Well, we finally got Syfy’s three-night adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End. And although Syfy did a better job with it than the first time anyone tried to bring this story to television… at least it looked something like the original story… they still missed the mark with it.
Their end product was a good example of what most television and movie producers think of science fiction… bolstered by the tastes of most of their audience. In hindsight, it’s no wonder we got what we got.
Anyone who’s read Clarke’s original book knows that Childhood’s End was a thoughtful book, about an inevitable evolution of mankind, and the aliens tasked with shepherding the process. Clarke was one of the old school science fiction authors who favored intellectually-balanced stories and scientific concepts. Childhood’s End stands as one of the landmark examples of that type of science fiction.
Which makes it odd that Syfy would want to make a TV adaption of it… because Clarke’s brand of serious science fiction hasn’t played well on television, or the movies, in years.
With very few notable exceptions—Person of Interest on TV comes to mind, as well as Ex Machina and The Martian in theaters—cinematic and broadcast science fiction has played best to an audience that has demonstrated that they have no interest in science. Even Star Trek, once a series that espoused the latest in scientific theory and the honest exploration of the galaxy, has performed best in recent years when it threw all of that out the window and concentrated on fighting and blowing stuff up. Most of that was due to the influence of Star Wars, all the way back in 1977, a movie that used the tropes and trappings of a science fiction movie as mere window dressing for a fantasy adventure romp. And it made big enough boatloads of money for every TV and movie producer to try to duplicate Star Wars‘ non-science sci-fi thunder.
The signs are there in Childhood’s End: Clearly the producers looked at the story and said, “Yeah… but it needs punching up.” The added visual gags, like jumbo jets floating serenely down onto city streets, Stormgren’s home disassembling itself stick by stick (and reassembling itself), and the now-ubiquitous “bullet-time” shot in the terrorists’ lair, were clear attempts at adding visual spice to the story.
As well, the producers couldn’t accept the idea of the Overlords looking like the penultimate Devils of old, and not actually being evil. In Clarke’s novel, it was clear that the Overlords had no animosity toward Mankind; in fact, not only were they very friendly and polite towards humans, but they had an intense curiosity about human history, especially in subjects of the occult… specifically, to try to figure out how an event happening in Man’s far future could cause psychic reverberations that would reach all the way back to Man’s distant past. The Overlords of the novel were carrying out another’s orders, and had absolutely no say in the matter; they merely did what they could to make sure man didn’t destroy himself before its time.
The TV adaptation kicked that to the curb, and instead presented the Overlords as manipulative and intentionally complicit in the stagnation of Humanity. In addition, newly-minted characters like Perrera represented the religious right in denouncing the Overlords and their actions, with her words making them appear even more devious. Clearly, the producers wanted the audience to see the Overlords as evil, serving a greater evil, and shepherding the destruction of Mankind… the exact opposite of the actual intent of the novel, with the Overlords providing as comfortable an Endtime as possible, while Man’s children “graduated” to a new level of beings and took their place among the stars.
Needless soap-opera nonsense was also added to the miniseries: Conflict between Stormgren, his wife and the ghost of his previous lover; turning Jan Rodricks, a comfortable son of an entertainer and a college professor, into Milo, a smart but crippled ghetto boy living with his junkie mother; adding a pointless love interest for Milo, a colleague doomed to waste her time pining for him while he obsessed on the Overlords; and changing Rupert Boyce, a man highly interested in the occult himself, into a manipulative jerk conspiring with Karellen in a singularly stupid sequence to send signals into space with a futuristic ouija board and the unwitting help of the mother of an unborn “special” child.
Stripped away are the very notions of a real evolution of the species, a change from the corporeal existence of today’s Man into a new life form for the stars. This was the meat of the original story, that Man is merely a stepping stone in the development of a completely new and advanced entity. Also gone is the message that our knowledge, and even the greater knowledge of the Overlords, is nothing compared to what’s out there; that as we my be ants to the Overlords, the Overlords themselves are bacteria, nay, proteins, compared to the Overmind. Watching the children ascend into the sky, still individual and fully clothed as if being taken by some skybound kidnapper, only leaves the impression that they have not evolved, but have merely been stolen, leaving us the bleak future given to parents of a missing child.
The result was a program (sloppily) designed for a modern audience, degrading the zeitgeist of the original story from a deep philosophical exploration to a low-grade supernatural horror flick.
Personally, I think the wrong director was the problem here. If, say, Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina, had been at the reins of this project, he would have been able to preserve the essence of the story, as well as use the original elements in ways that would have heightened the existing drama and accentuated the otherworldliness of the Overlords, the existential dread of unstoppable evolution, and the devastation of the loss of the children… without the jump-cut scares, soap opera dialogue and wooden character types added to this feature. As it is, this presentation has left behind a high-pitched whirring noise somewhere in the background… it’s Arthur C. Clarke, spinning like a dynamo in his grave.
Syfy has done much better with other literary adaptations, particularly those stories that were more space opera in nature; their version of Dune was notably superior, and they have (so far) done a much better job with The Expanse. But they clearly don’t have the hang of taking an intellectual story and “jazzing it up” for modern audiences; Childhood’s End has become an example of what not to do with serious science fiction literature, if you want to keep any of its intelligence intact. Hopefully Syfy will stick with less intelligent fare in the future, and stick to what they know: Spectacle, melodrama, monsters and blowing stuff up.