Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@ddmcd.com) consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are Science Fiction Books Better Than Science Fiction Movies?

Are Science Fiction Books Better Than Science Fiction Movies?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Years ago I believed that SF books were generally superior to movies given the limitations of budgets and special effects. Reading Heinlein and Clarke when I was a kid I could imagine mentally amazing visual scenarios while I read. The movies of the day could not possibly challenge my mental images given their limitations.

That changed with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (http://www.ddmcd.com/movies/2001). Ever since then technology has improved the ability to illustrate fantastic and realistic imagery.

And yet, regardless of technology or medium, what I still value most are story, characters, and imagination. When I see a movie version of a book I'm usually not not looking for an exact representation of what's on the printed page. What's the point? The media are different. Let's use the movie to explain or explore differently.

A case in point: the book ANNIHILATION (http://www.ddmcd.com/books/annihilation) versus the movie ANNIHILATION (http://www.ddmcd.com/movies/annihilation).

In some ways they are different, story wise. The book, part of a series, presents challenging and imaginative (and disturbing) concepts and characterizations. These evolve and are explained over the three novels.

The ANNIHILATION movie, while simplified compared with Jeff VanderMeer’s book, includes an exemplary performance by Natalie Portman that absolutely nails the book’s main character. That events in the movie differ from the book I found completely acceptable. Both were examples of unusual creativity. Each exploited the strengths of its presentation medium.

Of course there are exceptions. I can still watch the 1950's sci-fi epics FORBIDDEN PLANET (http://www.ddmcd.com/movies/forbidden-planet.html) and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (http://www.ddmcd.com/movies/still) and, despite their technical limitations, am always enthralled by their imagination and creativity. Interestingly, both these films were directed by professionals who were not particularly experienced with science fiction. They were competent professional directors who approached their subject matter from very traditional perspectives emphasizing drama, characters, and story. As a result the movies, bolstered by high production values, performances, and scripting, hold up well.

Given all this I'm curious about what might be done with a novel like Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES (http://www.ddmcd.com/books/seveneves). I'm not sure I'd like to see it turned into a movie or TV series. What I found fascinating about the book was the overall story arc and Stephenson's insistence on working through the technical details. I'm not sure how such a massive story line would transfer.

Also, consider a book like Simon Stålenhag's THE ELECTRIC STATE (http://www.ddmcd.com/books/state). Would this translate well to the screen? I think so; the book is supremely visual in how the story is presented. And yet … would a translation to the big screen significantly add to what is already a weirdly off-kilter post-apocalyptic perspective? I’m not so sure.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald

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