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Tuesday 6 November 2007

The Warm Equations:
A Review of Martian Child

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Menno Meyjes

Written by Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins, based on the novel The Martian Child by David Gerrold

Starring John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Amanda Peet, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, Sophie Okonedo, Richard Schiff, Howard Hesseman, and Anjelica Huston

It would seem an impossible goal: to create a film that could be shown on both the Lifetime Channel and the Sci Fi Channel. Yet David Gerrold's novel The Martian Child (2002), an expansion of his award-winning 1994 novelette, provided screenwriters Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins and director Menno Meyjes with the perfect source material for such an unlikely achievement. On the one hand, it is a heart-warming, family-friendly story, closely based on Gerrold's own experiences, about a single man who successfully adopts, and bonds with, a severely troubled child. On the other hand, since the man is a science fiction writer, and since one of the child's eccentricities is that he claims to be a Martian, it is also a story which, while not science fiction, offers rich opportunities for commentary on the genre, its writers, and its readers. The result is a film that gives viewers both something to cry about and something to think about, a film that both science fiction fans and their mundane friends can thoroughly enjoy, albeit for different reasons.

However, those science fiction fans who have read Gerrold's novel should be warned from the onset that, while Bass and Tolins have retained the essence of his narrative, they have also made a number of significant changes, so that their film is about a very different sort of man who adopts and bonds with a very different sort of child. While watching the first half of the film, with the novel very much on my mind, I was irritated by apparent efforts to dumb down and prettify Gerrold's story in order to appeal to the masses; but gradually, I was able to accept the film on its own terms as effective entertainment, even if it did not conform to my expectations.

The change that readers are grumbling the most about, I suspect, is that the gay protagonist of the novel, named David Gerrold, has been transformed into a heterosexual widower, named David Gordon (John Cusack); to emphatically eliminate any suspicions about his sexual orientation, Bass and Tolins have also introduced the new character of Harlee (Amanda Peet), a beautiful female friend who regularly drops by, and they repeatedly suggest that David and Harlee are simultaneously secretly in love with each other and firmly determined to remain just friends. This does not necessarily damage the story, since the focus of attention, in both novel and film, is always the relationship between David and the boy Dennis (Bobby Coleman), not David's romantic entanglements. Yet one can certainly fault the screenwriters for a lack of courage in conventionalizing the story in this way: did they really imagine that having a gay hero would drive audiences away? Had they never heard of Brokeback Mountain? Further, the subplot of David and Harlee's suppressed passion contributes nothing to the film's central narrative of adoptive father and son and, indeed, becomes a pointless distraction for certain viewers who must constantly worry if the screenwriters are planning to completely betray Gerrold's story by transforming it into the story of how a lovable moppet draws two lovers together, perhaps to be renamed The Courtship of Dennis's Father (though thankfully, this doesn't occur).

While David Gordon is also a different sort of science fiction writer (as will be discussed), the other major change in that he is actually more likable than the novel's protagonist, for the simple reason that David Gordon, unlike David Gerrold, is not allowed to tell his own story (except for a brief opening voiceover). Now, while I sincerely admire Gerrold's novel, one of its major themes, it must be acknowledged, is that David Gerrold is just about the most gosh-darn sweet, wonderful person in the whole wide world; and although this may be a completely true statement (I can't say, since I haven't met the man), David Gerrold is not the person who should be telling me this, and this undercurrent of self-congratulation surely qualifies as the novel's major weakness. In contrast, the film contrives to convey that David Gordon is a great guy in a more understated, and thus more palatable, fashion.

As for the adopted son Dennis, I can both understand and regret how his character has been altered. The novel's boy, while also claiming to be from Mars, is otherwise a conventional problem child who has conventional behavior problems. This is how the novel summarizes his actions:

But there was also the dark side of the farce: Troubling fights with the kid next door. Parking-meter money disappearing from the ashtray in the car. Suspensions from school. Kitchen knives hidden under his mattress. Playing with matches. Lies and broken promises .... Sometimes, he acted out in the restaurant, in the supermarket, at the mall.

While the film retains his tendency to steal, its Dennis is otherwise provided with a series of more strange and colorful eccentricities: he hates sunlight, initially hides himself in a box, and prefers to go out carrying a parasol and wearing sunglasses and a heavy layer of sunscreen; he sometimes begins reciting gibberish, presumably representing his Martian language; he insists upon wearing a strange belt to counteract, he says, the gravitational pull of Mars; he likes to hang upside down; and so on and so on. Certainly, all of this is visually and dramatically more interesting than a scuffle with a neighbor kid or a tantrum in a store; yet this also serves to make the film's Dennis both more appealing — clearly, the child is displaying an amazing amount of intelligence and creativity — and more unrealistic — would even an amazingly intelligent and creative child actually devise and follow such behavior patterns? One point of the novel, I think, is to celebrate the fact that David Gerrold was able to love Dennis even though he was often a repugnantly and very ordinarily rotten little kid; the film's Dennis is so strikingly and charmingly bizarre that, as one conversation tangentially suggests, a science fiction writer might be tempted to keep him around solely in order to garner ideas for future stories. I may be reading too much into this, but there is a scene showing David using one of those vending machines where one tries to maneuver a claw to pick up a toy out of a bin, and he looks over to another such machine and sees Dennis, sitting inside the machine amidst all the other toys. Since this is so obviously impossible — the bins of toys are invariably enclosed in glass — the inevitable suspicion is that a point is being conveyed: the film's Dennis is not real; rather, he is simply a toy, a device to enchant audiences and draw out all of the best qualities in David. As the film nears its conclusion, Bass and Tolins wisely downplay all of Dennis's implausible quirks so that he ultimately emerges as a persuasively authentic child; but in an effort to be imaginatively entertaining, the film does veer perilously close to making its adopted son completely unbelievable.

Other changes in the plot reflect a similar desire to make the story more dramatically involving. In the novel, David's sister supports his desire to adopt a child; in the film, to create an aura of conflict, his sister Liz (Joan Cusack, John Cusack's real-life sister) opposes it. In the novel, while there is some initial tension about whether he will be allowed to adopt Dennis, David is afterwards untroubled by the authorities; the film creates a contrived crisis which threatens to inspire those authorities to take Dennis away from him. In the novel, Dennis climactically seeks to be returned to Mars by going to a park and sitting on a bench to await the arrival of his fellow Martians; in the film, he goes to a planetarium and climbs up to a perilous ledge which impels David to effect a desperate rescue. All right, one says; novelists must fulfill the requirements of a novel, screenwriters must fulfill the requirements of a film, and these are obviously not the same. Somewhere, Harlan Ellison has discussed how fistfights and explosions are essential items in the screenwriter's toolbox, and I need not elaborate on the point. (It is odd, though, that the novel's most exciting sequence — an earthquake that ravages Gerrold's home — is completely omitted.)

The screenwriters and directors have also been creative in incorporating any number of clever visuals to reinforce the narrative of bringing Dennis out of his shell and into the sunlight, ranging from the scene in which David literally coaxes Dennis out of his cardboard box to the timely use of appropriate background music like Cat Stevens's "Don't Be Shy" and the Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Skies," and surely the reason why Dennis cannot taste the color blue, unlike the other colors, is that he is not yet prepared for life under a blue sky. Images of other planets abound — in a lighted display on Dennis's ceiling, a poster on his wall, and on his swimming trunks — and the closing credits reveal that the filmmakers even hired as their caterers a company named Edible Planet. When a school principal coldly informs David that Dennis is being expelled, a photograph of George W. Bush is conspicuous in the background (No Child Left Behind, indeed!).

As another significant change, what the film has to say about science fiction is rather different from what Gerrold had to say. True, the emphasized perspective on the genre is taken directly from the novel and represents, as is sometimes the case in the work of David Gerrold, a familiar idea: science fiction is the literature of the loner, the outsider, the social misfit. Children who need to deal with their feelings of isolation and rejection may, like Dennis, find some comfort in imagining that they are aliens, or in reading stories about aliens; and after they grow up, they may, like David, start to write stories about aliens. As one of many people who have advanced similar arguments, I can hardly object to this message, even if it is served here with a bit more treacle than I would prefer.

Yet the film's storyline also contrives to subtly undermine this point. In the novel, we are told that David Gerrold produces worthwhile science fiction stories that help him (and presumably his like-minded readers) to explore complex feelings of estrangement; indeed, one section of the novel discusses Gerrold's novel When Harlie Was One (1972) in precisely those terms. However, the film's David Gordon produces commercially successful garbage, most notably a novel named Dracoban which is being adapted as a film filled with mindless violence and which Gordon's publisher Mimi (Anjelica Huston) wishes to turn into a popular series, "Harry bloody Potter in space." While Gordon announces in an early scene that he strongly identifies with one character in the novel, its "creature," it is clear that he does not find this sort of work emotionally fulfilling. When asked why he wants to adopt a child, he tells his sister that he wants to do something "meaningful"; manifestly, writing science fiction novels does not seem like meaningful work to him. And when he finds himself unable to complete a commissioned sequel to Dracoban, he is instead compelled to write a realistic book about Dennis entitled, of course, The Martian Child. The difference between novel and film could not be clearer: David Gerrold must write science fiction in order to express his true feelings, while David Gordon must stop writing science fiction in order to express his true feelings. Thus, fantasy is not, as he tells the social workers, a good "coping mechanism," but is rather an escape mechanism which people like David and Dennis must rise above. And this is why the film's Dennis, more decisively than in the novel, must firmly and forcefully abandon the notion that he is a Martian to finally achieve happiness.

While it is disheartening to observe that the film's only referenced work of science fiction is a piece of trash, conveying a generally negative opinion of the genre, the film also omits another aspect of Gerrold's argument about science fiction. In the novel, Gerrold regularly names other science fiction writers as his valued friends, some of whom prove to be just as nice as Gerrold when they offer their assistance after the earthquake; and in this way Gerrold shows how science fiction has traditionally served to draw writers and readers together into a supportive community of like-minded misfits. Yet David Gordon completely lacks this sort of support network: his only connections to the world of writing are his pushy agent Jeff (Oliver Platt), manipulative publisher Mimi, and her unctuous associates, all of whom are solely interested in making as much money as possible. Inevitably, Gordon eventually resolves to abandon such companions and instead be nurtured by the company of his son and the other official and unofficial members of his extended family. In another way, then, David Gordon, unlike David Gerrold, needs to get away from science fiction in order to be fully content.

In recommending this film to my wife, who does not enjoy science fiction, I told her, "You will think that this film helps to explain who I am" — even though, as my words implied, it doesn't quite get it right. The problem, I think, is that the screenwriters seem to know very little about science fiction, and may literally believe that Dracoban represents a typical science fiction novel and that Jeff and Mimi represent the typical sort of people a science fiction writer works with. It would have been wonderful, for example, to include a scene in which David took Dennis to a science fiction convention — a place where even Dennis at his oddest would not attract undue attention, a place filled with colorfully costumed characters to interest an audience, and more importantly, a place which would illustrate that some people cherish science fiction for reasons other than cheap thrills, a place where those estranged from everyday society can connect with a unique and enjoyable group of friends. Clearly, the idea never occurred to Bass and Tolins. Instead, they have David take Dennis to a planetarium, inaccurately suggesting that the scientific community, not the science fiction community, is where such oddballs must go to find support.

To be sure, such comments might be justifiably denounced as purist quibbles regarding a film that is well made enough to elicit tears — which is why I emphasized at the start that the film must be appreciated on its own terms, and not as a distorted version of Gerrold's novel. Obviously, a completely faithful adaptation of The Martian Child would never make any money; it would be too dull, too talkative, and ultimately too messy, as its story ends with some problems still unresolved and with no assurances that all of the characters will live happily ever after. In other words, the novel is not a fantasy, and Hollywood now insists, with ample supporting evidence, that audiences clamor for feel-good fantasies and accordingly adjusts its films to match that desire. Still, in a field noted for its acceptance of eccentric people, I trust that no one will object to a science fiction critic who complains because a film is insufficiently realistic.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.