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IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD; THEN CAME THE FILM VERSION

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By Peter Swirski

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The Montréal Review, January 2017

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Ruddick, Nicholas. (2016). Science Fiction Adapted to Film. Canterbury: Gylphi. 365pp.

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Science Fiction Adapted to Film is lovingly dedicated to the author’s wife and two children. They are, as he puts it, Britt Holmström, Canada’s best Swedish novelist; Winston Rowntree, the world’s finest webcomic artist; and Anna Ruddick, first lady of bass. In many ways, however, “best”, “finest”, and “first” apply equally to Ruddick himself. For years now, he has been the best and finest Canadian scholar of science fiction and the first name that leaps to mind in terms of quality and volume of writing on the subject. Over the span of fifty years as a reader, forty years as a teacher, and thirty years as a scholar of science fiction—as he notes in the Foreword —he has ranged over all the major subgenres and themes that come together under that unwieldy but evocative label of science fiction. In the process, he ranged over writes from Atwood to Zelazny in a series of articles and books, of which the best known might be Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction; The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel; and his Broadview Edition of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine.

In the book under review he takes on a seemingly Herculean task of describing, analyzing, and evaluating the often uneasy relations between science fiction books and their film adaptations. The results of these intellectual labours come to us on some 300 pages of text, 20 pages of checklist of “Significant SF Film Adaptations and their Sources”, plus references and notes. If this sounds like too much even for a medium size book, there is no denying that the pleasure of reading is held in check at times by omnipresent lists and catalogues of titles, influences, borrowings, and other attributions. What makes the book valuable from the standpoint of a science fiction scholar and critic makes it less so from the standpoint of a genre fan or, indeed, a general reader who will surely be interested in the stories and backstories of how the movie business deals with pulp fiction that goes by the name of science fiction.

But fear not. When freed from the bibliographical and filmographical duties, Ruddick moves around his material like the Roman god Mercury, light footed and reaching into every nook and cranny of the science-fiction book and film business at the speed of thought. He opens with a generous sampling of science fiction writers’ comments on filmmaking and, conversely, science fiction filmmakers commenting on literature. All the greats who ever ventured creatively into space or the future are here, plus second-tier celebrities, supporting casts, and even a few extras, rubbing shoulders, sharing anecdotes, commenting respectfully and other times toxically on one another’s work. Ruddick’s trove of quotations and attributions is almost worth the price of the book alone.

Part II, which will in most likelihood be skimmed (or even skipped) by general readers, delves into a more technical and theoretical aspects of lifting books—or more often than not parts or even only titles of books—and translating them into image and music (Ray Bradbury thought Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey an overblown if brilliant exercise in photography and music—all you need is a pair of scissors, he shrugged, and at 90 minutes you would have a brilliant movie).

The 15 sections in Part III cover roughly one hundred years of film adaptations which roughly coincide with the lifespan of modern science fiction literature. Stretching from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (there are more than 200 films with that title, many with scant or even no connection to the literary original) to that unlikely Hollywood darling Philip K. Dick, who gets two sections all to himself, Part III provides a detailed historical backdrop to what nowadays is a giant among popular genres.

A couple of canonical names in the science fiction pantheon (H.G. Wells and Stanislaw Lem) reappear in part IV, which in many ways forms the heart of the book. It is clear that Ruddick spend a lion’s share of his time and energy crafting these ten essays. Their joint subject are the cinematic unicorns: successful adaptive relationships between paper and celluloid. Ruddick, it is worth keeping in mind, is a self-confessed “professional book person” for whom “literature will always come first”—mon sembable, mon frère—so that the ten case studies must have a lot going for them to be singled out for detailed discussion. It might not be amiss to highlight the original literary decet: HG. Wells, The War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain, the Strugatskys, Roadside Picnic, J.G. Ballard, Crash, Enki Bilal (2 novels), Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale, Christopher Priest, The Prestige, and Cormack McCarthy, The Road.

Agree with this list of successful adaptations or not—I don’t think I do—the arguments provided in its defense are invariably lucid and assembled with an almost classical precision of thought. All in all, there is a richness of material and sureness of touch here that could have come only from a master of his field. Ruddick has just retired from the University of Regina where he had taught for decades and recently held a position of Head of English. He remains as intellectually active as ever, writing and contributing to a vast array of essay collections on a vast array of topics, from American politics to nobrow culture. But his first and true love remains science fiction, this constellation of unforgettable tropes (or an unforgettable constellation of tropes) rather than a genre, as he calls it in my forthcoming collection When Highbrow Meets Lowbrow: Popular Culture and the Rise of Nobrow.

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Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar and literary and cultural critic. He has published extensively on contemporary American literature and culture, including popular fiction and popular culture.

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