10 great sci-fi adaptations

From H.G. Wells to Philip K. Dick, the titans of sci-fi literature have been keeping filmmakers busy for decades. As Denis Villeneuve becomes the latest director to grapple with Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, we remember 10 times they struck gold.

14 October 2021

By Anton Bitel

Dune (2021)

With its immense world-building, vast ensemble of characters and complicated mix of politics and religion, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is almost a textbook study in the challenges of adaptation. Approached in the early 1970s, no doubt for his desert work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean declined to head a film adaptation. As relayed in Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky spent much time (and $2 million) developing a film version in the mid-1970s, only to run aground on his own improbable ambitions. Hollywood proved terminally resistant to his proposed running time of 10 to 14 hours.

After Ridley Scott eventually abandoned another lengthy attempt to develop Dune into two films, Dino De Laurentiis hired David Lynch in what would be his first – and last – studio film, and his most compromised work. Without final cut, Lynch disowned the finished product (1984), which bombed critically and financially. Yet the results remain a mesmerising folly, merging the very different sensibilities of Herbert and Lynch into something rich and strange.

John Harrison adapted the novel into a faithful, if somewhat flat and prosaic miniseries for Sci-Fi Channel that misses Jodorowsky’s and Lynch’s unworldly eccentricity. And now, fresh from the sci-fi of Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve brings the first of his own two-part adaptation of Dune, with a possible third to cover subsequent novels.

As we draw closer to the long-awaited UK release of Villeneuve’s Dune, here are 10 further science-fiction adaptations, charting a course through their transformation from text to screen.

Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale

Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale’s pre-Code sci-fi horror is adapted from two sources: Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, whose author the opening credits demeaningly reduce to ‘Mrs. Percy B. Shelley’, and Peggy Webling’s 1927 stage adaptation of the same. Both these sources – one literary, one theatrical – are acknowledged in a work which is introduced by an on-stage narrator, but also shows Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth reading from a letter (a nod to the epistolary form of Shelley’s novel).

The adaptation is very free. The novel’s Victor Frankenstein is now called Henry (Colin Clive), although confusingly there is another, unrelated character here called Victor. Frankenstein now has a hunchbacked servant named Fritz (renamed Igor in later sequels), while the Monster (Boris Karloff) is an inarticulate brute. The climax takes place atop a blazing Bavarian windmill rather than the Arctic ice floes. Yet the film’s iconography would itself come to influence much subsequent horror.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Forbidden Planet (1956)

“Aladdin’s lamp in a physics laboratory!” comments Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens), having just witnessed Dr Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) use an alien mind-reading device to project an animated 3D image of his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). It’s a line that exposes not only the proximity of science’s cutting edge to sorcery but more particularly the influence of fantastical literature (like the 17th-century Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab’s Aladdin) on science fiction.

Fred M. Wilcox’s future-set feature in fact owes its greatest debt to a rather different tale of wizardry. For in their shared exile on a distant planet, Morbius and his daughter resemble the similarly isolated Prospero and Miranda from William Shakespeare’s stage play The Tempest, while Robby the Robot and the ‘monster from the id’ evoke Prospero’s enchanted servants Ariel and Caliban. Only the arrival of an all-male (space) crew can break Morbius’s magical grip over the planet.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In 1948, Arthur C. Clarke wrote his short story The Sentinel – concerning an alien artefact discovered on the moon – for a BBC competition, where it failed to place. He first published it in 1951 as Sentinel of Eternity. In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick started collaborating with Clarke on a new science-fiction film, inspired by The Sentinel and several other short stories by Clarke.

Initially they planned to co-write a new novel followed by an adapted screenplay, but in fact both would end up being written concurrently, with the novel published (in Clarke’s name only) shortly after the film’s 1968 release – one year before the first actual manned lunar landing. This is an unusual case of book and movie co-developing and co-existing. There are many minor differences in their plot details, but, most significantly of all, Kubrick translates Clarke’s verbal work into a near wordless abstraction for the eyes.

Horror Express (1972)

Director: Eugenio Martín

Horror Express (1972)

John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (published under the pen name Don A. Stuart) will forever be associated with both Christian Nyby’s loose adaptation, The Thing from Another World (1951), and John Carpenter’s much more faithful rendering, The Thing (1982) – but barreling between these two sci-fi horrors was Eugenio Martín’s loco motion picture.

Unfolding not on a contemporary Antarctic base but on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906, this Hammer-esque Euro-horror pits two rival scientists (Christoper Lee!, Peter Cushing!!) against an alien entity, unearthed from an icy Manchurian cave, which leaps from one living host to another (including humans). Campbell Jr’s short story, though, never featured Polish nobility, an international spy, a cigar-chomping, whip-wielding Cossack officer (Telly Savalas) or a Rasputin-like mad monk (Alberto de Mendoza) all too eager to shift his holy allegiances to an extraterrestrial ‘Satan’.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Starship Troopers (1997)

Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning 1959 novel Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age interplanetary war story whose future militarist Earth is either federal utopia or fascist dystopia according to the reader’s own ideological perspective – an ambiguity that has earned the work considerable controversy over the decades. The ever-subversive Paul Verhoeven unsurprisingly embraces this aspect in his adaptation, presenting his story as absurdly cheery recruitment propaganda, while simultaneously exposing in bold, bloody detail the abject horror of the humans’ cause.

Playing like a parody of both Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) and television’s Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000), Verhoeven’s film places chiselled, hormonal teens in the thick of a vicious battle fought on multiple fronts, and slyly suggests close parallels between the human characters and their insectoid enemy (who are made to seem as much victims as aggressors). Here the bestial brutality of US imperialism is shown from the inside.

War of the Worlds (2005)

Director: Steven Spielberg

War of the Worlds (2005)

First serialised in 1897, H.G. Wells’ alien invasion novel The War of the Worlds has been famously adapted into Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, Jeff Wayne’s best-selling 1978 musical double album, a three-part Edwardian-era miniseries (2019) for the BBC, and various film versions (including producer George Pal’s 1953 feature).

Steven Spielberg’s version, coming in the shadow of attacks on American soil on 11 September 2001, shows just how adaptable this myth is to contemporary preoccupations that Wells himself, for all his futurist concerns, could never have predicted. Showing an assault on the US from the ground up, the film strikes what for its time was a deeply subversive note by having its human hero strap explosive devices to his body in a campaign of guerrilla warfare and suicide bombing against an overwhelming force – all tactics of, precisely, the othered terror on which America had recently declared war.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Director: Richard Linklater

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Philip K. Dick has proven to be one of sci-fi’s most lucratively adaptable authors, with his works the source for, among others, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Yet these were all rather loose reimaginings, whereas Richard Linklater’s 2006 feature cleaves very closely to Dick’s original 1977 novel, using genre (and a barely futuristic setting) as a ‘scramble suit’ to disguise its status as a semi-autobiographical elegy for the toll taken by drug addiction on Dick’s friends and himself in the early 1970s.

With the same rotoscoping technique that he had used in his Waking Life (2001), Linklater transforms the faces of familiar stars into cartoons. It’s the perfect visual analogue for all the disorientation and dissociation of Dick’s novel, whose brain-altered burnouts have become alienated from the world around them and their own sense of self.

1 (2009)

Director: Pater Sparrow

1 (2009)

Stanislaw Lem’s 1986 short story One Human Minute presents itself as a review of a miraculous, impossible book that reduces all human activities from a 60-second period to an exhaustive set of statistics. Both literary and meta-literary, Lem’s tale defines ‘unfilmable’ – and indeed a voiceover at the beginning of Pater Sparrow’s adaptation suggests, paradoxically, that the only consolation for the book’s existence is that “no one could make it into a film”.

Sparrow sets his film in a despotic dystopia, and has the book suddenly appear overnight on the shelves of a closed second-hand book dealership. The increasingly alarmed authorities, scrambling to understand the origins, meaning and implications of the book’s destabilising content, detain all the store’s staff in a sanatorium repurposed for interrogation. The result is a mystery all at once of the locked-room, political and theological varieties, and an adaptation in no way merely by numbers.

The Congress (2013)

Director: Ari Folman

The Congress (2013)

Born a century ago, Stanislaw Lem saw his 1961 novel Solaris adapted into three features (by Boris Nirenburg in 1968, Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and Steven Soderbergh in 2002), before his 2006 death. Ari Folman took the hallucinatory mindscapes of another Lem novel, 1971’s The Futurological Congress, and updated them to a new future where movie stars have been digitised by studios as ageless icons, and where everyone lives their dreams in a solipsistic virtual world of instant gratification.

Lem’s male protagonist is replaced by ‘Robin Wright’ (the actual Wright playing a fictionalised version of herself), and her entry into the future’s layered, lysergic fantasia is marked by a switch from live action to cinema’s most plastic form, animation – here (as in Folman’s previous film, 2008’s Waltz with Bashir) used as much to conceal as to reveal reality. It’s a melancholic, meta-cinematic satire, set in an online world both within and beyond Lem’s imagination.

Aniara (2018)

Directors: Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja

Aniara (2018)

An epic sci-fi odyssey (without the homecoming), Nobel laureate Harry Martinson’s 103-canto poem Aniara, published in 1956, has inspired several operas, a Swedish telefilm (1960), musical albums, and this feature from directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, whose adaptation chimes with anxieties about the current course of our species expressed in the same year by Kim Ki-duk’s Human, Space, Time and Human and Claire Denis’ High Life.

As Earth’s ecosystem collapses, the vast cruiser Aniara, taking affluent emigrants on a three-week voyage to the Martian colony, is accidentally sent off course and drifts into deep space. Now trapped in a second degrading ecosystem, the passengers and crew reorganise and form a new, regressive society, traversing the edge of infinity. Placing the human condition in a floating petri dish, this ode to entropy, emptiness and oblivion is, in keeping with its source, richly abstract and poetic.

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