As some of you may know, the gang at SFSignal have a regular feature called Mind Meld in which they posit a question to an assortment of movers and shakers in the field of scifi field – and, lately, for some unfathomable reason, have even included me. The last installment asked the following:
Q: Although science fiction was born on paper, sci-fi presented through visual media (film and television) has significantly higher audiences. Which medium, then, is the driving force behind what science fiction is and where it’s headed, and who is driving it?
Off the top of your head, name your Top 10 favorite SF authors. Okay, now name your Top 10 favorite SF scriptwriters. I rest my case.
Sci-fi presented through visual media (film and television) has significantly higher audiences because, quite frankly, a lot of it demands little more from its audience than a couple of hours and the ability to focus. Reading, on the other hand, is a much more involved and time-consuming commitment that, unfortunately, appears to be losing its appeal among many SF consumers. Which is a damn shame because it is, without a doubt, the medium that is the driving force behind what the genre is and where it is headed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that film and television don’t provide a forum for inventive science fiction ideas. They can and do. And they’ve certainly made great strides in the visual representations of possible futures. But the realities of film and television production work against them being a pioneering force whereas the literary arena allows for vaster, more daring, creator-driven initiatives. The reasons are threefold:
1. What was the last truly great science fiction movie you saw? That wasn’t based on a literary property? Yes, it’s been a while, and whatever title you come up with, I’m sure I can counter with a novel or short story that did it first. Sadly, creator-driven works are few and far between in film and television. Studios are far more interested in backing a proven winner which is why sequels and established properties are de rigueur. That said, great SF movies occasionally do get made. Children of Men comes to mind. “But wait!” many will argue. “The movie was very different from the book.” All well and good and some may even prefer the movie over the book, but there’s no denying the fact that the driving force behind both came from author P.D. James’ original vision. Yes, every so often, SF fans can rejoice with the release of a Star Wars (the original) or a Firefly but, sadly, these are exceptions to the rule.
2. Literary writers are limited only by the power of their imaginations (and, on occasion, their editors). Scriptwriters, on the other hand, are limited by things like the unlikelihood of their script ever getting made and the costs associated with film and television production. Getting published is tough; getting produced even more so. Especially if you’re a newbie looking to get an original concept off the ground. In the event you do buck the odds and manage to get it greenlit, there are a vast number of things that can go wrong and kill your prospective movie or television series before it goes to camera. And if lightning happens to strike twice and it does go into production, chances are good that the final product will bear only a passing resemblance to your original vision. Why? Well…
3. Writing a science fiction novel can be an incredibly lonely process and yet, at the end of the day, the entirety of the work – its vision, depth, and execution – belongs to one person. In the case of a movie or a television series, however, many players can lay partial claim to the end-product (or be part of the stampede to disassociate themselves from it if things go sideways). All that rests between that original concept and its big (or small screen) execution are the producers, studio/network executives, directors, and actors who will weigh in with their suggestions on how to improve things. More often than not, said improvements will run contrary to the author’s original vision and, when push comes to shove, it’s the writers that get the shove – right off the project if they prove uncooperative and unwilling to compromise. SF is expensive! Given the kind of money at stake, studios consider it bad business not to exercise some creative control over their investments. Publishers, on the other hand, can afford to take a gamble on the new, the different, and the challenging.
All that said – despite the odds, the visual medium is capable of producing new, different, and challenging SF ideas, although you’re more likely to see it happen on television where the scriptwriters are afforded the opportunity to exercise more creative control over their scripts, as opposed to the world of theatrical features where the screenwriter is more of a hired gun and is lucky if he/she gets invited to set once filming begins (An aside: I know someone who wrote the script for a 100+million dollar feature. On his first day on set, he was introduced to the female lead. According to my buddy, upon hearing he was the scriptwriter, she looked at him “like something she’d found on the bottom of her shoe.” Ah, show business). Still, the freedom enjoyed by writers of prose fiction is hard to beat. But the professional scriptwriter can take solace in the bigger paychecks.
So who’s driving SF today? Hey, for every established author I could name, there are dozens of up-and-comers out there just waiting to break big.
As for where SF is headed? Damned if I, or anyone else, knows. And that’s the beauty of it.
Agree? Disagree? For other far more informed opinions on the same topic from the likes John Scalzi, Lou Anders, and Mike Resnick among others head on over to: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/006712.html
Today’s video: Whispers forest retreat. Click on the link.
Or if google deigns to allow the video to play…