In the comments section of my Star Wars Day post, reader “M-Wolverine” remarked about how amazing it is to see stories and characters on film that none of us ever believed Hollywood would touch: “…to be able to see the actual Avengers on screen together…a Civil and Infinity War… a world where Ego the Living Planet is on screen as more than an Easter Egg, and is taken seriously by the general populace; just things I couldn’t have dreamed of.” And that got me thinking about movies I could never have dreamed of. And that got me dreaming of them.
The first one to come to mind is Arthur Byron Cover’s Autumn Angels. This is a weird one, all right. Published in 1975, it neatly straddles pop culture and pop psychology in a hallucinatory tale of godlike men trying to bring some humanity to a godlike human race. A brief synopsis: In a far-flung future where people have advanced to the point of being able to bend reality to their will and can remake themselves into anything they choose, the world has become both more bizarre and more banal than anyone could have imagined, because the overwhelming majority have fashioned themselves into fictional or historical figures and live in perpetual self-indulgent pointlessness. Three godlike men — “the lawyer” (a dapper man who carries a cane with a sword hidden inside), “the fat man” (yes, Sydney Greenstreet), and “the demon” (an actual scaly demon, who spends most of his time fondling his enormous but limp penis) have realized that what godlike mankind needs is depression, because depression provokes a desperate search for meaning, and the search for meaning in life brings meaning to life. In the course of this adventure, they encounter characters who have recreated themselves as the virgin queen, the hawk man, the Platypus of Doom, the gaunt British detective, and the other fat man (the one with the witty assistant), among others. Then it gets weird. It’s possibly unfilmable (though that may no longer be true, given the brilliant work being done on Starz’s American Gods), and it’s a total nerd trap trying to identify all the literary, cinematic, comic book and historical references.
Harry Harrison is a satiric genius, and Bill, the Galactic Hero is a masterwork. At first glance, Bil (just one L, double consonants are for officers!) appears to be a naive rube of a farmboy drafted (kidnapped and shanghaied, more accurately) into a world he can’t hope to understand; before too long, we learn that he is a lot smarter than we thought, and he has an incredible ability to navigate the insanity of military life. All of the military people I know who have read Bill, the Galactic Hero swear that the inane and irrational rules, policies, and situations imposed on our hero are pretty accurate. Written during the Viet Nam war, the book straddles the line politically; it could be seen as either pro- or anti-war, depending on one’s capacity for irony. In 2014, filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man) made a “student film” (according to the licensing agreement, anyway) short version of Bill, which earned positive reviews, but it has not yet been adapted to a full feature.
H. Beam Piper is a writer who should by all rights be as popular as Heinlein; he created an incredible extended universe stretching across multiple galaxies and over centuries, working out the rise and fall of governments and cultures, the migration of people and colonization of planets, with storylines intersecting among multiple series. His most famous story, which begs to be filmed, is Little Fuzzy, a story that Spielberg could really dig into. It’s an adventure story with a tough old prospector, a corporate intrigue story with slimy businessmen conniving to loot a world, a courtroom drama with a murder trial, a mystery, and most of all, a story about impossibly adorable furry aliens the size of small children whose existence puts all of those other stories in motion. There’s also a little love story and some comedy mixed in there. The main reason why this book has never been filmed is complicated rights issues; Piper committed suicide in 1964, and his publisher, Avon, somehow allowed the copyright to expire in the US, but it remains protected under European law, so a movie studio wishing to film it would have to wade through a lot of paperwork, but that’s why studios have lawyers. In 2011, John Scalzi did a “reboot” of Little Fuzzy, called Fuzzy Nation, loosely following the original plot while updating the technological and societal elements that had become hopelessly dated; this book was authorized by the Piper estate, with the ancillary effect of putting the story, or at least a version of it, back under copyright, so we’re probably not going to see any knock-off versions any time soon, but now there’s at least a clear paper trail for somebody to inquire about adapting it.
I’ve previously written about James Robinson & Paul Smith’s fantastic supernatural adventure series Leave it to Chance, so I’ll just mention it here and ask once again how it’s possible that no network or studio has grabbed on to this comic, given (a) the huge popularity of the Harry Potter franchise and (b) the enormous popularity of plucky adolescent female protagonists.
Science fiction author Kieth Laumer found a rich vein of material in the idea of interstellar diplomacy; his loose-cannon hero, Retief, Envoy to New Worlds, successfully out-negotiated some really unpleasant species, most notably the arrogant and officious five-eyed frog-bug people known as the Groaci, despite the best efforts of the Terran Diplomatic Corps to rein him in and make him follow the rules. Reteif, whose adventures began appearing in 1960, comes off as what would happen if Han Solo were an ambassador. The stories, of which there are dozens spanning 40 years of publication, are largely based on Laumer’s experience as a vice consul in Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1950s. The stories spend about as much time skewering hidebound bureaucracy as they do taking shots at our Cold War adversaries; the Groaci are in many ways a personification of Americans’ stereotype of the Soviets.
Another no-brainer, and long overdue, is Robert Lynn Asprin’s “Myth Adventures”. There have been attempts at comedy-fantasy films in recent years, but they tend toward either parody or frat humor (Galavant and Your Highness come to mind) as opposed to just straight laugh-out-loud comedy. The first in the series, Another Fine Myth, nails it, turning the Sorcerer’s Apprentice into a buddy comedy evocative of the Hope & Crosby “Road” pictures. The books are entertaining for about the first six installments, then become increasingly formulaic; by the time Jody Lyn Nye joins in as co-author around book #12, the series starts to feel like fanfic of itself, but those first three or four books could make a pretty solid movie franchise or TV series. The premise: Skeeve, a young and seemingly not-very-bright apprentice to the great wizard Garkin, finds himself teamed up with a monstrous green scaly demon (short for “dimension traveler”) named Ahz (“no relation”) to solve Garkin’s murder. They are hampered by two facts: Skeeve doesn’t know any magic, and Ahz was stripped of his powers by the spell that brought him here; fortunately he can teach Skeeve to do the things he can’t, and together they just might get through this, if they don’t kill each other first. Later the two become partners in a magic-for-hire business. When I first started reading the books in the early ’80s, I pictured Matthew Broderick as Skeeve and Brian Dennehy as Ahz, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Tananda the trollop (a trollop is a female troll, but you knew that) and Jack Nicholson as the villain Isstvan. 35 years later, all of those have to change, but that “what if” casting ought to give you some idea of the personalities involved.
Kurt Vonnegut’s sardonic satire of the Cold War (pun intended), Cat’s Cradle, has sort of partly been filmed; there was a TV special made for NET (National Educational Television, a precursor to PBS) in 1972 called Between Time and Timbuktu that mashed together bits from various Vonnegut stories and novels, including a few choice bits from this one. The plot of this TV production: unemployed would-be poet Stony Stevenson (a character in Sirens of Titan) wins a NASA jingle contest; first prize is to become an astronaut, so Stony finds himself being launched into space to find the chronosynclastic infundibulum, which is basically the nexus of all realities. Passing through that wormhole, Stony wanders through key scenes from Cat’s Cradle, Harrison Bergeron, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June, his meanderings punctuated by absurd commentary from TV hosts Walter Gesundheit and Bud Williams Jr., played by the brilliant comedy team of Bob & Ray. But that show only skimmed the surface of Cat’s Cradle and its hilariously fatalistic world, which takes aim at military build-up, Mutually-Assured Destruction, and the political exploitation of religion, especially self-serving religion invented precisely for the purpose. The plot: While researching for a book about the bombing of Hiroshima, the narrator becomes involved with the family of a deceased Manhattan Project researcher who inadvertently invented a different doomsday device. He finds himself on the remote island of San Lorenzo, where two men have for decades led factions in opposition; Bokonon, the old wise man in the woods, leader and founder of Bokononism, an outlawed religion that promises only comforting lies, is persecuted by his best friend, island dictator “Papa” Monzano, in an elaborate charade intended to legitimize both men’s actions. Hanging in the balance is Ice-Nine, a deadly form of water that can destroy the world.
Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! is another series I’ve talked about before. Every day the present more and more resembles Chaykin’s dystopian future. A gun and sex obsessed culture? Check. Corrupt politicians selling off assets to foreign powers? Check. Manufactured conflict to drive TV ratings? Check. Media dominated by reality programming? Check. Netflix or Starz or Showtime could do this as a series, but they’d have to crank up the satire to 12 and try to be even more absurd or it will seem like a documentary.
Harry Harrison made the list twice; before he invented Bill, the Galactic Hero, he chronicled the escapades of James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” diGriz, better known as The Stainless Steel Rat. Slippery Jim is a thief, con-man, master of disguise, criminal mastermind, burglar, liar, and all-around rascal in the far-flung future, who finds himself recruited into an elite crime-fighting organization staffed entirely by ex-criminals. In a series of books spanning centuries (with the aid of some well-executed time-travel), diGriz meets and marries Angelina, a fellow criminal who lacks his reluctance to kill, and together they raise twin sons while carrying out a wide variety of cons, scams, heists, and rackets, usually in service to the Special Corps’ anti-crime efforts.
Mel Lazarus was best known as the cartoonist behind classic comic strips Miss Peach and Momma, but he was also a novelist. One of his books, The Boss is Crazy, Too, takes place in the offices of a failing comic book company (modeled after Toby Press, a comics company owned by Al Capp at which Lazarus worked as a young man); art director Carson Hemple is told to help drive the company into bankruptcy. His solution is to invent ever-more-creative embezzlement schemes. Set in the early 1960s, it could be the comedic counterpoint to Mad Men.
Finally, let’s wrap up with some optimistic humor and compassionate humanism. Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon could best be described as “Cheers in the Twilight Zone.” Somewhere in Long Island, off Route 25-A, there is a bar that only gets found by people who need to find it. Inside, a big, burly, Irish bartender named Mike Callahan holds court over a mob of people who wandered in at the lowest point of their lives and accidentally discovered a family and the help they need to rebuild their lives. Some of them are like the narrator, Jake, whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident that he blamed himself for; others are more like the cyborg alien sent as an advance scout who has decided he likes humans and doesn’t want to send the attack signal but his programming can’t stop it, or the talking dog, or the vampire who won’t prey on people, or the 200-year-old lady who’s tired of burying loved ones, or the alien who used to be Hitler, or any of the time travelers, but most of them find some redemption at Callahan’s, along with an endless stream of puns, pranks, and shaggy dog stories. The 11 books that make up the Callahan’s series are episodic in structure, since they are for the most part short story collections, with a couple of volumes containing some other non-Callahan entries; in any case, Callahan’s is an ideal candidate for the Netflix-HBO-Amazon treatment.
Okay, those are my picks; what are yours? There’s a comment section down there.
See you next week.