Why Hasn’t Hollywood Made More Films From Popular Science Fiction Novels?

Hollywood obviously loves the science fiction of comic books, but why doesn’t it also love the science fiction of novels?  Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t make films of all popular literary novels either, or mystery books.  Hollywood releases about 500-700 films a year.  Russia and China is in a similar pall park.  India produces about a 1,000 flicks each year.  It’s hard to get exact numbers.  Figures are also hard to find for the number of novels published each year, but I’d guess between 50,000-75,000 from numbers I’ve seen.

And even though science fiction is very popular at the movies, movie makers aren’t going to make science fiction movies all the time.  When movie makers do make science fiction movies they swing for major hits, hoping to make hundreds of millions of dollars, or even billions.  Evidently the mentality of comic book science fiction fits the bill better than science fiction novels when it comes to making a lot of money and appealing to a vast audience.  Science fiction books actually have a very limited appeal on their own.  Science fiction is less popular than mysteries and romances as a genre, and much less popular than general best sellers.  And most single story science fictional films are usually original screenplays.  In other words, science fiction novels don’t get enough attention to be noticed by film makers.

Hyperion

Obviously bestsellers like The Hunger Games do get their attention.  But science fiction novels that merely win the Hugo or Nebula awards don’t garnish enough notice by producers with money to spend.  All my life I’ve heard stories about Hollywood sniffing around certain famous science fiction novels, even buying the rights, but they seldom get a film through production.  Of course, that’s also true of all kinds of books and screenplays.  The process is quite an obstacle course.

I’m sure I’m like tens of millions of bookworms out there who wish Hollywood would make movies out of their favorite books.  The trouble is, unless ten million bookworms are all wishing for the same book, Hollywood isn’t interested.  Dune by Frank Herbert is probably one of the most famous science fiction novels ever, and it’s gotten the film treatment twice and there are rumors filmmakers want to try again.  Hollywood isn’t against trying to turn SF books into gold.  Just look at what they’ve done with Tolkien and Rowling.  Or the success George  R. R. Martin has had with HBO, or the new series based on the Outlander series.  Hollywood knows bestsellers can make big hits, but they also know they need the right book.   Producers know series books work better than single volume stories.  Series show fan commitment.   Yet, some popular series like The Golden Compass crashed and burned at the movies and none of the sequels were filmed.

Also notice, those stories from Tolkien, Rowling, Martin and Gabaldon weren’t science fiction either.  Box office favors fantasy.  Hollywood seems to love Philip K. Dick but few other science fiction writers.  Ender’s Game didn’t make that much of a splash with worldwide audiences, so I wonder if we’ll ever see Speaker for the Dead on the big screen.  David Brin was blessed by Hollywood when they made The Postman, so why haven’t they tried The Uplift series?  Heinlein got decent notice with Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, but other than talk all his other novels are ignored.  Heinlein should get some credit for every space marine type film though.  Clarke made it huge back in the 1960s with 2001: A Space Odyssey but why didn’t Hollywood try to win again with one of his other novels?  Childhood’s End would seem like an obvious choice for the big screen.

I guess the question becomes:  What science fiction novels deserve the Hollywood treatment?  Which great science fiction stories have the potential to enchant tens of millions of people?  Or even a hundred million?  As fans of our favorite books, we have to be honest with ourselves, do the books we love have the potential to be loved by a significant percentage of the population?  I love a lot of small films that probably don’t get more ticket buyers in the theaters than a modest bestseller.  Are there classic science fiction novels that could be filmed within the budgets of independent filmmakers? 

My first thought is to recommend the Hyperion Cantos books by Dan Simmons.  Can you imagine what those books would look like visualized on the big screen – it would be tremendous!  And the $$$s to make would be tremendous too.  The Hyperion Cantos films would need the audience of the Marvel comic films to break even.  Are there enough people on Earth interested in that story to make it a worthy film investment?  Or could a series of films made from the Hyperion Cantos stories attract such an audience?  I have no idea.

My favorite science fiction novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.  It was announced in 2010 that Harry Kloor had adapted HSS-WT for the screen, but the last word on the project was it was still in development.  I can’t find any recent news, so I assume the project is dead.  This Heinlein story could have been filmed relatively cheap, and it does have a great fan base.

WWEnd-most-read-books  

Looking at Worlds Without End list of most read books it’s interesting that among the top 24 books, 15 have been filmed.  These are both SF and fantasy.  Of the ones not filmed, they are:

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guinn

I’d like to see films of all nine of those books.  The next 24 books, only 12 have been filmed, leaving:

WWEnd-most-read-books-2

  • Foundation/Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Old Man War by John Scalzi

More great science fiction books that need filming.  In the next 24, only 11 have been filmed, leaving:

WWEnd-most-read-books-3

  • Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
  • Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clakre
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  • The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you’re paying attention you’ll notice that many of these books are part of a series, something Hollywood loves.  And these books are among the most popular SF/F books read right now.  Because so many have been filmed, it suggests that the others might be film worthy too.  If you read the entire list at Worlds Without End you’ll see that many other popular books have been filmed, but more that haven’t.  But what about less popular science fiction books, ones that are the real classics of the science fiction genre?

City by Clifford Simak is a book that is probably not well known by young science fiction fans today, but it was much loved when I was growing up.  City is a fix-up novel of several short stories, so it would be hard to film, but it’s theme ties them together so wonderful that I wish they could make a film out of it.  The gimmick is humans no longer live on Earth and all that’s left are intelligent robots and uplifted dogs, who tell stories about humans they used to know.  I can’t believe a creative screen writer couldn’t do something with such a fantastic idea.

Sadly, so many great science fiction novels of the past have become dated not only by science, but by changing attitudes.  I think it would be extremely hard to film More Than Human, the great classic by Theodore Sturgeon.  It feels like something Carson McCullers would have written after hanging out with a bunch of New Age hippies brought up on reading Stranger in a Strange Land.  Many people have dreamed of seeing Stranger in a Strange Land at their favorite movie theater, but I just don’t think it will ever happen.  I’d love to see an extremely true-to-the-novel version, but I think seeing Stranger on the big screen would only make it all too obvious how fucking weird it really is.  I’m not sure an army of psychiatrists and English professors could make out what Heinlein is unconsciously saying with this novel.

If they had made Stand on Zanzibar as a movie back in 1968, it might creepily look like the news today.

I wish Pixar would make Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, because it’s so damn dazzlingly beautiful to imagine.  And I think they should give the film the American book title, The Long Afternoon of Earth.   I think people leaving the theater would be saying “WTF!” to each other, but it would haunt them for days to think about the far distant future and what might become of humanity.

Because people are so paranoid about robots and artificial intelligence, I think a hit could be made from The Humanoids by Jack Williamson.  Although I’d be afraid Hollywood would turn it into a shoot-em-up like they did I, Robot.  It’s very disappointing to me that Hollywood sees science fiction as a source of video game violence to put on the screen, and make every plot about saving the world.

It seems to me that Ready Player One and Little Brother should be obvious movie hits.

If they could pull it off, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny might generate some good word of mouth movie buzz.  And what would America think of the dark vision of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany?  Is there the film technology to pull off Uplift series by David Brin, or make The Rediscovery of Man stories by Cordwainer Smith, or Eleanor Arnason’s uber-exotic The Woman of the Iron People?  And what would modern people make of the feminist science fiction novels like The Female Man by Joanna Russ, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, or Dawn by Octavia Butler?

And is it too late to film such vast comic weirdness as Mindswap and A Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley?

I could go on and on and on, because science fiction has so many wonderful, far out,  sense of wonder inspiring stories that should be filmed.  And I’ve only been talking of novels.  I’d film “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny even though it’s clearly scientifically wrong and outdated.  There are probably hundreds of great SF novelettes and novellas out there would would film perfectly for a two hour movie.  The next Heinlein movie should be “A Menace from Earth.”

Fans of great science fiction stories can hope that the technology, talent and costs of movie making will come down so more classic science fiction stories can be filmed.  I was given hope for this the other day when I saw an article about a Star Trek movie Ananar being made by movie makers not through regular channels.  Maybe it won’t always take hundreds of millions to make an epic science fiction movie.  Let’s hope.

JWH – 8/23/14

12 thoughts on “Why Hasn’t Hollywood Made More Films From Popular Science Fiction Novels?”

    1. That’s a good point John. However, although I’m often disappointed with many filmed versions of books I love to see how people interpret them. Everyone reads a book differently. I think we all assume our friends are reading the same book when we discuss a commonly read book, but I think we each see a different story. If you read Pride and Prejudice, or Little Women, two books that have been filmed many times, you realize each filmmaker is seeing the book differently, and I like that.

      Not only do I want more classic science fiction books filmed, I’d love to see more than one version. I’d especially like to see new versions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner was brilliant, but it left plenty of room to use the book again and again for other films.

      I love all three versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, and would watch more versions.

      And even if they make a bad film of a book it’s great PR for the book.

  1. I’d like to see Asimov’s The End of Eternity filmed. It has just enough of a level of Philip K. Dick-like paranoia that seems to make for good translation to film, a time travel element which is one of the SF tropes general audiences seem to accept, and a built in love story that would make it appeal to both men and women.

    1. Funny you should mention The End of Eternity, Carl, because yesterday I was entering data into Worlds Without End and I stopped on that book because I couldn’t remember if I read it or not. I believe I read all of Asimov’s 1950s novels in the 1960s, and reread some of them when they came out on Audible.com. But I never can keep the titles straight. Now that you promoted this title to get the film treatment I’ll have to go reread it. I wish I had a neural jack and an external memory bank that was more trustworthy than my wetware.

  2. I’d rather see more sci fi be adapted to TV/mini-series rather than movies, simply because Hollywood favors a certain formula that I’d hate to see novels mangled to fit. But in the cases where Hollywood buys up rights for certain properties, only for those projects to be halted in limbo, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if the novelists had held out or asked to see the treatment that would go out — anything more proactive than waiting by the phone for Hollywood to call.

  3. I find it ironic that the same old themes rehashed over again are still boring moviegoers when there are a few really good undiscovered works that would probably interest an astute producer. I have about given up on having my own (the first of three) “Humandroids” offered to Hollywood. I am too impatient with the quagmire and process that I will seek an independent producer for mine. Anyone interested contact Lulu.com for e-readers or print. If I do say so myself it is more than pretty good; but I am a bit prejudiced. Most of those movies bored my to sleep; predictable; uninteresting and worn out.

  4. “why doesn’t [Hollywood] also love the science fiction of novels?”

    Well it does… as long as the story was written by Philip K. Dick, as you say. It’s like the old saw that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM computers. “Blade Runner” was one of the first big hits in the DVD market as well as in a theatrical re-release — even though it flopped on its original release up against E.T. Or maybe it’s that Dick did a lot of drugs and Hollywood producers relate to that, I don’t know.

    The best known novels aren’t always the most film-worthy. Just think of the thrilling, clever SFX spectacular you could make out of James H. Schmitz’s “The Demon Breed” (1968). Not only is the story in the proven Alien Invasion genre, it has both small and large action set-pieces, a female protagonist for the PC set, creepy alien monsters for horror fans, even cute talking animals (Uplifted otters). And a terrific plot — it would move like Indiana Jones with the right writer and director.

    On the other hand, one of my favorite recent movies was “Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth” (2007), a low-budget, bottle-set, all talk/no action piece. All right, it’s an original screenplay, but the basic scenario is straight out of a number of well known SF novels and shorts. Another favorite, “Happy Accidents” (2000) is a very similar case.

    Of the unproduced titles you listed:

    Although I love the book, I’m afraid that “Have Spacesuit – Will Travel” wouldn’t translate well to film. Not as written, anyway. Kip’s fascinating renovation of “Oscar” would be reduced to a one-minute montage and the sense of expanding arenas — from Earth to Luna to Pluto to Andromeda — would be hard to convey, I think. And you’d have to find an 11-year-old Natalie Portman, too. Maybe “The Star Beast” or “Tunnel in the Sky” instead?

    “American Gods” is to be a Starz Network TV series (premier in 2016 ?)

    “The Man in the High Castle” will be available on Amazon Prime in Nov 2015 (10 episodes)

    “Gateway” – Syfy has announced (2015) they plan to turn this into a TV series

    “Old Man’s War” – Syfy is also supposed to be doing this as a series (Scalzi confirms)

    “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” aired as a 7-part series on BBC America in May 2015

    “Children of Dune” was a mini-series on Sci-Fi in 2003

    “Neuromancer” as always, is currently “in production”

    1. Well, it sounds like Hollywood has finally discovered SF books, but I saw the pilot to “The Man in the High Castle” and it’s not the same story. I think they could do “Have Space Suit-Will Travel” is they tried hard enough. But more than likely that just slap something together. Did you see the recent version of “All You Zombies…” that was renamed something I’ve forgotten? It wasn’t bad. And they jazzed it up with an extra story.

      1. “Predestination” (2014). Not a bad adaptation and well enough executed, but somehow it just didn’t do much for me.

        By the way, you probably saw “Ex Machina” (2015), but did you catch the very similar movie “The Machine” (2013)? I much preferred the latter — I thought it was a better plot with more relatable characters. The female android in both movies was named “Ava”. Serendipity?

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