How Books Can Become Batman: Scalzi at SDCC

John Scalzi’s Friday afternoon panel was a hilarious conversation between himself and Patrick Rothfuss, roaming over subjects from the principles behind Hollywood adaptations, how long it takes to write a book, and why the nanotech ammunition in Old Man’s War exists (because of Half Life and the fact that “Gordon Freeman could not carry around so many fucking weapons!”). Naturally, much of the conversation revolved around Redshirts, Scalzi’s send-up of the classic Star Trek trope.

Scalzi was surprised and appalled that no one had already written the idea behind Redshirts into a novel-length form. Family Guy has joked about it, and James Alan Gardner did Expendable, but the concept wasn’t quite the same. “This is low-hanging fruit! It’s big and it’s juicy and it’s hanging from the lowest branch of the SF tree? I’m gonna take this home and make a pie out of it!”

Was Scalzi ever worried about legal repercussions? “Viacom smashing me like the grape I am? Yes.” But a trademark search for “redshirts” revealed that there was no registered copyright; it’s a term of art where we know what it means, but not one where someone owns it. And although the universe of Redshirts is reminiscent of Sta Trek‘s, it’s not meant to be Star Trek per se. The backup plan, he said, was to call it Away Team, but in the end, “Tor’s lawyers looked at it and went ‘meh’.”

Also, Scalzi noted, his current movie deal just happens to be with Paramount, where by some bizarre serendipity one of the executives is someone Scalzi went to college with—a film adaptation of Old Man’s War, directed by Wolfgang Petersen (of whom Scalzi said that while it’s hugely exciting that he directed Das Boot, Air Force One, and In the Line of Fire, the credit that made him most excited was The Neverending Story). 

He had a number of conversations with Paramount’s Alexa Faigen, who has clearly dealt with many anxious writers, and who was enormously relieved when Scalzi said that he completely expected the adaptation to change elements of the book. After one conversation, where Faigen tried to assure him that they were making the script “as faithful as possible,” Scalzi informed her (“so we can have this conversation once”) that while he would certainly like an adaptation where readers who loved the book could say, okay, I see why they made the changes they made—”if you can’t do that, make a movie that makes a shitload of money.” It’s difficult to do justice to the ensuing riff that involved retiring into a big hot tub full of money, but it had the audience and Rothfuss cracking up endlessly. 

On the matter of adaptations, Scalzi related the apocryphal story of Virginia Heinlein’s reaction to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers—it isn’t as if the original text has been destroyed; it’s still there—and anyway, the book went to the top of the bestseller list. And Scalzi himself has gotten static from H. Beam Piper purists who attacked him after Fuzzy Nation—but he argues that he’s been very open about his source and he knows from his website traffic that he’s sent thousands of people to read the original Little Fuzzy.  

Rothfuss then raised the obvious question: will there be a film adaptation of Redshirts? Maybe, Scalzi said. There has definitely been interest; he’s looking for the right circumstances and people. The only power you have as a writer when confronted with an adaptation, he said—unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or John Grisham—it to say “no, not you,” “and once you say yes, your baby is taken away from you to learn awesome ninja skills up in the mountains … and you hope it finds the right tutors that will allow it to go out and fight crime.”

“That is the best analogy,” replied Rothfuss. “I want my book to be Batman.”

So how long, Rothfuss asked, did it take you to write this book “which I read in public and laughed to where people were looking at me like they were going to call the cops?”

“Five weeks. I wrote it in five weeks and sent it to my editor.”

“One draft?”

“In five weeks.”

A pause, then, “I didn’t write a page of hate questions.”

Inevitably, the “dream cast” question came up. “No shit, I think Wil Wheaton would make a lovely Captain Abernathy,” Scalzi said. And for Jenkins, described in the book as “kind of a Yeti”—he pointed to Rothfuss, “a cross between Brian Blessed and a Muppet.” For Old Man’s War, he talked about having someone like Clint Eastwood or Tommy Lee Jones—that’s the most important part that will leave the impression that the viewer remembers. And ideally, there would be practical puppets for the creatures—”the right answer,” Rothfuss said.

But as nice as the “rich creamy movie money” is, Scalzi says that you never write your novel for the movies—if you do, “you’re an idiot.” It’s a nice dream, but statistically unlikely in a system where two hundred major motion pictures are made in a year, and they’re all done in-house. The important thing is to write a good story: people will want more of it and want to do things with it. 

Next up for Scalzi is The Human Division, set in the Old Man’s War universe and written like a TV series—a series of stories with a unifying arc. Later, when asked whether he’d do a book series, he said that he could do a sequel to Fuzzy Nation. There’s no story yet, he said, but there’s title. Obviously the title would be Fuzzy Logic.

Karin Kross is at her fifth San Diego Comic-Con and is—again—filing this post from the line for Hall H. She and her co-conspirators are blogging the experience at nerdpromnomnom on Tumblr.


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