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The 60-Year Struggle to Bring Childhood's End to Screens

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Arthur C. Clarke loved Sri Lanka. His passion was diving, and the oceans were filled with the kind of fantastic creatures that could stimulate the author’s imagination. He made it his permanent home in 1956, three years after his novel, Childhood’s End, gave him a reputation in science fiction fandom as a man of deeply philosophical leanings.

Childhood’s End was one of the first works to explore the idea of massive alien spacecraft materializing over major cities—an image that would be used and reused in popular culture. It was also an early representation of the idea that extraterrestrial visitors could arrive with ethically questionable intentions. The Overlords, as Clarke named them, arrived with promises of curing disease and facilitating peace. The human price for that utopia is withheld, hanging over the book’s narrative like a guillotine.

Clarke finished Childhood’s End in 1952; it was published in 1953. By 1954, it was being optioned for a motion picture, a kind of semiconscious development state it would endure for nearly 60 years while Clarke looked on with amusement from Sri Lanka. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make it, but he and Clarke collaborated on 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. Other filmmakers followed, only to be held back by a hesitancy to embrace Clarke’s depiction of a world where aliens carry threats more complex than ray guns. No one fires a weapon. No one is inherently “evil”—not even the strangers, who refuse to let humanity see them for fear they’ll be terrified of their image.

“There’s not necessarily a military response,” says Matthew Graham, the writer of the Syfy miniseries (airing December 14, 15, and 16) that finally put an end to the project’s inertia. “It’s more Biblical. People are dumbfounded that there’s something bigger out there.

“I don’t think we’re used to stories where the protagonist has no control. And no one in Childhood’s End is ever in control.”

Shortly after the release of 1964's Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick grew interested in making a science fiction film. “Don’t laugh,” he told a studio publicist, “but I’m fascinated with the possibility of extraterrestrials.”

Kubrick had already asked his assistant to draw up a list of renowned sci-fi authors; the publicist, Roger Caras, told him to throw it away. He only needed to consider Clarke, Caras said, and offered to send a cable to Sri Lanka to see if there was interest.

“Stanley Kubrick … interested in doing film,” he wrote. “Interested in you. Are you interested?”

“Frightfully interested,” Clarke wrote back.

Kubrick and Clarke met in New York in 1964, strolling through the World’s Fair and talking about science and speculative fiction for hours. Kubrick had pored over hundreds of titles, but it was Childhood’s End that remained foremost on his mind. The premise is simple: aliens arrive with gifts of advanced science. They appear in the guise of deceased friends or relatives to appeal to humanity’s emotional triggers. But they’re also reclusive, waiting years to reveal themselves. And once they do, they take great interest in children.  

Clarke’s bleak vision of a future made perfect at a unconscionable price intrigued Kubrick, but Clarke’s agents had bad news. A writer-director named Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it and seemed determined to see it made. Polonsky, however, was part of the Hollywood blacklist that arose out of the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, freezing whatever ambitions he had.

Instead, Kubrick selected Clarke's short story “The Sentinel,” and worked with the author to develop what would become 1968’s 2001. It would be the first and last time a Clarke story would be filmed for nearly 50 years.

Around the same time, Polonsky broke free of the blacklist stigma, made a series of films (Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, Romance of a Horse Thief) and, in 1971, announced his intentions to proceed with Childhood’s End with producer David Haft. Polonsky had written a script with screenwriter Howard Koch; it languished, with producers wary of spending a fortune on an existential alien invasion movie where most of the trauma is emotional.

By 1975, Universal owned the rights to the book and tasked writer Gene R. Kearney (Night Gallery) with streamlining the narrative. (In the book, decades pass between the aliens’ arrival and the discovery of their real motives.) When Kearney left the studio, they passed it to Philip DeGuere (Baretta), who worked on additional bridging—the middle portion of the book exploring humanity’s new standard of living is only loosely tied to the first and third sections—but ran into new problems. Producer George Litto, who had since left the studio, held the rights to an adaptation even though Universal still owned the book option. Childhood's End seemed destined to remain a developmental nightmare. 

Neal Adams envisions the coming of the Overlords. Starlog

It was George Lucas who provided new opportunity for the production: His 1977 release of Star Wars was a blessing for sci-fi projects all over Hollywood. On the back of its success, Universal decided to pull Childhood's End from the freezer and settle the rights issues with Litto. They asked DeGuere to proceed, this time conceiving it as a television miniseries, estimating it would cost roughly $10 million to produce; CBS, anxious to get into pop culture's space race, agreed to broadcast it.

To help executives understand Clarke’s work, DeGuere asked comic artist Neal Adams to do production design sketches and paintings. Adams imagined ships, panicked people, and the distinctive look of the Overlords, a revelation Clarke teased for the first third of the book. (Humanity, they believed, would need years to prepare for the sight.)

CBS wound up losing interest, however, and the project was recalibrated for a single television movie at ABC, where Variety announced it would appear as a three-hour special. They enlisted science fiction “consultants” to help massage Clarke’s ideas into something palatable for television; DeGuere himself went to the source, phoning Clarke at 1:30 a.m. west coast time to catch the author at a decent hour in Sri Lanka.

Just when it seemed things were progressing, DeGuere learned that Universal’s deal with Clarke contained dated contracts that went back to the 1950s; it took lawyers from both sides nine months to restructure the deal to everyone’s satisfaction.

By 1981, Childhood’s End had proceeded so glacially that no one felt any particular sense of urgency. DeGuere felt that Adams’s drawings might have been a little too spectacular, giving the studio sticker shock. He consulted with their in-house special effects team, looking for ways to minimize expenses. At the time, showing a giant ship surrounded by blue skies and clouds was too unforgiving for a television budget; the aliens would have to arrive at night, when it’s easier to hide visual tricks and where a beam of light can adequately represent a visiting alien race.

DeGuere waited for a green light, which he felt might have been forthcoming if the studio’s Flash Gordon did well. It did not, and Childhood’s End receded into the background once more.

Syfy

Clarke was amused to see a miniseries titled V air on NBC in 1983. A Twilight Zone-ish story of a malevolent alien race arriving in massive ships and promising prosperity to humans while disguising their true intentions, it was enormously successful. In a new foreword to Childhood’s End published in 1989, the author wrote that "if [the book] never does make it to the big screen, millions of people have watched a very impressive variation on Chapter 2 in the TV serial V." (Clarke also wrote that the conceit of aliens hovering ominously over Earth pre-dated his work; author Theodore Sturgeon wrote a short story titled "The Sky Was Full of Ships" in 1947.)

Projects like V and 1996’s Independence Day plucked some of Clarke’s concepts to use as scaffolding for a lot of action. As a result, the relative introspection of Childhood’s End didn’t seem economically sensible when aliens were busy blowing up the White House. A BBC Radio drama appeared in 1997; a Broadway show was once considered. Clarke, who died in 2008, profited from Hollywood’s habit of paying him for work they didn’t know what to do with.

Meanwhile, some of Universal’s literary properties began to trickle down into the company’s distribution outlets. The Syfy channel asked producer Michael De Luca to develop Childhood’s End, this time with a new result: Advances in computer effects could handle Clarke’s landscapes, while the increasingly ambitious, mature world of cable television wouldn’t be inhibited by some of his more provocative themes.

De Luca arranged for a meeting with Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Doctor Who), pulling the book out and asking Graham if he’d ever read it. He had, at 14; the unimaginable nature of the Overlords seized his adolescent brain. “The thing that grabs you most is the idea of what they look like, that human beings can’t handle it,” he says. “You’re going, ‘Oh, God, how awful can they look?’ It gets you deeper into the book.”

Graham’s pitch involved making one of the central characters, Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), a farmer rather than the United Nations ambassador of the novel. Like astrophysicist Milo (Osy Ikhile), who also appears throughout the 25-year time span of the television series, he’s a non-military party. “Aliens coming to speak to politicians would be following our protocol," Graham says. "They’re going to follow their own protocol. In the Old Testament, God doesn’t pick kings. He makes them.”

The December 14 premiere of the miniseries marks the end of six decades of effort to translate Clarke’s novel into another medium. “I think the problem was that it was too big for a movie and television wasn’t sophisticated enough,” Graham says. “Now it’s arguably more sophisticated than the movies we see. There’s time and space to develop ideas.” And to prove that someone involved in Childhood's End finally has some control.

Additional Sources:
The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made
"Childhood's End," Starlog #26
"A New Beginning for Childhood's End," Starlog #42

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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