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John Scalzi – Is Michael Crichton Cinema’s Most Successful Science Fiction Writer?

Look, I’m being called to settle an argument:

A friend and I have
been arguing about which science fiction writer has been most
successfully adapted to film. I say it’s Michael Crichton, but my friend
says he doesn’t count as a science fiction writer. Does he? And if he
doesn’t, who is the next most successful?

A very good question! Unless we have
actually do have the ability to reverse-engineer the dinosaurs from the
dead (Jurassic

Park), or create time machines (Timeline),

or have ever battled space viruses (The
Andromeda Strain
), then yes, in
fact, Michael Crichton was a science fiction writer, did write

fiction, and had enormous success transferring his science fiction
books to film. Crichton is occasionally dismissed from science fiction
circles mainly because he wasn’t marketed primarily as science fiction
(i.e., you found his work in the general fiction section in the
bookstore) and because he played around in more or less current time
rather than in some far-flung future. He also didn’t just write
science fiction, even if most of his work did have a technogeek bent. So
perhaps he’s a writer who wrote science fiction, rather than a science

fiction writer, if you know what I mean.

But I find all of
that silly hair-splitting. The dude wrote science fiction novels, those
novels got made into movies, and those movies were generally successful.
Certainly among science fiction writers alive and active in the last 50
years — an important qualification, as you’ll see — he’s at the top
of the heap.

Next on the list is likely to be Philip K. Dick,
whose film adaptation success owes less to his novels than to his short
stories: and Total
, the two most financially successful Dick
adaptations, were from the author’s shorter work (Blade
, adapted
from a novel, was dramatically overhauled from that work, albeit with
Dick’s enthusiastic approval).

Dick and Crichton, incidentally,
are an interesting study of contrasts, in terms of paths to film
success. Crichton was successful in Hollywood from an early age; his
first book under his own name (The Andromeda Strain) was made
into a
successful film, Crichton segued into screenwriting, producing and even
directing (The Great Train Robbery, Runaway)
in both TV and film and
became, of course, very wealthy and successful. Dick, on the other hand,
never found a huge amount of financial success in his lifetime and died
close to poor in 1982, before the release of Blade Runner, the
film based on his work. All of Dick’s film success came posthumously,
which is nice for Dick’s heirs and estate, but less so for Dick.


that said, if you really want to know the most successful
fiction writer in film history, the name to know is H.G. Wells. It’s
no exaggeration to say H.G. Wells’ work spans the entire film genre of
science fiction, since the very first science fiction film, 1902’s La

voyage dans la lune, was partially based on his work, and new
versions of The Invisible Man and Food of the Gods are in
production. In
between those are dozens of film adaptations, ranging from the wildly
successful (the 1954 and 2005 versions of War of the Worlds War
of the Worlds
) to the
deeply questionable (the 1996 version of The
Island of Dr. Moreau
Wells even wrote the screenplay to the 1936
adaptation of his novel The
Shape of Things to Come
. It was, ironically, was not the best
adaptation of his work to screen, but then authors aren’t necessarily
the best interpreters of their own work when it comes to film (it was at
least better than the appallingly bad 1979
adaptation of the same
novel, starring Jack Palance).

Wells’ only challenger to his
preeminence is not any modern writer, but a man whose literary career
overlapped his: Jules Verne, who will see yet another film version of
his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea arrive in theaters in
2012, 143
years after it was first published. That’s career longevity any science
fiction author would like to have.

Neither Wells nor Verne are
likely to be challenged as the most successful science fiction writers
in film. For one thing, they both have more than a hundred year head
start on any new challenger. For another, current copyright law keeps
work from going into the public domain until decades after the death of
its author, meaning that anyone who wanted to make a movie on the novel
Jurassic Park without dealing with Crichton’s estate will need to
until the last quarter of this century. By that time there are likely to
be another couple dozen Wells and Verne adaptations, some of them very
successful indeed. But don’t be too sad for Crichton. He certainly did
well enough.

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