Reading the Screen: Riverworld
Posted by: David Pitt
So I caught a rerun of the SyFy Channel’s 2010 adaptation — true fans of the novel might use the word “desecration” — of the first two Riverworld novels by Philip Jose Farmer.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) and The Fabulous Riverboat (also ’71) are set in the same world, but they’re not especially related. In Scattered Bodies, Richard Francis Burton, the 19th century explorer, awakens after his death in a strange place that appears to be populated by anyone who ever lived; teaming up with an assortment of vividly drawn characters (such as, for example, Hermann Goring), Burton tries to find out who’s responsible for the mass resurrection…and whether the Riveworld is Heaven, Hell, or someplace in between.
Riverboat‘s central character is Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who, aided by a mysterious representative of the beings responsible for humanity’s rebirth, intends to sail to the river’s source. But first he has to forge an alliance with John Lackland, who has his eyes on Clemens’ land.
Both novels are populated by an interesting mix of real-life characters: Goring, Baron von Richthofen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Alice Liddell, and many more. The books are bursting with imagination, spectacle, and adventure.
On the other hand, SyFy’s four-hour miniseries, which combines the two novels, somehow manages to be dull and plodding. They got rid of most of Farmer’s characters, replacing them with different historical people (a pointless and aggravating change), and they took Richard Francis Burton, the hero of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and turned him into the central villain of the piece (completely uncalled for).
For the hero, they created a new character, Matt Ellman, a reporter who dies in a terrorist bombing and wakes up on the Riverworld. He is an entirely uninteresting and unnecessary character. My theory is that the folks who made the miniseries didn’t trust their audience to have the wit or intelligence to accept a story with a 19th century man, an actual historical figure, as its hero. That would also explain why the screenplay is so poor: the story has been almost stripped bare of Farmer’s key themes (the nature of war, the validity of religion, racism, sexism, fate versus free will, etc.). Maybe the producers didn’t think their audience was clever enough.
I’m a big fan of the Riverworld novels. SyFy took them and twisted them almost beyond recognition. Alone among the large cast, only Mark Deklin, as Sam Clemens, seems to understand what Farmer was going for: Deklin’s performance is lively, entertaining, and ever so slightly over-the-top. His Clemens is the only character who feels like he stepped out of Farmer’s story. When he’s on screen, we get a sense of what a true adaptation of Farmer’s books might have been like.
Otherwise, stick to the novels and forget the SyFy travesty.