Monday, December 15, 2008

Adaptable Icons or Immutable Gods: The Case for Remakes

In order to justify even spending time writing about Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) Derrickson’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still I needed to ask the fundamental question: Why?

I ended up answering a question with a question: Why not?

I thought it would be a lot worse.

I come from a school of thought that says: Why mess with a classic unless you can elevate it or make it more poignant in a contemporary context? And even then, why not just use the new ideas to create some original work. Some folks may think the pretentious notion of elevating a classic is art’s worst oxymoron.

There are worse oxymorons: Take the sentence “Keanu Reeves portrays an alien who becomes more human as he experiences ‘the other side’ of humanity,” for example. Lambasting Reeves as a wooden one-trick pony sets him up as an easy straw man target. Perhaps we should get off Reeves’ case and accept that he’s the best “actor” for the job when the call comes for stoic aliens. I don’t really want to debate whether stoicism constitutes “acting.”

I would rather argue that remakes are inevitable and perhaps particularly justifiable when it comes to genre works from comics, TV and film.

And even more particularly when it comes to science fiction.

Assuming classics by definition cannot be elevated, perhaps we should evaluate whether or not the original 1951 film had any room for “improvement.” We could also stipulate that the “classic” label is best reserved for non-genre films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca.

Science Fiction by nature would then be considered cult-classic at best. The outsider status typically ascribed to sci-fi aficionados often relegates these films to a sub-category less untouchable than “regular” classics. Only fervently exclusive acolytes would argue the opposite: Our darlings are more untouchable and inviolate icons than any others.

Therefore, in contrast, I would argue that, because science fiction films are not monolithically complete and purely uncompromised expressions exempt from tinkering to reach a wider audience, we keepers of the mythos flame should consider taking a chill pill.

And that is why we should accept that many “classic” science fiction films lend themselves to remake/remodeling as much as--maybe more so than--any other genre.

When it comes to the potential expansion of people that might be served by prequels, reimaginings and remake/remodels, we should embrace the growth to the market that these new films might bring. As with the tolerance afforded petulant nieces, nephews or grandchildren, and short of supporting outright shoddy pandering, we should pump up the Hollywood machine for dressing up our darlings in hip fashion.

There are other reasons why.

However prescient a science fiction film may seem for a certain generation, at the very least the technology associated with most sci-fi will seem outdated a decade or more (maybe sooner) later.

Planned (or unplanned) obsolescence is inescapable.

It’s also traditional to revamp, and here is where science fiction films have caught up even more than ever with pulps, comics and paperback series. Or perhaps gone back to their roots in serials.

Series are always reinventing themselves.

However classic Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Superman, Batman and James Bond are as archetypal characters, I would never begrudge each generation its take on what makes them tick.

So, I vote to give Scott Derrickson a break. Next time I will point out some more specific ways that the new film incorporates and contrasts the original creators’ works.

And, as expected, I will look at ways that the former film presaged the Weisinger years, while the latest version reflects what’s happening with Johns and Robinson’s Superman Family, intersecting with TV’s Smallville.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Heroic Failures: The Family Romance Retcon

The History of Science Fiction is strewn with heroic failures. Brad Meltzer considers the heroic failure no less heroic than the heroic success. I heard him say so at the San Diego Comic-Con, and this kind of encouragement gained particular resonance when floated upon the sea of aspiring creators in the audience. The sometimes adversarial relationship between an artist and his father (although this dynamic may also play out between mothers and daughters) often corresponds with the acrimonious relationship between certain creators and editors in the Golden and Silver Age of comics. Meltzer presages the resolution of this potent theme by supporting all aspirants to contribute as ordinary people, overcoming any real or imagined obstacles.

In Meltzer’s latest novel, The Book of Lies, Freud’s “family romance” reverberates throughout history from Adam and Cain to the protagonist Calvin Harper and his father, Lloyd. The nexus of this romance pivots on the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel after his father Mitchell’s death in an armed robbery. While the Biblical story underpins the power of myth, playing out in endless analogues through time, the comic book legend becomes humanized in a manner not yet conceived despite 70+ years of retelling.

As I write in “Shooter’s Marvelesque,” Jim Shooter exemplified a portion of my generations’ desire to transition from fan to professional in the creative arts. Few media afforded the opportunity to break in like comics did (and hopefully still does), yet Shooter’s story also echoes a key element of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This element incorporates wannabes, also-rans and heroic failures as much as it does the irony of loss in the face of ultimate wish-fulfillment.

This element also resolves the family romance in favor of the son versus the patriarchal barriers to freedom and creativity self-imposed by the fantasy of adoption. Meltzer plays with multiple permutations of this fantasy, which should put his novel in good standing with most of the fanboy community. Whether the general audience responds to this element, or perhaps the Homeland Security and proto-Nazi occult references, remains to be seen.

Bittersweet, Siegel and Shuster’s success also resulted in the oft-told tale of corporate greed and ignominious obscurity these boys experienced until DC Comics and Warner Brothers were shamed into acknowledging them in the late 1970s. Though it would be naïve to believe that modern corporate interests are less ruthless than those of bygone eras, Meltzer steers charitable energy toward helping the homeless as well as contributing to the restoration and maintenance of the dilapidated Siegel family home in Cleveland, Ohio. Nonetheless, if Meltzer’s tale becomes a kind of patchwork cento and rallying sigil to the lover’s of comics, a great deed will have been done.

Personally, I enjoyed the quilting pastiche of The Book of Lies, although its originality of voice suffered in the preponderance of plot. By honoring the young creators of our arguably most cherished pop cultural icon of salvation, the author seeks to redeem some part of our commercial sensibilities and put his readership back on track to healing the corporate estrangement between robber barons and consumers. Not all of the characters in the novel benefit from the fleshly gravitas Meltzer hopes to achieve; still, the father and son reunion (however standoffishly unconsummated) puts the audience on the road to recovery.

Even if complete reconciliation between Cal and Lloyd Harper remains potentially evanescent, the desire to illuminate this key family issue must at least constitute the greatest of heroic failures.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Intravenous Squadron: In futurum videre

Unlike the syncretic interplay comics, animation, film and TV properties experience today, the 1960s more often saw editors and publishers exploiting whatever trendy pop cultural reference might grab the casual newsstand browser. This purest form of chutzpah cherry-picked a flattering array of influences, bestowing characteristic takeoffs on literature and myth, as well as movies and TV, particularly in Mort Weisinger’s attempt to legitimize his Superman Family with the masses.

Audacious cribbing was required to achieve this goal. When in doubt, a simple homage could catch the random eye of a passerby, yet the guts of a farcically skewed plotline from nowhere often required suspended disbelief beyond the call of duty. High literary and scientific standards need not apply: Just a liberal dose of narrative tropes dressed up in the spandex of the day.

Where does DC archivist and Mort Weisinger’s right hand man, E. Nelson Bridwell (see Greg Hatcher’s tribute here), get off channeling Jerome Bixby (writer of It! The Terror from Beyond Space, “It’s a Good Life,” Fantastic Voyage, and “Mirror, Mirror”)?

Probably at the subway station, where one of the Silver Age’s most infuriatingly screwball mash-ups is inadvertently created - the crossroads of the History of Science Fiction and Lexington Avenue! The signpost up ahead reads…

You guessed it, The Legion of Super-Heroes, whose 50th anniversary many of us are celebrating, once-again becomes the recipient of this dubious honor. The Comic Treadmill does a fine job lambasting its editorially-driven plot, as Adventure Comics #350 sports a weepy ostracized Super-cousins cover, branding Supergirl and Superboy “The Outcast Super-Heroes!” Unca Cheeks even elevates the story to one of “The 12 Silliest DC Comics Ever Published.”

I am more concerned with shrinkage.

Reportedly Bridwell and Weisinger felt emboldened enough to trade off the Kryptonian contingent for some hastily healed reinforcements in the very next issue. That is, until the bosses vetoed Superboy’s banishment, requiring the golden shoehorn, rife through the goofiest stories of the day.

With the commonplace cry of deus ex machina rearing its ugly head, no wonder Silver Age Legion fans often abandon all hope convincing their peers to love these kids, too. We all know how rarely retcon devices are used today. Chameleon Boy’s snarky comment about the web-slinger will have to speak for itself.
MAD-contributor Bridwell is well-known for his hilariously surreal contributions to DC humor (the Alley award winning Inferior Five, Showcase 62, June 1966 or Angel and the Ape, Showcase 77, September 1968), as well as his wholly original spy-mystery, Secret Six. These sensibilities are at play in the 30th century as a bridge between Jim Shooter’s toe-dipping debut (Adventure Comics 346-349, 1966) and show-stopping space opera (introducing the Fatal Five in Adventure Comics 352-353, Jan/Feb 1967).

For that matter, where does award-winning science (fiction) author Isaac Asimov get off trying to steer the Hollywood ship of lowest common denominator moments? I need to re-read the original Fantastic Voyage novelization, published 6 months before the movie, in order to determine if the biochemistry professor or comic hack is more true to his art. Hmmm! Sci-fi Smackdown: Asimov or Bridwell.

That done – after saving Harry Kleiner’s Swiss-cheese script, only to create the novel Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain from the detritus – Asimov’s street cred should be at a premium. Throw down your bets!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lit High/SciFi Low: Warring Cultures Converge

Raging for centuries, the Culture Wars may sound like a battle between toe jam and yogurt to the average Joe. In reality (however defined), the conflict waged between the humanities and science reached a curious crescendo in the late 1950s, and the consequences of this controversy continue to be far-reaching. Who would have guessed that an academic sparring match between literary critic Frank Raymond Leavis and physicist/novelist C.P. Snow would frame a debate that still nigglingly backgrounds some of the larger questions of our age?

In the context of the looming atomic age, with its potential sky terror from space-racing superpowers and God knows what alien threats from beyond, fear mongering science fiction tales found fertile ground. Given how Hitler had used Darwinism to preach and execute murderous eugenics, it’s no surprise how Einstein’s quaint formula mushroomed beyond theory to Hiroshima. Meanwhile, literati, physicists and regular folk alike had plenty to fear from the competition for German rocket scientists. Funny (peculiar), how the Snow-Leavis controversy percolated into and permeated the funny (Ha-ha) books of the day, informing a fascinating stage in the History of Science Fiction.

Call it homage, influence or outright plagiarism, Mort Weisinger’s cribbing from 40s and 50s science fiction themes and stories carried little in the way of personal literary anxiety. A job’s a job, and a deadline’s a deadline. In other words, Harold Bloom’s contentious thesis (Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry) would be misapplied to Weisinger’s enterprise; however, the issue of influence in the popular arts remains alive. In the case of the burgeoning Superman Family, politically correct commerce drew its counter-influence from the hysteria surrounding juvenile delinquency and horror comics.

Pulp “plagiarism” lent the comics form its formulaic nature, giving many readers what they asked for—on time. Channeling these science fiction influences as Weisinger created the Superman Mythos through his operatives (particularly Binder, Siegel, Bridwell and Hamilton) lent its own air of relative respectability in the hierarchy of trash media. As trash goes, pseudoscientific juvenile pedagogy once trumped horror and crime sensationalism for respectability as less prone to promoting delinquency in the fear-fraught minds of 1950s parents and educators (see David Hajdu’s exhaustive The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: March 2008).

Not that the National Periodical Publications editor/mastermind wouldn’t have preferred an aspiration to higher literary influences, the least of which being Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy.

Michael Chabon’s recent reference in Maps and Legends to Harold Bloom’s contentious Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry brings to mind Jonathan Lethem’s trickster diatribe “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” found here. With egalitarian aplomb, what Chabon chafes at appears to be Bloom’s dismissal of the “weak” as opposed to “strong” poets: all writers would match Bloom’s definition of weak. Bliss rather than anxiety results from acceptance of this fact. When Chabon writes:

And yet there is a degree to which, just as all criticism is in essence Sherlockian, all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving – amateurs – we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers – should we be lucky enough to find any – some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.

Therefore, Bloom’s contention betrays an elitist bent toward false distinction. How this distinction plays out in Weisinger’s world-building keeps the whip cracking every month as he introduces another super being vs. poignant isolation, another replay of mistaken identity vs. consummation, and another literary/historical/mythological subtext vs. the lowest common denominator of juvenile pulp.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Almighty Spirit's Robocop: Power Over Life and Death

The Day the Earth Stood Still (September 28, 1951) marks a turning point in the conflation of anti-communist and Christian apologist sensibility in concert with The Thing from Another World (April 29, 1951) and The Man from Planet X (April 27, 1951), completing an alien invasion triad. Driven by Edward Herrmann’s frenetic score, this landmark film opens with worldwide news reports of a spaceship’s landing in Washington, indicating a Tower of Babel transformed by its radio network. Terror and fear are reflected in the onlooker’s faces as a saucer-like oval glows, streaking across the clear sky until it lands in a baseball field.

This opening depicts a contemporary 1950s timeframe rather than the museum’s futurespective in the original Bates’ story. The American way of life feels threatened by an unknown boogieman, but revealed to be our own worst enemies, mankind potentially threatens the greater galaxy. The film’s snapshot in time contrasts the short story’s dimensionality and scope. The former’s implied self-destructive brink promotes an End Times atmosphere while the latter’s ironic conspiracy of shame belies mankind’s capacity for contrition. Must salvation result from humiliation or humility? And at whose hand?

Aggression repressed by the promise of aggressive retribution reflects the spectrum of American militarization from global domination to cold war. Rather than the source’s crazed assassin, the film’s trigger-happy soldier (knowing not what he does) acts out the first of two shootings. While that shot lands Klaatu in Walter Reed, the second shot—also military, except resultant from a fugitive alien manhunt—kills the visitor. Initially just weapons get disintegrated, but later Gort’s eyebeams blast two soldiers that seem to die in a glowing radiation bath, setting the stage for the teeth behind the robot’s vigilant deterrent.

Instead of Cliff, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray), channel the audience’s fears, and Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) represents scientific rationalism’s counterpoint. Helen puts aside her fear by allowing Bobby to bond with Klaatu in his human guise as Mr. Carpenter. Later Helen becomes his closest human ally, forsaking her fiancé (Hugh Marlowe) and commanding Gort to spare Earth with the famous words “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” This transformed feminine perspective counterpoints militarism by moving from fear to love rather than hate.

Though North felt the underlying Christian message was subtle, its power as a cautionary tale against nuclear proliferation and self-destruction could not be more direct. Klaatu’s resurrection by Gort is met with the revelation to Helen (who asks, “You mean he has the power over life and death?”): Gort’s power is limited and “that is a power reserved for the Almighty Spirit.” Whereas the original tale would have us believe in a partial myth of resurrection that constrains masculine aggression, the film presents a hierarchy of potency from humanity through extraterrestrial robotics to inspired omnipotence.

North must question our ability to save ourselves in the face of higher and highest powers. As with Cliff's successful pursuit of the clearest recording of Klaatu's voice, Helen’s selfless love (agape) temporarily saves Earth from an Old Testament vengeance. The film's ultimate difference results from a preemptive cosmic Manichaeism. Black and white, mankind’s final choice would be righteous as long as evil is cast as godless and insidiously bent on world domination. Could this choice be between an encroaching communist secularism or our own rampant, militaristic xenophobia?

The answer may come in a scene absent from the script but a key thematic highpoint in the film. When Bobby and Carpenter tour Washington, Klaatu (asked by a news reporter if he is as afraid as everyone else) replies: “In a different way, perhaps. I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” This meta-reference to the contemporary xenophobic climate represents the power inherent with significant speculative fiction, the power to address problematic issues, however obliquely.

Director Robert Wise, his screenwriter and the pulp hack from which the concept came depict a transformation of public consciousness from parochialism to an awareness of a Galaxy-wide Order. From here we can speculate on an Intergalactic Vigilante Squadron of Gort-like Robocops that will keep us wacky humans in line. Whether a benevolent force perpetrates individualism’s white lie or a superior force quashes our destructive tendencies, we have little choice but comply. Harry Bates merely asks that we control our crazies to ward off vengeance, while the filmmakers ask us to choose to be ruled by a greater deadly force.

From 1951, culminating in the Moral Majority triumph of 1980s Reaganism, the black and white of evil and good has worked to keep America vigilant. Now, instead of Communism, the fear of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism stands as our counterpart challenge in this checkerboard world. We might be better off as a mere threat to the greater cosmos, reminded that "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet--but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder." Note Klaatu's overriding disinterest in whether we blow ourselves to Kingdom Come.

Analogously, where and how would the public fascination with extraterrestrial intervention fit into the Superman mythos? I would argue that as a Jewish icon more concerned with earthly ethics than some Christians, Superman salvages secular humanism through logical positivism and scientific rationalism. However supremely good, he cannot be considered divine in a religious sense, so he must represent the alien who super-assimilates the indigenous culture he inhabits.

He does not blend in to be saved from eternal damnation; he does this out of the purest form of Christian love: agape. Few doubt whose side this alien visitor would defend if his beloved family of man were attacked by extraterrestrials. This avatar forms a trinity of alien, earthling and icon.

Rather Nietzschean, even as he remains silent as to his faith in God, Kal-El’s spiritual philosophy arises from the death of his homeworld, Krypton. Their advanced civilization dies from denial of destructive chthonic forces. As a renegade scientist, Kal’s father Jor-El represents a paragon of apocalyptic insight infused with a parent’s sacrificial love.

The Kents exemplify Protestant work ethic, imprinting their adopted son with good-natured pragmatism. Clark performs self-humiliation rituals while secretly saving his community from injustice and alien intervention. Ranging from common criminals to his father’s sworn enemies from the Phantom Zone, Superman’s adversaries challenge him morally as much as they do physically. Yet he prevails in both arenas with the triple threat of righteous certitude, wit and supreme power.

This moral synthesis does not deny the heart of Clark Kent’s sympathy for his adopted race, but the main weight is borne by his head and shoulders. In this way, Kal-El’s potential robotism manifests as mandatory guardianship, masked emotions and frequently automatic responses. His master/slave ambivalence creates both affinity as well as conflict between personae.

How these personae manifest and reconcile provides perpetual renewal of faith in mankind’s capacity to love and disappointment in its capacity to hate. This unification represents a metaphor-cum-trope for xenophobia as the basic human condition from which many myths spring. The strange visitor character--turned friend when faced with a common enemy--runs rife throughout historical and fictional narrative.

Next I will look at some specific instances where the Superman mythos grows to adapt 1950s science fiction sensibilities.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Word Made Flesh: Adapting Secret Fear

Religious parallels subtly background Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master,” evoking elements of the Christ story overlain with a secular scientific morality play. Edmund H. North’s screenplay adaptation for The Day the Earth Stood Still also echoes these themes while purposely sidestepping a direct correspondence to the Jesus myth. Alternatively we experience the secular political philosophy of peace enforced by the threat of annihilation, reflecting the Cold War’s emerging deterrent: assured mutual nuclear destruction.

Both stories posit that human aggression be reined in, thwarted from spreading beyond Earth. The prewar text founds this suppression on global self-restraint reinforced by an elegiac deception; the postwar script and film embody hard-line coercion in the form of a retributive sentry. What I find most curious is how the former and latter narratives play upon New and Old Testament sensibilities, respectively.

Ultimately a personal first contact story from a single narrative viewpoint, Bates’ cautionary tale leaves Cliff Sutherland compelled to maintain the façade that Klaatu masters Gnut. Cliff’s transformation of awareness, understanding that the “giant robot” eminently emerges as the superior being, affects only the reporter’s sensibility. The rest of mankind believes a white lie as Cliff shields them from this truth with the partial knowledge he controls.

Cliff’s character arc takes him from sensationalist to investigative reporter to sole witness, finally burdened with the secret of resurrection. Kept for the good of human protection from alien retribution, Cliff’s secret conceals the fundamental boundary between human technology and divine omnipotence. He feels constrained by conscience to preserve mankind’s contrition, even if that constraint means perpetuating the white lie that Klaatu’s death is final.

This deception induces mankind to deter its aggressive tendencies, although manifest in the act of a lone fanatic, and then collectively subsumed out of guilt, desperation and fear of retribution. When North writes the adaptation, enforced pacifism replaces internal restraint with an external intervention. The adaptation eliminates most of Bates’ resurrection subplot, a backstory illustrating Gnut’s ability to reconstitute a gorilla, mockingbird and humanoid emissary from sound waves. Instead, viewers experience a direct threat to global aggression in the form of an intergalactic police sentinel, the foundational work’s essential theme altered as a result of a decade’s heated mass destruction transitioned to cold war.

Gnut’s revelatory emergence as master over life and death prefigures artificial intelligence, holodeck technology, and perhaps cloning. As scientific rationalism’s final frontier between the provinces of man and god, the ability to create, recreate and resurrect encroaches upon divine providence. The pulp science fiction author implies that mankind must form a self-imposed covenant with superior beings (or Supreme Being) to limit our capacity to function in the domain of the Creator. Humanity may kill (individually or institutionally) or procreate biologically, but not bring life to the once dead.

Devoid of direct religious references (neither God nor Christ is mentioned) the story twist reverses expectation between god and man as well as master and slave. Bates’ 1940 narrative reflects a greater willingness than the film to accept mastery over life and death as an achievable extraterrestrial power, yet posits human complicity in this achievement. Gnut’s final revelation offers mankind hope for retribution, as Cliff conceives a solution to Klaatu’s short-lived rebirth. Telling “only part of his story,” the reporter delimits his own calling, mobilizing global resources to meet the giant’s demand to obtain a more perfect recording apparatus of Klaatu’s voice. Here we see the reflexive supersession of technology over myth-making, both of which make the word flesh; note how only the narrator truly understands this fact, while the general population prefers the myth.

Klaatu’s double gets passed from Gnut to Cliff (in a Michelangelo-esque homage), and the narrator comments, “It seemed to be the parting.” When Cliff assumes there is a “master yet to come” greater than Gnut, Klaatu’s fate remains obscured, superseded by the giant’s pronouncement of supreme mastery. Gnut’s final words cause the reporter to reflect: “Never, never was he to disclose them til the day he came to die.” This reversal, the revelation that transforms Cliff’s allegiance from humanoid messenger to robotic savior, becomes secreted by a single initiate, a sole keeper of the flame.

Cliff’s singularity contrasts Michael Rennie’s broad warning to the assembled crowd meant to be spread worldwide: that a deadly robot police force would deter the spread of human xenophobia beyond our solar system. Gort remains the vigilant sentinel—willing to thwart human aggression with a death threat—whose superiority of force substitutes for contrition. While Bates’ pulp fiction more closely parallels the emotional core found in the Jesus mythos, North’s screenplay purposely backs away from imbuing its aliens with divine power. Instead, the screenplay places global fear and its forced subjugation as the central emotion of the film, trading off one man’s mastery of fear for the more prevalent overtones of “Red Scare!” paranoia. With the triumph of coercion true Christian principles become lost in adaptation.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fear Itself: Sci-Fi's Fundamental Xenophobia

If you haven’t yet read the original story upon which The Day the Earth Stood Still is based (Harry Bates' "Farewell to the Master," Astounding Science Fiction, October 1940), it can be found at The Nostalgia League Library here. I want to focus on some particular elements that did not make it to the screenplay as well as those elements that were added to increase the film’s popular appeal and play into the growing cultural hegemony of post-WW II America. In particular, what do the inclusion of a love interest, Christian sensibility and altered ending reflect as influences within the film’s culture and times? I would argue that cultural, ethnic and mythological iconography provides the metaphorical foundation upon which an enhanced American xenophobia is formed in the 1950s. This story and film represent cultural layering built on fundamental fear, conditioning the audience to adapt through fantasia.

Adaptations often suffer criticism when a film strays from the author’s pure, original intent. Other times the adaptation illuminates meaning in a new context that brings original intent to new heights of significance. Similarly the New Testament builds on the Torah or Old Testament, incorporating its precepts while informing the foundational text with retrospective meaning. One example rests with the prophetic nature of Psalm 22, presaging Christ’s crucifixion before that execution method became preferred by Roman conquerors. Correspondences build between this informing practice and the Americanization of other mythological traditions: pagan, Nordic, Semitic and Asiatic alike. Ultimately I apply this methodology to the history of science fiction and the development of the Superman mythos during the Weisinger years.

The Mediaeval Church worked hard to distance itself from its Judaic roots by casting Jews as outsiders, a condition that extended well into the 20th century. Consequently, despite their preeminence as ethical and moral storytellers steeped in Talmudic tradition, Jewish writers either wrote in secret or assimilated the dominant cultural elements in their narratives. Though not exclusively Jewish, early pulp and science fiction writers drew from their outsider status to create fantastic extrapolations based on burgeoning technology from the military-industrial complex. Emboldened by the ethnic and commercial freedom afforded by the American entertainment industry, these writers found employment and fellowship while tapping into public consciousness and phobias, not the least of which was the fear of outsiders.

Both in its debut decade and with subsequent audiences few people would have read the source material for The Day the Earth Stood Still. Nevertheless, with a movie remake on the horizon (starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu), the time couldn’t be better to ask what has changed between the 1930s-40s pulp science fiction source material, its transformation by Hollywood, and what might preserve its relevance to a contemporary audience. Harry Bates’ original adventure story backgrounds our unending fascination with extraterrestrial as well as extra-dimensional first contacts.

“Farewell to the Master” begins appropriately at the Smithsonian’s Interplanetary Wing three months after the alien’s arrival (5:00 pm, September 16th, year unknown). A “time-space traveler,” Klaatu’s entombed body lies in a continuing state of newsworthiness, viewed by “visitors come from all over the Solar System” in a future where an Earth spaceship has just landed on Mars. Protagonist and “freelance picture reporter” Cliff Sutherland looks for a new “angle” on the story behind this visitor from the Unknown on display with his eight-foot robot companion, Gnut.

In the form of the museum’s public address system, Bates’ narrative flashes back as an alien entombment exhibition voiceover. The fact that Klaatu’s ship materializes rather than lands, perhaps “from the far corner of the Universe, from a distance which light itself would require millions of years to cross,” proves this visitor the ultimate outsider. Subsequently the fact of his otherworldliness leads the population from great consternation and fear to military mobilization, however useless in the face of such omnipotence.

Despite looking like a “benign god,” offering his raised right arm high as “the universal gesture of peace,” Klaatu is gunned-down by a lone sniper. “Crying that the devil had come to kill everyone on Earth,” this “mentally unbalanced” slayer breaks ranks to bring Klaatu down. Nonetheless, everyone is required to mourn, since other potential aliens “had to be impressed by the sincere sorrow of us Earthmen.” Gnut and the silent ship rest until the museum wing is built around them, encased with Klaatu’s mausoleum. The Earth’s shared grief and contrition must be displayed to protect us from future wrath.

The recording’s final admonishment provides the rationale for our universal penitence: “Look well, for before you stand stark symbols of the achievement, mystery and frailty of the human race.” Xenophobic guilt drives mankind to subsume its fear for the sake of the greater good. Ultimately Cliff must overcome his fear of retribution in order to learn the truth about Klaatu and Gnut. The story’s final revelation places a secret burden on Cliff that he must maintain in order to preserve this fear in others.