Titan Books, 2001 (2008 rewrite), 350 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-8457-6755-6
One piece of knowledge that differentiates Hollywood insiders from mere pretenders is the understanding of how difficult it is to bring a movie to the big screen. As a collaborative art form, film involves hundreds if not thousands of people, millions of dollars and years of effort. The financial risks are so high, and the number of potential projects so vast, that there are far many more ideas than production slots. No wonder, then, that there is enough material for a fascinating book about the movies that never were.
While the idea of a book about non-existing movies may strike some as useless, David Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is far more interesting than anyone may expect. Far from presenting a compendium of failures, Hugues uses this opportunity to reveal the hidden history behind some famous SF franchises, study the ways Hollywood really works, and tell fascinating stories about the film industry. Ignore the pandering “Sci-Fi” and broken toy robot on the cover: this is serious film journalism, blending information from public sources and exclusive interviews to describe development processes that may have lasted decades.
Chances are that you will recognize many of those “movies never made”. For one thing, what we’ve seen on screens isn’t always the first concept that occurred to the film’s producers. There’s an entire chapter on the STAR TREK series of films, for instance, that sketches the false starts, development pains and secret negotiations that shaped the series. For another, good film concepts don’t necessarily die when work stops on them: often, they go dormant, awaiting only the right person for a revival. So it is that many movies judged “dead” in the first edition of Hugues’ book were revived and released before the second revised edition. THUNDERBIRDS, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, SUPERMAN RETURNS, FANTASTIC FOUR are only four of the titles that made it out of development hell in the meantime (with WATCHMEN a few months away from release), and this edition of the book has been revised to include the postscript of those efforts.
Most of all, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made provides great examples of the way Hollywood really works in the myriad of ways movies can turn wrong, or never make it out of the intense competition for limited production funds. Science Fiction movies are expensive, and it’s a defining characteristic that may account for a significant number of failures: at that level of commitment, few people are willing to go on a limb and remain true to an artistic vision. And that’s assuming that the creative differences are settled, which isn’t always the case: WATCHMEN, for instance, had no less than half a dozen different directors attached to it at one time or another, all cracking their heads on the issues in adapting a comic-book masterpiece to a different medium.
Happily enough, Hugues’ style in describing those complex stories of failure and successes is almost compulsively readable: His clean prose deftly juggles names, time-lines, interview quotes and explanations of why things didn’t go as planned. The narrative prose is clear, with the sources kept in a dense thirteen-page appendix. There’s a lot of original research, and even film buffs will find something new in there.
Naturally, we shouldn’t mourn for all of those movies. I was particularly taken by the case of Clair Noto’s famously unproduced script “The Tourist”, intriguing in its moody description of stranded aliens, but almost certainly the kind of film that I would have hated in theaters. That the premise is eerily similar to aspects of the delightful MEN IN BLACK is something left to contemplate whenever I feel that Hollywood always makes the wrong choices.