Classic film books: The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made

In the first of a new series about classic books on film, Aliya revisits David Hughes' The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made...

Science fiction movies tend to create their own mystique. Perhaps its the imagining of entire worlds that does it. Every detail, from the climate of a desert planet to the design of a helmet, is carefully plotted, and sometimes a finished science fiction movie is a masterpiece of tying thousands of details together into one coherent vision. And yet creation on this scale leaves so much scope for added content, both in and out of the universe of the film; stories of the production, the actors’ squabbles and directorial tantrums can all make up part of the fabric of the film, and become as much stuff of legend as the parts we end up seeing on the screen.

But what about the movies that don’t ever make it to the screen? These leave behind the most interesting myths, fuelled by our own imagination of what might have been, and here’s where David Hughes’ book comes in. He pieces together the scripts, the storyboards, the costumes and the characterisations by interviewing the key players (whose stories very rarely agree) and shows us the projects that might have been something special. Of course, there are also the projects that sounded deeply misguided to begin with; it’s up to you to decide which unstarted/unfinished film belongs in what category.

Everything you would expect to read about in a book with such a title is here. There are Dune‘s incarnations from Jodorowsky to Ridley Scott to David Lynch, and onwards. There is also Superman with particular attention on the Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage plans. Along with such well-known projects there are also looks into the great science fiction novels that got snapped up by Hollywood and then languished for years in production hell, lacking any clear impetus or vision or backer – or, to be more accurate, all three at the same time, which is what it takes to get an enormous project made. Some of these novels languish to this day.

The woes soon start to become predictable as you read about them in a long line, and the names become familiar. The same writers, in particular, crop up again and again, putting their names on to treatments and scripts until the original idea usually gets buried underneath all the different versions. The act of losing what could have made for a great film in the first place is painful to read about every single time, particularly if it’s a book you love. One that particularly bothers me is the chapter devoted to the classic Alfred Bester SF novel The Stars My Destination, in which it is mooted that the story might be improved by removing the tattoos from Gully Foyle’s face. An honourable mention must go to the producer for one of the unsuccessful scripts for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy who asked Douglas Adams to change the answer to the Ultimate Question so that it made more sense. If it’s not possible to make a decent film of a book without changing these components then perhaps some books really should not be turned into cinematic excursions at all.

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I know, I know, that’s hardly the correct attitude for a film lover to take. But it’s difficult to read about these things and not feel grateful that sometimes these projects didn’t work out. Having said that, I would dearly love to see a great and imaginative adaptation of The Stars My Destination or Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I just don’t want to see a bad one, or even a passable one.

All of this makes me intensely grateful for the times when a team of people, working closely together, have managed to overcome the many obstacles in order to create a great science fiction movie. The further I got into this book, the more impressive it became to think that films such as Star Wars, Alien, and 2001 actually got made.

The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is undoubtedly a brilliant read if you’re interested in how deals are done and films get produced. But it comes with a warning – if you love science fiction it might well sadden you as much as it amuses you. Still, good reads should share that in common with good films; experiencing a range of emotions as you take in every little detail is surely the sign of being properly entertained.