Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why Are Alternate History Adaptations So Poorly Made?

Guest post by Josh Weiss.

I recently re-read Robert Harris’s classic 1992 alternate history novel Fatherland in which a homicide detective in the Reich Kripo (Kriminalpolizei) attempts to solve the murder of a Party big-shot in a somewhat dystopian version of 1964 in which Germany won WWII. It’s a tour-de-force of a book that works on several levels as noir murder mystery, science fiction story and history lesson about Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews and other European groups considered sub-human by the fascist ideology of National Socialism. Two words: Wannsee Conference.

Sounds like it would make a great movie, right? Of course and as it so happens, an adaptation of Fatherland was made by HBO only two years after the book’s publication, starring Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) in the main role. However, the only problem is that the made-for-TV is so abysmal that it’s hard to watch … like extremely hard to watch, especially if you had just finished the book right before watching it like I had.

For one thing, not a shred of what makes the book great is contained within the almost two-hour movie that is just plain bad, even for a ‘90s feature. The plot is stripped of its integrity. Neither the dread nor the paranoia of a police state monitoring one’s every move. Not to mention the gaping absence of the ethical twist of the book’s big reveal for the characters. Horrible acting, the miscasting of every single major character and the trashy quality of the movie itself all work together to tarnish the good name of Robert Harris. Not even the presence of a younger Peter Vaughan (Maester Aemon on Game of Thrones) or seeing a Hitler impersonator with a greying moustache can save this sad excuse for a film.

Stick with the book and avoid it all costs. Now, you may be saying, “Well, it could just be an isolated incident in the world of alternate history adaptations.” Let me counter that with another AH scenario that would make another great movie.

One of the most notorious Nazi doctors of the Second World War—Josef Mengele—The Angel of Death himself--succeeds in making clones of Adolf Hitler with funds from a post-war SS network in the hopes of having the Fuhrer rise to power once more. A chilling sci-fi tale of intrigue and espionage, no?

Wish I’d thought of it, but that’s actually the plot of Ira Levin’s 1976 novel The Boys From Brazil. And again, it got a movie adaptation only two years after its publication. Like, Michael Crichton, Levin makes the science so believable, that you’ll be forced to concede that making clones of Hitler is downright easy. And so, the book involves a Simon Wiesenthal-esque Nazi hunter named Yaakov Lieberman trying to put a stop to the dastardly plot that never was. In reality, Mengele was never caught and lived out his years comfortably in South America with the occasional bother from Mossad agents attempting to bring him to justice.

So who was tapped to helm the Hollywood version of the book? None other than Franklin J. Schaffner, director of the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes. So far so good. And who will act in it? Why two of the great thespians of the 20th century, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. Shut the front door! There’s no way this movie can fail!

Oh, but it did and still does to this day. Again, the sound plot and names of characters are bastardized for no discernible reason. Although great actors, neither Peck nor Olivier were right for right for the roles in which they were cast:  Mengele and Lieberman respectively. Gone is the intrigue and race against the clock, the true evil of the plan. The acting is hammy and the direction is non-existent and the entire thing is as forgettable as a transitory case of amnesia.

So why has the butchery of great works of alternate history literature occurred in their translations to the screen? Personally, I blame it on the time periods between publication and production. In both instances, only two years passed between the book coming out and the release of a feature-length film adaptation. It’s sloppy is what it is. You can’t rush greatness and in these cases, stories that should have matured over time and become classics in their own right were plundered for cinematic gain.

Look at Amazon’s take of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The book came out in 1962 and 54 years passed before anyone decided to try and make it work as a television show. And with today’s superior effects and budgets, that kind of world building is not only more believable, but more enthralling.

Just like history cannot be alternated until it’s already happened, so too, a book, especially one about AH, cannot be adapted until it has come into its own.

TL;DR: Stick to reading an alternate history book and avoid the movie at all costs.

* * *

Josh Weiss is a senior at Drexel University in Philadelphia, studying Communications with a concentration in Public Relations. As a die-hard lover of pop culture, he loves reading and writing about movies, superheroes, Lovecraftian horrors, hard boiled noir mysteries and, of course, alternate histories. As a lover of music, he collects vinyl and listen to the music of a bygone era like swing and disco. He's also thinking of picking up the ukulele. 


  1. Boys From Brazil wasn't an alternate-history story. Levin wrote it as a contemporary thriller — Mengele was still alive and at large at that point. And, frankly, the whole plot of the book turns on the fact that even within the story, the villains' plan is nonsensically stupid.

    1. Actually I was going to point out the absurdity of the plan to clone Hitler and somehow start a fourth Reich. What would likely happen is that the clones might fight each other or would not be interested and even if they somehow get along it would cause mass confusion and they would get their asses whooped. Not to mention that the Neo-Nazis would be skeptical of the Hitler clones and think it's some Jewish plot to trick them or something.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.