The Not-Quite Ultimate Adaptations

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I concluded last month’s review of The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum with the wishful speculation that there might exist some alternate reality where Weinbaum’s stories served as a plentiful source of wonderful film adaptations. What I failed to note that is that Weinbaum has not been ignored by Hollywood; there has already been one theatrical release and three television adaptations based on his work. Unfortunately, one of these is lost, and the three remaining hardly do justice to the source material. Worse yet is the lack of imagination involved in the choice of material, for although one would hardly know it from the wildly varying titles, all four are derived from Weinbaum’s  “The Adaptive Ultimate.”  Although an excellent short story, it is hardly representative of what its author is most famous for (Weinbaum had it published under the pseudonym of “John Jessel”), and the adaptations that I’ve managed to have seen either diluted the source material or focused on certain themes present in the original story at the expense of others.

Multiple adaptations of a short story for television have actually been quite common, as Alan Brennert noted in his introduction to the anthology New Stories from the Twilight Zone.  For instance Cyril M. Kornbluth’s classic “Little Black Bag” has been adapted three times for television, the most famous of which was the one Rod Serling scripted in 1970 for Night Gallery, an excellent if loose adaptation. However,  there were two earlier ones, both of which I managed to see thanks to YouTube, an even looser adaptation that played on one of the earliest of science fiction anthology shows, the broadcast-live Tales of Tomorrow, and a partially surviving version from Britain’s own science fiction anthology show Out of the Unknown, and judging from what exists, it is both the most faithful and the best of the three adaptations. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” often regarded as the definitive hard science fiction short story, has also seen multiple adaptations to both American and British TV and radio as well.  But why this particular story by Weinbaum should get so many solely American television adaptations, as well as a theatrical film adaptation, all within just an eight year time span with merely a two year interlude between each, remains a mystery.

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The first of the TV versions of The Adaptive Ultimate was produced for live drama series Studio One in September 1949,  just under 10 months after the debut of that pioneering anthology show. Unimaginatively titled “Kyra Zelas” (the name of the story’s lead antagonist), it was broadcast before the use of the kinescope to record live programming, and is hence lost forever.  The second adaptation, entitled “The Miraculous Serum” was also broadcast live on the specifically genre-oriented Tales of Tomorrow, but fortunately, by the time it aired in June of 1952, the recording of such broadcasts became commonplace, and it is available for viewing on YouTube. This version also boasts an impressive set of credits, whose names will be familiar to science fiction fans. Director Don Medford, who handled some 35 episodes of Tales of Tomorrow, would go on to direct some of the finest episodes of The Twilight Zone while Richard Derr, fresh off starring in George Pal’s classic When Worlds Collide, would guest star in episodes of Star Trek and The Outer Limits. Although Lola Albright is best known to the general public for the TV series Peter Gunn and such movies as Champion, A Cold Wind in August, and Lord Love a Duck, she also made the underrated 50s science fiction classic The Monolith Monsters, and guest starred in one of the best episodes of  The Incredible Hulk, “The First.”  But the biggest surprise to be found is the presence of Theodore Sturgeon as scenarist; as it turns out, the great writer had a long career writing for television since its earliest days. He was actually one of the main creative figures behind Tales of Tomorrow, and had also contributed scripts to an earlier SF anthology series entitled Out There which featured an even more impressive roster of of adaptations; among them were Robert A. Heinlein’s “Green Hills of Earth” and “Ordeal in Space”; sadly no episodes of this series appear to exist anymore. Sturgeon would later script some classic episodes of Star Trek, adapt his novella Killdozer! into a well-remembered TV movie, and near the end of his life, provide some scripts to the new version of The Twilight Zone. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was Sturgeon who had helped co-conceive and pitch the whole idea of the Tales of Tomorrow TV show in the first place, making Sturgeon one of television’s unheralded pioneers.

Much of the problems present in the Tales of Tomorrow adaptation derive from the technical restraints that live television imposed upon it and other dramas of the period. The action is restricted to just a few sets, and the camera is restricted to as few movements as possible; when it does move, it does so clumsily, as in the embarrassing early shot involving a zoom into a clock. The actors all handle themselves quite well under the pressures of a live broadcast, especially the always-underrated Albright in the Zelas role (inexplicably renamed to the bland “Carol Williams”), who is excellent as a woman who nonchalantly does what she must to survive regardless of society’s rules and grows intoxicated power, although curiously, she’s far more attractive before her operation than afterwards.  However, what the actors need is a suitable teleplay, and the one provided by Sturgeon isn’t up to task. Excessively verbose, it rarely transcends the limitations of live television, consisting mostly of characters talking to each other at length, and the transition between the First and Second Acts is particularly jarring, as we aren’t given any reason or explanation as to how Kyra/Carol got to Washington in the first place.  Additionally, the Kyra/Carol character has been watered down from the original story.  In “The Adaptive Ultimate,” Kyra Zelas undergoes a full genetic change that allows her to adapt to any threat or situation; she not only become immune to any disease but can change her appearance and heal any wound instantaneously. In “The Miraculous Serum,” Carol Williams only changes psychologically after her tuberculosis is cured, and she hardly approaches the coldly calculating megalomania of Weinbaum’s Zelas.  Shortly after she is discharged from the hospital, Kyra Zelas brutally murders a man for his money,  Carol Williams merely pickpockets one and then acts befuddled when confronted with the unethical and illegal nature of her actions.  The entire production comes off as too pat, too restrained, as if Carol/Kyra couldn’t exhibit any of her abilities because the network thought they would lose sponsors if she did so (which was probably indeed the case).

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The last of the three TV versions of “The Adaptive Ultimate,” entitled “Beyond Return” and also available for viewing on Youtube (in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), was made for Science Fiction Theater, one of the longest-running and more successful of the early SF shows aimed at a mature audience.  Today, the show is best known by younger viewers for being named-dropped by George McFly (Crispin Glover) in Back to the Future, where he mentions that it’s his favorite show.  Although temporal snobs will likely snort that the scene reveals just how desperate science fiction fans were in 1955 for TV show that catered to their needs, it was still intelligent and sincerely made, much more so than many of today’s genre series and franchises.  Science Fiction Theater was the brain child of Ivan Tors, who was very much like George Pal in many ways: a Hungarian immigrant who had a great interest in both science and science fiction, and who was described as warm and kind man by all those who worked with him, he was one of the pioneering producers of the American science fiction film.  In 1953, he produced the excellent The Magnetic Monster, a personal favorite of mine that is one of the few genuine examples of hard science fiction in the cinema, and followed it the next year with two more science fiction films, the underrated Gog, which is quite good in spite of its awful title, and the Riders to the Stars, which isn’t as good in spite of its great title, but still watchable. Tors made no more science fiction films after these, and instead went straight into TV with Science Fiction Theater.  Although Tors was admirable in his intentions, and his show produced its share of well-written and interesting episodes, it was also undeniably too timid in its approach to potentially provocative and interesting story lines, and ultimately undone by Tors’ own insistence that television be seen ultimately as an educational tool instead of a new vehicle for drama. When Rod Serling was quoted as saying that the difference between The Twilight Zone and previous science fiction and fantasy programs was that his show was going to be about people instead of “gadgets and leprechauns,” I have a sneaking suspicion that he was specifically talking about Science Fiction Theater.

This adaptation of Weinbaum’s story (puzzlingly retitled “Beyond Return”) , working with a larger budget and filmed instead being broadcast live, is considerably more faithful to its source material. Although faithfulness to the source material doesn’t necessarily mean a better adaptation, and the Kyra Zelas character has still been watered-down in her malicious ways to please the mores of the time and provide a happy ending, most of the best parts are still preserved, which is what matters most. The result is one of the best episodes of Tors’ series, well-paced and consistently watchable throughout. It is the best of two adaptations I have seen, and is probably the best of the three that survive. Much of the dialogue explaining the science behind the story is borrowed from the Weinbaum story (which was well over twenty years old at the time, despite the show’s promise that it was based on current science) and unlike the earlier adaptation, this one carry overs both Kyra’s newfound ability to change her appearance and physically adapt to new threats and surroundings as well as her increase in physical strength and aggressiveness.  Joan Vohs, an intelligent actress unfortunately stereotyped as dumb blondes during her brief career, is excellent as Kyra Zelas. In her initial scenes, she captures our sympathy immediately, thoroughly believable not only as a terminally ill woman but  someone who has been through the world-weary life of abuse implied in the story. After her character’s transformation, Vohs doesn’t go the Jekyll-and-Hyde route of trying to play a completely different character that a lazier actor would attempt, but instead makes it clear we are simply watching the same person undergoing massive physical and psychological changes, and enjoying them, as if they were payback for years of poverty and ill health.  Zachary Scott (in a rare sympathetic role) and Peter Hansen (who, ironically, had also been in When Worlds Collide) also handle their roles and dialogue well, but their characters have been diminished from the original story and fail to make much of an impression. And unfortunately, that’s not all that’s been diminished.

The flimsy characters were one of the main flaws of Science Fiction Theater itself: in viewing television as much or more of an educational tool as entertainment and giving greater weight to the scientific concepts themselves instead of developing the story around them, plotting and character development were often weak. At least five minutes of screen time that could have gone to the actual story are devoted to the opening featuring host Truman Bradley giving a bizarre demonstration on how the human immune system works using a fire alarm, and then showing off some lizards in a tank (an American chameleon shown turning from green to brown and a skink with a second tail) as examples of adaptation. Bradley also provides pedantic yet sometimes necessary narration to fill in plot details missing on-screen, although they conceivably could have been filmed had so much time not been spent on the overlong introduction. Predictably, despite much of Weinbaum’s own dialogue being carried over into the teleplay, some of his more intriguing ideas don’t make it.  Weinbaum’s importance to early science fiction laid not just in the quality of his writing but the ideas he contributed; he sought to provide a means to make his readers think about things they normally thought about from perspectives they did not normally approach them from. In “The Adaptive Ultimate,” he wasn’t just extrapolating from then-current knowledge of biological adaptation and genetics and providing the science-minded reader a means of thinking about Darwinian and Lamarckian models of adaptation, but wanted to specifically discuss human adaption, on both the individual and social level. This is all but lost in the Science Fiction Theater version of the story, and the only meaningful ideas that remain pertain to biological adaptation.

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I have not seen She-Devil, the sole theatrical feature film version of “The Adaptive Ultimate,” and it is in fact one of the few science fiction films from the 1950s that I still have not seen. In this case, however, I do not appear do be missing much, as all the reviews I have read indicate that it is the worst of the three existing adaptations. It is all the shame that it is so, considering that it stars the very talented Albert Dekker and was directed by Kurt Neumann, who also made the classic The Fly and one of my favorite unsung gems of 1950s science fiction, Kronos. It has been reviewed by my friend David Sindelar; I not only invite you to read his review, but to check out the rest of his website, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings. On a mission to review every science fiction, fantasy and horror ever made, he has so far succeeded in reviewing over 4,000 movies made 1895 and 1985. And he’s only getting started. She-Devil has since been very belatedly released to DVD, but I have not picked it up, and probably will not do so in the foreseeable future.

Despite all of these criticisms, one cannot be too harsh on all of these attempts at dramatizing a classic science fiction story, at least the television adaptations. Both were made with sincere intentions, and tried their best with the technical and budgetary limitations they were faced with, even if their scripts could have been improved. We should be glad they made the effort, and should hope that similarly sincere efforts at adapting classic works in the genre are to be undertaken more often in the future.

 

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I had never heard of Tales of Tomorrow before reading your article. I have now watched most of them. Interesting but some of the acting and scripting was atrocious,