July 12, 2014

The Hardest Ticket to Get in the Solar System

In recent weeks I've been reading with bemusement (and a touch of sadness) about the latest entrepreneurial efforts to sell things that heretofore have not been for sale. With the right app and a fat wallet, you can now reserve that precious downtown parking space or cut in line at the hottest restaurant. And of course, if you live in the Cleveland area and have been thinking about Cavaliers season tickets, you can forget about it -- they sold out in a matter of hours after King James' announcement.

It got me thinking about the ultimate hot commodity. What if the world was about to end, and there were just a couple hundred seats on the international space-ark set to take off for the nearest habitable planet? What would you do to get a seat? Would there be an app for that?

So I decided to consult with one of the biggest fans of When Worlds Collide (the book and the movie), who also happens to be a very good friend. Doug Mappin and I have been discussing science fiction (among other things) for over 25 years. Here's his report on how sci-fi visionaries of the 20th century thought this "big ticket" event might go down.

Now Playing: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Pros: Producer George Pal does a creditable job with a modest budget and no-name actors.
Cons: Most of the richness of the original book is inevitably lost; What would Cecil B. DeMille have done with it?

From book to the silver screen: When Worlds Collide

In the southern hemisphere skies Sven Bronson, a South African astronomer, sees something no one has seen before. Something is moving in the darkness where nothing should be moving. After training his telescope into the skies for nights on end, Bronson realizes two wandering worlds have entered our solar system.

Calculations are made and Bronson secretly enlists the aid of others in the scientific community to formulate a plan for how to tell the world’s populace the news that Earth and everyone on it are doomed.

BUT if lucky, not all of humanity need perish. A scant few hundred people may be able to flee Earth for the smaller of the two worlds (named Bronson Beta) that would take Earth’s place in a similar orbit. Bronson Alpha, roughly the size of Uranus, could wipe out the Earth in a glancing blow.

When Worlds Collide (book) - paperback cover
Thus is the premise for the 1932 novel When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Immediately after the publication of the novel, Paramount Pictures optioned the story as a project for famed director Cecil B. DeMille. It might have been intriguing to see what the king of film spectacle would have done with the film, but a script could never be agreed upon and the project sat awaiting someone like producer George Pal to tackle it.

Many a book and film has envisioned the end of the world but none quite so absolute as in this work. Where others concocted a way to kill off humanity, this work went all the way. Not only was mankind wiped out en masse but the world was left as rubble—and presumably our moon too (in the novel that detail is clearly spelled out).

I have long admired the authors of the book for having the courage to do it, to end it all and not wimp out. The phrase “the book was better,” applies to this production. For whatever reasons, film producers and their production teams always want to put their stamp on a cinematic version of a novel. Pal’s production is no exception. Needless to say, When Worlds Collide, and its sequel After Worlds Collide are my two all-time favorite novels.

The movie? Not quite as much. This by no means should be construed as an out-and-out criticism of the movie. Both the book and the movie were products of their time. Both have quaint and widely inaccurate viewpoints of how space travel would take place. Where both succeed, especially the novel, is highlighted in how humanity would face utter annihilation… but the book does it much better.

When Worlds Collide (1951), a Paramount Pictures release, was produced by George Pal, directed by Rudolph Maté and with a script by Sydney Boehm the film took off and in most ways succeeded admirably. But first things first. Pal went on to film two other science fiction classics, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) -- far more successfully, I might add.

Lobby card - When Worlds Collide (1951)
Comparisons are in order. The book, in my opinion, is very well done. The book’s strength lies in its characters. Tony Drake, Eve Hendron and Dave Ransdell are the three main characters. Tony and Eve have long time been lovers, almost on the verge of marriage. Ransdell’s appearance complicates matters as he is drawn to Eve and she him—and naturally because of this, Tony harbors feelings of jealousy of Ransdell. As a result, an uneasy triangle exists between the three characters.

Cole Hendron, Eve’s father, is the leader of The League of Last Days and responsible for finding the means to save a small number of people from the impending doom. The other characters celebrate intelligence and bravery.

The display of humanity is the book's strongest suit. The novel conveys the many sides, good and bad, of mankind as our world faces its demise. The film focuses more on establishing how we will get the chosen few off of the planet.

One prurient aspect of the novel, a favorite theme of author Philip Wylie’s, is how society views the relationships between men and women. As set up in the novel, more women than men survive earth’s destruction. When the Hendron camp formulates plans to transplant a small number of humans to the new world, the men and women become less individuals and more breeding stock to perpetuate our species.

The movie takes a smattering of the book’s details for foundation and then changes them slightly. Mere hints are what is left, leaving the viewer those thoughts to ponder. Some things are for the better, some not so much.

Space ark - When Worlds Collide
The needle-nosed space ark rests at the bottom of its launch ramp.
One change was an absolute necessity. In the book, Tony Drake was a stockbroker. In the movie, Drake was a doctor. Asking an audience to believe that a stockbroker could be transplanted to the new world was just too much to ask. Changing his professions was a wise choice.

Another aspect that was changed was the science, particularly the portrayal of the space ark. In the book, the spaceship was powered by atomic energy and the ship’s physical shape as described, would with what we know today, be as flightworthy as a brick. Again, the science of the time was so undeveloped that in the years since we can see just how wrong the authors got it.

The movie took a more traditional approach and even then… again, knowing what we know today, the ship is not very flightworthy. The odds a spacecraft would be launched by speeding down a long monorail is impractical… but I must admit, it sure looked pretty darned impressive.

The movie’s emphasis on spectacle, 1950s style, was visually appealing but I still prefer the book. Seeing New York City swamped by a deluge was compelling. Watching the Earth open and belching fire and lava conveyed the doom yet to come. The largest part of the film’s small budget was spent on special effects. And for 1951, they were spectacular (for today’s audience a little less so).

When worlds collide!!
"Hey, I'm not cleaning up that mess!"
When mankind descends into savagery and society self-destructs, the novel clearly shows the dichotomy between civilized men of science versus the rest of society becoming little more than animals ruled by greed, lust and fear. In the movie, this is hinted at and barely shown except for depictions of those who lose out on the lottery and are to be left behind.

The movie inexplicably changed one detail from the book. Personally, I find this change unacceptable. In the book, two planets, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, were the instrument of Earth’s destruction. However, in the movie the smaller planet was named Zyra and the larger planet was now a star named Bellus. How 1950s can you get?

In the book, Earth’s destruction was described as follows:
“Tony shuddered as he watched. A distance, short on the screen--even as solar measurements are contemplated--separated the two planets. In the chamber of the hurtling Space Ship no one moved. Earth and Bronson Alpha were but a few moments apart. It seemed that even at their august distance they could perceive motion on the planet, as if the continents below them were swimming across the seas, as if the seas were hurling themselves upon the land; and presently they saw great cracks, in the abysses of which were fire, spread along the remote dry land. Into the air were lifted mighty whirls of steam. The nebulous atmosphere of Bronson Alpha touched the air of Earth, and then the very Earth bulged. Its shape altered before their eyes. It became plastic. It was drawn out egg-shaped. The cracks girdled the globe. A great section of the Earth itself lifted up and peeled away, leaping toward Bronson Alpha with an inconceivable force.

The two planets struck.

Decillions of tons of mass colliding in cosmic catastrophe.”
This scene, even after reading the book hundreds of times (I am not lying), still leaves me in tears. In the film, 30 seconds are shown as Earth approaches Bellus and flames engulf the Earth. I hate to say it but the film’s destruction of our home was somewhat lacking, if not a bit anti-climactic. But then again, Pal was working with a very limited budget.

Now playing: When Worlds Collide (circa 1951)
When theatre-goers collide!

Let us not forget that science fiction films in the 1940s and 50s were considered by Hollywood as the embarrassing bastard stepchild. The fact that films like War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World and a scant few others were able to rise above their meager budgets to challenge the usual Hollywood film fare says a lot about those who believed in science fiction as a legitimate form of filmmaking (and literature). It wasn’t always about green bug eyed monsters and silly robots.

For 1950, the movie’s budget was still inadequate for what Pal was trying to convey. To make up for a lack of a budget, he relied on a cast of no names. The film starred Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, Richard Derr, Larry Keating and John Hoyt. Each of the actors were virtually unknown at the time. Many went on to bigger things: Peter Hansen, Barbara Rush and John Hoyt each became more well known.

The space ark is loaded and ready to launch
"This is the captain speaking. Fasten your seatbelts
and please observe the no-smoking signs."
Personally, I think the acting in the film, while competent, was far from compelling—stiff perhaps, compared to their respective characters in the book. As you read this, you might think I do not like the film. Au contraire mon ami, I love the film. But as I stated, the word almost always trounces the film. Where the film condenses the essence of the plot, the book exudes the experience, the drama, the futility, the full meal, so to speak.

If you have not seen the movie and some time to kill some pleasant weekend, please do so.  Incidentally, Steven Spielberg is contractually obligated to Paramount Pictures to remake this film. In 2005, he announced he would be producing the film. Normally, I do not like remakes, but in this case, I wish he would! The book deserves a more competent and modern approach (and the sequel would make an awesome television show).

If you have not read the book, I strongly urge you to do that too, but a word of warning. Both When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide are dated in their characterization of science, women and minorities—there are no blacks and the villains—woo-ee! Remember now, the two books were written during the time of the uprising of fascism and Nazism, communism and socialism in Europe and Russia. Japan was still misunderstood and mistrusted.

After Worlds Collide (book) - cover
The book is available at Barnes & Noble (sorry, sad to say it is not available as an e-book). The book most recently was published by the University of Nebraska Press. The two books were published in one volume.

Thanks to Brian for asking me to write this issue. I am a long-time fan of science fiction. I read When Worlds Collide for the first time when I was 10 years old. In the years since, I have read it more times than I can count. Brian and I have, since 1988 (or so) been friends and compared notes on this and that, music, science fiction, politics, life, NASA, space science, fandom, family, Star Trek…. and more.

I have a fantastic son who shares my love for science fiction and friendship with Brian and Beth (Brian’s lovely wife). In but a few months, I will celebrate my 20th year In the United States Navy Reserve. I am a former high school U.S. History teacher and am avid collector of books, tropical fish, cats, music, DVDs… heck, I admit it, I’m nuts!

And to seal it off and to drive it all home about how much I love When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, I am throwing caution to the wind by attempting to write a prequel to the first novel. Wish me luck, this is hard!

-- Doug Mappin


Where to find the movie:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com


"Written in the stars is a message of doom for this, our world!"



5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the opportunity to share my love of this book and film with your readers, Brian!

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    1. Doug, thank you so much for your great essay!

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  2. I had no idea a comic version of the novel had ever been released. I'd love to see that.

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  3. Brian, a truly excellent post that educated me about a movie I have seen many times. I agree about the cast, which is adequate at best (in contrast, I think the cast in another end-of-the-world film, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, is excellent).

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    1. Doug did a great job on this post, including comparing and contrasting the film with the source novel. I agree that the cast is better in Day the Earth Caught Fire, but as I recall, there's no cool needle-nosed spaceship in Day... :-)

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