When the literary sci-fi and movie worlds collide

Special to The Times

IN “The Reel Stuff,” Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg have gathered an eclectic collection of fantasy and horror stories gone Hollywood that offers an opportunity to examine how these speculative tales were adapted for the screen.

The results are not always pretty. In many cases, the originals supersede their celluloid successors. It is also a great pity that the editors have failed to cough up the names of the screenwriters who savaged some of these gems. But this is, after all, what the Internet Movie Database is for.

Seminal stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” and Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master” are mysteriously absent. The inclusion of George R.R. Martin’s excellent novella “Sandkings” is something of a cheat; it kicked off the 1995 incarnation of TV’s “The Outer Limits.”


But on the whole, this book -- which was originally published in 1998 and has now been reissued in an expanded edition -- provides a reliable litmus test for those wondering whether a story or a motion picture is more convincing.

Some of the pieces here -- John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (which inspired two versions of “The Thing” and an obscure Christopher Lee flick named “Horror Express”), Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West -- Reanimator” -- suggest a relationship between fiction and film that is little more than conceptual.

In most cases, this is just as well. Campbell’s talky 1938 novella, with its quaint fixations on anti-gravity and its needless pulp bravado, hasn’t aged particularly well. Lovecraft’s serial, while striking in places, was disowned by the author himself.

But other stories raise a different set of questions. Why did anybody think William Gibson’s giddy but incomprehensible “Johnny Mnemonic” could be turned into a movie? A story with a swastika embedded into the text and sentences like “The Drome stank of biz, a metallic tang of nervous tension” don’t exactly scream quality film material, and the infamously awful result is an unintentional laugh riot. (It’s disheartening to know that Gibson wrote the screenplay.)

Then there are the true catastrophes: great stories that were transformed into execrable movies. Edward Khmara and Wolfgang Petersen should be confined to a barren planet for cheapening the moral complexity of Barry Longyear’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novella, “Enemy Mine.”

Longyear’s tender take on companionship was given a treacly “don’t die on me” treatment, and its poignant ending was replaced with a more literal resolution involving an actual mine run by third-party scavengers, presumably because the film’s producers felt the author’s metaphoric complexity was beyond the audience.


One of “The Reel Stuff’s” best stories, Dick’s Cold War-vintage “Second Variety,” was adapted into the 1995 film “Screamers” by Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores. Perhaps because the times were different, the movie shifted Dick’s dystopian premise -- which pitted humans against advanced technological weaponry -- to the terrain of a silly mining war.

Although the film works somewhat well as camp, the text is far creepier, with Dick describing a mysterious boy with arms and legs “like pipe cleaners, knobbly and thin.” The movie never quite captures the story’s atmosphere of paranoia and betrayal.

The piece here that has probably fared best on the big screen is Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden,” which was transformed by Bernard Rose into the underrated 1995 horror movie “Candyman.”

Reading the original, we see just how much made it into the film. Although the setting shifts from London to a Chicago housing project and the structure has been given a major overhaul, one is struck by how much Rose maintained: the photography-driven thesis, the protagonist’s fractious marriage, much of the imaginary killer’s dialogue and even a brief dinner scene demonstrating class disparity.

But one also sees that even the young Barker was taken with film as a medium. (He has gone on to direct a number of movies.) In one telling passage, he describes “the polished lens of his spectacles reflected only the plate of pasta and chopped ham in front of him, not his eyes.” Rose did not take advantage of this.

What all this suggests is that no matter how good the story, something is inevitably surrendered during the course of adaptation. And yet, in bringing together these stories, Thomsen and Greenberg have provided invaluable context, continuing the important conversation about how fiction of any stripe is transformed to film, for better or worse.



Edward Champion hosts a cultural website at