Five Adaptations of Science-Fiction and Fantasy Classics that Failed to Launch Franchises

Literary works have long been mined for their cinematic potential, which has resulted in some of the greatest films of all time, and also some of the most disappointing. Works of science-fiction and fantasy have frequently seen adaptations hit the big screen, and all too often they fail to be the critical or commercial successes that their source material should warrant. In the case of works a part of a series, the initial film’s lack of success tends to prevent subsequent works from being adapted  for the screen. The following five films never got the sequels that they were so obviously meant to lead into, and in at least a couple of these cases, it may have been a good thing.

I like the moons.

I like the moons.


I know that my previous post was about Dune (read it here), but the film most certainly belongs on this list and, in some ways, it probably (okay, definitely) inspired it as well. Dune is one the cornerstones that modern science-fiction is built upon. Vast in its scope with a thoroughly detailed world, Frank Herbert’s novel remains as interesting today as it did (almost) fifty years ago when it was first published. Dune spawned five sequels by Herbert that span thousands of years worth of story and remains as the best deconstruction of the “messiah” archetype ever written.

The 1984 David Lynch directed adaptation is an admirable attempt to translate the world to the screen, but the complexity of the story and the raw amount of time needed to properly set up the characters and their motivations (why won’t Sting stop smirking? To find out, read the book.) hamstrung the production from the start. With a sizable cast led by Kyle MacLachlan, the film suffered from uneven pacing, eighties-style CGI, and a running time of less than six hours (I am not advocating six-hour features, I am just implying the amount of time necessary to adapt the story). The film’s greatest failing is the lack of addressing the fundamental ambiguity that the primary character embodies: what happens when the hero has won? Despite this, I can’t help but to enjoy Dune for the big ball of good intentions and missed opportunities that it is and would have welcomed an adaptation of Dune Messiah (if I had been alive at this point, that is).

Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen.

Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is adapted from Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the United States), the first novel of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. His Dark Materials is a recent work, published between 1995 and 2000, but its influence and importance is undeniable. The books were heavily influenced by John Milton and his epic poem Paradise Lost and function as something of a counterargument to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Also, in my mind, any books that are banned as much as these ones have been are definitely worth reading. The novels center around Lyra, a precocious girl of twelve years that gets embroiled in a war between man and god, and religion and secularism. Along with her daemon (an animal familiar that everyone in her world possesses), she starts on a journey involving gypsies, armored polar bears, and a mysterious substance known as dust.

His Dark Materials is a fascinating series that tackles big questions and delves into interesting theories and philosophies (was original sin a good thing? are there Earths parallel to our own?), but the film The Golden Compass sidesteps many of these issues to create something easier to understand, not nearly as controversial, and naught but a hollow shell of the story it was adapted from. Directed by Chris Weitz, the film boasts a fantastic cast of primarily British thespians who all do good work, and has some stellar special effects (Ian McKellen makes for one regal polar bear), but the philosophical and questioning undertones have been all but completely eliminated to create a by-the-book (not literally) fantasy adaptation. It under-performed at the box office and never had a sequel green-lit, and that may be a good thing.

That android is portrayed by Alan Rickman.

That android is portrayed by Alan Rickman.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a work that takes absurdity to levels that Lewis Carroll never reached (and that is saying something), the five-part trilogy (you read that correctly) by Douglas Adams has become legendary for its wacky humor and endless ability to be referenced (42! Towels! Vogons!). Released in 2005 and directed by Garth Jennings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a cast led by Martin Freeman (currently Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films) as Arthur Dent, the bathrobed and British hero. Released to moderate success both commercially and critically, the film never managed to strike enough of a cord to warrant a sequel, no matter how many heads Sam Rockwell had.

The film sees Arthur Dent hitching a ride on a spaceship along with his best friend, who just so happens to be an alien, just as the earth is being destroyed. One of only two humans left alive in the universe, he embarks on an intergalactic journey to discover the answer to life, the universe, and everything (it isn’t what you would expect). The film is fun and captures the feel of the novel quite well, though some of the humor is lost in the translation to the big screen. I also feel that the reveal about the mice lacks something (the mice are key). The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was never put into production and here we remain.

We've all been there. Am I right?

We’ve all been there. Am I right?

John Carter

The most recent film on the list and the one based on the oldest novel, John Carter had the scope, it had the spectacle, it had the impossibly pretty cast, but it did not have the box office, or anything resembling competent marketing, or even a good title. Adapted from the first Barsoom novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of MarsJohn Carter stars Taylor Kitsch in the first of two abysmal box office showings of his in 2012 (at least this isn’t Battleship) as the titular John Carter (of Mars), with a large supporting cast including Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris (the said princess of Mars) and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkus.

John Carter is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was not terrible, and it definitely had the potential to reach a wide audience…if anyone had known what it was about (how hard would it have been to add “of Mars” to the title?). Based on the novel that essentially invented the space western (without Burroughs there wouldn’t be Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Cowboy Bebop, or, god forbid, Firefly), John Carter is a missed opportunity for what could have been the start of a very enjoyable franchise. John Carter is a former confederate soldier that gets transported to Mars, only to discover he can jump really far and is super strong (oh yeah, and no Superman and what he led to. Seriously, look it up) and inevitably get caught up in the strife between the various types of Martians. He also falls in love with a princess. It is very silly, but in the very fun way movies can do so well. John Carter could have done well, but it didn’t and that is quite a shame.

Yeah, Gandalf is pretty cool.

Yeah, Gandalf is pretty cool.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

No, not that one. The first film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was this 1978 animated effort by Ralph Bakshi, a controversial underground animator (his film Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to achieve an X rating). Covering the first half (or so) of the story in the novels, it ends with the Battle of Helm’s Deep (the end battle of The Two Towers), and never received a part two. The film received mixed reviews from critics but was commercially successful (a gross of over thirty million on a four million dollar budget). This adaptation of Tolkien’s tome is also less friendly to the uninitiated than Peter Jackson’s trilogy, but is a clear influence on the later films.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one the first films to make use of rotoscoping, or animating over live-action footage (Richard Linklater is a more recent proponent of the style). The use of this technique created a grounded look to the film (for the most part), even amid the craziness. The film is no masterpiece, but it stands on its own and is a worthy, if inferior, counterpart to the Peter Jackson trilogy. It is worth seeing for any fans of either Middle-Earth or animation. I would have liked to see Bakshi finish his adaptation, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.


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