The Long-Awaited Childhood’s End

Just about anybody with an abiding interest in science fiction has wondered if Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 1953 novel “Childhood’s End” would ever see the screen. One might have thought that the piece has become too dated by now, but Clarke was working with substantial ideas in the novel, notions that have no grounding in a particular place of time. Thus it’s just as trenchant today as it ever was.

The underlying theme of “Childhood’s End” should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That great—albeit weirdly flawed—film was a collaboration with Clarke, who brought many of the ideas that were originally presented in “Childhood’s End” to the later film, in particular the idea of humanity’s morph into a higher plane of consciousness. (The same basic idea was turned into a ham-handed platitude in the first Star Trek movie, by the way.)

Enter the SyFy Channel’s six-hour big-budget television adaptation. Wisely, the writers kept their intrusions minimal. The opening chapters needed simple updating to the present day, of course. No problems there. Very little was needed by way of internationalizing the cast of characters, since Clarke had been well ahead of his time in that aspect. The characters of the original novel were already considerably more racially diverse than the era’s norms. The screenwriters just tugged a bit more in that general direction, with perfectly fine results. In the original, the scientist Jan Rodericks was a mixed-race South African; in the new version he becomes a full-tilt black American. Not a major change, and in some ways a good one. He has an Asian girlfriend/partner.

Clarke was a scientific writer first and foremost, and his impossibly wooden characters have always posed a problem for adaptations. That is, unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, in which case you embrace that very featurelessness and use your characters as pure archetypes, as in 2001. That’s really better than the strained attempts at turning those characters into full human beings, as happened in the sadly blah sequel 2010. For better or worse, the new adaption of “Childhood’s End” goes whole-hog in trying to make Clarke’s one-dimensional characters into living, breathing people. Understandable, but that attempt is behind most of the weaknesses in the adaptation.

Rikki Stromgren, middle-aged secretary-general of the UN, becomes Ricky Stormgren, Midwestern farmer and all-American-boy archetype who wears a pair of Levis with distinction and emits oodles of charm. Unfortunately, Ricky becomes a soap opera character early on, as the authors saddle him with a dead first wife and a new girlfriend and a mind full of regretful memories. His dying scenes in Part 3 are pointless detours, fillers really as is the nonsensical plot tangent about his picking up some devastating disease from his stay in the Overlord ship. All of that should have been dispatched with a merciful stroke of the Delete key. Ditto the mayor of New Athens, who is given a vaguely unhappy backstory, but not given anywhere near enough character development to account for his King Lear-like pontificating as he prepares to blow New Athens to smithereens. Even the Jan Rodericks character (renamed Milo in the adaptation) acquires a plastered-on Asian girlfriend who mostly clings to him and sobs that he shouldn’t leave, oh he mustn’t leave, as he prepares to stow away on the Overlord’s ship.

All that An Affair to Remember bullshit is fortunately small potatoes. Consider the brutal hatchet job that could have been done on Clarke’s meditative original, and be thankful that a soupçon of Scarlett and Rhett is about the only damage done. The core of the novel came through perfectly and with minimal change from the original. The screenwriters compressed the time frame, with reason. Clarke’s long-view time frame works well in print, but in a dramatic adaptation it’s best to follow the same basic group of characters from beginning to end. So whereas Clarke’s humanity transforms to the Overmind only after numerous generations of preparation, the adaptation gets it down to just one generation plus extended coda.

Something that impressed me no end was the use of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s haunting The Lark Ascending as an underlying musical trope and the last human music to be heard before the children consume the Earth’s total energy to fuel their transformation into the Overmind. It makes for a beautifully poignant ending. Pity that the SyFy Channel just had to overlay crass, noisy advertising over the end credits.

For some reason the screenwriters chose to omit a particularly impressive moment from the original. For those who do not know the novel: the benevolent Overlords who arrive on Earth to usher in humanity’s transformation to a higher level of being are dead ringers for our universal representation of Satan—cloven hooves, horns, red scales, barbed tail, the works. They avoid showing themselves to humanity for (in the book) several generations, understanding as they do the terror their appearance will be sure to elicit from a sizeable portion of the population. Eventually humanity progresses far enough past those primitivist fears to be able to connect with the Overlords in person.

As the end of it all approaches, now last-man-on-Earth Jan Rodericks asks supervisor Karellen the fateful question: did the Overlords visit us earlier in our history? What went so horribly wrong that your physical appearance would resound down the ages as our common image for evil? Karellen answers: we were never here before. That demonic image isn’t a collective memory from humanity’s earliest times, but a collective precognition of humanity’s end.

I wonder why the writers left that out; it seems like vital information to me. Oh, well.

The plusses of this adaptation are many. The Overlord ships are beautifully realized, as are the Overlords themselves. The elegiac tone of the original is expertly captured. I love the choice of giving Karellen a beautiful British accent with a light touch of elegant irony; it’s really the perfect voice for a being with about umpty-zillion the IQ of ours. The resistance to the Overlords is well portrayed, as both political and religious groups try desperately to hang on to their privileged positions while the world around them is changing with lightning speed. Placing New Athens in a deserted big city (it looks a bit like present-day Boston or maybe Seattle) is a notable improvement on Clarke’s having put it on a distant tropical island.

To turn the child Jennifer into the trigger and leader for the transformation wasn’t part of Clarke’s original thinking, but it actually works rather well as a dramatic license taken to humanize some of those cardboard characters. It also creates an unfortunate lapse in logic: since the Overmind is a collective, it makes no sense for the transformation to involve a leader and followers.

Maybe the children’s segregation prior to their ultimate transformation is just a tad hokey: in Clarke’s original, the Overlords airlift the kids to a remote location so as to get them away from their parents—mostly to protect the parents from the kids, and not vice-versa. In this adaptation they all go wafting up into the sky, sort of like those silly evangelical Christian notions of the rapture: Come fly with me …

But on the whole, it’s one of the better science fiction adaptations I’ve seen, especially given the honored status of the original novel in the science fiction literature. Clarke may have been a colorless writer and unable (or unwilling) to create real, flesh-and-blood characters, but he thought big and he had a poet’s touch with philosophical ideas. They managed to catch some of that poetry in a 6-hour TV adaptation, and that’s no small achievement.

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