As the Apple Foundation series has gradually diverged from the books, sinking from ‘adapted from Asimov’s series’ to ‘loosely inspired by Asimov’s series’ levels, we’ve seen a dramatically opposite example of a classic SF novel adaptation: the latest movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The two make an instructive comparison.
Apple Strikes Out
I haven’t quite finished viewing this season of the Foundation TV series yet, but the trend is pretty clear. Apple’s version has departed from the storyline of the written works so extensively that I can’t picture how they could possibly get back to it. Unfortunately, what Goyer & co. have replaced it with is just routine space opera, mildly interesting but no more.
The original series, as I said in my last post, is cerebral. It’s more like a political drama than like Star Wars. And it seems to me that, pace the commentators who consider it unfilmable, the original story could have been filmed in the manner of a political drama, with a modicum of action involved (Hober Mallow’s face-off with the Korellians in “The Merchant Princes,” the escape of the Darells and Ebling Mis from the Mule’s minions, et cetera). But that’s not how moviegoing audiences have been taught to think of science fiction, and the Apple writers have struck out in a different direction—back to the safe and familiar, rather than what’s distinctive in the Foundation series.
The judgment of Rob Bricken in Gizmodo (10/22/21)—“Foundation Just Became Star Wars, and It Sucks”—may be a little simplified. But it’s basically sound. The example that triggered Bricken’s article is a useful one. Several of the episodes (6-8) focus on how warriors from Anacreon kidnap several Foundation folks to try and gain control of a massive Imperial warship, the Invictus. The ship is presented as a kind of Death Star, a crucial weapon. The Anacreonians want to use it for revenge, to destroy Trantor, the capital of the Empire—which is presented as a major blow to civilization, something Our Heroes must stop.
But this is all backwards. In “The Mayors,” third part of the first Foundation book, Anacreon does get the Foundation to help them refurbish an old Imperial warship that they found derelict in space. The Anacreonians think of this as a major victory, though their concern is expanding their rule in the Periphery, not attacking Trantor. But the whole point of the incident is that possession of this Big Damn Weapon makes no difference in the course of history. The canny Salvor Hardin neutralizes the significance of this warship through entirely nonviolent means—a matter of social and psychological leverage rather than military force. (I’m avoiding the details so as not to spoil the story for those who may want to go back fruitfully to the written works.)
Nor, for that matter, is the fate of the Imperial capital especially important in the long run. The Seldon Plan predicts its fall in the early years of the Plan, and the collapse of the Empire is necessary to create the environment in which the rise of the Foundation can occur.
Meanwhile, in the TV series, the uploaded simulacrum of Hari Seldon appears to be trying to establish the Second Foundation on his homeworld of Helicon, a planet of no significance in the original series. Aficionados of the books will recognize that this change (unless it’s all an elaborate deception) would undo most of the action and tension of the latter half of the series. Again, I’m being deliberately vague (read the books!).
And Apple continues to follow the Emperors through a peculiar religious ordeal that may or may not have any long-term significance. There is a religion-politics connection in the original series; it’s possible that Apple intends to bend this arc back to meet the original plotline in some way. But, again, it’s so far off track already that the result is likely to have little resemblance to Asimov’s story.
Apple’s version of Salvor Hardin (who at this point shares nothing but the name with Asimov’s character) continues to be presented as a Chosen One. So is Gaal Dornick, on whom the writers have bestowed an ability to predict the future by some sort of mathematical or mystical intuition (a notion that almost seems to have been borrowed from Dune, oddly enough). In Episode 6, “Death and the Maiden,” at 34:30, Hari Seldon goes to far as to talk about “an entire galaxy pivoting around the actions of an individual.” But that’s exactly what the premise of the Seldon Plan denies, as Asimov tells us over and over again. Emphasizing the crucial importance of individuals may be a good narrative practice in itself (and is arguably true in fact). It is, however, simply inconsistent with Asimov’s premise—at least until the appearance of the Mule, the ‘exception that proves the rule.’
So far, at least, Apple’s Foundation TV series exemplifies one way an adaptation can go wrong. By ignoring what’s interesting and engaging in the original books, and substituting entirely different content that simply happens to be what’s in fashion at present, the adaptation can lose what’s valuable in the original without the benefit of anything new and equally interesting.
Villeneuve Scores a Victory
Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune (1965) has been transmuted to video twice before. A 1984 film by David Lynch has received mixed reviews; it has its quirks, but the major problem is that, since a 507-page book is compressed into 2:17 of film, it’s unlikely anyone not already familiar with the book could follow the complex plot. In 2000, the Syfy Channel released a TV mini-series version; I’ve never seen it, but, again, reports have been mixed.
Denis Villeneuve’s version hit American theatres on October 21, 2021. The new film is impressive. Note that this show is only the first half of the story; Dune: Part Two, is currently (12/2021) scheduled for release October 20, 2023. That makes sense. No two-hour movie could possibly do justice to the book. (I’m only speaking here about the first book; describing the innumerable sequels, prequels, and associated volumes that have come out since would take an entire post by itself—but IMHO, the later add-ons decline in quality exponentially, so we can safely ignore them here.)
What’s striking about the new movie is the care it takes in translating Herbert’s work to the screen. The novel’s remarkable worldbuilding is reflected in stunning visuals that fit together smoothly to support the plot. Watching it, I had the same kind of reaction I did watching The Fellowship of the Ring twenty years ago: wow, there it is, just as I imagined it: ornithopters, stillsuits, Duke Leto, Chani. The casting is excellent; almost all the actors embody the characters vividly. (One of the reasons I’ve never gone back to watch the TV mini-series, which I taped at the time, is that I just can’t envision William Hurt as the Duke.)
Moreover, the plot holds together. Villeneuve follows the storyline of the book very closely. He does it intelligently, though, rather than slavishly. For example, there was a banquet scene in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie. But the banquet isn’t really essential to the plot, and it would have been particularly hard to render it on film in any case—almost all the interest of the scene consists in the characters’ internal thoughts about what’s happening. So, although I’d been looking forward to seeing that scene, I must agree that it made sense to skip it to save time and finesse a difficult cinematic challenge.
On the whole, though, the storyline of the movie closely reflects that of the book. This means we get to enjoy the things that made the book engrossing in the first place: the conflicting allegiances that the hero, Paul Atreides, must navigate; the quasi-mystical disciplines and secret long-term planning of the Bene Gesserit; the devious alliance of the Emperor and the villainous House Harkonnen; the way Paul and his mother Jessica begin to become familiar with the culture of the desert-dwelling Fremen, first officially, and then later when they’re on the run from the Harkonnen. These pieces have to fit together perfectly to make the plot understandable; and from what I hear, the average moviegoer who has not read the novel is enabled to follow that intricate plot. This is a noteworthy achievement for the director, screenwriters, and cast.
When we hear that a favorite book is being translated to film, this is what we’re primarily looking for: a new perspective on what was so good in the book. A movie can get away with substantially altering the story: see, for instance, my earlier discussion of Man of La Mancha, or the 2011 steampunk version of The Three Musketeers. But if that’s the path they choose to follow, it’s up to the screenwriters to make the revised story work, and give us a new structure that’s just as satisfying as the original (though perhaps in different ways). The third possibility is that instead of doing either of those two things, the writers just mess up the original story without giving us a new “take” that can stand on its own feet. And unfortunately, that third category is the one into which Apple’s Foundation seems to be falling.
Hope for the Future
Perhaps the Foundation crew will still find a way to pull something great out of the plot snarl they’ve created so far. Perhaps not. But I’m pleased that the box-office success of the latest Dune can stand as an example to the industry that a genuinely faithful version of a SF story can be both a critical and a money-making success. With luck, we might see a trend in this direction—drawing on the widely varied types of stories available in the F&SF genres rather than simply looking for the next Game of Thrones or Star Wars.