For centuries, sci-fi has been our guiding star when it comes to the future. The best science fiction movies, from Star Wars to The Matrix, broaden our imaginations immeasurably, making us dream of planets far beyond our own, and what might yet be.
But not all science fiction films are wholly original. In fact, many of them are adapted from another rich fountain of imagination: books. Indeed, science fiction authors were experimenting with the form and imagining unfamiliar worlds far before Hollywood came onto the scene — which probably explains why many sci-fi films are based on sci-fi books. Here are five incredible sci-fi adaptations that you probably didn’t know were books first.
Planet of the Apes
Before CGI, before ascendant technology made talking apes possible onscreen, there was the book version of Planet of the Apes. Written by French author Pierre Boulle, La Planète des Singes told the story of three space travelers who discover a planet ruled by great apes. On this planet, which orbits Betelgeuse, the apes are the intelligent ones and homo sapiens are savage brutes.
Five years after it was published, Hollywood adapted the novel for the big screen. And Planet of the Apes was just the beginning of an international franchise that would include further films (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes), reboots, television series, and video games.
Interestingly, the movie generally sticks to the book’s premise, except for its ending, which turned out to be perhaps one of the biggest and most iconic departures of all. (No spoilers in this post if you don’t already know it! But it’s safe to say that the finale of Planet of the Apes is one that Runpee will tell you not to miss.)
The Stepford Wives
The 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives was immortalized by Nicole Kidman’s very creepy turn as a “Stepford wife,” but it was inspired first by Ira Levin’s original book.
You’re probably already somewhat familiar with the premise: a young mother moves into a peaceful Connecticut neighborhood and begins to think that all is not as it appears when she meets the strangely submissive wives of Stepford. In the novel, Levin plays this seemingly simple premise up to a cymbal-crashing, memorable crescendo — so much so that the term “Stepford wife” is now a common part of our English vernacular.
The book was adapted into a movie twice: once in 1975 (directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katharine Ross), and again in 2004 (directed by Franz Oz and starring Nicole Kidman). Both are actually worth a watch, as they’re very different in tone — the 1975 movie can probably be classified as a bonafide thriller, while the second incorporates much more dark comedy. That said, before you watch either film, you should try reading the book first.
I Am Legend
Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend in 1954 — more than 50 years before Will Smith’s blockbuster came out. And while the film might’ve sealed Will Smith’s reputation as an international film star, the impact of the book I Am Legend was actually far greater when it was first published: it basically popularized the zombie apocalypse in pop culture. Though the book just narrowly misses the cut on most “books to read before you die” masterposts, it is most certainly one of the biggest titless in the science fiction genre.
Like Planet of the Apes, the movie chose to deviate from the book’s truly, well, legendary ending. But it was clearly caught in two minds about this decision, as two conclusions were actually filmed. Again, we’ll try not to spoil anything for you. So if you’d prefer to see for yourself, this is a clip of the film’s alternate ending, which is more faithful in spirit to Matheson’s book — and you can compare it to the original one on this page.
Children of Men
P.D. James’ Children of Men caused a furor when it was released in 1992, in part due to its startling premise: it’s the year 2021, and the world is on the brink of extinction because of mass infertility. What emerges is a powerful social critique that thrums with slow-burning tension.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, admittedly, is pretty different — so much so that one blog post actually recommends reading the book as a sequel if you’re still craving more story after watching the film. Arguably, in this particular case, the film showcases even more emotional depth than the book. You can make the decision for yourself by checking out both.
Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece, Arrival, is probably well-known to everyone by now — particularly after the rounds that it made on the awards circuit in 2016. But what you probably don’t know is that the movie is based on a piece of writing: a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang titled “Story of Your Life.”
“Story of Your Life,” while not the most famous short fiction, did make a bit of a splash by winning the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella. Portraying the arrival of aliens in Earth’s orbit, both the short story and film are intense meditations on language, humanity, communication, and the nature of combat. Chiang was reportedly fascinated with the topic of free will while writing the story, a theme that also crops up quite prominently in its silver screen adaptation. The end result, for both, is an artistic and philosophical triumph.
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