Yesterday evening, I got to interview Nick Lowe as part of the BSFA‘s regular monthly meeting series. Though the interview was recorded, and I guess may be transcribed for Vector, some of what we talked about might be worth kicking around here. Nick Lowe is known, especially in the UK, for his film column Mutant Popcorn in Interzone, which he’s been writing for close on 25 years. Sadly, none of the Mutant Popcorn material is online (yet), but you can get a taste of his writing from “The Well-Tempered Plot Device“.

One of the topics we talked about in the interview was the business of adapting sf stories or novels into movies. The argument Nick made was broadly similar to the one that many sf fans make, that movies “dumb down” novels, but subtler in a couple of respects. Firstly, he suggested, the more money is about to be spent on a movie, the more risk-averse is likely to be the process of constructing it. Hence, for instance, the last Indiana Jones film, which was not particularly “good” compared to the earlier versions floating around the Hollywood ecosystem, but which was the one that fewest people said “no” to. Secondly, he argued, Hollywood has become wedded to a model of how narrative works that’s increasingly narrow and prescriptive. He called this the “protagonist” model, whereby a story has to centre on a single person whom the audience has to find sympathetic and who has to grow or learn something about themselves in the process of the film. And (to finish paraphrasing Nick’s point) we have to find them in some sense heroic by the end of things.

This has two problems, according to Nick, a general and a specific one. The general one is that stories-as-narratives-of-personal-growth (the “therapy plot”, as he’s called them in the past) can be incredibly reductive and simplistic about human nature. The more specific one is that science fiction in particular has developed a panoply of narrative models other than the protagonist-growth one, and so attempts to cram sf stories into a movie frame often take away what’s most interesting about them. Just consider (say) Last and First Men, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Childhood’s End, or “The Screwfly Solution”. You could wrench a screenplay out of each of those that focussed on one narrator and their coming to a state of fuller awareness about themselves. But to do so would be to efface what’s most potent and distinctive about each of them—that they deliver emotional and intellectual excitement in ways that purely mimetic (or purely character-driven) stories never could.

So, me talking now rather than paraphrasing Nick. For a start, I wouldn’t want to (and I don’t think Nick would want to) turn the “protagonist model” into too much of a strawman. Clearly, a bunch of good stories have been and can be written using it. All I’d want to assert is that it’s not the only model. What interests me most about what Nick said is the idea that sf has developed a whole range of narrative strategies that are different from those we’re used to outside the genre. The scientific romance is an obvious case in point and—though we didn’t discuss it in the interview—Nick’s thesis would be more than borne out by the number of disastrous H G Wells adaptations lately. This is not to say that sf narrative approaches can’t be accurately represented in a Hollywood film; I at least would count Soderbergh’s Solaris as an entirely honourable attempt to be faithful to difficult source material. But such works tend to provoke baffled head-scratching from critics not familiar with the different value-system Lem’s work emerges from.

The question all this leads to—which I know is a can of worms—is that of whether (and how much) we as sf critics or readers need to assert that sf needs differing aesthetic criteria from other fields. It seems to me a particularly interesting question to raise now, when “sf” and “the literary” seem to be shuffling ever closer together in some ways. Do we still need to assert the irreducible distinctiveness and worth of, say, A E van Vogt or “Doc” Smith? Or do we just see them as the necessary developmental stages sf had to get past in order to land us in our glorious present? I find both those polar extremes unpalatable, and I know that in practice, as a reader and reviewer, I frequently find myself thinking “Only sf could do that.” Is that an excuse, though, for avoiding doing characterisation (say) more fully? The Lowe model, of sf comprising a range of quite different strategies or approaches with different goals seems to me a usefully nuanced way of understanding this issue—especially when one realises that these approaches can differ far more radically than they would in mimetic literature. I hope he’ll write it up one day. Oh, and I’d still like to see Star Maker: the movie.

2 thoughts on “Adaptation

  • February 27, 2009 at 5:41 am

    Not as rigorous as I’d like it be, but I’m over deadline and stealing processing time here–

    I’m not sure that science fiction’s narrative strategies are all that different from those used in literature in general, let alone that the field requires different aesthetic standards. Or, to turn it around a bit, I suspect that every literary tradition and form makes characteristic assumptions about and demands on its audience, draws on its own history, and has its own kind of success.

    SF is not (and arguably never has been) monolithic, so there is no single set of exclusively-SF protocols that apply to all texts that fall under the big tent of SFness. SF can be characterized by its “content” (that is, by the kinds of entities subject to mimesis and the ways those entities are manipulated in the course of depiction–I think of Gary’s iconographic or motivic approach), but there can be a variety of narrative and stylistic devices and conventions at play in a given text. There is no single “SF” mode of storytelling, just popular or conventional or traditional or salable or workable modes. I can’t think of any other explanation for the variety of stories the tradition has generated.

    I haven’t re-read the Russ essay in 30 years or so, but I think I don’t quite buy the need for narrowly SF-specific canons of taste/judgment/analysis, beyond familiarity with the history and conventions of the tradition, which is needed for criticism of any genre.

    And all literature is genre literature–there are no category-free zones, though some categories get treated as though they deserve extra points for the audiences they attract or the responses they invite. Plenty of non-SF texts lack the density of prose and the specificity of character design that invite “literary” study.

    On a quick look at Russ’s essay, my eye caught the phrase “what we are used to as proper to literature,” and my first reaction is that maybe we were misled as to what is ‘”proper to literature” by folk with non-aesthetic motives for determining propriety, or maybe just folk with narrow tastes. But “taste” is a property of audiences (and presumably of authors), not of the works themselves, which makes it a tricky quality to use in a taxonomy.

    Lowe is right about movie-biz culture, or at least he agrees with what screenwriters such as William Goldman (Adventures in the Screen Trade; Which Lie Did I Tell?) and John Gregory Dunne (Monster) report about the constraints and conventions that govern film production. The problems faced by film producers who want to adapt SF stories have everything to do with the kinds of movies they believe can be made profitably, and those problems apply to other genres–how many “Chinatowns” or “Maltese Falcons” are there, compared to, say, Charlie Chan or Agatha Christie adaptations?

    The Star Maker problem is that the original is not a conventional novel–it is a visionary pseudo-(future) history, and thus lacking in the elements that movie audiences expect. You could do a hell of a PBS/Discovery-style miniseries, though–and remember that the book’s voice is voice-over.

  • February 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    First off, an article in io9 gave proof to Nick’s comment Firstly, he suggested, the more money is about to be spent on a movie, the more risk-averse is likely to be the process of constructing it.

    From an interview with a guy involved in the Watchmen movie:

    If you’re doing the movie for $40 million, fine – bloody bodies everywhere. And that’s fine, and it’s a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you’re doing it on this big of a scale, I just don’t think that’s… I understood their reticence to putting those images on screen.

    But more importantly, re: whether sf needs different aesthetic criteria.

    I just finished reading Chip Delany’s Starboard Wine and found it quite illuminating. I’ll be writing a review of it for Fruitless Recursion, but the gist of his argument is: a) that traditional lit crit criteria come from a very specific historical circumstance that is not shared by or appropriate to SF/F, and b) that while ‘literature’ is primarily focused on the subjective experience and takes the world for granted (in fact, generally not letting the main character change the ‘real world’ to any great extent), ‘paraliterature’ (his name for genre lit) is focused more on the object, the world that it creates. It is this difference that he feels makes it hard for lit people to read genre, frustrating for genre people to read lit, and generally has us all talking past each other.

    I found his idea very convincing–very simple and not prescriptive. However, I understand that it’s ~25 years old now, and may be either very old news or already discredited/discarded.


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