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.