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Josh Reviews the SyFy Channel Adaptation of Childhood’s End

June 18th, 2018

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, first published in 1953, is a magnificent novel, a triumph of science fiction that is riveting and heartbreaking. It’s a ripe subject for adaptation, and I’m pleased that I had a chance to catch up with the SyFy channel’s three-part, four-plus hour mini-series adaptation, which originally aired in December, 2015.

The miniseries, like the novel, begins when enormous spaceships descend over major cities worldwide.  Though mankind at first fears the alien visitors, who the people of the world dub the “overlords”, the aliens — through their spokesperson, Karellen — vow to help humanity eliminate war, poverty, pollution, and all the other ills facing the planet.  And they do!  In so doing, they help humanity transition to — well, that would be telling!

The miniseries is a very solid and enjoyable, if not exactly spectacular, adaptation of Mr. Clarke’s wonderful original story.  The production values are (mostly) impressive and the cast is (mostly) great.  The writers made significant changes, but they (mostly) preserved the flavor of Mr. Clarke’s original story and the most important beats of the tale.

Mr. Clarke’s story is divided into three sections, which fits nicely with the miniseries’ three-part structure.  However, while Mr. Clarke’s novel takes place over about a century, the miniseries unsurprisingly condences the bulk of story into around twenty years, so they can have the same actors playing the same characters from start to finish. I can understand this choice, though I think the book’s timing makes more sense, as it stretches credulity that everything that transpires in the story happens across only twenty-to-twenty five years.  Also, they don’t make any effort to age the actors at all, which is weird. The young farm couple Ricky & Ellie look about 30 at the start of the story and still look exactly the same at the end, two-plus decades later.  It’s distracting.  (They throw in a line about how the improvements to the planet have caused people to age more slowly, but still, it’s extremely silly that everyone looks exactly the same a quarter century later.)  (I also think they lose the effect that recasting some of the characters to be played by older actors in the later parts would have given the story.  The climax would have been more effective had we felt this story as a generational tale, as the novel was.)

For the most part, I thought the mini-series looked great.  The visual effects of the Overlords’ ships, and the handful of other outer-space effects shots, and also the brief glimpses we get of the Overlords’ home planet, were all very well done.  This is an epic story, and for the most part I felt the mini-series had a suitably epic scale and score, as appropriate for this tale.  When we finally see the Overlord Karellen, I thought the make-up and prosthetic effects were well-done in realizing the look of this character as described in the novel.  This isn’t a multi-million dollar theatrical blockbuster, so don’t go in expecting that level of spectacle.  But for a TV mini-series, I thought it looked very well-done.

Mr. Clarke’s original novel is quite a lean story, with only a few main characters without too much in the way of backstories.  The mini-series preserves the main beats of Mr. Clarke’s story but plays around significantly with the characters, changing some of them entirely (Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the United Nations in the novel, is completely changed to be a studly widowed farmer in the mini-series) and significantly adding to/expanding upon others (the loner scientist Jan Rodricks, who stows away on an Overlord ship, has his name changed to Milo Rodericks and becomes African-American in the mini-series, and though the core of this stubborn, curious scientist is similar to what was in the book, all sorts of things have been added to this character, including a back-story of being crippled as a child, and a romance as an adult with a fellow scientist who he ultimately chooses to abandon when he attempts to leave Earth).

I understand why many of these changes were made for the mini-series adaptation, and while some of the changes leave me scratching my head (I’d have loved to have seen the politician Stormgren of the novel brought to life on screen), I can understand and appreciate the desire of the filmmakers to develop the characters more deeply than they were in the novel — and also to focus the story on a younger group of characters.  I think the most successful change was that made to Jan/Milo — I enjoyed the time we spend with Milo as a boy, which helps establish both his outsider nature and also his scientific curiosity; and giving him a love-interest as an adult makes his choice to leave Earth even more wrenching than it was in the novel, where he had no strong connections.

But some of these changes gave the mini-series a bit of a “soap opera” feel to me that I thought distracted from the meat of Mr. Clarke’s story.  For example, I didn’t care much for all of the scenes of Ricky Stormgren (his name is spelled differently in the mini-series than in the novel, where he was Rikki) pining for his beautiful blonde dead first wife, not did I care much for all of the scenes of Ricky’s current girlfriend/wife (I was never quite sure) Ellie being upset over Ricky’s pining for his beautiful blonde dead first wife.  Rather than humanizing the story, I thought some of those changes shrunk the scale of the tale to too small a level, and took away from the larger story being told about humanity’s evolution.

Overall I’d say the cast was strong though not spectacular.  There were no real stand-outs, but as a whole I was pleased by the ensemble.  Mike Vogel is solid Ricky Stormgren.  He’s charismatic and endearing, which almost but not entirely distracts from the fact that Ricky doesn’t have much to do in the story after the first part.  Osy Ikhile is great as Milo Rodericks.  It’s a somewhat bizarre performance but it works, as Mr. Ikhile gives Milo a weird detachment that fits the character.  I loved seeing Colm Meaney (Miles O’Brien from Star Trek!) in part one, though I wish they’d made his villainous character a little more three-dimensional.  I also enjoyed seeing Julian McMahon as a wealthy/influential scientist/businessman in part two, but here too, I wish they’d fleshed out his character a little more.  Yael Stone (Lorna Morello on Orange Is the New Black) is great as the religious fanatic Peretta, though it’s a bit of a thankless role.  (The film tries to give her some depth by exploring the impact of her mother’s suicide, which Peretta blames on the Overlords’ arrival, but in the end, Peretta is the crazy religious person in this science-based story.)  The best performance in the piece is Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as Karellen.  Even in part one, when we only hear Karellen but don’t see him, Mr. Dance’s voice is fantastic.  Mr. Dance gives Karellen the gravitas he needs, and the gentleness with just a hint of power and threat that is essential for the character.  This is great work.

Unfortunately, some of the changes and additions made in the mini-series serve to obscure what in the novel is a relatively simple, straightforward tale.  For example, the mini-series invents the idea that Ricky Stormgren has been poisoned by something in the Overlord’s ship, and Karellen is not able to heal him.  It’s a pretty nonsensical idea, considering we see that the Overlords’ technology is able to cure pretty much every other disease on the planet, and is even able to completely heal the crippled young Milo.  In the book, the tragedy of Rikki is that he dies before seeing the fruits of his labors as a middle-man between the Overlords and humanity.  But he dies of old age, because the book takes place over the course of a century.  I guess for the mini-series they felt they had to invent another reason for Ricky to die, even though they’d condensed the story to only about 20-25 years.  I was also confused in the mini-series by the whole business of the Ouija board at the end of part two.  In the mini-series, it almost looks like whatever went down there with Amy Greggson and her unborn child and the huge beam of light with alien signals that the ouija board created was the cause of everything that happened afterwards with the children across the planet.  But that certainly wasn’t the idea in the novel, and I don’t think that was the idea in the mini-series either.  But the story-telling got very confusing at the end of part two, and so we lost the clarity of what the story was trying to depict in terms of humanity’s evolution and the exact nature of the Overlords’ involvement in the process.  The other spot that jumped out at me where the story-telling got muddled was the end of part three, specifically what happened to the rest of humanity after the children left.  Milo returns to an empty planet, but the mini-series curiously skips over explaining exactly what happened to the rest of the population of the world.  Those sections were some of the most emotional and heartbreaking of the novel, so I thought it was a bizarre (and confusing) choice that the mini-series seemed to cut right over that.  (The mini-series also didn’t seem to show Milo of being much use in his “reporting” for the Overlords at the very end, whereas in the novel I got more of a sense that his narration was actually delivering useful information to them.)

I enjoyed watching this adaptation of Childhood’s End.  The power of Mr. Clarke’s original story still shines brightly even in this much-altered version of it.  I think some of the changes made to the story are foolish, and keep this finished project at the level of good but not great.  But it was fun to see this story brought to life, and with decent production values behind it.  The mini-series is good… but go read Mr. Clarke’s original novel.  Even sixty-five years later, it remains spectacular.

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