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June 12, 2005

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Ellison Throws Spielberg a Fastball: Pitcher at Eleven

I just have to weigh in with my two cents worth over the minor contretemps (or if you prefer: "foofaraw") occasioned this week by sci-fi author and perennial gadfly Harlan Ellison's blow up at director Steven Spielberg over the question of giving credit where credit is due.  Specifically, The Mouth That Roared wanted to know why Spielberg was marketing his upcoming film version of War of the Worlds as "Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds", instead of calling it "H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds", to acknowledge that it was after all originally written as a very famous novel by a very famous sci-fi novelist.  Of course, Ellison being Ellison, it wasn't what he said, so much as how he said it.  I believe the word "puss bag" was used.

You can picture the rest.

Now, you may recall a few editorials back, I got on a sort of attack-Ellison binge, both over the whole "City on the Edge of Forever" foofaraw (or if you prefer: "contretemps") (I thought Ellison's original teleplay wasn't as good as the one that made it to TV), and over the question of whether or not James Cameron ripped off The Terminator from two of Ellison's Outer Limits teleplays (I figured not).  From those rants, you may have gotten the mistaken impression that I don't generally see eye-to-eye with the Ell Hound.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  When it comes to defending the rights and generally giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless masses of scrivners labouring away in the dark, often for very little money, certainly for very little respect, Ellison has no equal.  He holds the breach when everyone else has cut and run.

And we love him for it.

That's why it is unfortunate that, while I certainly see his point, I'm not sure if I can entirely agree with him in this particular case.  First off, I am told that, in the credits that appear after the movie itself, credit is given to H.G. Wells for the source novel.  So that's covered at least.  Then I have also read that Ellison was mistaken in claiming the movie is being marketed as "Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds".  Above the title (at least on posters), it reads "A Steven Spielberg Film" -- which isn't quite the same thing.  It is a Steven Spielberg film, it just isn't his story.

I visited a message board to see how others were viewing this contretemps (or, if you prefer: "foofaraw") and opinions seemed pretty evenly split between pro-Ellison and anti-Ellison forces.  One argument put forward by the latter group with dismaying frequency went something like "Ellison's just trying to get publicity.  Ignore him."  In debating clubs, this is what is known as an "ad hominem" argument, wherein a person's opinion is denied not by putting forward rational debate against it but simply by arguing that the person's motives are not pure as the driven snow.  I hope I don't need to point out just how irrelevant that reasoning is. No?  Good answer.

(And anyway, I really don't think Ellison, after a lifetime in the spotlight, spends his twilight years furiously wracking his brain for ways to get his picture in the papers.  Maybe he does, but I just can't see it.)

But even if Ellison were right and the movie were being marketed as "Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds", I'm still not sure I could object.  Sure, I know there is a real risk that a generation of kids will grow up thinking that War of the Worlds was originally a movie by Steven Spielberg.  Ellison made the comparison to Walt Disney who so firmly attached his name to everything from Snow White to Peter Pan that a lot of kids today don't realize these stories existed long before a certain mouse with sticky fingers got ahold of them.  (Robin Williams had a great quip on that score.  He said, after dealing with the Disney Corp., he understood why Mickey only has three fingers.)  There is in fact a danger that H.G. Wells himself might slip into obscurity, joining the ranks of forgotten visionaries like E.R. Eddison and Edgar Wallace, remembered today only by...well, by the sort of people who visit webzines like Pulp and Dagger, I guess.


But, consider --  balanced against that danger is this.  The movie Spielberg made has been substantially altered from H.G. Wells' original story.  It is set in the US and in the present day, a century after the time of Wells' tale and an ocean removed.  I don't know what else has been changed but knowing Hollywood I'm betting it ain't little.  If the movie were to be marketed as "H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds" it would be misleading, suggesting a fidelity to the original novel it doesn't possess.  And I'm not saying that applies to all movies based on original source materials.  For example, I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy was close enough to the original books to have warranted calling it J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (they didn't but they could have).  That's because it was the purpose of the film makers to realize on film something that was faithful to the original books.  Whether they succeeded or not is beside the point.  As the man said: The readiness is all. 

But Spielberg almost certainly went into War of the Worlds knowing he was going to use the original novel more as a springboard for a similar but different story.  To have called it "H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds" would have thus been misleading.  For that matter, War of the Worlds has already had the big screen treatment by George Pal in 1953 and a radio version by Howard Koch and Orson Welles in 1938.  Surely both of those versions had an influence on Spielberg's present project.  Shouldn't he have acknowledged them?

An example of where this can lead was already furnished by producer Francis Ford Coppola whose 1994 film version of Frankenstein was called "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein".  Such a title suggested that Coppola's version (directed by Kenneth Branagh) was going to be a faithful adaptation of the original novel.  Instead, it was no more faithful than previous Hollywood incarnations -- in other words, not much (although the electric eels were an interesting change.  Admit it, you didn't see them coming, did you?).  But, even more bizarrely, a novelization of the Coppola movie was sold as a tie-in and, in keeping with the movie, it too was called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- even though it wasn't written by Mary Shelley!  (It was by Leonore Fleischer.)  Needless to say, book stores confused the two novels, and sold the Fleischer movie tie-in with Mary Shelley's other works in the classic books sections.  The same thing happened with the Saberhagen novelization of Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula".

(As an aside, a major difference between Coppola's Frankenstein and Mary Shellley's original lay in the central concept embodied by the way the monster was brought to life.  In Coppola's version (as in all movie versions) the monster is patched together from dead bodies.  But in Shelley's original the monster is literally created from scratch, built up one vein at a time, hence, why he had to be made so big.  Thus, the movie versions are about resurrection, defeating Death, bringing the dead back to life.  Shelley's original take was about the act of Creation itself, ex nihilo, from nothing.  Something only God was supposed to do.  There, now you know.)

But there was another aspect to this foofartemps (or, if you...huh?)  that bothered me even more for the reason that absolutely no one at the message board thought to mention it.  That is, that the present film is neither H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds nor is it Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.  It should really be called David Koepp's War of the Worlds.

In a sane world, David Koepp would be a name almost as famous as Steven Spielberg.  And, as screenwriters go, he's done better than most.  But you would think the screenwriter behind Jurassic Park (co-written with Michael Crichton), Mission Impossible and Spider-Man would be at least as familiar to movie goers as, oh, Peter Jackson, whose claim to fame after all, essentially, rests on one very, very, VERY long movie. (Or take George Lucas.  Please.  Some years ago, my film professor asked our class of very high-minded arts students who they thought was the greatest American director.  Without hesitation, they shouted out, "George Lucas!!!"  Yet, when you think about it, prior to this latest Star Wars trilogy, in his whole life, Lucas had basically directed only two movies more than twenty years ago: American Graffiti and the first Star Wars.  I suppose you might toss in THX-1138 -- but I wouldn't advise it.  A director?  If we were talking about flight experience, would we call this man a pilot?)

In an interview for JSOnline, Koepp described the process of working on the War of the Worlds screenplay.

Steven . . . plays it pretty close to the vest during the first draft. I'll say, "I'm getting to the point where I describe the emergence of the first tripod. Any idea what that should look like?" And he'll say, "I've got some thoughts, but I don't want to tell you until you're done."

Oh, I'll just bet Steven had some thoughts.  Thoughts?  We all have thoughts.  The zit-factory selling popcorn in the lobby has some thoughts -- but he doesn't get paid a zillion dollars and get his name above the title of a hit movie, does he? 

Anyone can take a first draft and come up with a few ideas, and they might even make it better too.  But the real trick, people, is to gaze into the dark, unfriendly heart of that infinitely blank computer screen and figure out how to fill it up in the first place.  Yes, even when, as in this case, the writer is adapting a novel.  After H.G. Wells, credit for this puppy belongs to the man who filled that computer screen, not to the guy who's "got some thoughts".  (Based on the preceding, you would never guess what a honking big Spielberg fan I am, would you?  Well, live with it.  I contain multitudes.  And more than one at that.)

Ironically, this same issue came up back in 1938, on Halloween night, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air put on their infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and panicked countless Americans who thought the Martians had landed for real.  At that time too, the script, though based on H.G. Wells' novel,  had been changed somewhat, such as being set in the US.  But it wasn't Orson Welles who wrote the radio script.  That task fell to Howard Koch, fairly well known in his own right.  (Welles acted and directed.)  Nonetheless, Orson Welles later admitted he had done everything he could to make the public think he had written the script, not Koch.  He explained that he didn't want the public to get confused wondering who had come up with what idea.  Best that they think it was all the work of one genius.  Why that genius couldn't have been Howard Koch, Welles never said.  But the publicity following that broadcast single handly launched Welles into the upper echelons of the entertainment biz, turning him literally over night into a mega-star actor/director.  Meanwhile, other than hard core film fans, who remembers Howard Koch?

Of course, no matter whose name appears before the title of this latest incarnation of War of the Worlds, I doubt it will make anyone's career.  Steven Spielberg is already as big as they come and David Koepp is doomed by the fact that he is a screenwriter.  And God hates screenwriters. 

Harlan Ellison alone might see some tangible result from all this, forever to be remembered as the guy who called Mr. ET a puss bag.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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