a review of the anime Bubblegum Crisis in my local library, which subscribed to Dragon for some reason. It was utterly dismissive of Bubblegum Crisis for some reason that I can’t remember rather than being in a state of geeky glee. As far as I can tell, the reviewer thought that serious science fiction and fantasy should be live action rather than animated.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • That’s just dumb. Anime has awesome special effects.
      The last Star Trek movie’s stunts just looked like “here, a video game!” (which would be fine, mind, if you were actually playing the game, but instead you’re watching it, and you don’t even get Lord Cat grumbling about how hard it is!)

        Quote  Link

      Report

  9. “… the social commentary inherent in the novel were glossed over in favor of B quality monster movie scripting”

    Wait, wait, WAIT!! What!?!?!? I think you need to watch it again. Also, watch it in the context of Paul Verhoeven’s other films, including Robocop, which is not a movie about a robot police officer.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • I never read the book and saw the movie in high school and a few times since. Without any context for it, I thought it was pretty clearly critical of government, militarism, nationalism, and the like. It wasn’t hard to see the bugs as the victims and the humans (or particular groups of humans) as the bad guys.

          Quote  Link

        Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *