This morning at 1am I sat down to watch "Riverworld" on Syfy. The science-fantasy series by Philip Jose Farmer had captivated my youth with its "Oh, wow!" factor.
I should have known better than to expect anything remotely intelligent on a network called Syfy. (I can just imagine an exec there saying, "Hey, the name Sci-Fi makes people think we're like geeky, you know? Let's change it to all Y's. Wouldn't that be kewl?" If you imagine a woman saying these lines, the chauvinism is yours, not mine.)
"Riverworld" the 2010 TV movie is an abomination. The only worse adaptation of famous science fiction to the screen that I can think of is "I, Robot," where Hollywood took Isaac Asimov's enchanting series of puzzle stories revolving around the Laws of Robotics, threw out everything but the title and turned it into a mindless Will Smith action flick. I hope the Asimov estate was well paid for the title. "Riverworld" and "I, Robot" make "Dune" look good. (Doubtless, readers will think of other disasters of screen adaptation I have forgotten.)
The geniuses at Syfy did pretty much the same thing to "Riverworld." They completely rewrote the story, making the hero, the 19th century explorer Richard Burton, a bad guy. I could only watch the first hour, so he might turn into a good guy later in the story.
The great thing about Farmer's series of books is the sense of wonder. Science Fiction does sense of wonder like no other genre, and it is the reason many young people love it. Imagine everyone who ever lived, tens of billions of people dating back to the cavemen, waking up on the beach of a river that circles a world over and over, from north pole to south. Imagine a stretch of river where prudish Victorians are the ones waking up naked, and you have a captivating start to a novel. My young self thought it was awesome when this mass of naked people erupted into an orgy.
Farmer increases the sense of wonder by rarely if ever having people meet others they knew back on Earth. A man could spend decades going up and down the river searching for the woman he once loved. In this TV movie a whole group of people who knew one another on Earth wake up on the same stretch of beach.
Syfy threw out anything that smelled of wonder (scents of wonder?). There are no masses of naked people awaking on a beach. In fact, you get the impression that Riverworld is a scenic campground sparsely populated by mediocre actors. You see no one on the other side of the river. This defeats the mind-boggling idea that EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED is there. The first book of the series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, won a Hugo award in 1972, despite the pretentious title. This means that a lot of science fiction readers loved it Why buy such a property to delete what made it popular to readers?
Maybe Syfy knows what it is doing. Obviously, their audience is not science fiction readers. Their audience wants SF eye candy, not SF ideas. But this movie even fails at the eye candy. People on a river is not spaceships, BEM's, explosions and laser blasters.
The Farmer Riverworld series, by the way, is good for the first two or three books, then it gets tedious. Farmer had no idea how to end the thing. I fear George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series is undergoing the same frustrating disintegration.
George Lucas got science fiction right in the first two Star Wars movies, although he was lambasted by envious SF writers for being 40 years behind the state of the art. Early Steven Spielberg was great with sense of wonder. Think of the look on those faces when they see the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ET nailed it as well. These movies broke ground that has not been well trod since. Decline comes fast in Hollywood. Rust never sleeps.