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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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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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