RogerBW's Blog

Childhood's End 26 May 2016

2015 SF mini-series, adapted by Matthew Graham and directed by Nick Hurran. In 2016, alien ships arrive on Earth, with the aliens saying they're come to bring utopia. But not everyone agrees that that's what they're offering.

Clarke's novel, while suffering from his usual problems of minimal characterisation, is a series of surprises that relies on the reader having some idea of the tropes of SF. It's a space race story; no, it's an alien invasion story; no, it's a mystery about the aliens; no, it's a horror story about psychic children… but at the core it's the opposite of the classic Campbellian SF plot in which resourceful humanity overcomes the challenges it's set. These challenges are just too big. As in On the Beach, all humanity can do is choose the level of dignity with which it departs from the universe.

And this television adaptation, a three-part mini-series in just over four hours of screen time, does a reasonable job of that… eventually. But first it wants Conflict and Excitement, so it invents a media baron who takes against the aliens (naming them the Overlords) because, um, because, and leads a resistance and propaganda movement against them, which kidnaps the aliens' chosen interface with Earth. Who's still Rikki (or at least Ricky) Stormgren, but now he's not the Secretary-General of the UN; he's a random farmer in the middle of nowhere, because Middle America is the only place you'll find a good person. Or something. Oh, and he's got a dead first wife, of course. These Overlords intervene - a random kid is shot, and they magically heal him and kill the guy who did it. Why him, why not anyone else? It's In The Script. There's a love story.

Some of the major plot points of the book are still here, like what the Overlords actually look like. Some aren't, such as why that appearance is significant, which rather removes the point of the exercise. The decline of religion is here (no more explained than in the book), but there are holdouts, and the time scale is compressed enough that they're significant (which, um, was the point of not compressing the time scale); in fact that's one of the major themes here. When we do finally get to the awe in the face of the unknown that was always Clarke's strength, it's almost too late – though this production does bring something new, some imagery very clearly borrowed from the idea of the Rapture, as the children depart not walking into the alien ships but floating telekinetically upward. (Though some of the point of the original was that they were choosing to walk.)

I'm glad the attempt was made, because it means people are still reading Clarke, but I have to count this as a failure. It's very pretty, but it throws away nearly everything the book had to say in the quest for spectacle. It's not bad as a visual presentation of certain scenes from the book, but on its own it's nothing. Fortunately we still have the book.

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  1. Posted by Peter Edge at 01:22pm on 29 May 2016

    I'd agree with pretty much all of that, but add that it completely brought in my 11 year old (who has limited interest in live action drama), and it was the first "adult" movie the three of us watched as a family. The reveal was something of a disappointment to him, and there was no prestige, but I still enjoyed it. Charles Dance as devil (tick).

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