Harlan Ellison: Screenplays, Etc.

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay

Review by Paul Riddell
1st Publication: Warner, 1974
Illustrated by Mark Zug
Based upon the "Robot" stories of Isaac Asimov.

Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning

The Langerhans review




(Originally published in Tangent, Fall 1995)

It sounds like a Monty Python record: this is the novelization of the screenplay of the book I, Robot. Isaac Asimov, wrote the original, Harlan Ellison wrote the screenplay for Warner Brothers nearly twenty years ago, and when one dumbass producer helped prove that Hollywood doesn't understand SF more complex than Star Wars, the screenplay came out as a book. The practice of publishing movie scripts in book form isn't new, but then, I, Robot: The Movie never saw release.

More than any other example in recent memory, I,RTIS demonstrates why the fannish practice of ghost-casting unmade movies is so damn foolish. Since a fan of a particular book already has an idea of what the characters look like, it's folly: whenever I read Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero, I see the late Warren Oates as Deathwish Drang, but I also see Stephen Jay Gould as Vic Hunt in James Hogan's Inherit the Stars, and I can't expect anyone else to share those perceptions. Indeed, I was responsible for a small hoax in fandom several years ago, in which I proclaimed that a small movie company in Dallas was finishing a "Green Lantern" movie with Lyle Waggoner as Hal Jordan, Damon Wayans as John Stewart, and Vanilla Ice as Guy Gardner; the shrieks were long and loud, and would have had as much impact on a real production as the screams of the bacteria in a pimple when faced with a Stridex pad.

No matter what happens, fans of a book will be disappointed by a movie adaptation. Since movies are such expensive projects (can you imagine spending $50 million on getting a book completed?), the investors and the studio feel compelled to put their two drachmas in, with horrendous results: look at Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire and Michael Keaton in Batman for a pair of sterling examples. Concepts that cost next to nothing when presented as a string of words on paper cost thousands and millions of dollars when special effects crews try to actualize them for the screen, and what if the idea itself needs a bit of "sprucing up" before it lends itself to a decent adaptation? Even when filming is completed, postproduction nightmares and the now-omnipresent preview screenings tend to mess with the mix: remember how the theatrical version of Dune became nothing more than FX shots and scenes with Sting? And let's not forget that the audience for literary SF isn't the same as the one for cinematic SF, because were Star Wars, Alien, and The Terminator (to name just three) to have appeared as novels in the first place, rather than ripoffs of novels and other screenplays, they would have been justly derided as formulaic garbage.

In a way, it's much better that Harlan Ellison's screenplay never became a film: it's too good for Hollywood. While not a one-for-one adaptation of Asimov's stories, it manages to give the first-time reader an overview of Asimov's world without coming off like one of those blasted sharecropping novels based on a long-dead author's works, and it lets the imagination run free. Mark Zug's illustrations enhance the feel without getting in the way, leaving the reader with the opportunity to experience the world of Susan Calvin, Robert Bratenahl, and Lenny and Robbie the way it should: with that all-important sense of wonder.

Besides, aren't you the sort who gets violent when forced to listen to a quartet of frat boys in the theatre who belch, try to feel up girls in front of them, and whine "This is so stupid" to any concept that requires more than three brain cells to comprehend? I thought you were. Go out and buy this book.

Ed. Note - everything humans were meant to know about the life, times, and peculiar horticultural practices of Paul Riddell may be found on his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness.

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