Science-fiction in particular is heartily impacted by the scourge of the film adaptation. I guess that’s just one of the reasons why I didn’t hate Battle: Los Angeles as much as I should have: it was an original story, albeit a poorly told one, and essentially the Marine version of Independence Day. Sounds good, right? Save your money. But anyways, film adaptations really piss me off because it makes the medium of film just a vessel for stories we’ve already experienced. It’s a storytelling recycler, and that’s not cool. With science-fiction in the modern times, we have the superhero comic adaptations. This year will see the release of Thor and Captain America. I prefer a movie like Battle: LA because both types of movies use ridiculous amounts of money, but Battle: LA shows me something cooler and bigger. Instead of a superhero and a supervillain fighting in New York (Toronto), we get soldiers fighting aliens in the mid-apocalypse. Chaos – we see very clearly where the money went.

But I don’t want to generalize with adaptations. Indeed Blade Runner, the greatest science-fiction film of all time, is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though rather loosely. So today I’m not gonna go on an anti-adaptation rant – that’ll come later – rather, I’m going to celebrate the approach to storytelling with some of the better ones, and the various methods filmmakers undertook.

Case 1. Star Trek (2009)

Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters behind J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the second biggest franchise in science-fiction, wrote basically a better version of an earlier script: Transformers from 2007. Transformers has a great script with awful dialogue. It accomplishes so much: pleased old fans while introducing the world to new ones, combining old mythos with new story elements, introducing a new, human, character, and set up solid set pieces, letting the infamous director run wild with spectacle. It didn’t accomplish the most basic aspect of the screenplay in my opinion, but that’s just where Star Trek one-ups it. The script for Star Trek was funny, dramatic, and even poigniant, while also doing most of what Transformers did.

As a movie, Star Trek is great for its visuals, its story, and the casting: Karl Urban is totally the man and gets overused as the stereotypical macho man. Simon Pegg was great as usual, and Zoe Saldana never once said “You will never be one of the People.” I also really dug the villain, even if his motivations were the only true weak part of the movie. I think he worked not because he was sympathetic or hardcore, but because he set the events in motion and perfectly brought together the characters, which was the point of the origin story.

Relative to the series and movies, Star Trek is an excellent adaptation, easily the best Trek flick I’ve thus far seen (Wrath of Khan and Star Trek 2009). It’s classic pulp adventure but strikingly modern without taking the Battlestar Galactica approach and making everybody sulk around. Science-fiction and space here offers us some interesting ideas, and no, Roger Ebert, this movie wasn’t about Roddenbery science, but it had just enough genre tropes to keep the hardcore fans satisfied without boring the mainstream. Pleasing everybody was clearly Star Trek‘s goal, because Star Trek is damn good at doing what it does.

Case 2. A Scanner Darkly (2006) [Spoiler Alert]

There are portions in the book that are lifted scene for scene on the silver screen in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, himself already a decicated fan of Philip K. Dick as demonstrated in his earlier A Waking Life. My favorite would have to be the conversation in the truck where Barris reveals he’s set up a surprise for any intruders, which is hugely paranoid in the book and sends our hero Arctor reeling mentally, playing over scenarios and hypotheses, but in the movie, it’s just a funny scene. The adaptation here was both incredibly faithful, and completely smart.

Scenes were translated, but more importantly the main ideas were. The narrative in A Scanner Darkly the book is diluted by side stories and reminiscings – the movie is more direct and the story comes across clearly over an arc that’s more consice. The end is paced rather quickly, where Arctor is finally broken down by the revelation that yes, he is Arctor, and the preceding movie, which is more spread out and slow, builds up the pyschological decline.

The exploration into the deadly world of drugs is enhanced by a dreary vision of the future, and both stories underscore darkness and literary genius with humor. Both the novel and the movie are very funny, and this makes the tragedy of the various characters’ ends that much greater. The visuals of course have to be mentioned – take a look at a single frame of the movie. Indeed that is how the entire movie looks all the way through; it’s a labor of extended effort from a film crew, under the supervision of a passionate filmmaker in love with great material.

Case 3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

This is the story of a great film coming from an okay source material. Masamune Shirow is big on cool ideas, but also big on making things ‘funny.’ Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is the most humorless movie I could think of, well, except for Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2. So it drops the comedic elements and goofy characters but retains the story and the philosophical elements. Themes of technological invasion reaching even into our bodies and minds are heightened by the film, brought to new levels of horror. The visuals in Ghost in the Shell the movie are also beautiful and helped out by motion and sound. Spider tanks, exploding women, market shootouts, rainy subtext ladled montages are all vibrant and contribute to the movie’s status as groundbreaking in the medium of anime.

Case 4. Blade Runner (1982) [Spoiler Alert]

Another Philip K. Dick movie, which is strange for an author of such hallucinatory and wacked out material. Blade Runner is a great adaptation because all the positives of the original novel are intact, but more good stuff is piled on in addition to an already solid base, thanks to a final script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is about nazis. At least, that’s what it was inspired by, thanks Wikipedia.org. Philip K. Dick was interested by how inhuman nazies were in their various historical activities, and wrote a story about dehumanization and paranoia starring a world populated by androids and those who hunt androids.

Those who hunt androids, who I believe are just policemen, have a character named Rick Deckard in their number. He’s got a new job that he took to pay for a real animal, not an artificial one. The job gets complicated when he tangles with romance and then questions of humanity and reality. It’s a good story, but from what I recall, it was the filmed version that introduced the theme of life and death that I fell in love with.

Roy Batty, the leader of the Replicants in Blade Runner, seeks out Tyrell on Earth (where he is in danger) in order to live longer. There’s nothing more sympathetic than that, and yet he’s the villain. His character arc offers a tragedy that highlights the end of the film, where his eventual acceptance of death sees the rescue of our dehumanizing hero. It’s now up to Rick Deckard to turn his life around, and in the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut, might just do that with a future romance with Rachel.

Case 5. Apocalypse Now (1979) [Spoiler Alert]

And finally we reach the only non-science-fiction film on the list, though if you weren’t too up on your history, you might mistake it as fantasy. Apocalypse Now is, from what I’ve seen, the best film adaptation ever made, and certainly one of the best movies ever made. Pure, powerful filmmaking at its finest, a magnum opus to be reckoned with. But it’s a great adaptation because the story, Heart of Darkness, was perfectly translated onto film and was enhanced by the Vietnam War.

This movie edges out Blade Runner because of its brilliance in conception. Blade Runner became brilliant over time, a long ass time to be sure. Francis Ford Coppolla’s pairing of the Vietnam War to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a stroke of genius, indicting the conflict while positing ideas on the human condition. I have not read the Conrad novella, but I am familiar with the story – it’s a classic, one of those that you hear about before reading the book, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Romeo and Juliet. Basically what you have is an exploration in madness, and what better way to do this than through the Vietnam War, a conflict of confusion and chaos, a war fought about the biggest nothing in history, as one character remarks.

The end of the movie sees Col. Kurtz talking about how the horrors of war drove him to do terrible things in the name of victory, which is so important to the American mentality, as previously established by Kilgore. It’s the actual factual American politics that back the idea that war is fucked up, and this is embodies wholly by the Conradian elements of insanity and the darkness in the hearts of men.

A book is not very visual, no matter what images it evokes in your brain. Apocalypse Now embraces the visual medium of film with passion – the beauty and horror of the beach invasion set to the Valkyries music makes for an intense experience that both shocks you into blankmindedness, but leaves you with so much to think about. The faces moving in and out of shadow recreate the themes of the movie in a cleverly visual way, and the war scenes are staggering without being documentary-styled, which has defined how one shoots war in a post-Saving Private Ryan world.

Honorable Mentions: The Thing (1982), They Live, Serenity, The Dead Zone

The Bad Adaptations: Memoirs of a Geisha, Dune