It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

From Page to Screen – Part 2

In Part 1, we took a peek at adaptations of some of Stephen King’s works. Now I’d like to cast the net wider and talk a little about other books I’ve read that have been adapted for cinema or TV. As always, what follows are the highly subjective views of one person, based on his personal taste. It’s perfectly okay to hold an opposing view and for us to remain friends.

Let’s start with a couple of contemporary novels, which were made into films on the back of runaway success. I didn’t particularly like either of the books, but the adaptations were both very well done.

First up, Gone Girl. I loved the writing in this book, but hated the characters and the selfish, psychotic ways in which most of them behaved. Then I watched the film, more out of curiosity as to how far they would stick to the source material than from wanting to relive the story. In fairness to the film makers, I thought they did a good job of being faithful to the novel: I disliked the onscreen characters as much as their written versions.


Gone Girl

Next, The Girl on the Train—if this is one of your favourite novels, you might want to look away. The main character irriated me to distraction. The decisions she made throughout the novel were, quite frankly, often ridiculously idiotic, even when she was sober. I guessed the ending around a third of the way before reaching it and it felt more than a little contrived. Still, I thought I’d give the film version a go because, well, Emily Blunt. (Incidentally, anyone else think that she and the Welsh actress Eve Myles could be sisters?) Again, I thought the film makers were in the main faithful to the novel, though (warning: mini-rant ahead) why they insisted on changing the setting from London to New York is beyond me. Surely American film-goers aren’t so insular as to be put off by a film set in Britain, are they? Look at the success of the Harry Potter films, for goodness’ sake. (Mini-rant over.)

So there’s a couple of novels I was lukewarm about which were made into half-decent films. What about a few novels I enjoyed, but the film-makers’ translation fell woefully short?

The first turkey that springs to mind is Life of Pi. The novel, with its hauntingly enigmatic ending, became a stunning visual feast when translated to screen but, unless I missed it amidst the splendour of the cinematic images, completely fudged the ending, making the film version a delight to the eye but a let-down to the intellect.


Life Of Pi

I enjoy Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales, though wondered how they might translate to the big screen. Not very well if the film I, Robot is anything to go by. Paying only lip service to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the film turned into a frenetic series of chases. Not even the presence of Will Smith could save it.

The last turkey I’ll mention is Dune. In short, liked the book, hated the film. Where the former was rich in detail and intrigue, the latter didn’t seem to know quite what it was trying to be and ended up simply being a mess.


Dune

What of the meh films; those where they made a good stab at translating the source material to screen, but didn’t entirely succeed? Here’s a couple:

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is I Am Legend, with its deliciously dark ending. The film version of the same name is okay. Will Smith is, as usual, easy to watch, but the film lacks something, particularly as it nears its conclusion. This is the second adaptation of the novel I’ve seen (the first being The Omega Man—more on that in a future post) and they both, in my view, chickened out at the finale. Sticking with the ending of the novel would have improved them both.

Red Dragon is one of the best psychological horror novels I’ve read, and one I meant to mention in the post about my favourite horror novels. The film version was nothing to write home about. A reasonable attempt, I suppose, but it failed to capture the dark menace of the book.


Red Dragon

So to the rarities, those films which were so faithful to their source material that they provided just as pleasurable an experience to watch as reading the novels they are based upon; or—shock, horror—those that improved upon the books.

Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth persevering with and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel (that sits in my TBR pile patiently awaiting its turn). I watched the BBC dramatisation not expecting to overly enjoy the novel in visual form, but I was pleased to be wrong—the series brought the novel to life with its excellent casting (Damien Lewis was surprisingly good as the regal lecher), superb acting and spot-on sets.


Wolf Hall

I’m not a fan of young adult literature. I’ve read both first books in the Divergent and Hunger Games series, and in neither case felt compelled to read any more. Nothing particularly wrong with the stories (though one of the basic premises in Divergent struck me as wholly unrealistic), but it’s the style of writing that doesn’t appeal to me. In both cases, however, I enjoyed the film adaptations much more than the books.

Philip K. Dick is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers to have lived. I’m a little ambivalent about his works that I’ve read: some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed; others not so much. One of the former was his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , adapted for film as Blade Runner. I thought the film took all that was good about Dick’s novel and improved upon it; a rare thing, indeed.

To end, the book I’d name if pressed to name just one (just one? are you nuts?) novel as my favourite ever: The Lord of the Rings. I know it’s technically a trilogy, but I’ve only ever owned it in one volume and have always thought of it as one book. Anyway, I watched the first attempt at making a film version, an animated affair that stopped where The Fellowship of the Ring stops. At best, meh. I seriously doubted that a worthy film version would ever be made. Step forward, Peter Jackson. I remember going to the cinema to see the first instalment, heart in mouth, afraid I was going to hate it. Needn’t have worried; it hooked me from the opening sequence and never let go. I could see why they chose to leave out what they omitted from the novel (I always found the Tom Bombadil portion of the book a little tedious) and loved, loved, loved that Peter Jackson’s image of places like Minas Tirith and Edoras exactly matched my own. Watching those films is like seeing my own imagination brought to life.


The Lord of The Rings

As a final aside, my younger daughter shares my love of the LOTR films. Once a year we buy a load of unhealthy but tasty snacks and binge watch the extended DVD versions of all three films back-to-back. It takes us around thirteen hours, allowing for the occasional break, but we think it’s great fun. (My wife and older daughter don’t share our enthusiasm; in fact, they think we’re a little on the nerdy side of Geekdom, but we don’t care.) My younger daughter has recently turned twenty but is as keen for another ‘Lord of the Rings Day’ as ever. Ah, the magic of movies.

From Page to Screen – Part 1

Almost every fiction writer will tell you they’d love to see their work translated to the big screen or to television through a network like HBO. I’m the same, and not only for the money. It must be an amazing feeling to see the characters and situations you’ve created brought to life on screen. I do a lot of walking and sometimes keep my mind off steep hills by fantasising about who could be a good fit for the characters in my book The Cleansing. (Ioan Gruffudd would make a great Tom; Eve Myles as Ceri; Whoopi Goldberg, though she’d have to pile on a few pounds, as Milandra; Michelle Rodriguez as Lavinia… well, a man can dream.)

Other times (there are a lot of steep hills where I live), I think about adaptations I’ve seen of books I’ve read: which ones worked for me, which were disasters, which—quite rare—improved on the source material.

I thought I’d mention a few here in a rough and ready recap. Nothing in-depth; just for a bit of fun.

Take one of my favourite authors, Stephen King. I’m one of his Constant Readers, having grown up with his horror and fantasy books. Some adaptations of his works have been, to put it mildly, disappointing. I’m thinking mainly of the books turned into mini-series for television: IT (one of my favourite Stephen King books; the recent film adaptation was a vast improvement on the mini-series, but still didn’t completely hit the mark for me), The Stand (another favourite; part of the reason I ended up writing the Earth Haven trilogy), The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome.


The Stand

As always, these things are entirely a matter of taste; I know people who really enjoyed Under the Dome, for instance, but it didn’t do it for me.

On the other hand, I thought they made a decent fist of 11.22.63, and I’ll always have a fondness for the original adaptation of Salem’s Lot, screening as it did on TV when I was a teenager. We talked about it for days in school with that delicious thrill which comes from sharing something frightening. I’ve since watched it again with my daughters, when they were teenagers. To my chagrin, they laughed at one of the moments I found most scary at their age, when Danny Glick tapped on the bedroom window to be let in (“Dad, you can see the wires holding him up!”). My fondess for the two-parter hasn’t dimmed, though I accept it has dated a little.


‘Salem’s Lot

Then there are the the big screen films of Mr King’s works. Some, in my opinion, have been turkeys: The Running Man, Cell, Pet Sematary (the book contains one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever read, but the film left me cold; I can only hope the forthcoming remake is an improvement—it shouldn’t be difficult) and the nothing-to-do-with-the-story-apart-from-the-title The Lawnmower Man.


Pet Sematary

I don’t always like the way he ends stories I’ve enjoyed—for me his books are more about the journey than the destination. One I do like is his novella The Mist. He left it open-ended, which I felt was right for the story. The makers of the film version obviously believed it needed a more conclusive resolution. Fair enough, but the ending they came up with was so excruciatingly and ludicrously tragic that it made me laugh out loud. If you’re familiar with the novella, you ought to watch the film for the ending alone.

Many more of his books have been made into films which didn’t do a terrible job but that made me feel, at best, meh. A few examples: Christine, Firestarter, Secret Window (despite the presence of Johnny Depp and Maria Bello), and Dreamcatcher.


Firestarter

What of the good ones, the ones that took the original work and rendered it faithfully or improved upon it? The Green Mile (nothing with Tom Hanks in is a turkey) and The Shawshank Redemption immediately spring to mind, but my favourite has to be Stand By Me with the late River Phoenix, from the collection of novellas Different Seasons. I so enjoyed the novella it was based on (The Body) that I recall sitting down to watch the film expecting another meh reaction, the formula seeming to be that the more I like the source material, the less I enjoy the film version. In this case, I couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong. What a wonderful evocation of childhood; if you’ve not seen it, watch it post-haste.


Different Seasons

Here endeth Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll do something similar for some of my other favourite books/authors.

(I had intended adding a few images of movie posters to illustrate this piece, but didn’t want to run foul of any copyrights so ended up including images of some of the books mentioned—this is a site about writing and books, after all. They’re clickable links to Amazon UK; it should be a fairly simple matter to find disc versions of the films mentioned and I imagine most of them are available on sites like Netflix. I’ve also included text links for the benefit of anyone reading on a mobile device.)