Books: Science Fiction Studies in Film (Frederik Pohl & Frederik Pohl IV)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2011-04-25 11:25:29-04:00 No comments

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One of SF’s more distinguished names (and son) collaborated on this scattershot but enjoyable set of essays on science fiction in the movies. It’s best for the tone and tenor of the writing, with some nifty snippets of interviews with various creators. Some are well-known to current generations of SF fans—Harlan Ellison, John Dykstra, Ray Bradbury—while others are less-known but still intriguing (Richard Fleischer, director of Fantastic Voyage, among others).

The book is roughly chronological, starting in the silent era and ending at around 1981 or so. Too bad a revised version was never published; so much has happened since then as to make many of the observations in the book downright quaint. The stuff that hasn’t aged a bit is all the details about Hollywood’s greed, waste and silliness: the way Fahrenheit 451 was so cluelessly marketed; the money wasted on getting the SF throwaway Damnation Alley into theaters in the wake of Star Wars's massive success; the chaos of the making of Superman; and so on.

Many anecdotes revolve around the technical difficulties of bringing SF to film (especially in the entirely practical, pre-digital age), although the extra chapters on visual effects feel like they were originally written for a separate book-length production and then chopped down to become an appendix. An entire chapter, laced with great insight and appreciation, is devoted to Stanley Kubrick and his three forays into SF: Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and Clockwork Orange, with only passing mention of The Shining (which was still in production when the book was released). And they also skewer a few movies that only deserve to be called SF by association, like Moonraker or The Black Hole, or the ambitious but utterly confused Zardoz.

The best thing about the book is the way the Pohls talk about their material. They are literate and skilled critics, and their insight comes through best when talking about productions that were troubled, flawed or controversial: the near-pornographic violence of Rollerball (which looks tame now, but is that us or the movie?); the way Slaughterhouse-five failed to make it off the page and onto the screen; the religious implications of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; etc. They also single out George Lucas, both for THX-1138 and the Star Wars films (which was at that point only two installments), and note that the failure of the former at the box office most likely led him to simply try pleasing the audience any way he could. Some of the most enjoyable passages are the ones where Pohl Sr. speaks with candor and wryness about his own experiences: how he turned down writing the novelization of Forbidden Planet and kicked himself all the way home; how he tried to say something about Clockwork Orange and couldn’t in time for a deadline; how bad an idea it was to show unsubtitled episodes of Star Trek to an audience of Russian SF fans.

Tags: Frederik Pohl books nonfiction science fiction