BOOKS TO MOVIES
“Make Room, Make Room” to “Soylent Green”
Soylent Green is….2022?
Dystopia. Distopian. Distopa-demic. One of the “topias,” and the opposite of utopia is the definition of dystopia – “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” We hear that a lot. A recent poll collected from the so-called “younger generation” believes that our world will turn into an inevitable “dystopia.” Such mess is a usual subject of science fiction.
Bad time guessing. I have noticed through the decades that books and movies like to predict the arrival of the bad-topia and they are usually well off their estimation – says me – who has lived through the initial guesses and the predicted dates of many books and films. And “Soylent Green” is one of them and the idea that we will be cannibals of sorts by 2022.
A science fiction book, Make Room, Make Room by the late, great Harry Harrison kicked this one off, published as a book in November 1966 (it was originally serialized in Impulse Magazine.) It was set in New York City, population 35 million with the global population is seven billion people, plagued with overcrowding, resource shortages and a crumbling infrastructure, set safely in “way off” 1999. The book jumps to several people living their crisis-shortages lives, with the wealthy hording the resources. Author Harry Harrison claimed, “The idea came from an Indian I met after the war in 1946. He told me, ‘Overpopulation is the big problem coming up in the world’ (nobody had ever heard of it in those days) and he said, ‘Want to make a lot of money, Harry? You have to import rubber contraceptives to India.’ I didn’t mind making money, but I didn’t want to be the rubber king of India!”
Harrison, who died in 2012, was a writing machine. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was the main writer of the Flash Gordon newspaper strip. Harrison even drew sketches to help the artist be more scientifically accurate. Novelist Christopher Priest wrote of Harrison, “Harrison was an extremely popular figure in the SF world, renowned for being amiable, outspoken and endlessly amusing. His quickfire, machine-gun delivery of words was a delight to hear, and a reward to unravel: he was funny and self-aware, he enjoyed reporting the follies of others, he distrusted generals, prime ministers and tax officials with sardonic and cruel wit, and above all he made plain his acute intelligence and astonishing range of moral, ethical and literary sensibilities.”
The novel was the basis of the 1973 movie Soylent Green. Heston read the book on a transatlantic flight and wanted to make a movie about it. Although the film changed much with a “freely adopted” plot and theme, as it introduced cannibalism as a solution to feeding people. With Heston behind the project, when MGM bought the rights to Make Room! Make Room!, the screenwriter Stanley Greenberg did not think the overpopulation topic was strong enough, and inserted cannibalism plus the suicide parlor, the furniture girls of the rich and chases, fights and shoot-out scenes. The movie was also more focused on the murder investigation rather than the problems of a world with too many people. (Harrison was on the set and tried to maneuver the script his way. Once finished, he swore to never be involved in a movie again.) Popular movie reviewer Roger Ebert said, “The detective story is mostly just an excuse to keep us interested from one end of the movie to the other.”
The 1973 movie was then set in 2022 not 1999 (I guess the 1999 date was getting to close?) The Soylent Corporation offers a food solution but what exactly is Soylent Green? Plankton? NO!… “IT IS PEOPLE!” Author Anthony Burgess says in his autobiography “The film shares some key themes and ideas with my 1962 novel The Wanting Seed, with the government falling, fertility rituals re-emerging, and shocking acts of cannibalism occurring in England. Harry Harrison, on his own confession, during the downing of a bottle of Scotch in my New York flat, stole the cannibal ending for the film.” (This is controversial as others say the cannibal plot was added to the movie, by movie people. But…Harrison was indeed on the set a lot, trying to add and subtract the script.)
Yes, Soylent Green was a food, a green cookie that fed the now 40 million inhabitants of New York City. Everything was scarce. Half the citizens had jobs. The poor lived in cars and the hallways of tenements. Women were completely oppressed. The movie centers around police detective Thorn well played by Charlton Heston working on the cannibal cover-up, his researcher – “police book” Edward G. Robinson (great in this part) and the bad guy Chuck Conners. Hollywood Reporter liked the movie, but added, “Soylent Green is Edward G. Robinson’s movie. As a man who remembers the wonders of civilization before it died, he is witty, cultivated and endlessly appealing.”
This film was part of a famous, cultish, Heston Sci-Fi trilogy, Planet of the Apes (1968), Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973), in which Heston was very smart to partake, given the movie industry trends of the time. All three were films hard to forget. If you have been around for a while you have probably seen them if even in reruns, and seen spoofs and satires of Heston screaming his warnings in the end. Invested in the two prior sci-fi films, I rushed to see this third one and liked the movie. The actors were great, action good, Heston eats up the scenes, and Robinson was perfect. But despite the reports of the lush and expensive sets and scenery, it all appeared very cheap, 1970s “backlot” to me. The movie was not a big hit, but it remains a lasting memory, and helped to construct the dystopian depression future we all seem to worry about. At least not in 2022?
The Harry Harrison page: https://www.michaelowencarroll.com/hh/
Soylent Green movie trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_jGOKYHxaQ
Heston taped interview on the movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irO-WKCDk3s