Science Fiction Studies

#22 = Volume 7, Part 3 = November 1980

Fredric Jameson

SF Novel/SF Film

Arthur C. Clarke. The Lost Worlds of 2001 [1972]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979. xv + 240p. $12.50.

Peter George. Dr. Strangelove [1963]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979. 176p. $11.00.

Harry Harrison. Make Room! Make Room! [1966]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979. xii + 213p. $12.00.

Robert A. Heinlein. Destination Moon [1950]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979. xiii + 176p. $15.00.

Richard Matheson. The Shrinking Man. [1956]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979. xxvi + 192p. $12.50.

W.J. Stuart. Forbidden Planet [1956]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1978. 208p. $10.00.

Walter Tevis. The Man Who Fell to Earth [1963]. Boston: Gregg Press, 1978. 144p. $10.00.

This excellent new Gregg series of SF film/novel reprints exhausts virtually all the imaginable permutations: novel into film (The Shrinking Man, Make Room! Make Room!, The Man Who Fell to Earth); film into novel (Forbidden Planet); novel and film composed simultaneously (2001); are there any other combinations? Yes: novel into film into novel: this is the history of Heinlein's Destination Moon and the even stranger history of Dr Strangelove, whose film version was taken from a novel by Peter George called Red Alert, then renovelized under the same author's name by another writer whom the editor suspects to have been Terry Southern himself. Here as throughout, incidentally (with the signal exception of Norman Spinrad's introduction to the Tevis novel), the editorial materials are intelligent, interesting, and full of useful information about both novel and film versions; each volume contains stills from the film, which, while neither glossy nor always particularly well chosen, pleasantly help to jog the memory. It is a most attractive series, not least because of the astonishing variety of these texts, all generically so different, yet all more than mere historical curiosities (the exception here being Heinlein's antiquated space flight effort, my reaction to which may be qualified by my own personal resistance to Heinlein, as well as the fact that this pioneering film is the only one I've never seen myself). On the other hand, it should probably be said that none of the written texts is among the most intense and imaginative achievements of modern SF (the Tevis novel is, however, interestingly unclassifiable). But a series which invokes Soylent Green, 2001, and The Man Who Fell to Earth certainly includes the best SF film today has accomplished--as signal a mutation from the SF-genre films of the 1950s as the great SF of the present day from the Golden Age; while The Incredible Shrinking Man and Dr Strangelove are surely filmic masterpieces of a somewhat different kind, and may be taken to demonstrate the extraordinary elasticity and expressive possibilities of SF defined in its widest sense. The end of the text of The Shrinking Man ("Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching"), like that of 2001, as we shall see shortly, allows us usefully to interrogate the rather different ending of the film itself.

Still, the relationship of novel and filmic text is a peculiar one, and is not exhausted by this kind of comparison. To be sure, one sometimes uses texts like these to clarify incoherences in the films one has seen: most notably in the case of Roeg's version of the Tevis novel, which was unmercifully cut in commercial distribution and which many people have found perplexing. But I think it may be worth entertaining another possibility, namely that this kind of unit (the "filmed novel") is a specific and complicated text in its own right, a kind of stereoptic text, half words and half images read with the eyes of memory. Memory is indeed a third partner here, along with verbal reading and visual experience: I think it was Stanley Cavell, in his book The World Viewed, who stressed the lack of presence of film, the way in which our experience of film is so often above all an experience of remembering the film: it is as though the tangible possession of the novel, in book form (about which the same thing ought to be true, it's never all there at once before you, etc.), somehow tended to efface this mystery, which the filmic experience preserves and heightens. Thus, as Cavell suggests, the real text of the film may simply be the sequences you remember, even if you remember them wrong: just as for Freud it mattered less what you really dreamed, and more what you thought your dream was on waking.

If this is so, then clearly the "filmed novel" combination addresses a very specific formal need: how to remember the film, ever more intensely (without seeing it again), how to remedy this ontological lack in the filmic experience. In fact, specialists of so-called "mass culture" tell us that, in the US at least, there is an important and constitutive relationship between the best-seller or major novel (I guess one defines this as anything over 400 pages) and the big box-office hits; nor is this terribly hard to understand. For a public for which reading books is not exactly a familiar everyday experience, to have worked one's way through a "major novel," over a month's time, say, is a very special commitment of time which demands reconfirmation, which seeks to be preserved: so then you go to the movie version of the novel you have spent so much time reading, or, the other way round, you seek to preserve the experience of the film by buying the bestseller from which it was adapted and reading that.

The effect works both ways: it adds a curious kind of "referent"--not the external "real world" but something real and objective nonetheless--to the non-referential aesthetic languages of verbal narrative or of filmic representation. Now we know that "behind" either one of these aesthetic texts there stands something real: but it is not the real /cat/ by which the linguists represent the word "cat," but rather the other text itself.

But this interesting stereoptic phenomenon would in any case have little enough to do with the respective quality of the two texts. I have the feeling--but want to try to avoid turning it into a "theory"--that it is more in the order of things for a first-rate and original film to emerge from a merely average novelistic text than for a really original novel to find adequate expression on the screen. I would like to have seen David Bowie in Stranger in a Strange Land or Jodorovsky's version of Dune; but think I would just as soon not see filmed versions of any Dick novels, say (the TV version of Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven--one of her finest books, I have always felt--was so good as to make this point vividly: in spite of its qualities, it seemed to me to impoverish the book by making the latter's ideological message in an oversimplified and even strident form). Maybe this has an obvious explanation: if the work of filmic production and creation comes after the composition of the novel, the latter has to be able to serve as little more than a pretext or starting point for filmic invention. In the examples before us, Harry Harrison's good novel about overpopulation lacks either of the two decisive additions of that really fine film, Soylent Green, which was based in it: the title discovery itself ("Soylent Green is people!") and the great euthanasia sequence.

2001 presents, as always, a kind of exception: it should be noted that the Gregg volume, The Lost Worlds of 2001, is not Arthur C. Clarke's novelistic version of the film; rather it includes early drafts and chapters omitted from both novel and film (as well as reminiscences about the latter's production), and is therefore a useful addition to the literature on the subject. But the meeting of Clarke and Kubrick is fascinating insofar as these two artists (while not, to my mind, of equal stature) can certainly both lay claim to the capacity to project uniquely visionary and individual "worlds." Characteristically, it is at the conclusion of the film that the conjuncture of these very different visions can most vividly be felt. (A theoretical hypothesis in the form of an aside: the basic problem of SF is that of totality; thus, its failure of imagination can always be detected at the moment of closure--how to wrap the plot up, where to break off--rather than in that relatively easier thing which is the evocation of a new and unfamiliar world in the opening chapters or sequences.)

Clarke's Star Child is the motif, familiar from his other work, of the mutation and the qualitative or evolutionary leap forward, of this or that version of a "childhood's end" for humankind. Now, if you like this kind of vision and if you are only reading the printed text, fine for you, here it is! (I happen to feel that Clarke's real masterpiece, however, his only one, is Rendezvous with Rama, which is something very different from any of that, although a few elements survive in its ending.) But I would like to think that no one, viewing the Kubrick film, could sense this optimistic motif unambiguously: surely everyone has been oppressed by the dreadful asphyxiation of the hotel room beyond time and by the sense of the interference of a very different set of thematics or obsessions: namely, Kubrick's own fascination with repetition and imprisonment, with a kind of grisly eternal return of which his new film, The Shining, gives us a more open embodiment (see, for further reflexions on The Shining, my article in Social Text No. 4, forthcoming).

So perhaps our "theory" needs some final modification or permutation: that stereoptic text--the combination of novel-and-film which for better or for worse we have been calling the "filmed novel"--is ultimately really interesting only when it stages a dissonance, a contradiction, between the two components. We've been thinking in terms of replication or reproduction: can a good film reproduce a good novel, does an average novel fall short of what a really fine film can achieve? But in the newer film criticism itself, as it addresses that related problem of the relationship of words or spoken text to images within a single film, already the conclusion had been drawn that these effects were at their most intense when there was a lag, a dissonance, a non-correspondence, between these two registers. Maybe this is the price that must be paid for a situation in which both elements of the "filmed novel"--novelistic text and film--are to be felt as having equal value and intensity, as being neither of them inessential or secondary to the other, neither of them mere pretext, but standing in some coeval tension with one another as artistic realizations of equal integrity.

Indeed, some initial confirmation of this idea may be found in another great "filmed novel" which has not been included in this English-language series: I mean Tarkovsky's version of Lem's Solaris, surely one of the most curious of all filmic adaptations, and unquestionably a case in which both artifacts--novel and film--are masterpieces of equal, yet incomparable merit. Lem's was a Voltairean conte philosophique, as befits this essentially skeptical and Enlightenment- scientific writer (this so un-Russian writer!): in Solaris Lem set out to demolish the old fantasy of communication with alien beings, and sought to demonstrate the proposition that even if other life forms existed, we could never, ever, achieve any kind of communication with them.

The Tarkovsky film, however, is a Proustian meditation on memory and virtually the expression of a kind of religious mysticism: nothing could be more untrue to the spirit of Lem's work; more than a mere generic modification, we have an utter and complete shift in types of discourse. Yet it is a very great film indeed. Perhaps only thus can a filmic adaptation keep faith with an original of great quality: not by seeking to reproduce the latter faithfully, but by letting it "be in its being," respecting its uniqueness and difference by transforming it into something so radically distinct that both works appear on the retina separately. Walter Benjamin had a theory of translation that seems relevant: the point of a good translation, he argued, was not to fashion an equivalent of its original in a foreign tongue, but rather to demonstrate the impossibility of translation and to hint at the strange resonances and syntax of another language, effects of which our own is incapable. Ultimately, perhaps, only thus do film and novel preserve their specificity.

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