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

Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]


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