I wasn’t a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End (see my full review here). Despite that, I was interested to see how SyFy’s TV miniseries adaptation would approach the story. I came away with the impression that this was more of an update to the story than either a straight retelling or a creative adaptation. In that sense, it’s an interesting look at how science fiction and pop culture have changed from 1953, when Clarke first published the novel, to the modern era.
*** WARNING: Spoilers for both the book and TV show follow ***
As in the novel, the TV miniseries begins with the alien Overlords recruiting Rikki Stormgren to serve as their spokesperson. In the miniseries, however, Stormgren isn’t the Secretary-General of the United Nations, but rather a farmer from Missouri. To a large extent, this reflects the steep decline in the United Nation’s reputation since the heyday of the 1950s. The organization’s perceived impotence, as well as corruption scandals, have made the U.N. irrelevant to most Americans. In fact, the United Nations turned 70 last year, a milestone that received almost no media attention.
This change also seems to reflect a broader societal trend of distrust for institutional authority. During the optimism of the early 1950s, it was not unreasonable for people to believe that a government institution could represent humanity (“Father Knows Best” aired on TV the year after Childhood’s End came out). After the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, public trust in political institutions never fully recovered. Congress today is less popular than cancer and polarization means that American presidents represent at most half the population.
By contrast, we live in an era today that glorifies the individual. From celebrity culture to social media, people seem more trusting of and invested in other individuals than in abstract institutions. So SyFy’s Rikki seems a natural outgrowth of everything that’s happened since 1953. He’s the “everyman.” Karellen even notes that people trust him because he’s not affiliated with any larger organization or institution. As much as I would have loved to have seen the U.N. feature in a sci-fi TV show, I don’t think it would have rung true for a story set in 2016.
In fact, the first part of the miniseries flips the roles of the antagonist and protagonist. In the novel, the spokesman for the Overlords comes from a government institution, whereas the opposition stems from the grassroots. By contrast, in the TV show, the spokesman comes from the grassroots – or Missouri plains – and the antagonist comes from the most reviled institution in America today – the mainstream media. Hugo Wainwright, played by Irish actor Colm Meany, even echoes Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born conservative media tycoon.
Another major change from the book is that certain segments of humanity remain resistant to the Overlords even after Karellen reveals himself. To some extent, this was driven by the realities of TV production. Karellen reveals himself a mere 15 years after the Overlords arrive. I suspect this was partly done in order to maintain character continuity and use the major characters introduced during part one to continue throughout the entire story (and avoid hiring multiple actors). It would have been a bit too unbelievable for humanity to have shed all its fear of satanic imagery within such a short time.
The TV show also plays up religious opposition to the Overlords. Again, this seems like a sign of the times. Clarke was writing at a time when many futurists believed technology could and would solve mankind’s problems. “Modernity” meant a corresponding decline in spirituality. After the religious revival of the early 1980s, the inverse relationship between modernity and religion no longer holds true. The idea that technology would wipe out irrationality completely, as it does in the novel, also seems quaint. Although I have some issues with how this conflict was manifested in the TV show, I am sympathetic to SyFy’s efforts to depict it.
Unfortunately, one major change to the story drags the TV show down quite a bit. Rikki Stormgren is caught in a love triangle between his fiancee and his dead wife (fortunately not a zombie). The problem isn’t so much the idea of a love story but rather that it seems like a distraction from the themes of Childhood’s End. The book is in many ways about embracing humanity’s transcendent evolution, whereas the love story wallows in the material aspect of mankind.
Which brings me to the end. The idea of an apocalypse should be terrifying and heart-wrenching, but the novel Childhood’s End infuses it with a sense of hope and wonder. There’s a clear sense that humanity is evolving and ultimately becoming something greater. By contrast, the TV show focuses more on the terror and despair. Karellen does mention that the disappearance of the children marks a new beginning, but this seems like an afterthought.
This is most prominently emphasized by the arc of the character Milo in the show (who loosely corresponds to Jan Rodricks in the novel). In both the book and film, this character sneaks onto an Overlord ship in order to visit their homeward. Rodricks maintains his sense of scientific wonder throughout the journey. Even when he returns to an abandoned Earth, he’s ever the detached scientist, recording his last moments for posterity. By contrast, Milo seems more focused on the death of his lover and his final recording emphasizes the fact that he is the last human rather than the idea that humanity had evolved.
Overall, SyFy’s miniseries is a decent adaptation of Clarke’s novel. As I said above, I’d call it more of an update than an adaptation. The main themes and even some of the major plot points remain, but are changed to better suit modern audiences. I suspect hardcore fans of the novel will be outraged by some of these changes, but I can certainly understand SyFy’s reasoning behind them changes.