On the heels of Dune’s cinematic success, sci-fi director extraordinaire Denis Villeneuve has signed on to adapt Arthur C. Clarke’s classic first-contact story Rendezvous With Rama.
Villeneuve is no stranger to the science fiction genre, just as Arthur C. Clarke books are no strangers to screen adaptations. Villeneuve has a track record of successful sci-fi adaptations. His take on the first half of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is still firmly lodged in many fans’ minds even as we collectively await Dune: Part 2, which will hopefully give Zendaya more than three minutes of screentime. Arrival made waves in 2016, memorably adapting Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” The director also tried his hand at bringing Philip K. Dick’s characters from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (and the classic film version of the story, 1982’s Blade Runner) to life again in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was filmed as miniseries for the Syfy network in 2015, though it came and went with little critical acclaim. Before that, of course, came the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a bit of a caveat, though: Clarke wrote the screenplay for the movie (which was inspired by some of his earlier short stories), but also crafted the novelization prose treatment as Stanley Kubrick was constructing the legendary sci-fi masterpiece, so calling the film an “adaptation” of the novel isn’t quite accurate. Still, 2001 remains a crowning achievement in science fiction cinema, and the book deserves appreciation as well. Peter Hyams wrote, produced, and directed 2010: The Year We Make Contact in 1982, adapting Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, his direct sequel to 2001. (Want a Clarke fan’s advice? Read the 2010 book, but skip the film at all costs.)
Simply put: the late Clarke was a prolific science fiction writer whose works, brimming with gorgeous descriptions of space, alien races, and the unknown, still feel ready-made for the Hollywood treatment. With this recent announcement, then, it seems we have a match made in speculative fiction heaven: a Clarke novel packed with wonder, gorgeous descriptions, and big ideas ripe for the picking and a veteran genre director bolstered by a string of recent blockbusters. Suffice it to say I’m excited by the possibilities of Villeneuve’s Rendezvous With Rama project. That said, as a fan of the book (I reviewed it here for The Quill To Live), I have a few hopes for the movie in terms of how it approaches the story and characters…
But first, for the uninitiated, a brief summary of the novel: Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama takes place in roughly 2130, in our solar system. Humans have terraformed and colonized many of the planets we know and love, save for the toxic-rain-addled Venus. One day, though, a miles-long metallic cylinder careens into our solar system. Its origins and purpose unknown, humanity sends Commander Bill Norton and a crew of spacefaring experts to investigate the object—dubbed Rama—and discover any secrets contained within. Time is short, however, as Rama’s trajectory indicated that it will pass quickly through our system and out into the universe beyond.
Anything more would be considered a spoiler, so I’ll leave it there—I do, however, encourage science fiction fans to read the book, if you haven’t gotten to it yet! But for now, let’s explore the possibilities of Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation, and what the director needs to get right about Rama.
Relish the Ambiguity
Kubrick understood this when he made 2001, and Clarke consistently embraced the same philosophy in his writing. Science fiction celebrates the what-ifs and imagines the how-tos of our world, painting pictures of humanity’s future. Vibrant cyberpunk cityscapes are as common as post-apocalyptic hellscapes in the genre, but these stories are all united by the questions they ask… How did humanity come to this point? Is there a better future beyond this imagined one? What does it all mean?
Clarke’s work is nestled in the near-ish future. He’s a master when it comes to exploring the implications of major otherworldly breakthroughs or first contact that don’t unfold exactly how you’d expect. Rama sits right within that goldilocks zone, and the end of the novel compels us with the questions it asks, rather than the answers it offers.
Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, this latest Clarke adaptation should take that outlook to heart, celebrate the questions raised by the plot, and allow viewers to grapple with them on their own. And speaking of 2001, let’s jump to my next point…
Don’t Try to Recreate 2001: A Space Odyssey
The novel and the movie both stand out as science fiction classics, and we don’t need a retread. Rendezvous With Rama shares certain boilerplate similarities with its spacefaring sibling story, but there’s a treasure trove of untapped sci-fi goodness to be had in the lesser-known Clarke narrative.
While Space Odyssey carved out a small chunk of the vastness of space and showed us just how little we understand, Rama gives the prospect of first-contact a slightly more accessible, if fleeting, spin. I hope Villeneuve draws ample inspiration from Kubrick’s masterpiece; at the same time, I hope he recognizes the opportunity to tell a more grounded, human-centric tale. 2001 was about exploring the great unknown and struggling to comprehend its gargantuan scope. Rama is about engaging with an infinitesimal slice of the unknown. Both angles make for great storytelling, and a movie that focuses on the latter could fill a key gap in the Clarke adaptation pantheon.
Give Women the Spotlight
…sigh. My biggest gripe with Arthur C. Clarke books remains the same with every tome I read. In books already devoid of relatable, meaningful characters, Clarke shunts women into the dark recesses of his stories. Rendezvous With Rama has one incriminating passage that always irks me. Essentially, a crew member of the Rama exploration crew shares an internal monologue about how distracting low gravity can be when a woman is on board. He mentions how the lack of gravitational force makes for excessive jiggling of the breasts. The character goes so far as to question whether women should be astronauts in the first place. I remember reading the passage (which is by far the most egregious, though there are others) with jaw agape.
Beyond the outright sexism, there are precious few women characters in the book at all. It would be an easy (and necessary) win in terms of representation for Villeneuve to gender-swap a few characters and allow women to showcase their scientific talents in the movie. The story only stands to improve by broadening this particular horizon: In a story about humanity’s place in the universe, everyone should be included.
Give the Characters Some Extra Flair
Along the same lines as my last point, I hope Villeneuve takes full advantage of the fertile filmmaking ground Clarke’s characters represent. I’ve always appreciated Clarke as a conduit to the beyond, a deft writer of descriptive sci-fi prose. There are passages in his books that I read with teary eyes, transported by their beauty. But his characters…yikes. The most fleshed-out character in any Clarke book I’ve read is a sentient computer.
Humans, in so many Clarke books, take a backseat to the space that engulfs them. In a novel, I give this approach a pass. I’m content to read sweeping sections of elegant prose, ushering me into a world of stars and novae and alien beings. In a movie? I need more.
Villeneuve has the power to give stock characters and archetypes new life in the Rama movie. Show me how their personalities mesh. Give me conflict, clashes of ideals and personalities, tests of knowledge, educational biases…I want it all, and Villeneuve can deliver it on screen with the right casting and direction.
There’s also a character with a low gravity moon bike…leave that in, please. There are plenty of possibilities there, as you’ll see with my final point.
Go All Out on Sets and CGI
Older Clarke adaptations were limited by the technology of their time. Even so, they were uniquely prescient in their depictions of then-future technology. 2001 still holds up with its practical and visual effects (lookin’ at you, stargate sequence).
Rendezvous With Rama has no shortage of beautiful set pieces and action sequences. Villeneuve has the tools at his disposal to do them justice. This is a sci-fi movie; give me the best visual effects you’ve got. I want to bask in the glory of Clarke’s vision as glimpsed from the 21st century, brought to the screen by a steady-handed sci-fi directing veteran. Like Dune before it, I hope Rama sets a new standard for cinematic sci-fi storytelling, and I’m rather confident that Villeneuve can and will deliver on this front.
And Now, We Wait…
If the past is any indication, we won’t see Rendevous With Rama brought to the silver screen until 2024 at the absolute earliest. For now, it’s a waiting game. But while you pine for the cinematic wonder to come, pick up a copy of Clarke’s book and give it a read or a reread and let me know where you stand on the upcoming adaptation.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.