Sunday 2 September 2018

Hollywood has a mixed history adapting Hugo-shortlisted works

Last week, Apple announced that it has greenlit a high-budget TV series based on Isaac Asimov’s
For us, this series of covers
is one of the best works based
on the Foundation novels.
(Image via 
Foundation novels.

Should this announcement be greeted with trepidation or enthusiasm? After all, Hollywood has a long and storied history of screwing up adaptations of Hugo-shortlisted works.

By our count, there are 15 movies, eight television series, and two standalone television episodes based on Hugo-Award-winning textual works. There are an additional five television series and 14 movies based on textual works that were shortlisted, but did not win the Hugo Award. (The list we’ve compiled is here. It was woefully incomplete when this article was written, and has been updated significantly over the past two years.)

These dramatic presentations are at best a mixed bag and few have aged well. While a handful of adaptations of Hugo winners have themselves been shortlisted for a Hugo Award, no movie or television show based on a Hugo winner has itself won a Hugo for dramatic presentation.

The earliest of these adaptations is “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” an episode of The United States Steel Hour that aired in February of 1961, based on Daniel Keyes’ 1958 Hugo-winning short story Flowers For Algernon. The episode is actually well-made for the time, hews closely to the original work, and keeps the emotional core of the story (though it adds a happy ending). It was on the shortlist in 1962.

Flowers For Algernon is probably the Hugo-winning work that has been adapted most often. On top
Even Mick Jagger can't make the
costumes in Freejack look cool.
(Image via
of various stage productions, there were four movies including one that won an Academy Award, a Tony-nominated musical, and a video game. Several of these adaptations — such as the 1968 movie Charly — seem to have been produced with an understanding of what made the original resonate with audiences.

But for every decent Flowers For Algernon adaptation, there’s a Bicentennial Man: The Movie.

One of Asimov’s robot stories, Bicentennial Man won best Novella in 1977, and in 1999 was turned into a maudlin Robin Williams vehicle complete with Celine Dion soundtrack. Unfortunately the film ignored Asimov’s meditations on whether or not mortality makes us human, and on what rights a sentient non-human might have. The film is largely a failure.

There’s 1997’s Freejack (based on Robert Sheckley’s 1959 shortlisted novel Immortality, Inc.), and Kevin Costner’s The Postman. There’s the 2013 adaptation of Ender’s Game. There’s Millennium, based on John Varley’s shortlisted novel of the same name. This is not a list that fills one with confidence about Hollywood’s ability to adapt great works of science fiction.
At least Bicentennial Man was a more
faithful adaptation than I, Robot.
(Image via 

It could be that the Hugo-shortlisted works that have worked best as adaptations (Slaughterhouse Five, American Gods, Arrival as examples) are the ones that are smaller in scope and focus on personal stories of self-discovery. The great works of science fiction that are more epic in scope – Dune, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Three-Body Problem – have often been Hollywoodized into mindless action-adventure works, stripped of what made them great.

Which brings us back to Isaac Asimov’s most epic work: Foundation. Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Series in 1966. Winner of a Best Novel Hugo in 1984. Winner of a Retro Hugo for best short story at the most recent Worldcon. This is a work that has enduring value to the science fiction community. It continues to draw in new readers from outside the community and is credited by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman with inspiring his career. If ever there was a work that deserved a faithful and respectful adaptation, this is it.

But Foundation presents at least one major challenge for screenwriters: selecting a focal point. Producers can choose to focus on the classic trilogy or on the novels that were published later. The main stories (the original trilogy) tell a cohesive story but use an ever-changing cast of characters. More recent Foundation novels offer a cohesive cast of characters, but tell a story that is unlikely to engage the typical Hollywood consumer. Both options seem to have their quandaries.

The quality of an adaptation matters because a mediocre – or wildly divergent – film adaptation
A surprising number of people know our genre primarily
through Hollywood's adaptations of the classic works.
Mediocre adaptations make it easier  for non-fans
to dismiss the great works of science fiction.
(Image via Facebook)
can undermine the cultural value of a great work. For example, some fans of the movie Starship Troopers are unaware that it is based on a novel, while others believe it’s loosely adapted from Ender’s Game. When speaking to everyday non-fans about the work Bicentennial Man, how many of them are likely to believe that it’s actually an excellent novella, given that they’re probably familiar with the Robin Williams movie?

Those concerns aside, there is some room for hope with the adaptation of Foundation. Of the Hugo-winning or shortlisted works that were adapted into a TV series in the past decade, several have arguably lived up to the original works — American Gods, Game of Thrones, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell come to mind as examples of this. It is possible that television is a better medium for science fiction adaptations than cinematic releases.

We are cautiously hopeful for Foundation: The TV Series and will attempt to judge it as it comes. We are also hopeful that irrational exuberance about the prospect doesn’t get in the way of seeing the series for what it is.


  1. There was a 1988 adaptation of Asimov's "Nightfall," which I saw in original release.

    I'm not sure it's possible for a movie to be worse than this unless it electrocuted the audience.

    1. I agree that the 1988 movie Nightfall is awful. The 2000 movie Nightfall is possibly worse.

      But the novelette on which both of them were based was published in 1941, so it has yet to be considered for even a Retro Hugo, which is why it's omitted from the above list.

  2. "There’s Millennium, based on John Varley’s shortlisted novel of the same name": That's not quite true. Varley's screenplay of Millennium was based on his short story "Air Raid"; his novel Millennium was published during the years of multiple revisions to the screenplay, but it's based on the screenplay rather than the other way around. (Hence the novel's copyright is (c) 1983 MGM/UA Home Entertainment Group, Inc.) However, "Air Raid" was itself a Hugo nominee in 1977-78, so it can simply replace the novel Millennium in the chart.

    1. Thank you for the clarification. I'll make that edit immediately.

  3. Sorry to be late to the party, but the "Leviathan Wakes" episode of The Expanse was more than shortlisted for the 2017 Hugos--it won.

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  5. I think you have to include Dave (1993) as an adaptation of Double Star, albeit one that removes the science fiction elements. I squinted at the credits and found "based on Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein" buried in there, which was obvious to me on first watching.


  6. A couple of notes about the "Flowers for Algernon" adapatations -- 1) the movie Charly (note spelling) was shortlisted for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and 2) I have heard (not sure how true this is) that the screenplay for "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon" had not just a "ray of hope" at the end, but an outright happy ending -- Charlie's intelligence coming back or something -- but Cliff Robertson hated that betrayal of the original story, and manipulated the timing of his last speech on purpose so that the good news didn't come out until after the episode time limit was reached.

    1. And thank you for catching that spelling mistake. I'll fix that.