Interview: 'Childhood’s End' Writer Matthew Graham Discusses Adapting Arthur C. Clarke For Television
Adapting novels for television is often a daunting task, especially when the novel is one of the most beloved books in science fiction history.
That book is Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. Written in 1953, the story follows the citizens of Earth after a group of aliens, called the Overlords, arrives and not only creates peace on the planet, but also fixes all of society's ills, such as famine and disease. Earth becomes a utopia, but of course, that peace and prosperity comes at a heavy price.
Since its publication, many have attempted to adapt Childhood's End without success. Even Stanley Kubrick once considered taking a stab at it, but ultimately, he chose to collaborate with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. In 1997, the BBC did an audio dramatization of the book, but Childhood's End never made it to TV or film ... until now.
Syfy premieres its Childhood's End miniseries on Monday, Dec. 14. Early reviews are mostly positive, and that is in part thanks to the series' script, written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who).
Tech Times spoke with Graham about his process in adapting Childhood's End for television and the themes that he feels the story represents.
Clarke's book is one of the most loved novels of science fiction. But Graham pointed out that a writer can't consider that when adapting something so epic for television.
"I think you just approach it as a text," he said. "You try not to put it too high on a pedestal, and I don't mean that in the sense that you don't respect the book—I love the book and I've loved the book for 30 years. But when you sit down to adapt it, you do have to put any kind of adoration aside, and you have to say, 'OK, I know this book is good, this book was around long before me and will be around long after me, so I'm not going to damage this book. I'm just going to have to look at it and work out practically, to start with, and creatively, how much of it can be translated to television with the minimum of disruption for the narrative and how much will have to be altered.' "
Graham is from the U.K., where writers often adapt great literature for television and film, from Tolstoy to Jane Austen, from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare. He pointed out that this helps in gaining the right perspective of knowing what works and what doesn't.
"It just seemed to me very clear at the start what would work very strongly for television—the opening, the arrival—all of that has built-in intrigue," said Graham. "The Overlords hiding their identity from us has built-in mystery and excitement. And the ending, and the character Jan Rodricks in the book—Milo in our show—who sets out to find out what the Overlords are really up to, that has an inherent adventure, mystery, magic and terror to it. So those things were all very kind of straightforward to process.
"The bigger issue is that the book is more a book of ideas. Books are written today to be made into film. Novelists know where the money is and they're writing the novel already thinking, 'this could be a movie.' Arthur C. Clarke did not write novels to be made into movies or TV shows. He just wrote novels to exist as novels. And so in the book, the narrative changes and it's more of an exploration of ideas and philosophies. So it's about taking those brilliant ideas and working out how to explore them and still deliver a plot, which we're required to do for television."
The book also has elements of spiritualism and even occasionally explores the occult. Although the Syfy miniseries doesn't focus as much on that as seen in the book, it still plays a part in the overall story.
"Now, in the text of our story, as the story progresses, there is a spiritual dimension that creeps into the story. And I exploited that because I think that what's fun about this show is that the audience will, hopefully, keep vacillating over what they think about Karellen. One minute they'll say, 'yeah, he's benign, he's wise, he's gentle.' And in the next minute, they'll think, 'oh, actually no, there's stuff going on here that's scary and I'm not sure I understand.' There's also a dark spiritual dimension that's creeping into this world. And then they'll go back again and think, 'no, actually, maybe, maybe not—maybe it's just a mystery and scary because we don't understand it and if we start to understand it, it will be less scary.'
"I wanted to sort of play that game. But I use some of the occult elements that Clarke put in the book, particularly in episode two. But that's OK, I think, because episode two is about religion and about how these religious people react to the Overlords. But then it was just about finding the reactions of the characters: as long as it feels relatively credible emotionally, you just kind of go with it. I think if I didn't use that stuff in the book, it would be a bit of a shame because it has such a unique aspect to it."
For fans of the book, there are a few noticeable differences, specifically with some of the main characters. For example, in the novel, the man chosen by head Overlord Karellen to speak for the aliens on Earth is Rikki Stormgren, the U.N. Secretary-General. However, on the Syfy miniseries, he's Ricky Stormgren and he's now a farmer from Missouri. Graham explained how that change makes the story feel more modern.
"When Clarke wrote his book in the early '50s, I think we had a much greater trust and belief in politicians. I think we felt that politicians really were the very best of us and that the United Nations was the highest ideal. And now, we often think of bureaucracy—we sort of think of hand-wringing politicians sitting around doing nothing—as frustrations and compromises. So I don't think those things apply anymore.
"So I felt like Ricky played into a more credible 21st century world view. Also, I was very interested in the idea of Karellen as kind of an omnipresent god who picks a guy, a shepherd boy or a farm boy, rather than a king, and then goes, 'well, I'm going to make you a king, I'm going to make you powerful.' And so the farm boy says, 'why me? I don't understand.' And then Karellen goes, 'I picked you because it's you, because I'm god and I chose you.' "
So with all these great ideas and concepts, what is Childhood's End really about? Graham feels that the novel has a very specific theme.
"Well, everyone's probably got a different idea on this, but for me, it's acceptance," he said. "Childhood's End is about accepting that we are very small in a very, very big universe that we have no bearing on whatsoever. And that the things that we have now are the things that are obviously going to be gone: we are not only going to die, but within a couple of generations, we will be forgotten. We will very quickly be lost and the world will carry on without us, and the universe will carry on without the Earth one day.
"As bleak and as awful as that sounds, it's actually quite liberating to just accept that as sure as the sun rises, it must set. And I think that's the message of the book, ultimately. And it has nothing to do with alien beings: it has everything to do with how we see ourselves in the universe."
Childhood End's premieres at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 on Syfy for the first night of its three-night run.