How do you even begin the daunting prospect of adapting the seminal words of science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke? For writer Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) it was with extreme caution and consideration as he was tasked to turn Clarke's 1952 novel Childhood's End into a mini-series for Syfy (premiering on Dec. 14 at 8/7c).
The book and the mini-series posit a future in which benevolent aliens arrive when humanity is at a crossroads, on the precipice of destruction from our own vices and ideological chasms. The aliens help guide humanity toward a collective evolution that homogenizes our disparities, creating a planet that no longer relies on individuality and thus ensures peaceful coexistence for everyone. Childhood's End examines what is sacrificed along the way and whether shedding what makes us human is the truly the answer.
In a chat with Blastr.com, Graham talks about the challenges of translating Clarke's ideas from the '50s into a modern story for an audience that is still wrestling with the same issues of freedom, and its costs, some 60 years later.
With the mini-series format coming back into vogue, why was it the right medium to tell Childhood's End?
Matthew Graham: I think it's a good format because it would have been much tougher to try and do a two-hour movie. The book's not long, but it is epic, and covers a huge period of time. It would have been difficult to create that sense of so much time passing on Earth and characters evolving. The miniseries was a blessing as a format.
Was it always going to be a mini-series, or perhaps a limited series?
Originally, it was conceived as a two-parter, and then Syfy wanted it to be three nights. The challenge was figuring out what to put in the second night, really. The first night presented itself as the opening and the world getting to grips with these benevolent alien overlords. The third part was clearly the endgame of the story. But the second part was this space. When I went through the book again, I found this innocuous paragraph that said, "And then the Overlords persuaded mankind to dispense with religion." And that was it. I thought, that's a movie in itself, getting a planet to give up its religious beliefs, and that became the crux of the second part. From that, we created a new character (Peretta) that's not in the book, played by Yael Stone, who represented religious belief. It's through her eyes we tell that story. It's the character I'm most nervous about, because it's the most off-book, so it's the one open to people asking why I added to something that Arthur C. Clarke did so brilliantly. But I think when you see it, I hope it will feel very organic to the story he was writing.
Creating a unique look for the future can often make all the difference in an adaptation being mediocre or a new classic. How did you approach your visual world-building?
It was very hard to get right, and it was a big aesthetic conversation with [director] Nick [Hurran], with the designer Phil Ivey, the whole team and with the studio and network about how we did it. We felt the need to make a visual impression.
Any examples of how you achieved that?
We have the Utopians roughly wearing the same kind of clothes and color palette, which is very beige and white. It may seem obvious in some ways, but you need to do it because, when you see it on screen, it hits you as a statement. You really have to make a statement. We also came up with a philosophy for why they're wearing what they're wearing. It's not as though you have to drink the Kool-Aid and you have to get up in the morning and suddenly the Overlords have laid out a new wardrobe for you. It's that, over time, under their watchful gaze, they've done away with sweatshops in India. Our clothing, whatever you are wearing now, you continue wearing until it runs out. The stuff that's left is fairly utilitarian and basic. People no longer have social media, so there's no need to dress to impress. You just dress for comfort. It felt organic to us that people would start to wear simpler clothes because they were no longer insecure about who they were.
What about bigger environmental examples?
We came up with a few cool ideas, such as freeway overpasses that are now golf courses. You see simple little images of families together, garages turned into greenhouses. We also have a budget, so we had to find little moments and images and ideas that made you feel we were in a Utopia. I was also very careful to be ironic and not lose the irony. We have interesting music choices. We play songs over montage sequences of Utopia that are deliberately undermining it. I don't want the audience to feel like we drank the Kool-Aid too.
Aside from the addition of Peretta, what are some other changes to be aware of, say with protagonist Ricky Stormgren?
With the characters, I changed a few things. As brilliant as the book is, it was written in a time when the styles of science fiction stories always were leading scientists and leading politicians. Nowadays, if you make the head of the United Nations your main character, you have to have an angle. You can say he's beyond reproach. We live in a more cynical age and we are more aware. Ricky Stormgren in the book is the head of the United Nations. I took my cue from Close Encounters and was more interested in the ordinary guy who gets put into the middle of this rather than the politician. Also, every reference I have between Karellen [Charles Dance] and humanity is inspired by God's relationship with prophets in the Old Testament. I know there was King David, but [God] rarely chooses kings. He picks the farm boy, the shepherd, the woman by the well; they are the people singled out for special treatment, so we did that with the story. I wanted Karellen to pick a farmer and go, "I like you. You're clever." The first thing the farmer says is "You need the president or the Dalai Lama." And Karellen says, "But they come with baggage and you don't." So, then you get into the debate of, how special is he? But it doesn't matter. God chose him. It's not about proving himself, so he must see something in him that we don't see, and that's how I approached Ricky Stormgren.
Milo Roddricks was Yan Roddricks in the book, but is very true to the character in the book. He's a scientist, but he's a dreamer and idealist and has an insatiable curiosity to find out where they come from and what they have in store for us. The book is a book of ideas, and the characters are ciphers for ideas, so you have to flesh them out to make them accessible to audiences.
Was it easy to attract actors to an adaptation of Clarke's work?
A lot of people were attracted to the book and knew the book. We got Yael, and she's amazing. Mike Vogel was such a thoughtful lead actor to the point sometimes I just wanted to go to bed and he'd be like, "Let's talk more about it!" We'd have debates long into the night about what it meant, and that's a real blessing as a filmmaker.
Clarke's novel has some heavy philosophical meditations that might be deemed too much for an adaptation. Did you have to water that down?
We haven't taken out any of the philosophy. We've had to curtail some of it, and don't go into as much detail as he went into in the book, but we have it all in there. It's very important. At times, particularly in the first episode, it's a debate in that spaceship. It's having the courage as program makers to not cut away from this and just have a man in a room talking to an alien we can't see at the moment. We tried to be brave and take that on.
After making this, do you think people would ever consider this kind of Utopian society as an answer to our societal ills?
I think it's impossible to make Utopia appealing, because we don't want it. If you know the book, New Athens is very important because it represents living life, warts and all, the way we live it. I don't think people will look at the show and think, "Wouldn't it be lovely if we could all wear white Gap clothes and cycle everywhere." We say this is what humanity has -- peace -- at the cost of interesting aspects to your life. All the themes that Clarke wrote about are still relevant. The fears that he had about the Cold War, we're back into a Cold War. The '50s was an age of austerity. Everyone was worried about the Nazis coming back, we're worried about ISIS. I had no qualms about updating the novel because all the themes are exactly the same.