Why Red Mars may prove unfilmable

Martin wonders if AMC can really handle the scope of Kim Stanley Robinson's gargantuan sci-fi cycle...

Can AMC afford even this much of Kim Stanley Robinson's vision?

WARNING: There are some spoilers here regarding the Red Mars book, and possibly the subsequent AMC adaptation.

There are very few epic works of fantasy or science-fiction with enough of a fan-base to warrant a full-blooded, studio-quality trilogy adaptation at the level of Lord Of The Rings or the Harry Potter books. Millions of fans were ravening for these films years before a producer even looked at their cheque-book regarding the projects. The appeal has to be planetary, not just populist, for such a commitment.

There are numerous classic works that will never receive decent screen treatment because of the uncomfortable logistics of staying faithful on a budget. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, for one: this tale of Chancery suitors caught up in the darkness of empty expectation was adapted by the BBC three times in forty years, disparate versions which were forced to jettison huge rafts of sub-plot and character; even the radio adaptations were truncated. Hollywood’s one attempt to film this Herculean tale was so abbreviated in respect of the source material as to bear only superficial resemblance.

In the 1980s, Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic The Stand, a brick of a book at well over a thousand pages, went through the hands of George Romero, John Carpenter and many others, before ending up as a dismal and underfunded TV mini-series in the early 1990s.

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Frank Herbert fans lamented what David Lynch jettisoned for his 1984 movie adaptation of Dune, yet complained of the poor production quality of John Harrison’s 2000 Hallmark TV adaptation.

This is the permanent conundrum of the epic work – cut to pieces to accommodate cinema schedules or cut to pieces in terms of quality, because TV doesn’t have the money to back the writer’s vision.

AMC announced last year that they are branching out into harder sci-fi than The Prisoner, by bringing the first of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy’ to the small screen. This is a project that originally rested with James Cameron and – if a little incestuously – it has not entirely escaped the Cameron camp: Cameron’s ex-wife Gale Ann Hurd was the next to take on the project, then planned for the Sci-Fi Channel. Now AMC have put Die Hard With A Vengeance writer Jonathan Hensleigh at the helm of Red Mars. Hensleigh directed the Hurd project The Punisher in 2004, and wrote the Hurd-produced Welcome To The Jungle in 2007. The pair were most famously collaborators on Armageddon in 1998.

Armageddon‘s blatant disregard for scientific accuracy is an ill-omen for a TV adaptation of Robinson’s impeccably researched and fascinating epic of Martian colonisation and – later – war. But this isn’t a Michael Bay project – who knows what Hensleigh will have in mind for Red Mars? In any case, there are two books left to film if the first adaptation goes well, so it’s a more tempting prospect from the point-of-view of syndication than many large-scale literary adaptations.

Problem is Hollywood got badly burned the last time it went to Mars. Brian De Palma’s Mission To Mars entered into a dogfight with Red Planet in 2000 and both burned up in orbit. I’ve written elsewhere in this site that the singular failure of these two films arguably ended 6-7 years of Hollywood investment in ‘straight’ sci-fi movies. That lack of confidence won’t do anything to get AMC’s Red Mars the full-blooded funding it needs to realise Robinson’s vision.

At a practical level, realising the scope of the opening book alone is a jaw-dropping prospect for a financier: a vast and increasingly terraformed planet; an enormous and luxurious space-craft bringing the first colonists there (and most expensively, in zero gravity, for the most part); ice-comets shattered onto the Martian atmosphere as part of a terraforming effort; huge cities arising as the population of Earth begins to migrate to the new colony, precipitating planetary and inter-planetary war; a landscape already on an unimaginable scale, in chaos due to war and artificial planetary conditions, with avalanches, floods and Dantean weather conditions; enormous ‘moholes’ bored into the red planet, miles wide and each home to a mini-civilisation…Red Mars is a visionary work in the purest sense, anticipating the promise and perils of spreading the human race beyond the Earth’s confines.

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So TV’s usual approach of building one big expensive set and having a lot of characters bore each other senseless in it for 16 weeks, might fall a bit short of the mark.

Some of the most fantastic, exciting and visual imagery of Red Mars would present a huge challenge even for ILM,  even if there was a blank cheque to achieve it: the collapse of the sabotaged space-elevator is a staggering vision – 200,000 kilometres of mile-wide cable-car crashing down onto the surface of the red planet, wrapping itself twice around Mars and hitting with apocalyptic and burning force on its second pass, having gained speed and caught fire.

There are narrative and demographic problems too: the average age of the ‘first hundred’, the characters who thread the Mars trilogy and who are the first group of settlers on the planet, is around 45. In order to allow us to stay with familiar characters throughout a cycle that encompasses hundreds of years, Robinson invents a fictional gerontological treatment, effectively freezing the characters at the age at which they take it. But even when we first see them, this core group is well past the requisite age for the target demographic. Even half-way through the book, most of them are in their eighties, if scientifically well-preserved. By the middle of the following book, Green Mars, many are centenarians.

So apart from the usual problems of choosing the threads and characters to focus on in a multi-layered and highly-populated story, Hensleigh is also faced with the problem of making the core cast commercial in an era used to the pretty faces and sleek bodies of Battlestar Galactica and – shortly – Dollhouse.

I can’t help but admire Quixotic efforts, but the admiration may quickly turn to derision both in myself and other fans of the Mars trilogy; based on history, we’re expecting a small sub-set of plots and characters from the original, and based on the current economic climate, we’re expecting that the production values will be disappointing at best.

I hope not. I would dearly, dearly love to see Red Mars realised on screen, with all the character development and visual effects mastery that it deserves. But the further away the project gets from the Cameron camp, the lower my expectations get. We’ll have to see, I guess.

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