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


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.


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

Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.


By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.


Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

15 Facts About Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees

A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.


A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.


Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.


Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."


"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."


In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."


Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.


The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."


In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."


On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."


The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."


The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.


Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."

In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."

The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.


Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.

Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."

The movie earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Movie and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.


As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.


Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."


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