THE GREATEST SCIENCE FICTION MOVE NEVER MADE!
For more than 25 years, numerous attempts were made to adapt Isaac Asimov’s classic story-cycle, I, Robot, to the motion picture medium. All efforts failed. The magical, memorable tales of mechanized servitors with positronic brains, and the ways in which such amazing creations would forever alter human society through the justly famous Three Laws of Robotics, defied the most cunning efforts of scenarists and filmmakers.
At last, producers approached the multiple-award-winning author Harlan Ellison to take a crack at this “impossible” project. Ellison accepted the challenge and produced an astonishing screenplay that Asimov felt would be “The first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.”
Now, for the first time, that screenplay is presented in book format, brought to scintillating life by the illustrations of exciting new artist Mark Zug. In the introduction by Harlan Ellison, you will learn what happened to I, Robot and why it never reached the screen. Then you decide: Is this not the greatest science fiction movie never made?
I hesitated for a long time before finally counting this as one of Asimov’s books. Like the Silverberg expansions of Nightfall, The Ugly Little Boy, and The Positronic Man, this is a derivative work written by another major sf writer and based on Asimov’s work. Unlike the Silverberg expansions, Asimov was not directly involved in the derivation (although his actual role in the Silverberg expansions was pretty minimal). It’s a shame that Asimov died before the screenplay was published in book form, since we can’t tell whether or not he would have counted it. (It was serialized in Asimov’s before his death, and he’s known to have loved it.)
Actually, that’s not true. It’s a shame that the movie wasn’t made before Asimov’s death. It’s a shame that the movie hasn’t been made since, and it’s a shame that the movie isn’t likely to be made ever. There is no doubt but that this work deserves, badly, to be on the big screen. It isn’t likely to be much of a commercial success (which, combined with Ellison’s inability to suck up to studio bigwigs, is why Hollywood isn’t likely to make it)—it has too few explosions, too few bloody deaths, and isn’t a “Star Trek” movie. Its artistic merit, however, is enormous.
Now, I’m not one who particularly cares for Ellison. This isn’t because I think he’s not a good writer; to the contrary, I think he’s an excellent writer, one of the best sf has seen. I am consistently impressed with the quality of his work, and nowhere more than here. As a rule, however, my taste tends not to run to his kind of writing (which is fine—one person’s meat and all that). Even here, although I am overwhelmed and astonished by the quality of his work, I frankly prefer Asimov’s stories to Ellison’s reworking, brilliant though I find that reworking. It’s simply a matter of taste.
By the way, it’s interesting to contrast Ellison’s reworking of Asimov with Silverberg’s. Silverberg is another writer I sometimes admire more than enjoy, and I cannot find fault with his novelizations of Asimov’s stories so much as find nothing particular to get excited about, either. The opposite is true, here. This is simply a brilliant piece of work, hands done. Ultimately, this is why I ended up counting it as an Asimov book. Ellison’s script deserves all the attention it can get and the Powers that Be need to be prodded and needled until they translate it to film. This is definitely a work with which no Asimov fan, certainly, should be unfamiliar. (Somebody make this movie!)
OK, enough gushing. How about specifics? By and large, I am less impressed with the social background Ellison has created for his retelling rather than the retellings themselves. It is rather too unlike Asimov and a little distracting on occasion. On the other hand, it is wonderfully rich and beautifully realized. Again, I cannot fault Ellison’s craftsmanship.
The stories, by the way, which have been adapted do not include all of I, Robot. “Evidence” (the best one in the anthology, alas) couldn’t be done for legal reasons—somebody else owned the movie rights—and “Lenny” is called in to substitute. Nor are all the Powell and Donovan stories included. “Reason,” my own personal favorite, is missing. (One rather wishes some other Susan Calvin stories had been squeezed in, actually. “Galley Slave” or “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” for instance. Of course, I understand perfectly well why they weren’t, so I’m not complaining.)
The reason for this is that the story told here is Susan Calvin’s story. Some of the tales are reworked, in fact, to include her: “Robbie,” and “Runaround.” (OK, OK. Calvin is a character in the book version of "Robbie.” But she’s made the central character by Ellison.) Ellison’s Calvin is a marvelous piece of work—frankly better than Asimov’s in some respects, a wonderful enigma we only gradually get to see.
The end result is a fascinating vision of Calvin and her robots, and a fascinating reflection by a major talent of the man who created them.