I, Robot; I, Robot; I, Robot; and I, Robot

i robot cover.jpeg

As I was writing my lastest Wayward Time Traveler piece for SF Signal, I couldn’t help but recall something that happened just before I went to Los Angeles last week. I was packing and went into the TV room to ask Kelly about something or other–and found her watching I, Robot on FX. This movie is the 2004 movie starring Will Smith and involving, as the title indicates, robots. I saw it a year or two after it came out, mostly out of curiosity, and have regretted it ever since. Not just because it was a terrible movie, you understand, but also because there was a masterful screenplay written for I, Robot by Harlan Ellison and–

I can see I’m getting ahead of myself here so let me back up and explain for those people who may not be as close to science fiction as I am.

“I, Robot” has a rather interesting history and those of you that saw the movie saw essentially the 4th generation of the title. Perhaps the most famous incarnation of I, Robot was Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection of short stories put out by Gnome Press. This collection–not a novel but a collection of loosely-related stories–contained 9 of Asimov’s early Robot stories, plus an introduction he wrote that provides a framework for the stories. But even this was not the first incarnation of the title. If I recall correctly (I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment), Asimov wanted to call the collection Mind and Iron, but his publisher insisted on using the title “I, Robot”. Asimov pointed out that title had been used in a famous Eando Binder story, but it didn’t seem to matter. So Asimov’s collection was actually the second generation of the title.

If you’ve never read I, Robot, the stories are an interesting look into Golden Age science fiction. They are essentially puzzle stories, the puzzle usually involving the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov and Campbell made famous. What ties the stories together, aside from the Laws, are some of the characters, Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan; and of course, Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist who worked with robots. Some of these stories have a pulpish feel to them, but they are all entertaining, and most of them have been reprinted countless time.

In 1978, the third generation of I, Robot took form. Harlan Ellison, a good friend of Asimov was hired to write a screenplay for the movie version of I, Robot. It is the only screenplay I’ve ever read cover to cover. It can’t, of course, follow all 9 stories and tie them all together in a 2 hour movie. But it does a wonderful job of taking a few of the stories and weaving a magnificent tale, even a love story involving Susan Calvin. Upon reading that screenplay, I felt that if the movie had been made, it would have been the greatest science fiction movie ever filmed up to that point. The entire history of sci-fi film might have gone in a different (and in my opinion, better) direction if Ellison and Asimov’s I, Robot was the blockbuster of the late 1970s instead of Lucas’s Star Wars. Asimov loved the screenplay. In fact, here is what he wrote about in an introductory piece:

So Harlan wrote the screenplay, some years ago, and sent me a copy and I loved it. Susan Calvin was in it, so were Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan, so were some of my robots. The plot that Harlan built up out of the material I provided in the book was viewed through a distorting lens that brought out new and startling facets. His screenplay would have made a marvelous movie, in my opinion.

That movie was never made, probably because the screenplay was brilliant and Hollywood doesn’t go in or brilliant screenplays.

Which brings me to the Will Smith incarnation of I, Robot, unto the fourth generation. As I said, Hollywood doesn’t do brilliant screenplays. If you take all the “startling facets” of Ellison’s screenplay and turn them into utter rubbish, what you get is the 2004 Hollywood summer blockbuster, I, Robot. As one review of the movie I read said, the only thing the book and movie had in common were the letters I, R, O, B and T. Sure, the lead actress played a character named Susan Calvin, but she resembled nothing like the Susan Calvin I knew and loved. Sure, there was a U. S. Robotics and Mechanical Men. Sure, there were robots and even a reference to the Three Laws. But they were virtually ignored throughout the movie, which was nothing more than an experiment in CGI.

I regretted seeing it because it nearly spoiled the original stories and Harlan Ellison’s wonderful screenplay for me. Nearly.

I know that Isaac’s daughter, Robyn approved of the movie, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t make it a good movie, nor does it tie the movie any closer to the original stories, nor does it make that 2004 screenplay come close to the quality of Ellison’s 1978 screenplay. They play in different leagues. Why oh why does Hollywood have to do this?

Kelly asked me gently if I didn’t like the movie merely because I thought it was a poorly done version of Isaac Asimov’s book.

“No,” I said, “I don’t like it because I saw what the movie was supposed to look like. I ate from the tree of knowledge and I have paid for it ever since.”

My saving grace–the reason seeing the 2004 movie didn’t quite spoil the book for me–is this: I dream that somewhere out there in that quantum mechanical multiverse of ours, there is a version of the universe where Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot got made. And that he and Isaac got to attend the premier together.

And it was good.

11 thoughts on “I, Robot; I, Robot; I, Robot; and I, Robot

  1. I feel for you. I never saw it, it didn’t look too appealing. Unfortunately, movies are hardly ever as good as the books, except for Jaws, which is awesome.

  2. And I’d ordinarily agree with Asimov’s daughter that he would have approved of the movie–except that Harlan wrote such a better screenplay; I mean brilliantly amazing, Oscar quality–that there’s no way Asimov would have agreed. At best he would have said nothing, being contractually obligated not to say negative things about the film.

  3. “If I really correctly (I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment)”

    This probably should read, “If I recall correctly (I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment)”

    (Sorry man — that insidious grammar editor snuck in and took over this here oldsters body and mind for a moment!)

    🙂

    Will

  4. I did not realize that Robyn had weighed in on the movie.

    I did see the Will Smith “I, Robot,” and like you, I bemoaned the fact that Harlan’s screenplay was never made. (I wish I could get ahold of my copy; it’s in storage, in a box somewhere.) But I did feel that the Smith movie successfully transplanted Asimov’s ideas into an “action flick,” and for all we know, it may have convinced some people to pick up the copy of the book that had Smith on the covr.

  5. Michael, I’ll agree with you that maybe the movie helped sell some books to people who might not have already read Asimov’s stuff. But Harlan’s version of the movie would have done that, too. Plus you’d have gotten a much better movie. What really kills me is that a great screenplay existed and Hollywood opted for the “action flick.” I really think we may have had an entirely different breed of sci-fi films today if Harlan’s version had been produced in the late 70s.

  6. The “I, Robot” film has nothing to do with Harlan’s script, but not for the reasons stated.

    At the risk of trusting Wikipedia, the Will Smith “I, Robot” originally had no connections with Asimov, starting out as a screenplay written in 1995 by Jeff Vintar, entitled Hardwired. Is was only when it went into production was Hardwired retrofitted to include the three laws, Susan Calvin, etc. since Fox already held the option on the Asimov stories.

  7. Mark, in that case, what value did bringing the Three Laws, Susan Calvin, etc. have other than being able to call the movie I, Robot? Perhaps that increased the potential viewership of the movie, but Asimov fans would have recognized in the first 5-10 minutes that it was not close to canonical, and hardcore fans would be frustrated knowing that there was a better script out there that could have benefited from those elements… and yet never got made.

    Couple that with the fact that people who never read Asimov and chose to go buy the rebranded I, Robot paperback would probably be bitterly disappointed since the book and the movie had virtually nothing in come, not one single scene.

    Sorry–I just get really worked up thinking about this. Maybe it wasn’t Hollywood’s fault since, as you point out, Fox already held the option. But it was a bitter disappointment nevertheless.

  8. I think appending a well-known SF title to a film (Starship Troopers, I, Robot, others) is just a ploy to get whatever free ‘coattail’ marketing is to be had from the geek community.

    If you assume that there are some 4+ millions of SF geeks/fans out there, and each of them influences roughly three other people, and then assume that only 20% of them watched the movie, you’re still talking nearly two and a half million tickets/purchases. Which is a pretty good kick-off for a blockbuster.

    Fortunately in the case of I, Robot, its dubious heritage hit the street well before release and trailers made it pretty obvious that we weren’t going to be seeing anything like ‘Robbie’.

    And Eando Binder’s (Earl and Otto) stories were made into an Outer Limits episode (twice), which were pretty faithful to the originals. RAH’s Jerry Was A Man can be viewed as an alternate take on the same theme and was also made into a tv production for the Masters of Science Fiction series.

  9. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid seeing Starship Troopers. However, I was invited to a private screening, years ago, of Puppet Masters and I was disappointed by that one as well. I think Foundation is moving forward now. I wonder how the studios will screw up that one?

    To Michael’s point, some portion of that 2 million people you estimate are going to go out and buy I, Robot, which is good, but on the other hand, how many of them–who’ve never read the book before–will be disappointed by the book because “it doesn’t follow the movie”?

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