'Alita' and Why Good Sci-Fi Stories Are Hard to Find

Alita- Battle Angel_Minority Report_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox; Courtesy of Photofest
Critics complain about remakes, and perhaps it can be traced to the death of the genre’s short story market.

This weekend sees the big-budget film Alita: Battle Angel hit theaters. It's been praised by critics for its visuals, but the manga adaptation has been criticized for a story that doesn’t quite come together. The Hollywood Reporter's review bemoaned the film's "lumpy script, muddled plot, stock characters and tired genre tropes."

Alita, from director Robert Rodriguez and producer-screenwriter James Cameron, is hardly the first visually epic film in recent years to have underwhelmed by a forgettable story. It has contributed to the box office demise of several, such as last year’s Mortal Engines, though other films have thrived in spite of this shortcoming. Consider Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar. It certainly wasn’t the writing or narrative creativity reflected by a storyline that bequeaths a rare metal with the name “unobtainium” — literally a generic term used in engineering jargon since at least the 1950s — that got people out to theaters.

In the current era of reboots and remakes, prequels and sequels, a lot has been said about a seeming dearth of originality in Hollywood.

The thing worth noting with the science fiction genre in particular is that original concept films have always represented a tiny fraction of the total. The obvious exception to the general rule would of course be Star Wars, but closer inspection shows how unusual these cases are. From the sci-fi horror movies of the 1930s — Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Island of Lost Souls — to the sci-fi boom in the 1950s — The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet — to the present, the sci-fi  film genre has always heavily relied on adaptation. 

While many novels have gracefully made the leap from page to screen, the most natural sources for feature-length film adaptation are really short stories and novellas. It’s a matter of space and time. A novel-to-film adaptation can require some serious condensation and simplification where story is concerned. If the budget is big enough, all the distant futures and strange worlds imagined by novelists can be brought to screen in vivid detail, but the same cannot be said for storyline within the time frame of a single film. The plot will always have to be stripped down, which can be a recipe for generic content. 

Generally speaking, the more you parse things down, the more they start to resemble each other. That's why short stories and novellas are far more adaptation-friendly sources. You don’t have to start hacking off important parts just to get the story down to size. Some even require expansion to fill a feature-length running time.

But films like Arrival aside, there seem to be fewer films based on modern sci-fi short stories. So what's changed? The height of sci-fi’s predominance as a film genre corresponds to a time when sci-fi short stories were especially popular. Dozens of magazines dedicated to science fiction and fantasy short stories and serials flourished, with a rise that began in the 1930s before falling into decline in the ’60s. These magazines published stories that were in turn adapted to some of the most iconic sci-fi content brought to screen, from episodes of The Twilight Zone to films made in all the decades since —The Day The Earth Stood Still (based on Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master,” published in 1940), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (based on Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report,” published 1956), Total Recall (based on Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” published 1966). And it wasn’t just specialized magazines either; George Langelaan’s “The Fly,” the basis of a 1958 film and David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the same name, was first published in the June 1957 issue of Playboy.

There are brilliant sci-fi short stories still being written, but the market looks very different than it once did. Yes, anyone can self-publish a story online, but actual paid publication opportunities for sci-fi short fiction have dwindled, and usually lack mainstream visibility. Sci-fi movies and TV seem to be on the rise as technological advancements open new doors for what’s possible while the world of short fiction has become a shadow of its former self. On screen, whether dealing with new stories or returns to old concepts — Jordan Peele's upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, for instance — one can’t help but wonder if we the viewers might end up noticing a difference.