Friday, February 11, 2011

The Film of the Book

Back in the year 2000, a movie version of Battlefield Earth finally got released. The film had been a pet project of sorts for John Travolta, who’d been trying to get it done for years, but kept running into money or special effects concerns. But just before the damn of the millennium, the circumstances were finally right for Battlefield Earth to see the silver screen.

And it bombed spectacularly.

Since I’m not much of a movie critic, and because Battlefield Earth the film has been picked apart by so many others – the Agony Booth, the Nostalgia Critic, the legends at Rifftrax – I see little need to do a scene-by-scene breakdown of it. My recap will be brief and focus more on story changes than the special effects failures or camera angles.

Like the novel, the movie starts with an infodump about how the humans are near extinction thanks to Psychlo invasion, but while the former accomplishes this with a scene introducing our antagonist, the movie uses a text crawl, which although cheap does make Terl’s later introduction marginally more dramatic. After that we’re taken to Jonnie’s village, where there’s another minor alteration for the sake of drama – rather than seeing Jonnie moping over his father’s lack of a funeral and bullying the village into giving him one, instead we see Jonnie race home with some healing herbs only to be told that he was too late and his father has died. And really, in that kind of situation, what can you say except "NOOOOOOOO!"

So Jonnie leaves his mountain village despite the elder’s claim that monsters will get him if he leaves the safety of the highlands. He bumps into two more cavemen, they wander into a remarkably well-preserved shopping mall, and then blammo, Terl has his big entrance, struts in gun a-blazing, and captures them. See, the movie Psychlos are smart enough to utilize the humans as slave labor rather than hunt them for sport. This will not stop Terl from having to convince his boss that Jonnie and others should work as a mining crew, mind you – I mean, humans using pickaxes to renovate a ceiling is one thing, but humans using picks to tunnel for gold?!

Jonnie becomes leader of the human slaves thanks to… anyway, things progress much like in the book: Terl blackmails his boss, and Chrissie gets an explosive collar. But instead of spending time showing the humans working at The Lode, the movie has them meet Terl’s gold demand by raiding Fort Knox, which the movie Psychlos completely overlooked while stripping Earth of everything of value. Then the humans go to a military base in Texas, I think, and find miraculously-intact nukes and Harrier jets. No chapters-long search for uranium, no disaster at The Lode forcing them to scrounge up some more gold from a dues ex machina, and no Terl freaking out about secret agent Jayed.

There’s an “action-packed” climax, nukes get teleported to Psychlo to blow it up – which is shown, rather than revealed hundreds of pages later – Ker defects to the good guys, and Jonnie blows Terl’s arm off with the collar he’d put on Chrissie, then puts him a cell at Fort Knox as “leverage” and to ensure an ironic punishment. There’s the suggestion that there might be other Psychlos out there preparing for a counter-attack, and the movie ends.

It is very much a condensed version of the book. The Village of the Idiots is greatly reduced in importance, and Chrissie is the only other inhabitant to be given a name on screen, as far as I know. There’s no Brown Limper, no Parson Wossname, no Aunt Whossit. And the role of radiation as a Psychlo deterrent is cut out, thus begging the question of why the “monsters” never go up there, as well as removing the “plagued by mutations” angle. Oh, and no Pattie. Nor is there a Bittie, though there is a caveman who keeps gazing at Jonnie in a distinctly homoerotic manner.

In general, the moviemakers culled the cast herd. The only characters are Jonnie, Terl, Ker, and Chrissie, and the rest are pretty much nameless extras. There’s no mission to Scotland, so the closest we get to a Robert the Fox character is a guy wearing a fox’s skin as a mask, which I guess is a shout-out to fans of the book. No Angus, no Dunneldeen, no… uh… you know, those guys. No Colonel Ivan, no multinational force of freedom fighters. Heck, for all we know the only Psychlo foothold on the whole planet was the one in Colorado. And really, these omissions don't hurt the story in the slightest.

Now, Battlefield Earth the movie has a horrible reputation, but truth be told I kinda like it. It’s awful, but entertainingly so, like most of the fodder for MST3K. Die-hard fans of the book – yes, they exist, and they’re braver souls than I am for holding on to their opinion in the face of such massive opposition – complain about adaptation decay. And they have a point, since the Psychlos in the book weren’t so facepalmingly stupid as to overlook Fort Knox in their effort to strip Earth of its gold.

But for all its omissions I find the film rather faithful, because all of the stupid things in the movie are just magnified from stupid things in the book. In the book, Jonnie says a few sentences and gets a host of strangers to swear their loyalty to his cause – in the movie, a bunch of cavemen just show up and do Jonnie’s bidding. In the book, nukes and old guns and books are still functional a thousand years after the apocalypse – in the movie, airplanes are good to go after a millennium in a hanger, and a flight simulator was bucking about and powered when the cavemen entered the bunker.

All things considered, the screenwriters did a good job with what they were given. They had the sense to stop the movie after the obvious climax, didn’t waste our time with a lot of mining and searching in the lead-up to said climax, and culled the cast of its extraneous characters. And hey, they improved the Psychlos in one huge respect – rather than a scheduled once-a-year teleportation surrounded by a communications blackout, in the movie Terl is able to call planet Psychlo (using a magical transdimensional radio) and request reinforcements.

The two lead actors get a lot of flak, but I’ll disagree with the critics here. Jonnie’s actor won a Razzie for his performance, which is missing the point to some regard – yes, movie Jonnie is a one-dimensional twerp whose only emotional responses are “angry” and “none,” but that is exactly how Jonnie was written. Likewise, Travolta’s acting is perfect for Terl – hammy, arrogant, and deep down, a pathetic attempt at villainy. This is a character who swears by “the evil gods” and makes an incriminating boast to a corpse in the book, and who doesn’t notice an explosive collar attached to his arm before hitting the trigger in the movie.

So it’s a bad movie, yes, but it’s for the most part faithfully bad. They didn’t botch something wonderful, they made an awful adaptation of an awful book. I’m almost disappointed that the movie bombed and dashed any hope of sequels. I’m curious as to how anyone who tackle the mess in between Battlefield Earth’s first climax and its grand finale, and wonder just how they’d film the “introducing JONNIE!” bit at the Kariba conference. Who knows - maybe a talented screenwriter could have come up with a compelling plot to bridge the two. Maybe they would have treated the Psychlos differently after the reveal about the implants.

I mean, Battlefield Earth has a decent premise at least. In the right hands something worthwhile might have been made from it. So maybe that was the filmmakers' dilemma - faithfully adapt something lousy, or try to improve it? Their mistake was keeping the wrong things and not doing enough with their modifications. Who knows, in a few decades Hollywood might take another crack at it, and I'll probably be foolish enough to pay money to see how they do.

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