Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Books They Can Film Now

We just came back from watching Avatar. It's important to say first of all that the film has lots of flaws. The story is utterly predictable (it's Dances with Wolves in space); the script has sheer metric shit-tons of clumsy exposition ("See this, Sigourney Weaver? It's called Unobtanium and it's the reason we're here! It's worth lots of money! And the aliens are sitting on it! You should know this already so I've no idea why I'm telling you... it's almost as if there's an entire audience of people watching us who need the information and I'm compelled by some invisible deity to tell you so that they can overhear!"); the entire premise is based around the hoary and naff old trope that indigenous peoples are helpless and passive and at the whim of white people whether heroes or villains.

Yet there's no doubt it was a wonderful spectacle and a thrilling experience, and probably What Cinema Is For at the end of the day: madcap escapism and wonder. I found myself profoundly moved it, actually. The effort and skill put into its creation just has to be admired.

Anyway, a few weeks ago a friend emailed me about it and tabled an interesting proposition - namely, that if nothing else Avatar has demonstrated quite clearly that filmmakers can now make anything they want. There are no constraints anymore - technology has improved to the extent that the only limit left is imagination (setting aside acting and writing, of course). He then asked what fantasy or sci-fi books I would want to see made into films, given that they patently could be, and put forward a two-part adaptation of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun as the one he'd most like to see.

Here are mine.

  • The Scar by China Mieville. I have my doubts about China. He's a little like the Quentin Tarantino of the literary world: he has all the talent, imagination and technique that a writer could want, and he can craft fantastic scenes, but there's something missing, some necessary ability to put together a really compelling story. The Scar is his one book that comes closest to being a genuinely good story as well as a great spectacle, like Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's one movie that works beyond just being cool, and it's the one I'd most like to see made into a film. (Though I have no doubt the bathetic ending would have to be Hollywood-ised somehow.)
  • The Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. There are parts of it that are totally ludicrous, and the main character is Ralph 124C 41+ with the serial numbers filed off - there's nothing he can't do, from seducing a mother and a daughter in the same day to pulling off impossible manouvers in his ship three times before breakfast. But it's a great read and an interesting idea and every single scene is something that would look absolutely amazing on the big screen.
  • The Silmarillion, of course. I don't think this ever would be made into a film, because there just isn't a way to make it work on the big screen for non-Tolkien fans. It would be like trying to film the Bible. But that wouldn't stop me wanting to see it if somebody decided to make it.
  • The Chrionicles of Amber, in all five parts. This was probably the most unfilmable of books once upon a time - before the CGI available today, how could anybody have possibly filmed Rebma, or the fight on the staircase to Kolvir, for instance? But now it's possible. Aside from that I think the films would almost write themselves; Zelazny was one of the most consistently entertaining writers of the last 100 years. The only question would be who would play Corwin. For some reason I think Clive Owen would be a good fit.

I'm also tempted to include The Lord of the Rings but without Orlando Bloom, and The Magician's Nephew, the one Chronicle of Narnia I just can't foresee being made into a film but the one with the most interesting ideas.


  1. "Perdido Street Station" would probably film better than "The Scar". Weird-fantasy Blade Runner meets cheesy bughunt flick Mimic.

    I nominate:
    * Karl Ed Wagner (Darkness Weaves, Bloodstone),
    * Harry Harrison (the Hammer & the Cross),
    *the mighty CAS (a Klarkash-Ton version of Heavy Metal/The Animatrix would rock)

    The only question would be who would play Corwin. For some reason I think Clive Owen would be a good fit.

    Why not suggest someone who can *act*, and who doesn't sound like he has a bad head cold? James Purefoy, for example... ;)

    Weta should get to work on the Orly-free version of LOTR right away though. If Lucas can 'fix' Star Wars, it's only common decency to de-Fralippa LOTR. Replace the woodentop with an Ewok (a pukel-man?), job done.

  2. clockeIs Morgan Freeman still pushing for a film of Rendezvous with Rama? Or how about >i An Avatar-quality Pierson's Puppeteer would be choice.

  3. O-kaaay. That "clockels" bit is me typing the word verification into the wrong field, my apologies.

  4. Pus for some reason the word Ringworld evaporated from that post as well. Stopping now.

  5. I fully support a film version of Amber, but casting is going to be a bitch. I would be hard pressed to pick actors for any of the major roles.

    @Chris -- I agree that PSS would be my choice for a Mieville source.

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  7. (sorry, duff URL in the last post)

    @Daddy Grognard: fan name for Fran Walsh & Pippa Bowens. Their desire to add as much girl power and estrogen brigade fanservice as possible to LOTR has been commented upon.

  8. I'd like to see a good movie stitching together a few John Bellairs yarns

  9. Thanks for the clarification, Chris. FWIW, my opinion of the films decreased the further the series went on. I've not even got them in my DVD collection.

    I'd quite like to see a film of the Abhorsen trilogy. Not sure who could pull it off, tho'.

  10. Of course, technology hasn’t “fixed” the “problem” that it is generally inappropriate to adapt a novel to a 120-minute feature film. The TV mini-series is the video equivalent of a novel. Feature films are novellas.

    Rendezvous with Rama might qualify, since I recall it being a fairly short novel. I’d love to see that or just about any Clarke short story.

  11. Book of the New Sun could be awesome, if done well. It would be very hard to do it well.

    Otherland would probably require a dozen films... and would never get made due to the nature of the protagonists... but I'd love to see it.

  12. It used to take a lot of energy, talent, and imagination to make a believable alternate reality--this meant that all sci-fi films were either amazing works of visionary minds or (more often) friggin hilarious in their clumsy failure.

    Now anybody can do it, so the failures are just boring.

    Just because you can make blue hippies seem real doesn't mean you should.

  13. @noisms: I'll go with The Scar, and:
    @Chris: I'd also second anything by KEW.

    I addition to those, I'd add A Princess of Mars. I know we're getting it, but I don't think its going to use motion capture or the motion capture mized with real actors.

    @Zak: Given the budget, talent, and energy it took to produce Avatar (whatever one thinks of the final product), I don't think it singles we've reached the point you're bemoaning quite yet.

  14. I'm with Zak S. Plus...

    The premise that Cameron couldn't have made this movie before now because the 'technology wasn't up to it' is total crap IMO.

    Final Fantasy: Spirits Within was 2001. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was 2005. We had the tech at least 5 years ago.

    At one time I was impressed by special effects. I would wait with baited breath to watch "The Making of Star Wars" and see just how they made things look so cool with just fireworks, spare model parts and ingenuity.

    Want to know the magic behind the making of Avatar? Its a green screen and a computer graphics program. Want to know how they made JJ Abrams' Star Trek? A green screen, a computer graphics program and a brewery. Want to know how they're going to make the next big Sci-Fi action movie? Wait for it...three guesses...

    I'd love to see a SF film that impressed me again. Really impressed me. I'd love to watch one with an intelligent story, cool and memorable characters and where at the end I ask, "Wow, how did they do that?" and the answer was something other than, "they pressed the right buttons on a keyboard."

    Its not 'special effects'. Its all the same effect. Its beautiful and the artwork is amazing but its not 'movie magic' to me any more.

  15. Barking Alien, I agree with much of what you say. I don’t think a good sci-fi film requires any special effects. I keep thinking that there’s eventually going to be a “retro” movement to revive some of the older special effect techniques.

    I think, however, that you discount the amount of effort and craftsmanship that goes into computer generated images.

  16. Chris: Perdido Street Station just didn't work for me. Couldn't get interested in the characters or what they were doing.

    Zak & Barking Alien: Come on now, do you really think there's a qualitative difference between the preposition that "Avatar didn't require any talent, imagination or skill because it's just done on a computer" and the preposition that "Pinocchio didn't require any talent, imagination or skill because it's just done with paintbrushes" or "Star Wars didn't require any talent, imagination or skill because it's just done with models" or "Jason and the Argonauts didn't require any talent, imagination or skill because it's just done with claymation"?

    If you want to be dismissive of something it's very easy to make remarks like that.

    Barking Alien, when I was a kid and I first saw Star Wars, I probably did wonder "How did they do that?", but that's because I was a kid and didn't know anything. If the original Star Wars was released today I would know how it was done immediately, but it wouldn't ruin the wonder of it. Would it for you? In the same way, I know how Avatar was made but that doesn't stop it from being a terrific and wondrous spectacle despite its flaws. The vision required to think up the scenes, the vistas, the camera angles etc. is in itself breathtaking even if you credit the notion that it's all easy to create on the computer.

    Finally (to cut my "And another thing!" style rant short), you can't dismiss the importance of direction, script and acting even in CGI-led films, and you can't dispute that James Cameron knows how to direct. This film may have had a pretty hokey script and plot, and was only competently acted at best, but that guy knows how to shoot an impressive-looking flick.

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  18. To be fair I didn't say it didn't require talent in any area. Rather, my point was that it requires more than just the talent of making pretty pictures.

    Was Avatar beautiful and an impressive visual and audio spectale? Yes it was. Amazing. That alone does not make a film. I now expect the films coming out to be astouding works of eye candy. The amount of quality concept designers, computer artists, cinematographers and similar film industry talent is greater than has ever been seen in movie history I'd care to wager.

    What I meant was I feel we go in knowing our socks are going to get knocked off by what we see and hear. Now what we need is the ability to marry that to good storytelling, deeper characters and more sensible plots. We seem to have improved the look of things at the cost of the strength of the material its depicting.

    James Camerons makes a great action film, no question. Does he make a great film...IMO, no so much.

  19. I didn;t say Avatar was devoid of talent. I merely meant that it's nowhere near as good as the equally believable movies made long ago, and nowhere near as hilarious as equally crappy movies made long ago.

    A lot of talented people worked on Avatar, and they were wasted. The same people worked on District 9, and weren;t.

  20. The Book Of The New Sun would probably work more as a mini-series (or even a properply plotted out "maxi-series", a show with a fixed ending in sight from the outset and not just the regular kind of show which could run on and on).

    It occured to me, the more I thought about it, that another book which could look really astonishing on the big screen (but which probably could have been filmed a while ago now) is Blood Music by Greg Bear.

    (off topic for a second, but has anyone seen the trailer for Christopher Nolan's "Inception"? Wow. Seriously.)

  21. Seconded on The Silmarillion. I have no idea how it could be done, but I'd support any attempt to bring it to the screen by being first in line on opening night.

    Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield) is another book I'd like to see, though I'm afraid the MTV-video-masquerading-as-movie 300 has cornered the market on Thermopylae.

    Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword would also rock as a film. Cursed sword, epic battles, trolls... what's not to love?

  22. my advice to friends

    bring your ipod
    smuggle in some brewskis
    sit on the isle
    (you are going to need to pee in a 3 hr movie)

    put on the 3D glasses
    relax and enjoy the pretty pictures

  23. I gotta thrown in with Barking Alien and Zak S. on this one, the biggest thing that enraged me about "The Phantom Menace" was that Lucas had the most awesome machinery available for making dreams a visual reality, an army of excellent artists, and the holy grail of unquestioned Final Cut, and that was all he could come up with.

    It's like Superman is real but all he does is bag groceries down at the local market. It's like owning a Ferrari and only driving it around the block. Avatar falls into the same camp for me. You've got enough artistic power to level a mountain, and you use it to remake Fern Gully. Just think of the good films that could have been made for that expenditure of resources.

    Conversely, on the cheap end of things, I think crappy cgi has become this generations visible zipper on the monster or string holding up the spaceship, but as Zak S. points out, it lacks the charm of a sweaty guy in a rubber suit hopping around a Toho soundstage...

  24. For all of those who are pining for thoughtful, well-done science fiction that is not overwhelmed by state of the visuals, I hope you paid money to go see Duncan Jones' "Moon" last year (out on DVD this week, I think?). Because if you're not out there rewarding films like that with your patronage, you're not going to see more like it as often as you would like. And even a quiet little film like "Moon" benefits from the advancements made by the big and the loud.

    But what do I know? I loved "Avatar" just as it was. In a year that included absolute big budget garbage such as "Transformers 2", "2012" and "Terminator: Salvation", I just don't get all the hate reserved for "Avatar".

  25. Oh, and my nomination for the book? "The Mote in God's Eye" by Niven & Pournelle. How nice it would be to see aliens and an alien world that were, well, alien.

    But I live in fear for what they're about to do to Asimov's "Foundation".

  26. You guys have hearts of STONE, I tell you.

    Robert Saint John: I agree with you. Avatar was an honest to goodness mindblowing achievement.

    Also, now that you mention it, 2012 surely proves Zak wrong - hilariously bad films will always get made.

  27. great blog, what a great discussion. i hate most new movies because they are peppered with blandized music. predictable twists in the plot if any.

    wondering what you thought of Moorcock's "The Final Programme". i had one problem with Brunner, sorta vague film technique showing her cannabalism.

    movies i would want to see done with the right crew:
    Neal Asher - "Gridlink"
    Alfred Bester - "The Demolished Man"
    Jan Lars Jensen - "Shiva 3000"
    Cordwainer Smith - "Planet Named Shayol"
    PK Dick- "Do Androids Dream..."
    Frank Herbert - "Whipping Star"
    Linda Nagata "The Bohr Maker"
    Alan Moores Swamp Thing around issue 58
    Doom Patrol "The Painting that Ate Paris"
    Jack Vance - "The Men Return"
    Jack Vance - "Emphyrio"
    Greg Bear - "Eon"
    and why not Zelazny - "Lord of Light" since Kirby did the set up pics already.

    just anything intelligent will do tho'. i dont care if it takes a day to watch some of these books on film. just wish there was more than 10 decent sf movies out there. animations by the zombie fingers of Virgil Finlay or Alex Nino would work also.

    i hope they dont ruin the next Heavy Metal (the mag) movie with Pearl Jam or something musically as tepid as what they did with the last one. not sure if it's even coming out tho. oh ya, hello.