On Unmade Science-Fiction Films

It’s odd. I’ve just read a book that I generally enjoyed, but it was a book that annoyed me to no end.

The book? David Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.

Getting a movie from pitch and script to screen is a bit like running a gauntlet, and the book chronicles some twenty-odd science-fiction films that had problems getting past pitch and script.

Wonder what happened to Night Skies, the sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind? This book will tell you how it morphed into two films — E.T. and Poltergeist. The book even tells you what happened to the sequel to E.T., which drew upon the ideas from Night Skies.

Or what about films of The Stars My Destination or Childhood’s End? Those are in here, too.

Then, films like Alien 3, Superman Returns, I Am Legend, Watchmen, and other major properties are chronicled.

This is where the book falls short. There’s a chapter devoted to the unmade Star Trek films, but the level of detail is cursory at best, because it covers films from Planet of the Titans to Star Trek: The Beginning and several in-between (Harve Bennett’s Starfleet Academy, Walter Koenig’s In Flanders Fields, Maurice Hurley’s Star Trek VII, Michael Piller’s Stardust) in the span of twenty-five pages. There’s no enough space to deal with any of these in any detail.

Add to this, the book looks at films that were made. A chapter on the Aliens films is interesting, but there’s not much depth — the story of Alien 3 has been told elsewhere better and in more detail, while no information is given for the final two films of Joss Whedon’s trilogy that began with Alien Resurrection. (The answer to that puzzle — it became Firefly.) This is followed by an account of Peter Briggs’ Aliens Vs. Predator script, but again, the information given is surface at best.

The focus of the book appears to be on films that people have heard of. People know Superman, so there’s a chapter on Superman Lives. Everyone knows Spider-Man, so we get a chapter on James Cameron’s Spider-Man film. The Outer Limits is a television series that everyone has at least heard of, so there’s a chapter on that, too.

Which means that other projects don’t get a mention.

There’s no chapter on Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot, for instance. To be honest, there’s probably nothing to add to Ellison’s introduction to the published screenplay, but the absence of I, Robot is noteworthy in a book billing itself as The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.

(I should note that I have always felt that Warners did the right thing by not making Ellison’s I, Robot. They would have sunk a fuckload of money into an arthouse sci-fi movie. It would have been science-fiction’s Heaven’s Gate.)

There’s nothing on the unmade Doctor Who films. No Last of the Time Lords. No Leonard Nimoy film. Nothing. Of course, Jean-Marc Lofficier’s The nth Doctor covers these films in great detail, but surely these merit some notice in a book such as this.

The most curious omission is one the book itself raises — Harry Knowles writes in his afterword that George Pal’s sequel to War of the Worlds must surely rank as one of the greatest science-fiction films never made. There’s no reference to this elsewhere in the book. Why bring it up at all, then?

And this might be a bit wide of the mark, but nothing on John Boorman’s Lord of the Rings film? Or any of the other attempts to bring Tolkien’s masterpiece to film? Like Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, Part 2, which surely must go down as a lost film?

At the same time, if the book is going to spend so much time on projects in development hell that finally get made (like Watchmen or I Am Legend), why is there nothing on a decade of Indiana Jones shenanigans leading to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? In terms of what the book is offering, this, too, seems as curious an omission as Pal’s War of the Worlds 2.

This is the book’s problem. It spends too much of its time on things that were made (like David Lynch’s Dune, to pull out yet another example), and the level of detail isn’t much beyond a compilation of quotes and articles from Premiere, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and sources of that ilk. Works that are truly lost and unmade merit no notice, and original research seems to be wholly lacking.

Here’s the thing.

This all sounds harsh. And I admit, there’s a certain catharsis that came from writing it.

Yet, I really did enjoy the book. The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is a book made for film buffs. It pulls together a lot of sources and compiles them into a cohesive story. I knew a little bit, for instance, about Night Skies, but I didn’t quite understand how we got from that to E.T., and I certainly didn’t realize how Night Skies influenced the unmade E.T. 2. (The Book of the Green Planet it would not have been.)

Just remember that the title of the book is a bit on the hype side, and you’ll be good. It really is an enjoyable read, even if, in the end, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made wasn’t quite what I wanted.

2 thoughts on “On Unmade Science-Fiction Films

  1. Hey Allyn!

    You should check out the book my partner Chris McDonnell and I just finished on Ralph Bakshi called “Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi.” While it may not offer too much light on the whole subject, we do get into a little bit of detail regarding how Bakshi got the rights to make “The Lord of the Rings” in the first place, which involves John Boorman’s attempt pretty heavily.

    Cheers,
    Jon

  2. It’s debatable whether Ellison’s I, Robot script counts as one of the greatest science fiction films never made. A good movie it might be; as an adaptation of I, Robot, it has issues. Mainly, aliens. ;)

    (I also think that making Susan Calvin the child in “Robbie” was a mistake; suddenly she’s a robopsychologist because of childhood trauma, instead of simply just being smart and interested in robotics.)

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