Sunday, February 7, 2010

10 SF Novels That Could Make Great Films

by Dana Boden

In view of the amazing popularity of Avatar, one could be encouraged that original ideas in SF can be turned into movies and still have a good chance at success. But all Hollywood seems to want to do is play it safe and give us endless remakes and sequels, especially after a new story has surprisingly proven itself a money-maker.

But Avatar could just as easily bombed. It was enormously expensive, took many years to complete, and was Science Fiction. How many movies besides the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord Of The Rings movies have been such huge successes? These have almost-assured audiences, unlike Avatar, so why was it so successful?

Avatar obviously appealed to movie-goers other than SF fans, and not even all SF fans loved it. With that in mind, here are some classics of SF literature that I think would have as good a chance at reaching beyond fandom and winning big at the box office.

1. Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper
Second only to tribbles (probably even surpassing them) in cuteness. Just one look at how Michael Whelan has depicted them, and you will know how much they could appeal to children. Especially since they are very childlike themselves, almost like otters. They would need to look the same in CGI, but this would not be difficult. Secondly, the novel is short, its plot fairly simple, and has a clever, feel-good ending. If any studio felt the basic story was lacking, I'm sure it could be embellished without ruining it. And don't forget the MERCHANDISING!

2. The Star Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein
Okay, this is one of Heinlein's "juveniles," but the hero in this is a young man, so he could appeal to teens, especially boys, since he owns a alien pet that is Huge, inadvertently clumsy, but docile. Cool! The plot also is not complex (there is no difficult science for the non-fan to try to understand,) and the "Lummox" would be easy to create in CGI, plus the climax has a very amusing surprise. Disney had this once, but couldn't figure out how to adapt it. Maybe we were lucky there. Again...think merchandising.

3. Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein
This one has two boys as the heroes, and it's just a great kids' adventure on Mars, resisting the System, with a really cute alien in tow...who happens to have a cool secret. Of course, the screenwriter would need to adjust the way Mars looks from what Heinlein put in it, but it might not take too much, and the basic plot is not complex.

4. Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein
This Heinlein "juvenile" has high school and college-age characters, and is just a damned good adventure story on another planet. Where they are forced to live by their training, wits, and luck, where they were put there as a test to become planetary scouts for colonies, where they ended up marooned. Think Lord of the Flies, but without the sociology, politics, back-sliding, and atavism. Maybe this could succeed, even without adolescent super-heroes. Just kids who overcome the trials of their situation--and don't whine about it or end up as comic-relief as they mess up trying to solve things!

5. Podkayne of Mars, by Robert A. Heinlein
Something for the girls, how about a girl who wants to prove herself "just as good as man." Often classed with Heinlein's "juveniles," he did not consider it such and caused controversy when published. Just your basic adventure of an adolescent girl hopping around our solar system, meeting weird characters and foiling terrorist plots. This one's plot is more complex and mature than Heinlein's other juveniles, but not that much. We could also use some of the Dean of SF's comments on what he addresses in the novel. Might be good to have some real values in a SF movie for a change.

6. Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein
Something for the adolescent boys again, but also for young girls who like empowered heroines. And empowered Friday certainly is! Not to mention being a liberated, kick-ass beauty, she's got one of the best Wise Old Men Heinlein ever created to guide her and provide pithy insight on society. Basically this is not a complex story; it has plenty of adventure, even with the sex that can be handled discreetly. I also believe the audience would feel for this heroine because as an "Artificial Person" she's something of a social pariah. Best bet to play her--Summer Glau.

7. "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington", David Weber (This novella is in Changer of Worlds and Worlds of Weber.)
Many probably know of the Honor Harrington series, even if they haven't read any of it. This is chronologically the first story about her. While on her “snotty” cruise she is forced to take command of the ship in a battle with pirates and save the day. Forget about Disney pirates, kids. THIS KICKS ASS! It would be the best of the series to use for a movie. The plot is straightforward and far more military than we ever saw in Star Trek. And like ST, it also has no gender barriers in the military, another plus for appeal to audiences. But Honor is a heroine who could appeal to virtually everybody as she rises to defeat the challenges in this story. Cast the right actress and you have a winner.

8. The Legacy of Heorot, by Larrry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Steven Barnes
A small human colony inadvertently upsets the local ecological balance and is besieged by monsters they call grendels. Second only to "Aliens" in nastiness. The science behind all this is not hard to understand, and the action could knock you out of your seat if done right. This would make a better ecological statement than Avatar, in spite of the authors' politics, because it's not as heavy-handed. Finally the climax is a real nail-biter of a last stand.

9. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
This classic has many levels to it: the military (as it has evolved drastically), sociology of the future (imaging conditioning most people to be homosexual to contain population growth), and really great, realistically thought out science fiction. This one might be more difficult to understand for non-fan audiences than those I've named above, but not impossible if done right. Hey, it's got bizarre aliens and weapons, a way-freaking-out military with satire sprinkled throughout, an appeal to gay/lesbian SF fans that is not a sop, and a great, climactic battle. Haldeman's ironic denouement would not be lost on many, whether pro-military or not. Military-SF fans as well as liberals would love this.

10. Harlan Ellison's screenplay for I, Robot.
This last would be extremely difficult to sell, but who knows? Maybe in twenty years, if the appeal of Asimov's robot stories still lasts, they could use Ellison's script for a remake. Its format is very different but unique and effective, maintaining more of a faithfulness in spirit and in retelling the stories than the movie I, Robot, which used only major elements and not plots to create a whole, new story. We can all guess why 20th Century Fox didn't use Ellison's script, or maybe they were afraid of another Bicentennial Man, needing to appeal to more than just fandom. Of all the remakes I HATE seeing come out, this is one I'd like to see.

Dana Boden


  1. I think one of the best appeals of Avatar is the 'dances with wolves' connection. People like the underdog to win. and when you get an entire planet to pitch in to help overthrow 'the evil man', that makes for a kick*ss movie plot.

    I'd rather see some of the fantasy made to movie. There's so much that can be done with the alternative views of fae and 'otherworld' people.

  2. I would love to see an I, Robot that was more faithful to the book...and hey, in this age of constant franchise reboots, it isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility.

  3. Bring on Larry Niven's "Man vs. Kzin Wars"!!!
    Endless Possibility!

  4. Larry Niven's Kzin have been added to the Star Trek universe through the animated series. I don't know what the legal ramifications would be to doing them seperated.

  5. How about David Weber's Hammer's Slammers series. Great Military Sci-Fi with an morality tail thrown in for good messure. Great stuff.
    Or Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's shared universe novels. All of which I enjoyed. But if we want to talk about the most bang for you CGI dollar How about larry Nives Rign world. They could make a dozen movies out of those.