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The Stars My Destination And Me

March 10, 2015

The untold story of my own attempt to adapt a sci-fi classic into a screenplay.

TheStarsMyDestination-ChrisMoore

It was with great interest last week I learned that Pacific Rim and Godzilla producer Mary Parent had optioned Alfred Bester’s classic 1956 sci-fi novel ‘The Stars My Destination’ – with a view to bringing it to the big screen for Paramount Pictures.

My own long-standing interest in TSMD stems from the fact that, back in 1997, and just for my own amusement really, I decided to pen my own screenplay adaptation     of this highly influential book. I was, at the time, getting to know my brand new screenwriting program Final Draft, which I had just purchased – but, as I didn’t have any particular project in mind, I thought it would be a bit of fun to knock out my own take on the material.

I had never really been aware TSMD even existed prior to re-reading an interview     with John Carpenter in an old back issue of Fantastic Films Magazine (the July 1980 issue) five years previous. During this interview with journalists Blake Mitchell and James Ferguson, while discussing the director’s experiences making Dark Star and his brush with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Carpenter was asked the question “What would a man like John Carpenter do with his imagination and talent if he was given $30 million?” to which Carpenter replied “Well, I’ll tell what I would do with $30 million. I would do a book called The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. I would make that as the greatest science fiction novel-to-movie of all time.” We should keep in mind that $30 million was considered big bucks back in 1980, with the budget of Return of the Jedi being comparable to this three years later.

Being intrigued by Carpenter’s interest in this book I’d never heard of, I set out to see if I could track down a copy. This being 1992 and the pre-internet era, I couldn’t just go on-line and order one from Amazon, so I ventured into a local second-hand bookstore which specialized in sci-fi to see if they might happen to have a copy. Being told the book was currently out of print, I left my name and contact number in the off-chance that a secondhand copy should materialize. Flash-forward   to five years later and I receive a phone call completely out of the blue from the shop owner, telling me they now had a copy of the book I had asked for. Having been so long since I originally asked for it, I had naturally completely forgotten about it, but went in anyway to pay my two bucks for this vintage Panther Books edition from 1959 (nothing beats the smell of old books by the way).

stars my destination 1959

The Panther Books edition published in 1959.

The story takes place three hundred years in the future when humankind has colonized much of the solar system. Society is ruled by greedy mega-corporations, and psychic teleportation – an ability known as ‘jaunting’ (the ability to teleport oneself through mind power alone) is commonplace. Our hero is Gully Foyle, a low-life brutish grunt who embarks on a system-spanning rampage of vengeance after he is left to die, marooned in space. When Gully inadvertantly stumbles upon a fortune, he uses this new-found wealth to finance his murderous vendetta and infiltrates high society – where he discovers his initial abandonment in space is linked to a heinous atrocity perpetrated by the ruling nobility. As his quest intensifies, Gully rediscovers his humanity and the ability to jaunte through space and time, ultimately gaining the omnipotence of an übermensch – he, in effect, becomes a God.

Upon my initial read of the novel, I immediately got what appealed to Carpenter. The anti-establishment loner character of Gully Foyle very much appears to have inspired the character of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. It’s also interesting to note, by the way, the bizarre plastic surgeon character played by Bruce Campbell     in Carpenter’s 1996 movie Escape from LA is a virtual recreation of an identical character found in Bester’s novel.

After reading the book and thoroughly enjoying it (realizing it was essentially a 24th Century riff on The Count of Monte Cristo), I decided not to do the usual thing and knock out a treatment first, but worked directly from the book itself. This allowed me to get a feel for Bester’s voice and better replicate it in script form. I’d read a scene   at a time, have a think about it and just start typing. My approach to the material was that it would be similar in tone to the Indiana Jones series of films and Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular, in other words – an old-fashioned pulp executed with modern sensibilites. It would also have the potential to launch a continuing franchise – hence the retitling of my script Gully Foyle and the Great Space Jaunte. At the same time   I also began sketching ideas for a potential follow-up adventure Gully Foyle and the Destroyer of Worlds, but will keep these ideas under wraps for now.

Despite the book’s relatively short length (being 192 pages), the story told in TSMD is undeniably vast in scope; spanning all four corners of the globe, the asteroid belt, the moons of Jupiter and the planet Mars, before jumping back and forth through time to revisit many of these locales. The book is so brimming with ideas in fact – there are enough here to fill several books.

Originally I had only set out to write the first twenty pages or so, but soon realized it seemed to be writing itself – so I continued on. I like to joke it almost felt like Bester himself were looking over my shoulder, egging me on, offering encouragement. Half way through hammering out an initial draft, I heard that William Wisher (co-writer of Terminator 2) and David Giler (Alien, Alien 3) had completed their own draft and were in the process of putting a film together with Paul W.S. Anderson attached as director. Undeterred by this news (as I was, after all, just doing this for my own amusement) I continued to move forward with my own adaptation. After spending       a solid three months working on it (with an additional three months of re-writes), my resulting draft ended up being 172 pages, which, as one page of script equals one minute of screen time, means it would essentially be a three hour movie. With judicious editing I could conceivably get it down to two and a half hours.

Bester purists would no doubt take umbrage to some of the liberties I took in my adaptation, particularly with regard to changing some of the goofier-sounding character names. Other changes I implemented due to the inherent constraints         of visual story telling, making some of the more unfilmable scenes filmable. The     pitch dark prison caverns where Gully is incarcerated for example, would be virtually impossible to convey effectively on screen, so I came up with an entirely new location and introduced my own mechanism to disallow inmates from escaping by simply jaunting out. I also found there are several scenes in the book which are so pivotal to the story and which Bester seems to gloss over by describing them in only a couple of sentences or a paragraph or two; which demanded to be expanded and given more screen time. Gully’s thwarted raid on the Vancouver shipyards and his subsequent capture for example, essentially happens ‘off-screen’ and is only really described after the fact via expositional dialogue. Another prime example of this ‘glossing over’ would be the cybernetic enhancement procedure Gully undergoes in order to gain superhuman abilities such as super speed and enhanced sight. This important plot point, which has such a major impact on events in the secod half of     the book, is barely touched upon by Bester.

Then of course there’s the ending. The ending as described in the book is problematic in terms of adapting it for the screen in that it appears to be unfilmable. During the climactic sequence where Gully is able to jaunte from planet to planet and back       and forth through time, Gully experiences a muddling of his senses (which is very similar to a condition we now know as Synesthesia) – which would also have been impossible to replicate on the screen. So how did I go about addressing this issue? Well, once again, this is something I should probably keep under my hat for now.

According to David Hughes in his excellent 2001 book, ‘The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made’, following Paul W.S. Anderson’s departure from the project in ‘97, a subsequent draft was attempted by another couple of writers who ditched the novel’s central idea of psychic teleportation altogether, feeling it to be way too goofy and difficult to realize. As the concept of jaunting is intrinsic to the story, I’m amazed     this was even considered; being something akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water – as it would have fundamentally changed the entire story so drastically,   it would have negated the reason to actually make the thing in the first place. The aspect I’m most pleased about with my own adaptation is that, despite the necessary changes I incorporated to make it a viable story for the screen, it is still very much infused with the unique tone and sensibility of Bester’s own voice.

While I would never presume my own take on the material will ever be realized, (let alone read by anyone) I’m still more than happy that now, what is arguably one of     the most important and influential sci-fi novels of the 20th Century, may finally be heading for the big screen for all to enjoy.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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11 Comments
  1. Great post. I read the book back in 2001 and really enjoyed it. Like yourself I’d been curious about it for years, having read about it in that Carpenter interview (how I loved Fantastic Films in its prime) and in other articles over the years. It certainly lived up to its reputation, a rock and roll sci-fi Count of Monte Cristo (a classic novel I’ve always loved) that just begged for a film adaptation. Of course much would have to be changed but the core revenge story and its marvellous, edgy future world would be a great film, and just imagining what Carpenter would have done with it back when he was making great movies…. Its a sobering reminder of what might have been. Knowing how films tend to turn out these days I doubt that much of the Bester original will be realised in the new film project (if it ever gets actually made) and it will certainly miss the raw darkness of Carpenter’s best work that might have graced his version.

    One day if you ever feel ready to let it slip out, email me a zip file of your screenplay, I’d be fascinated to see how you tackled it. I doubt if your alternate title would have made it to the screen though- just imagining a Blu-ray disc with that on the spine makes me wish I lived in a world in which that were possible!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ian! ‘Rock & Roll Sci-Fi Count of Monte Cristo’ – what an apt description! Love it! I shouldn’t be at all surprised you were alerted to TSMD from reading that same Carpenter article in FF – most definitely the golden age of fandom! Seeing that Mary Parent also produced Noah, I wonder if TSMD might be a project which would attract Darren Aronofsky to the helm. I can really see his edgy sensibility being a perfect fit with Bester.

      • Aronofsky would indeed be a good fit, but alas I’m confident if a movie is made it will just be a dumb revenge flick-they will just simplify the thing and rip out its soul. But it will be big loud and flashy, naturally, like a Transformers movie. That’s what sells so well these days. Jupiter Ascending had its faults but it was so crazy it was kind of refreshing.

      • gregory moss permalink

        With Mary Parent on board as producer, and considering her track record with maintaining the integrity of Pacific Rim, Godzilla and Noah – I’m actually feeling really positive she will ensure that TSMD will be realized with same integrity of vision. 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        The material really does demand a visionary at the helm – like an Aronofsky or a Del Toro or a Fincher,

  2. Lovely article, Greg, and a fascinating insight into your process. If the current attempt to adapt the book falls into production hell, I hope you’ll have your screenplay at the ready!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Graham! Yeah, hopefully this latest attempt to adapt the book will be more faithful to Bester’s vision than previous ones. Since writing this article I managed to track down the Wisher/Giler draft from ’97 which, disappointingly, bares little resemblance to the book at all. Be rest assured, if this latest attempt does fall over – I’ll be at the ready!

  3. Fascinating write-up, Greg! It’s always rewarding to see that I’m not the only one in love with this book.

    BTW, have you ever gotten a chance to read the Chaykin graphic novel?

    • gregory moss permalink

      Unfortunately I haven’t. I remember seeing copies of it around back in the day. But I wasn’t really aware of what it was until later. I’m kicking myself now of course.

  4. Also, many years ago, David Giler and William Wisher creater an execrably horrible screenplay. I was able to obtain a copy of it through eBay (that’s a story in itself). It’s here, if you want to read it:

    • gregory moss permalink

      Hey thanks for posting the link! Yeah – I did read this fairly recently. And you’re right – it is horrible! This came as a real shock to me as I like William Wisher’s work with James Cameron. It’s TSMD in name only – so why did they even bother? And just as an aside – I urge anyone who has an interest in reading the book not to read this script – it will probably put you off forever. Perhaps read it after if you have a couple of hours you don’t mind not getting back. 🙂

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