The Tick-Tock Man Cometh, But Should He?

Shocking no one, the near-centuries old bromance between Babylon 5 creator and all-around-pop-culture-influencer, J. Michael Straczynski and the tempestuous Harlan Ellison has resulted in a movie option for the (probably) most famous Ellison short story, ever. But, now that JMS is being allowed to pitch a movie version of “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” should we take it seriously? Will this SF classic ever really get turned into a film? More importantly, should it be?

According to Deadline, Ellison only allowed JMS to legally have the option after he saw a completed screenplay. This makes sense, practically, since it seems likely a movie version would have to expand on the actual plot of the story, and possibly take some liberties with the structure of the fictional future-world. Briefly, for those of you who haven’t been hit over the head with some volume of greatest-science-fiction-stories-ever-according to the 20th century, “Repent,” deals with a world in which one’s allotted time governs nearly every facet of people’s lives. If you’re late to work, you get minutes taken off your life. The Tick-Tock man (everything runs like clockwork, get it?) is in charge of all of this stuff, while a guy named Harlequin shows up and throws jellybeans all over the place in an act of rebellion. Specifically, he loves telling people to “get stuffed!”

There’s fantastic audio drama of this one featuring Robin Williams, which to me is nearly perfect. Do I love this story? Sure, because it’s one of those great big-idea SF stories that changed my life. But, on the question of would I choose this, above all the other Harlan Ellison stories, as one to turn into a feature-length movie. I would not. Now, JMS certainly knows what he’s doing (I mean, he’s written tons of screenplays for successful films) but I do wonder about the lack of tension in this story translating to the big screen. To me, a story like “Repent,” has what I think of a 1984 problem. The concept is amazing and transformative, but the stuff that actually happens in the story is less memorable than the premise. To put it another way: I think of this (and many of Ellison’s stories) as brief little jaunts into worlds, and once the point has been made, the story ends. This is the strength of short fiction, and also the reason why movie-length versions of Twilight Zone-esque plot-twisters can get a little trying. (Repent, Shyamalan!)

This isn’t to say (spoiler alert) that “Repent” has a twist ending, it’s just that I’m not sure why that one over say, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” which, to me, seems like a much more workable plotline as a movie. Again, I’m a pop-culture critic who has never written a screenplay in my life, and JMS has written like a billion and he’s totally great, so maybe I’m way off base. BUT, I do worry that the high-concept fame of this one is part of why it’s being maybe made into a movie. Am I implying there’s sentimentality attached to this story that make it better by reputation than by actual content. Maybe? I mean, it’s “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” it’s an excellent story. But so is Hemingway’s “The Hills Like White Elephants,” or Katherine Mansfield’s “The Tiredness of Rosebel.” Not sure I’d make those into movies either.

Weirdly, I think the best person to write the screenplay to Harlan Ellison’s most famous story is probably Harlan Ellison himself. His treatment of Asimov’s I, Robot is excellent, partly because the structural liberties he takes with the existing source material. The stakes in that (unfilmed) screenplay are like Citizen Kane meets robots, partly because Ellison reinvents the character of Susan Calvin, as well as bringing in some folks of his own. Obviously, JMS is totally capable of doing this, too, it’s just that I guess with these two teaming up (again) I wish it was something a little less predictable. I mean, if it was announced that J.J. Abrams was adapting the story, I’d probably have fainted and only could have been reawakened by Kim Catrall reading me Ellison’s “Deeper than Darkness,” so, really, the news is good.

Complaining about JMS maybe adapting this wonderful story and then having awesome people like Peter Jackson direct it is sort of like getting that 5-speed-bike I asked for on Christmas and then complaining it’s the wrong color.

And right now, the only thing we can do is wait and see if said 5-speed-bike even shows up. And then, the real unnecessary complaining can begin. But really, let me know, what do you all think? Am I crazy? Is there another Ellison story you’d rather see JMS tackle?


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

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