Sunday, July 19, 2009

Upcoming SciFi Adaptations of Note

I’ve been doing a lot more reading lately than in the past few years and indulging two of my literary loves: science fiction and great classics. Inevitably, I’ve been borrowing the free time from my movie-watching fund and that’s led me, in turn, to fewer posts of late. I plan to maintain the slower-than-previous rate of about once weekly for the near future, and I apologize if there’s anyone out there disappointed.

I tend towards prolonged binges (I cite my peak obsession periods with gialli, Czech New Wave, animations as examples) and my reading habits are no exception. During high school I read for leisure voraciously, while in college almost not at all (recreational reading had little appeal with all the assigned reading to deal with) and I can feel myself entering a renewed upswing. I blame my friend and fellow literature-lover Josh for enabling my born-again bookworm habits.

So I thought I’d spend some time on something I’ve rarely done on this blog: looking at works I’ve read and participating in the growing buzz surrounding their cinematic adaptations. My specific goal today is to infect a few readers with my enthusiasm for contemporary sci-fi, both in book and (upcoming) film forms.

The most rapidly approaching of what I’ve recently read is “The Road” (written 2006, release date Oct 2009) by Cormac McCarthy. I had to read McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (1992) back when I was in high school and I pretty much hated it, perhaps because of my mild aversion to westerns or my strong distaste for works “exploring issues of masculinity” or the pedantry of my teacher. But a slew of “Year’s Best” awards, followed by a Pulitzer prize (the only science fiction book to yet receive one!) convinced me to give McCarthy another try. I was quickly won over.

“The Road” is the seemingly futile journey of a man and his son, the latter of which was born shortly after an unexplained disaster that has put an end to civilization. A miserable decade or so has passed in the meantime and all plant and animal life has been extinguished. Only a few human survivors are left wandering a nightmarish landscape of desolation, despair, hunger and fear. McCarthy’s prose, blunt and stripped down but endowed with a poetic precision, was born to describe canvases of post-apocalyptic debris and intimations of abhorrent inhumanity. As an enthusiast of the end-of-the-world subgenre, I can acknowledge that “The Road” isn’t particularly original, but Cormac’s writing blesses it with greatness.

I watched the movie trailer shortly after finishing “The Road” and was a bit torn. There is a chance, looking at the grim imagery, that the film could capture the bleak atmosphere, arguably the most important element of the book. Less promising is the role of Charlize Theron. I admire her acting, but I’m skeptical of her character’s implied screen time: in the book, she only appears in a handful of brief flashbacks. Viggo Mortensen has the lead role, and I’m more than a little excited about that, especially given his recent successful collaborations with Cronenberg.

Interestingly, “The Road” wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo award, often considered the premier prize for SF literature. (Incidentally, “Spin,” by the shockingly yet-to-be-adapted Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 prize and would make a fine film.) However, 2008’s Hugo winner “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (which also swept the Nebula and Locus Awards) is slated to be directed by the Coen brothers, perhaps sometime in late 2010. What’s odd about this book winning these particular prizes is that “YPU” isn’t really SF at all. It’s alternative history. Here’s the premise:

In 1940 a proposal was circulated to grant a portion of Alaska to Jewish refugees fleeing WWII and the Nazi genocide. In real life, the idea never came to fruition, but in Michael Chabon’s novel, Sitka, Alaska is now a bustling Jewish metropolis while Israel lacked the manpower to maintain itself. Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out, divorced and drunken detective who wanders the urban milieu of “the Frozen Chosen” trying to find the killer of a junky/chess prodigy/messiah before the city reverts back to US control. The utterance on the lips of every character is apt: “Strange times to be a Jew.” The style is hard-boiled noir, the writing flowery and liberally sprinkled with Yiddish (a glossary is included) and the plot well-laden with cynicism, conspiracies and revelations.

It makes a neat little circle to consider that the Coen brothers recently adapted Cormac McCarthy with “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t also make a cinematic masterpiece out of material as strong as “YPU,” too. My biggest concern is that the plot’s first half is so dense with groundwork and setup that it really tends to drag (though it all becomes important later). The first action scene is about 180 pages into the 400 page book and mystery doesn’t start to reveal itself until well after that, though it’s a pleasure to soak up the charming language and witty metaphors in the meantime. The Coen brothers will likely have to rewrite the complicated story if they want to get a more conventional modern-noir pacing, though they’ve got enough fame, financing and natural iconoclasm to defy Hollywood’s expectations. Whatever they come up with, I’m confident it will be compelling.

Michael Chabon will probably see his works adapted quite often (his “Wonder Boys” (2000) already initiated the trend) given that he’s such a well-regarded contemporary writer of the “serious” vein while simultaneously a pioneer and champion for popular genre literature. He’s also supposed to be at work on the script for the Edgar Rice Burrough’s (“Tarzan”) adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” titled “John Carter of Mars.” If it meets its 2012 release date, it will hit the centennial of the 1912 planetary romance novel, which was a major inspiration to the golden age SF writers and several NASA members, but which is a thoroughly awful book by contemporary literary and scientific standards. I’m encouraged only by the prospects of a major rewrite and the selection of Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) as director.

But coming back to more recent (anything after 2000 being recent on my scale) SF novels, I noticed that Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (written 2005) is being set for a 2010 adaptation. The premise involves children being raised at an isolated boarding school where mysterious incidents hint at a disturbing purpose. I read it after Time magazine included it amongst the top 100 novels written since 1923 (it was one of the most recent to make the list) and, despite a twist that may intentionally elude no one, it is quite stirring and strangely satisfying. Ishiguro is a stellar writer who has already gotten acquainted with adaptations: “The Remains of the Day” and “The Saddest Music in the World” being brilliant films that emerged from his work.

Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) is in the director’s chair and I’m happy to see the great Charlotte Rampling as one of the teachers. I drew back with fear when I saw that Keira Knightley headlines the cast, especially considering that she doesn’t have the lead role. I don’t consider Knightley to be a particularly strong performer, but I’m willing to cross my fingers and see how the whole thing goes.

All told, I’m pretty excited about the potential SF we could see hit theaters in the near future. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other novels on their way to the screen, but my SF specialty is really more grounded in the 1950’s-1970’s, decades that haven’t been treated particularly kindly by recent adapters. Anyway, please chime in on the comment section if you want to alert me to other SF you’ve been anticipating.


FilmWalrus said...

Katie informs me that she just saw trailers for "The Time Traveler's Wife" which is supposed to be a very popular book. Partly because I always confuse it with the poorly recieved "The Astronaut's Wife," I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

Mad Dog said...

And a certain woman was also in The Astronaut's Wife. :3

But seriously, I'm sure you're also aware that Michael Chabon was brought in to write the script of Spider-Man 2 at one point and actually turned in a full draft, yes?

FilmWalrus said...

I did know about the Spiderman 2 connection, but I can't guess what it would have been like. Chabon has his hand in a lot of Hollywood work and I can't say I'm sorry. He's been compared to many of my other favorite contemporary take-genre-art-seriously authors like Susanna Clark and Margaret Atwood.

Mad Dog said...

I belieeeeeeeve somewhere out there someone posted the Chabon draft of Spider-Man 2, but I can't remember what was different about it.

Anonymous said...

Philip K. Dick's 'Radio Free Albemuth' is being adapted by John Alan Simon and apparently it's in post-production stage . []