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July 20, 2004

I, Hollywood

Over on his journal, science fiction writer Bill Shunn has got himself worked up on principle over the I, Robot movie, which is based on the Issac Asimov book of the same name roughly in the way a store-brand grape soda is based on an actual grape. Shunn is personally boycotting the film and thinks you should too, although with I, Robot pulling down a $52 million opening weekend, his boycott will have to play as a moral victory rather than an economic one.

I respect Shunn's position (and like him as a writer, which is always nice too), but am not the principled purist he is. I went and saw the film on Friday, and I had quite a bit of fun with it; it was put together well (which means it moved quickly enough not to let one dwell on plot holes), it looked great, and it had just enough pathos in the form of the self-aware robot to be a bit smarter than the average loud summer film. In terms of Will Smith summer SF films, it was not as good as Men in Black, but better than MIB II, Independence Day and (shudder) Wild Wild West. Among director Alex Proyas' work, it's the least distinguished that I've seen (I haven't seen his Garage Days), but given the film is a hit, he's now got a chance to make more quirky films to re-establish his cred with the goth geeks. Overall, I give the film a "B-."

However, as a longtime professional observer of the film industry, I also went into the theater unburdened the illusion that the film would have anything at all to do with Issac Asimov's robot stories. This is a Hollywood motion picture, after all; nothing is sacred, least of all original texts, and least of all this particular case, since to my understanding the project initially started as an unrelated science fiction story about robots, onto which the I, Robot brand name was grafted as the rights to the property became available. In other words, this was a vaguely cynical exercise on the part of the filmmakers, at least as regards Asimov's work.

And, of course, this is SOP for Hollywood. Allow me to put on my pontificating hat here and tell you an obvious truth: Hollywood doesn't care about source material. When a major movie studio buys a novel (or in this case, a collection of stories) to adapt into a film, it stops being material of a fixed nature; it becomes suddenly fluid, and you'll find vast chunks of the book sliding out, getting rearranged or simply being ignored for the expediencies of the filmmakers and the studio. Let me make it even more clear: It is a rare book that makes it through the film adaptation process without great violence being done to it.

And this is not always a bad thing. I think some of the most successful literary-to-film transfers have been ones in which Hollywood does what Hollywood does -- substantially guts and reworks the source material to adapt it to the needs of the filmmakers. The obvious example here is Blade Runner, which is of course a mightily reworked version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. It's entirely possible a filmed version that is more faithful to the original novel could have been made; on the other hand, Blade Runner is excellent. It's a fair trade.

(This is not to suggest I, Robot, the film, is on par with Blade Runner. It's not; as divergent as Blade Runner is from Electric Sheep, it shares the book's primary narrative themes, whereas mostly what I, Robot shares with Asimov's work is robots, and the use of the Three Laws of Robotics as a plot device. But it is to say that in theory, and sometimes in practice, Hollywood's habit of gutting source material and reworking it is not inherently bad.)

Conversely, movies which follow their books to a greater or lesser degree (changing chunks here and there but still showing the recognizable plot lines of their literary progenitors) are not necessarily doing the books any favors: Hollywood appropriation of literary SF in this way often ends pretty badly, and the video stores are littered with the wreckage to prove it: Dune. The Puppet Masters. Starship Troopers, which I must confess I enjoy personally but which I know Heinlein fans throw their hands up in horror over (Poor Heinlein has yet to have a good film made from his work). And let's not forget Bicentennial Man, as long as we're on the subject of Asimov. There are books which do make the transfer substantially unmolested -- I think the adaptation of Carl Sagan's Contact is a good example -- but they are rarer than not.

I readily grant that it's very likely a movie version that was more faithful to Asimov's ideas could have been made (Shunn directs folks to an unproduced screenplay, written by Harlan Ellison and Asimov himself), and possibly should be made. But it wasn't and hasn't, for whatever reasons. C'est la Hollywood. I'm not necessarily going to take it out on this version because of it, especially if this version has the imprimatur of the Asimov estate. And in any event, I, Robot the book remains in its unmolested state, and as of this writing is #40 on the Amazon.com sales list, a height I doubt it, now over a half-century old, would have achieved without Hollywood's unsubtle violations. If a new generation of readers use this movie as an entry point to access Asimov the writer and other science fiction writers, well, speaking as a science fiction writer, I can live with that.

Posted by john at July 20, 2004 01:11 AM

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Tracked on July 27, 2004 10:04 PM