Science fiction fans love to debate about which beloved SF books would make good movies… or which would make bad movies. Among the books that fans usually seem to agree could not be made into good movies, two of my favorites inevitably come up, both by Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End; and Rendezvous with Rama. Whenever I hear this, I have to laugh. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was developed from a “one-gag” short story (a weird monolith found on the Moon sends a message to the stars), but look what Stanley Kubrick did with that. And no, we don’t need another Kubrick to do justice with Rama and Childhood. All we need is a bit of imagination.
So, without further ado, here are some notes on how both books could be turned into fantastic movies.
The usual comments about both books are that, like 2001’s original story, so little actually happens in them, or that they are essentially “one-gag” stories… there’s not enough to hold an audience’s attention. Let’s look at that, starting with Rendezvous with Rama. In the book, a massive object enters the Solar System, and a team is sent to rendezvous with the object (hence, the title) for evaluation. Upon reaching the object, designated Rama, they realize it is an artificial object, built by some unknown alien race, and they find a way to enter it. They examine its interior as much as they can, before it shoots back out of the Solar System at speed.
Left at that, it doesn’t sound like much; but of course, the devil is in the details. Exploring Rama reveals an environment well-suited for human occupation, a mystery in itself. Numerous robots, in every size from dog to great whale, carry out autonomous maintenance and cleaning tasks throughout Rama, and seem to barely tolerate the human visitors in the way… some, in fact, appear to be fairly aggressive in the execution of their duties. Rama is split down the middle by an equatorial “sea,” the far side seeming mostly industrial. Rama has an incredible power source that not only creates powerful and unpredictable internal weather, but powers the mysterious propulsion system. And as we discover these things about Rama, one of the exploration team breaks out a glider to fly over the far side, runs into some bad weather, and has an accident on the far side. The team barely have time to recover him before Rama’s power source spins up, and the ship streaks onward to systems unknown.
So, we already have: A huge artificial craft with an unknown purpose; equally mysterious robots of every shape and size that can threaten or potentially kill the explorers; a man stranded alone in hostile territory; unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns; and a deadline to evacuate before they are taken to who-knows-where. Add to that mix some more colorful explorers who can riff off of themselves, have arguments about the mission and about Rama, maybe someone who wants to stay behind, or someone who wants to bring parts of Rama back with them… and you have what sounds like a pretty cool movie to me. Think a combination of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Prometheus.
So, how about Childhood’s End? This is pointedly not an action movie like Rama could be; Childhood’s End is a high-concept mystery about humanity’s future. The first mysteries concern the aliens that arrive on Earth, the Overlords: What are they, what do they want, and why won’t they show themselves? Once those questions are answered, the audience is left with a new mystery: If they’re here to make sure humanity reaches some next stage of evolution… what’s going to happen?
As the mystery unfolds, some people begin to exhibit strange mental abilities, but they go relatively unnoticed as humanity begins to feel oppressed in spirit by the shepherding of the Overlords. Also, a young man decides that, since astronautics has died off as a human activity, he wants to stow aboard an Overlord ship to see what’s out there. Not only does he see incredible forms of life, some of which defy belief, but he also discovers that the Overlords are at an intellectual dead end, and are themselves being shepherded by an Overmind. Finally, the stowaway is returned to Earth to see the final result of humanity’s shepherding, the next stage in evolution that will catapult us well past the abilities of the Overlords and into an incredible future.
Childhood’s End presents mysteries to solve, revelations about human nature, fascinating insights into history, a wonderful study of powerful aliens that turn out to be inferior, in some ways, to humans, and an ultimate revelation about the next stage of human evolution. The story has humans that work with the Overlords, rebel against them, try to learn from them, and ultimately marvel at humanity’s evolution alongside them. I’d most closely compare this to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, in that both stories cover heavily intellectual and emotional storylines, feature an epic backdrop, and leave the reader/viewer to provide their own answers to some of the questions.
There, in a nutshell, is a set of guidelines for developing Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End into movies. I’d daresay any attempt to develop either movie would have to be powerful, since so many of their most iconic elements and concepts have already found their way to movies or television. TV’s original attempt to develop Childhood’s End for television gave us 1983’s V (thereby proving that it truly is possible to turn a diamond into a lump of coal).
But the elements for some incredible movies are right there, ripe for the picking, given an excellent story treatment and enough dedication to a superior production to make it work. I’d love to write those scripts, myself; I’d consider that a dream assignment, a chance to connect myself to a master’s works, and a way to show the world that those stories would make absolutely epic movies.
(Note: The cover for Childhood’s End is my own design, so don’t knock yourself out trying to find this edition in stores. Being one of my all-time favorite novels, I created an ebook version for my collection, and created the ebook cover to go with it.)