Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Happened to the First I, ROBOT Movie

Never Tell The Guy Who Writes The Checks What You Really Think Of Him!

I remember either hearing this story on the SciFi channels; SciFi Buzz or reading it on Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction when the screenplay was released and serialized in the magazine. It was the late 70’s and with the popularity of Star Wars, Warner Brothers Studios wanted to case in on the new science fiction market for films. Acquiring the rights to Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories; I, Robot, they commission Harlan Ellison to prepare a screenplay for a film treatment of the book.

Harlan is a great writer and developed a screenplay that used Susan Calvin (who is the only character from the book used in the Will Smith movie) as the central thread to weave in several of the stories that Dr. A had written. To weave the short stories into a narrative movie, Harlan had a reporter interview an aged Dr. Calvin about her life with US Robotics. Rather than go into the actual screenplay, let me point you to a couple of reviews: here and here.

Harlan is a terrible diplomat. Of course that is also a positive comment on Harlan, he does not brook fools. In a meeting with Robert Shapiro, the Warner Bros. studio head, to discuss changes the script needed, some of the comments made by Mr. Shapiro lead Harlan to belief he hadn’t even read the script but sent it off to his lackeys. So Harlan asked Mr. Shapiro about a specific scene in the screenplay and what he thought about it. When the man responsible for this film project responded that the scene was fine as written, Harlan pointed out, as only Harlan can, that the scene was not even in the screenplay and accused him of having the "intellectual capacity of an artichoke".. Harlan was removed from the project, despite many attempts by others connected to it to placate Mr. Shapiro and the project was dropped.

I have read the first installment of the screenplay and I think it would have made a much better movie than the Will Smith version. At least it would have made more sense and left the Three Laws of Robotics intact, until Dr. A himself found the loophole in them (see the development of the Zeroth Law in his novel Robots and Empire). Maybe someday either Harlan’s script will again be optioned or another screen writer will get a crack at bringing this classic to light.

On a side note, this was not the first of the Asimov robot stories to be adapted. In 1964, BBC 2 broadcast The Caves Of Steel, using a script by Terry Nation (the creator of the Daleks) starring Peter Cushing (who fought the Daleks in the 2 Hammer film versions of Dr. Who) as Elijah Bailey. Unfortunately like most of the early Dr. Who episodes, the video tapes were erased and only a few seconds of this teleplay still exist.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Harlan has a gift of the razor tongue. And probably why he is one of my favorites. It would have been great to see the version he wrote because I disliked...naw, I thought the Will Smith version was horrible. They used a classic title to cover up a half ass action film. Thanks for sharing this. I'd forgotten about it.