Science fiction is a genre of big ideas. Unfortunately, Hollywood can't always emulate those ideas on the big screen as producers, filmmakers, executives, financiers, and all the other grubby little mitts in the fray try to meet the demands of ratings, entertainment value, run-time constrictions, screenwriting conventions, technological limitations, and the complex task of turning written language into visual language. Because of this, there are ambitious and seminal sci-fi books with bad movies hung around their necks like an iron albatross. From David Lynch's Dune to the Brad Pitt-produced World War Z, there are almost too many great sci-fi stories with terrible film adaptations to enumerate.
Many of the worst sci-fi movie adaptations were doomed from the start, as was the case with 2017's Ghost in the Shell, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian role. The Dark Tower adaptation from the same year remixed the events of the books so shamelessly, the film didn't even resemble Stephen King's book series.
Not all of the movie's on this list of great sci-fi stories with terrible film adaptations showed advanced warning signs of impending awfulness. Some were passion projects, such as the aforementioned Dune, which jumped from the hands of the mad auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky to the even madder David Lynch, for what could have been the greatest sci-fi movie ever made. Alas, it failed. Just like the rest of the film adaptations on this list.
Nothing makes a fan community angrier than filmmakers taking their favorite work of fiction and completely changing it. The Dark Tower movie, which is based on Stephen King's eight-book magnum opus, remixes events, characters, and places to tell a SparkNotes version of the massive story in a little over 80 minutes. The way the movie simplifies portions of the plot to add ill-advised action sequences involving tons of guns and magic wasn't welcome by the audience either.
The Dark Tower books tell the story of Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, who is on a quest to reach the titular tower before the evil Crimson King can tear it down and destroy reality, creating a universe of chaos over which he can rule over. Along the way, Roland gathers a group of companions, including little Jake Chambers, to accompany him on his journey and fight alongside him.
While Roland and Jake meet in the movie, their relationship is distilled to the gunslinger protecting the boy from Walter Padick, the villain from the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, who needs Jake to bring down the Tower. The movie makes Jake the main character, pushing Roland to the side, while turning Walter (Matthew McConaughey) into a cheesy wizard with telekinetic powers. Roland and Walter's climactic fight, which plays out like a bad scene from The Matrix, is truly painful to watch.
The Dark Tower seriously under performed at the box office, making a little over $100 million, a very poor performance for a would-be blockbuster. Plus everyone hated it.
Paramount's live action adaptation of the beloved manga series and top 10 GOAT anime films Ghost in the Shell was doomed from the start. Public reaction to Scarlett Johansson's casting as Japanese main character Major Motoko Kusanagi was so negative it's no wonder the movie underperformed, making a mere $170 million internationally. The whitewashing controversy followed the movie throughout production, turning the release of Ghost in the Shell into a PR nightmare.
An interesting footnote to the the controversy is that Ghost in the Shell is about consciousness, and how much of humanity and identity is defined by mind versus by body. Consciousness is devoid of race - minds in the source material can be placed into shell bodies of any race or gender. The notion of a non-white mind placed into the body of a young white women is potentially very interesting, but was unexplored.
It didn't help the movie that it didn't follow the source material, attempting to explain Johansson's casting through a convoluted plot twist about anti-augmentation radicals. The movie also changes the central villain from the enigmatic Puppet Master to Hideo Kuze, who is revealed to be someone from the Major's past, a radical fighting against the evil robotics company responsible for the growing trend of cybernetic augmentations.
In the end, the movie's plot lacks the intrigue of the original story. While it attempts to discuss issues of identity central to the source material, it never fully digs in. Instead, it goes all in on the action and (beautiful) visuals.
Frank Herbert's psychedelic masterpiece Dune is a hard book to adapt. Certainly, the brilliant David Lynch was unable to hit the mark. In fact, making this film was such a nightmare he swore off blockbusters for the rest of his career (fun fact: George Lucas asked Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi just a few years before).
While Dune is the story of a spice war between two noble families, it's also a far-out exploration of Eastern philosophy and religion, as well as environmentalism, classism, and politics. It's a slow-burning, surreal trip through a desert planet that seeks to emulate the effects of the melange (a powerful spice that can prolong life, enable starships to travel long distances in the blink of an eye, and, most importantly, get people high) at the heart of the story.
The multi-layered drug trip of a novel was too much for Lynch, who, while seemingly perfect for the job, had to deal with big Hollywood expectations. Lynch's rough cut of the film was longer than four hours, which was unacceptable. Producer Dino de Laurentiis cut the film himself, neutering the story's philosophical qualities, character backstories, and general background information. Added voiceover to explain aspects of the story in a concise manner didn't help much.
Dune is a story that needs more than two hours to tell, something Lynch, de Laurentiis, and Universal Pictures learned the hard way. The movie was a massive critical and box office failure.
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HG Wells, one of the forefathers of the science fiction genre, brought the idea of time travel to the masses in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, which presents a vision of Earth almost 800,000 years in the future. The book's unnamed Time Traveler discovers the planet is populated by utopian, human-like Eloi and underground-dwelling, ape-like Morlocks. Upon his arrival, the latter group steal his time machine, leaving him stranded. The Time Traveler must fight the Morlocks to get back home.
Director Simon Wells, HG's great-grandson, and screenwriters John Logan and David Duncan, stick to the story for the most part in their 2002 adaptation, but flesh out the protagonist, giving him a name (Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, played by Guy Pearce) and a purpose beyond a thirst for knowledge. The movie is basically a time-traveling love story about Hartdegen trying to save his fiancee from death. It's a noble effort to develop the characters, but it ultimately falls short, as the adventure becomes tonally unbalanced once Hartdegen reaches the Eloi and the Morlocks, and the film turns into an action movie.
The film is a shallow effort overstuffed with a love plot that feels more tacked on than the vital arc of the movie. As Jeff Strickler of the Minneapolis Star Tribune said in his review, "If HG Wells had a time machine and could take a look at his kin's reworked version, what would he say? 'It looks good, Sonny, but you missed the point.'"
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