Ellison Throws Spielberg a
Fastball: Pitcher at Eleven
June 12, 2005
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
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
I visited a message board to see how others were viewing this contretemps
(or, if you prefer:
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
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
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'
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.
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
the Rings (they didn't but they could have). That's
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
have called it "H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds" would have thus been
misleading. For that matter, War of the Worlds has
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,
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
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
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
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
But you would think the screenwriter behind Jurassic Park
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
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
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
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
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,
and Supreme Plasmate
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