TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!


Y’all may recall that several years back, this item topped my list of Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — … Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.

And today, just days after the death of Leon, I get this news:

Robert Heinlein’s Scifi Classic Stranger in a Strange Land Is Coming to TV

True to its name, the Syfy channel has made a habit of adapting science fiction and fantasy literature both established (Childhood’s End, Hyperion) and contemporary (The Expanse, The Magicians). Now it seems there’s another much-beloved property on the network’s list: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land.

According to a press release, this is the first TV adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land—very broadly, the tale of a Mars-born man who travels to Earth and experiences human culture for the first time; it influenced the counterculture and won a Hugo en route to becoming a classic. No further details on the proposed TV series were announced, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one….

OK, first, this had better be good. I’ve been waiting for it for 46 years. Not a long time at all from an Old One’s perspective (they’d be content to wait another century or two), but quite a stretch for those of us who have no immediate plans to discorporate.

And in that time — especially most recently — we have become accustomed to a level of quality in TV series that we couldn’t have dreamed of back when I first read the book.

So when I say this needs to be be good, I mean like “Sopranos” good, or “Band of Brothers” good. I want it to be better than “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Merely making it better than “Dune,” The Worst Movie Of All Time, won’t even get you into the right universe of how good this needs to be.

So yeah, we’re ALL gonna keep an eye on this one. If they don’t grok the fullness, if we sense a wrongness in the result, the Old Ones will know, because they’re monitoring.

You grok what we’re saying, TV people?

Oh, also, I’d still like a part in the series. Ben Caxton would be best, but as I say, I’m too old. And I’m much, MUCH too young to play Jubal — he’s supposed to be so old, people are amazed to find him still walking around, much less as spry as he is. He’s like at least in his 90s.

I’d settle for something minor. How about James Oliver Cavendish, the famous Fair Witness whose services Ben engages to go interview the fake Man from Mars? I think that’s in my range.

Now, let’s discuss who will play the other parts….

It better be THIS good. We'll be watching. Capisce?

It had better be THIS good. We’ll be watching. Capisce? (That’s Italian-American for “grok”…)

27 thoughts on “TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, I’ll start it off…

    I’m thinking Alan Arkin for Jubal Harshaw, who to me is the central character. He’s on up there, but they might have to add ADDITIONAL wrinkles to make him old enough.

    John Cusack can be Ben Caxton, if they can make him look young enough.

    Valentine Michael Smith? At one time, I might have chosen Jude Law, but he may be past it. Tom Hardy, maybe?

    Ah, Gillian Boardman… Emma Stone? Romola Garai? Carey Mulligan? Rachel McAdams?

    No, I’ve got it! Zooey Deschanel!

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, I thought about this some more on the way home…

      Amy Adams might also be good as Gillian, if Zooey is unavailable. She’s almost the perfect type.

      Since Ben is a muckraking, investigative columnist, sort of in the Jack Anderson mold, I think of “Spotlight,” which makes me think of Mark Ruffalo. But then… Ben is widely syndicated, meaning he’s been around and made his bones, so maybe Ruffalo’s too young-seeming. You need someone between him and Michael Keaton. I’m back to Cusack. He may be just right.

      Twenty years ago, it would have been easier to cast Michael and Jill. They would have been Brad Pitt and Marisa Tomei. Pitt had just the right otherworldly quality in “Meet Joe Black,” and Marisa is, you know, Marisa.

      But wait! We can still use Marisa — She can be Patty, the tattooed lady! Of course, Patty was “crowding 50,” but was in great shape and looked about 35. Or maybe Julianne Moore could be Patty.

      Then there’s the minor character, the stripper Dawn Ardent. She doesn’t need as much range as an actress, but she needs to look a lot like Jill, which is tricky.

      Another tricky thing, of course, is that most of the characters have to do nudity toward the end — and Michael, Jill, and of course Dawn Ardent, have to be pretty impressive in the buff. In the book, the women have centerfold figures and Michael has muscles like Captain America. But Hollywood can work around that, I guess — special effects, body doubles.

      OK, let’s get busy on this, people. This series isn’t going to make itself…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Kirsten Dunst. I just ran across her name. Haven’t seen her in awhile. She, too, could pay Jill.

        You need a sort of no-nonsense, girl-next-door wholesomeness with Jill, mixed with sex appeal of course.

        Keep in mind that some of these actresses I’m suggesting for Jill might also work for Anne, Miriam or Dorcas — Jubal’s rotating secretaries. Anne, of course, will have to be tall and rather Amazonian as well as beautiful, and look imposing in her Fair Witness robe. I think Heinlein described her as being like a Valkyrie…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I used to say, during my newspaper career, that if I didn’t do that, I would want to direct movies.

          Now, I’m free to do that, but all the other directors my age sort of have a head start on me, so… for some reason Hollywood’s not knocking my door down.

          If I can’t direct, though, I’ll settle for a high-paying job as casting director. For a guy who’s not into celebrities and would rather have a root canal than read People, I really enjoy thinking about which actors could play which parts — especially if the film or TV show is about a book I love. I feel attached to those characters, and I want to make sure I get the nuances right.

          I could do that job…

          Of course, I’m at a disadvantage doing it here, because I’m limited to actors I’ve seen in shows that have already been produced. I can’t have a casting call and bring in unknowns, which is where the real challenge comes in, and you have to rely more on intuition.

          For instance… I’ve often said I’d like to see Leon Uris’ Battle Cry get the high-quality TV series treatment. That film was HORRIBLE to someone who loved the book — typical 1950s crank-it-out-and-don’t-care-whether-it’s-good pap.

          But the TRICK would be finding the unknown actors to play those 18-year-old Marine recruits. That’s a challenge. “Band of Brothers” did a good job of finding a bunch of non-name young actors — of course, a lot of them were Brits…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I think I’ve mentioned this before, but THE weirdest thing about the film version of “Battle Cry” was that the actor who played L.Q. Jones so identified with the role (his first) that he changed his actual name to L.Q. Jones… even though he was miscast in the role. He was nothing like the guy in the book.

            He’s not a bad character actor (especially good in Western roles), but if he had hoped that name change would launch him to stardom, he had to be seriously disappointed.

            Thing is, he had a pretty cool name to start with: Justice McQueen. Steve wouldn’t be famous for another couple of years, so there wouldn’t have been a conflict..

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I just thought of something…

              Wikipedia says “film producers” suggested he change his name.

              You don’t suppose they did that because the only famous McQueen at the time was Butterfly McQueen, and they didn’t think it was a good idea for his name to sound like that of a black woman…

          2. Norm Ivey

            I’ll settle for a high-paying job as casting director.

            Back in the penultimate decade of the last century, I took a course in which we studied Chaucer. He asked what actor should play the role of the Miller. Brian Denehy lept to mind almost unbidden. He seems ideal.

    1. Bart

      Yep, SyFy has produced some memorable movies that will be with us for a long, long, long time. I was shocked when Sharknado, Sharnado 2, and 3 were not nominated for an Oscar or Emmy. And then we have the Lake Placid series that took a decent movie with a decent cast and turned them into something worthy of MST 3000 and the funny characters making great commentary on really bad movies.

      Don’t hold your breath expecting something good Brad. Keep repeating SyFy, SyFy, SyFy so you won’t be disappointed when a giant anaconda, crocodile, or hybrid shark-octopus eats the guy from Mars at the end of the movie. And then a series of sequels of men from Mars coming to earth to go after the corporations responsible for creating the giant hybrids for profit.

      Yes, I admit I watch some movies on SyFy for a genuine laugh, especially the Sharknado series. Simply too funny for words to adequately describe.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ll say this, though (and I must, since no one else is joining in — don’t they know how desperate I am to get off the subject of the election?!?)…

      SyFy did the Dune TV series — which, while not necessarily what I’d call “good,” was at least far less BAD than Dune, the Worst Movie in the History of the World, which I think was its official title.

      Speaking of titles, I like that SyFy called their version “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” to distinguish it from David Lynch’s Dune, which, as the Reverend mother said of Alia, was an abomination.

      That mini-mini series (three episodes) did have a couple of name actors — William Hurt and Giancarlo Giannini (who only counts as a household name if your household is into Lina Wertmüller) — neither of whom I would cast in “Stranger.” I still haven’t forgiven the HORRIBLE casting of Hurt as Arkady Renko in “Gorky Park.” They should have cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Renko. (Although the casting of Brian Dennehy as the American cop was brilliant. When I had read the book years before, I had pictured that character looking, and acting, just like Dennehy.)

      But I’m feeling generous. We could throw Hurt a bone. Let him play Thomas Mackenzie, the stereovision network exec, as an ironic nod to “Broadcast News.” Or… how about Gilbert Berquist, the sleazy aide to Secretary General Douglas?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Thanks for joining in there, Bart. I think you were posting just as I was complaining that no one but Burl and I were commenting…

        The rest of you — you can join in, too. You don’t have to have a four-letter name that starts with B and contains an R…

        Of course, I realize it helps to be of a certain age to get excited about this project. If you’re my age, it’s like they issued you a paperback copy of “Stranger” when you bought “Abbey Road…”

        I practically have the book memorized. Odd thing is, I was pretty critical of it the first time I read it. It was right after reading Catch-22, so it suffered by comparison. But over the years, I reread it and reread it, totally hooked. I wore out at least two copies of it in just a few years. (Heinlein is FUN.)

        Mrs. Burchard, the coolest English teacher ever (Burl knows her), let us pick some of what we read that year. Among some stuff she stuck in such as Ibsen’s plays and Wuthering Heights, we read Stranger, Catch-22 (my suggestion, since I had just read it over the summer) and Cat’s Cradle. As I said, coolest English teacher ever…

  2. Bart

    Haven’t read the book but did read the synopsis on the internet and from what I can deduce from it, the “Fosterite Church of the New Revelation” sounds strikingly similar to the pagan temples in Corinth and other cities during the times of Christ and described to a lesser degree in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Think maybe the author was one of the original San Francisco flower children founders?

    However, I did watch the movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark (American Graffiti), Buck Henry (always one of my favorite offbeat, quirky actors), and Bernie Casey. Apparently not the same but perhaps somewhat similar in theme regarding earth’s culture at the time. Then later, Jeff Bridges was in a movie, “Starman” that was along a similar theme. The difference is that Bowie and Bridges were both aliens from another planet.


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, the Fosterites are pretty pagan, although in some respects they’re a sort of bizarre outgrowth of fundamentalism — of the Prosperity Gospel variety.

      They’re sort of what you get if you were a master marketer and wanted to start a really, really successful church. You take a very simplified sort of bible-thumping approach and add to it the ingredient that you can do anything you want, as long as you do it within the context of the faith.

      If you drink or womanize outside the context of church, you are a sinner and bound for damnation. But if you buy liquor from a church-approved distiller, you’re fine (the services are punctuated with commercials for approved liquor, which is distinguished from “a brand for sinners.”)

      And the Happiness Meetings for the inner circles — the Eternally Saved, as the Fosterites term it — are to a great extent orgies. Nothing you do in such a context can possibly be wrong.

      So, you know, it’s a VERY popular religion…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And Michael borrows some from the Fosterites in setting up his own church, in which orgies feature prominently.

        But for him, it’s called “growing closer,” and is an outgrowth of the beliefs and worldview he was brought up on being raised by Martians.

        You can see why this was such a cult phenomenon in the ’60s…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I never know when these pop-culture posts are going to stimulate a lot of discussion, and when they aren’t. I had thought a lot of y’all would be pumped about a “Stranger” movie, but I guessed wrong.

    I think of it as being one of those things everyone has read, but maybe that’s not the case any more. It used to be something you could make references to the way people do to Harry Potter now, or Tolkien at any time, and people would get it.

    Anyway, if you haven’t read it, it’s not great literature, but it’s fun. Heinlein has a very breezy, entertaining style…

    1. Jim Cross

      Legendary Entertainment just announced they had acquired the rights to “Dune.” According to the press release, “The agreement calls for the development and production of possible film and television projects for a global audience.” So we have that to look forward to ….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Sounds like they plan to do more than Dune. They must be planning to use the sequels. Yeesh. I hated the sequels…

        I just want to see a major studio, and major director — say, Ridley Scott — do Dune, and do it right…

Comments are closed.