There’s a special, deep satisfaction when a great science fiction book becomes a great movie.
Movie: Dune – 1984
Dune is the best-selling science fiction book of all time. The movie adaptation is perhaps not amazing, but it’s still fun, well-cast, and bold. Also, as of this writing, a new one is supposed to come out next, and I’m darn excited for it.
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for….
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
—Arthur C. Clarke
Movie: War of the Worlds – 1953 & 2005
I was shocked at how much I enjoyed the modern version of War of the Worlds movie.
The War of the Worlds is one of the earliest and best-known depictions of an alien invasion of Earth, and has influenced many others, as well as spawning several films, radio dramas, comic book adaptations, and a television series based on the story.
Movie: Starship Troopers – 1997
This movie is big, dumb fun.
Johnnie Rico never really intended to join up—and definitely not the infantry. But now that he’s in the thick of it, trying to get through combat training harder than anything he could have imagined, he knows everyone in his unit is one bad move away from buying the farm in the interstellar war the Terran Federation is waging against the Arachnids.
Because everyone in the Mobile Infantry fights. And if the training doesn’t kill you, the Bugs are more than ready to finish the job…
“Nothing has come along that can match it.”
—Science Fiction Weekly
Movie: The Hunger Games – 2012
The costumes were a little much, but everything else about this adaptation of the YA dystopian tale was enjoyable.
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago, the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.
“A violent, jarring, speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense. . . . I couldn’t stop reading.”
—Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
Movie: The Girl With All the Gifts – 2016
I enjoyed the book so much that I was thrilled they made a decent movie out of it.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful book, which is odd praise for a story about zombies. But it’s surprisingly thoughtful, and at times, even tender, all while managing to be a fast-paced thriller. Every day I looked forward to reading it.
In a post-apocalyptic England, Melanie, along with other children, is imprisoned in a windowless bunker. They are all strapped down and muzzled whenever they leave their cells. No adult is allowed to touch them under any circumstances. Given who these children are, these are reasonable precautions. Then the installation is attacked, and Melanie is freed along with several adults, some who want her alive, some who want her dead, and others who want her dissected.
“Original, thrilling and powerful.”
Movie: The Thing – 1951, 1982, 2011
The 1982 version ROCKS.
An Antarctic research camp discovers and thaws the ancient, frozen body of a crash-landed alien. The creature revives with terrifying results, shape-shifting to assume the exact form of animal and man, alike. Paranoia ensues as a band of frightened men work to discern friend from foe, and destroy the menace before it challenges all of humanity.
“One of the finest science fiction novellas ever written.”
—Science Fiction Writers of America
Movie: Arrival – 2016
This was a smart, wonderful movie. The linguist in me loved it.
Includes “Story of Your Life” the basis for the major motion picture Arrival.
Stories of Your Life and Others delivers dual delights of the very, very strange and the heartbreakingly familiar, often presenting characters that must confront sudden change—the inevitable rise of automatons or the appearance of aliens—with some sense of normalcy.
“Blend[s] absorbing storytelling with meditations on the universe, being, time and space. . . . raises questions about the nature of reality and what it is to be human.”
—The New York Times
The 1990 movie wasn’t a huge hit, but the recent TV show sure is.
Environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive.
“The Handmaid’s Tale deserves the highest praise.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
Movie: The Iron Giant – 1999
I found this movie surprisingly touching, and I saw it as an adult.
A mysterious creature stalks the land, eating barbed wire and devouring tractors and plows. The farmers are mystified—and terrified. Then they glimpse him in the night: the Iron Giant, taller than a house, with glowing headlight eyes and an insatiable taste for metal. The hungry giant must be stopped at any cost.
Only a young boy named Hogarth is brave enough to lead the Iron Giant to a safe home. And only Hogarth knows where to turn when a space-bat as big as Australia, hungry for every living thing on Earth, darkens the sky.
“Written with such great gusto, with such vivid precision, that children will sit spellbound in their ringside seats.”
Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1956, 1978
The 1956 version still holds up. Seriously.
Bill Masen, bandages over his wounded eyes, misses the most spectacular meteorite shower England has ever seen. Removing his bandages the next morning, he finds masses of sightless people wandering the city. He soon meets Josella, another lucky person who has retained her sight, and together they leave the city, aware that the safe, familiar world they knew a mere twenty-four hours before is gone forever.
But to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, one must survive the Triffids, strange plants that years before began appearing all over the world. The Triffids can grow to over seven feet tall, pull their roots from the ground to walk, and kill a man with one quick lash of their poisonous stingers. With society in shambles, they are now poised to prey on humankind. Author Wyndham chillingly anticipates bio-warfare and mass destruction, fifty years before their realization, in this prescient account of Cold War paranoia.
“[A]ll the reality of a vividly realized nightmare.”
—The Times (London)
Movie: Altered States – 1980
This movie completely freaked me out as a kid. Also, the video of “Take On Me” from the 80s band A-ha pays homage to this movie in one scene. The film was adapted from Chayefsky’s only novel, and he wrote the screenplay (his final one).
Edward Jessup is a psychopathologist who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states. He begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank, but things don’t get out of control until he introduces a powerful hallucinogen into the experiment.
Movie: Ready Player One – 2018
It was impossible to make the movie as good as the book, but it was still a great time.
If you’re a child of the 80s, reading Ready Player One is like mainlining heroin-strength nostalgia. It’s so ridiculously fun that I frequently imagined author Ernest Cline giggling and saying to himself, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this!”
In the dystopian future, teenage Wade Watts searches for a mysterious Easter egg in a worldwide video game called the OASIS. Finding the Easter egg will cause him to inherit the ownership of the OASIS and billions upon billions of dollars. Of course, he’s not the only one looking for it.
I listened to the audiobook version of Ready Player One, and loved it. Narrator Wil Wheaton nailed it.
Movie: Solaris – 1972, 2002
The 2002 version of this movie is slow and thoughtful, a great antidote for too many exploding-spaceship movies.
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction, as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
Movie: Jurassic Park – 1993
I think this movie was actually better than the book. Honestly, I’ve never liked the way Michael Crichton ended any of his books. The ideas were great, but the endings? Feh!
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now humankind’s most thrilling fantasies have come true. Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and the entire world can visit them—for a price.
Until something goes wrong. . . .
“Wonderful . . . powerful.”
—The Washington Post Book World
Movie: Edge of Tomorrow – 2014
Another Tom Cruise movie that surprised me by how good and well-made it was.
When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his fifth iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally—the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?
Movie: A Clockwork Orange – 1971
I saw this movie WAY too young (not my parent’s fault). It aged me quickly.
Alex is a teen who talks in an inventive slang that evocatively renders his and his friends’ intense reaction against their society. Dazzling and transgressive, A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil and the meaning of human freedom.
“A brilliant novel… [A] savage satire on the distortions of the single and collective minds.”
―New York Times
Movie: Paprika – 2006
I’m not a big fan of anime, but Paprika is wildly imaginative and a lot of fun.
When prototype models of a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, it transpires that someone is using them to drive people insane. Threatened both personally and professionally, brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba has to journey into the world of fantasy to fight her mysterious opponents. As she delves ever deeper into the imagination, the borderline between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred, and nightmares begin to leak into the everyday realm. The scene is set for a final showdown between the dream detective and her enemies, with the subconscious as their battleground, and the future of the waking world at stake.
“Yasutaka Tsutsui is the doyen of avant-garde Japanese writers. His work is by turns innovative, thought-provoking and–not least–extremely entertaining.”
—The Independent (UK)
doyen: senior member of a body or group (I had to look it up)
Movie: Metropolis – 1927
I loved this movie when it came out remastered in 1984 and filled with 80s songs. While that version got a Razzie for Worst Musical Score, in 2012 the DVD received the Saturn Award for Best DVD/Blu-Ray Special Edition Release.
Thea Von Harbou’s magnificent novel Metropolis is sadly unappreciated and ignored. The book, a novelization of the screenplay the author wrote for her husband Fritz Lang’s film masterpiece of the same name, was a clever marketing move since the sales of one would drive the sales of the other. Yet the two existed as independent works of art.
Soon after the film premiered, the film studio made drastic and clumsy cuts that made the plot impossible to follow. Censors, exhibitors, and distributors further slashed the film to under 90 minutes from its original length of 153 minutes. Consequently, the film’s reputation for unprecedented spectacle and imagination was forged by its transcendent and timeless visual beauty. And Van Harbou’s novel was largely dismissed as an informational bridge between the film’s original storyline and the multiple butchered versions.
The novel has always stood on its own as a work of art, a work of romantic notions and hard experience, exploring the limits of thinking or clubbing our way out of life’s most horrific challenges.
Movie: Annihilation – 2018
A good, weird movie that came from an ever better and weirder book.
In the dream-like Annihilation, a section of the Californian coast has turned so strange that it’s now called Area X. This happened thirty years ago, and no one on the outside knows why everyone inside Area X died, why there are weird structures inside, or why there’s a border you can’t get through except through one invisible entrance. Is it a slow alien invasion, a mass hallucination, or something else?
Annihilation covers the twelfth expedition into Area X, where the members have given up their names and refer to each other only by profession: the biologist, the linguist, and so on. All the previous expeditions into Area X have ended in death, madness, or cancer.
This book is a gentle ride into subtle weirdness. You don’t get too many straight answers about what Area X is or is even like on the inside. Some things are normal, some fantastical, and most of it messes with your head. It all feels truly alien and you get the sense that this is going to be impossible to understand, no matter how many facts you have at your disposal.
Movie: The Road – 2009
Gloomy, dark, and powerfully acted. Not for everyone.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
“Illuminated by extraordinary tenderness. . . . Simple yet mysterious, simultaneously cryptic and crystal clear. The Road offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be.”
—The New York Times
Movie: Minority Report – 2002
Another Tom Cruise film on this list. The Scientology thing gives me the willies, but I do like his movies.
Minority Report focuses on the use of precognition in law enforcement, that is, arresting people before they commit a crime. There are some unpleasant consequences to this.
“More than anyone else in the field, Mr. Dick really puts you inside people’s minds.”
—Wall Street Journal
Movie: The Martian – 2015
I enjoyed the book so much that I was really pleased to see how faithful the movie was to it.
The Martian is one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I’ve ever read. An astronaut is left behind on Mars, and must survive by himself for over a year, using only his wits and what was left behind by a few previous missions.
Author Weir does a masterful job in creating his highly likable, intelligent, and deeply human protagonist Mark Watney. The science in The Martian is hard and feels as real as stone.
This book is a great combination of man vs. nature à la Jack London, with the inventiveness of MacGyver, moments of laugh-out-loud humor, page-turning pacing, and plot twists that are surprising but in hindsight feel inevitable.
All in all, a good story well told.
Movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968
People often find 2001 gripping, fascinating, or really boring. I’m a big fan of HAL, myself.
Director Stanley Kubrick worked closely with author Arthur C. Clarke to craft the screenplay for 2001. They started with Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” and began adding to it. The novel and the screenplay were written in parallel, and there are numerous differences between the two.
Movie: Blade Runner – 1982
This is still a great movie. Period.
By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.
Movie: Children of Men – 2006
Dark and gritty dystopia with zero teen angst.
The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.
“As scary and suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock.”
—The New Yorker