Old Arthur must be retching in his grave. They've taken his good hard science fiction and turned it into mush and ooey-gooey. But then, I should have known better than to expect Syfy would do justice to Childhood's End. Why did they EVEN bother? The original novel was published in 1953. Would younger viewers who haven't read it even be interested in a TV version? Because readers of the book, who would welcome one, may suffer severe intestinal distress watching this massive disappointment.
Clarke's original story is really unfilmable without modern CGI. You couldn't do justice to the Overlords and their home planet without it. So great, is this a miniseries using the latest CGI to be true to the story? No siree, bob. We want to make Childhood's End, but we're SYFY. So it'll be just like the book, but completely different.
Brilliant as the novel is, it was published in 1953, and so any adaptation for the screen would need a lot of updating. That's fine, but that's not what's happened here. The original plot has been mangled beyond recognition. The novel's characters are people of all ages and several nationalities, including Finnish, French, Scottish, Trinidadian, and South African. No, that won't do; our viewers won't IDENTIFY. So let's change ALL the characters into the demographic we're targeting: Earnest young and youngish Americans with personal problems, angst, and RELATIONSHIPS. We GOTTA give them RELATIONSHIPS. So we introduce a whole slew of touchy-feely subplots inhabited by new characters (all women, see below) and furthermore, they've gotta SUFFER, or it's boring. Never mind that this pushes Clarke's grand story of alien arrival and human transformation into the background while characters are busy emoting in the foreground. This is Arthur C. Clarke as rewritten by Shonda Rimes. Steak has been turned into Jello.
Clarke wrote "hard" science fiction. And his readers know that, for better or worse, practically all his stories are about men; women are usually subordinate characters, rarely of major importance. Clarke was great at the "beyond the infinite" stuff, but touchy-feely he most definitely was not. RELATIONSHIPS almost never advance Clarke's plots. If the producers wanted to introduce female characters into the story, they should have made some of the male characters women. That would have worked just fine. A principal character in the book, Rikki Stormgren, the 60-year-old Finnish Secretary General of the UN, is transformed into Ricky Stormgren, a 35-year-old Missouri farmer. Why? 'Cause 60-year-old Finns aren't sexy, that's why. The writers also gift Ricky with a dead first wife who comes back to him in Overlord-created visions, a live second wife who's not happy with the situation, infertility, and a fatal disease caused by exposure to Overlord technology. And when comes at last the death scene and you think that the maudlin is maxed out, they pile on more: Karellen suspends Ricky at the moment of death, and the whole thing drags on for minutes longer, so Ricky can mourn his dead wife all over again and have a last chat with Karellen, while ethereal Vienna Boys' Choir-type music plays. It really is that bad.
There is a lot of really annoying agonizing by people of faith that wasn't in the book; that's bad; but one of the female agonizers actually SHOOTS AND KILLS an Overlord; that's worse. And THEN, the Overlord is brought back to life through an act of sacrifice by one of the humans. Another character is brought back to life as well, AND healed of his paraplegia, in another treacly backstory that wasn't in the book. That character was at least in the original story, although again, he's almost unrecognizable, and of course in the film, he has a RELATIONSHIP. Just like Clarke's original novel, only completely different.
The Overlords do a lot of "Close Encounters" stuff that they never did in the book, where the manifestations of their power are much subtler and more interesting. Clarke's Overlords are much bigger than humans, at least 9 or 10 feet tall, black not red, and they have small wings because their home planet has much lower gravity than Earth (hence the remark about CGI above). In the book, we meet several Overlords; but in this TV version, there are only two: Karellen on Earth and Vindarten on the Overlord homeworld, because they couldn't get away with just one Overlord (if they could've, they would've). When you see the actors in full Overlord regalia, you know why: Making up and costuming more than two actors like that wasn't in the budget. Clarke brilliantly portrays Karellen as a being whose full mental powers are beyond human comprehension. He is wise, noble and always master of every situation. He never makes mistakes, never visits anyone in a barn, never says anything as stupid as "My bad," and never puts himself in physical jeopardy. On Syfy, Karellen doesn't act like a superbeing whose gifts approach the divine; as played by Charles Dance, he acts and talks like a weary English professor who has seen and heard everything and is just trying to hang on until retirement.
The climax and anticlimax are as badly botched as the rest of the piece, with the entire sequence on the Overlord homeworld – which admittedly would have been tough to do under any circumstances, but not impossible – cut out and replaced by a quick tete-a-tete with the Overmind, which is something that could never happen in the original. And the writers have replaced Clarke's words with some of the most banal dialogue you will ever hear on TV, and that's saying something.
This miniseries misses being a successful adaptation of Childhood's End by several light-years. Clarke aficionados must face the likelihood that no one will ever have both the will and the means to bring the real thing to any screen, large or small.
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