Hey, Morgan Freeman: Here's how to make a Rendezvous With Rama movie

People have talked about turning Arthur C. Clarke's 1974 Hugo winner into a movie, but no one's done it. Should that change, here are some thoughts on how a Rendezvous With Rama screenplay should look.

(And what I mean by that, Morgan Freeman, is that if your plans ever get back on track, PLEASE CALL ME. Longtime Easy Reader fan.)

[FADE IN to a shot of OUTER SPACE, inside the Earth's orbit around the sun]


NARRATOR: For years, humanity has wondered whether it was alone in the universe.

[In the center of the screen, a LARGE CYLINDRICAL OBJECT, looking almost like an ordinary household boiler and spinning speedily on its axis, glides gracefully and rapidly into view.]

NARRATOR: In 2130, we got our answer. But like most answers, it only raised more questions.

[FADE IN TITLE CARD]

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA

[FADE OUT TITLE CARD]


[FADE IN EXT. SPACEGUARD HEADQUARTERS]

NARRATOR: Dr. William Stenton is an astronomer with Project Spaceguard, which tracks the trajectories of asteroids entering our solar system.

[INT. STENTON'S OFFICE. He is seated at his desk.]

STENTON: To be honest, we almost missed it. We watch about half a million asteroids, and consequently, most of the work is done by computers. So they keep on eye on things, and we don't get alerted unless anything weird happens.

The computers first noticed Rama — it was actually called "Object 31/439" at the time — because it was on a very unusual path. Most asteroids, like planets, have an elliptical orbit.

[GRAPHIC of typical asteroid orbits contrasted with RAMA's orbit onscreen]

But 31/439 was on an entirely different path — and it was moving very, very fast.

And then there was the light curve. Now, a light curve is basically a graph.

[GRAPHIC of graph showing light curve]

Every celestial object has a certain brightness, thanks to the light it reflects from the sun, and the level of brightness will vary depending on what side of the object is facing the sun. Because every side is going to have at least a slightly different shape — you don't get perfect symmetry in nature. So you chart the different levels, and you've got your light curve.

[CUT back to STENTON]

Well, Rama didn't have a light curve.

So we knew something odd was going on. And this is the part where people always say, "Well, why didn't you just look at it through your telescope." Because it seems very simple! "You've got a great big telescope. That's what it's for — just look at the thing!" But it costs thousands of dollars per minute to get time on one of the big scopes.

[CUT to panning shot of FARSIDE 200-METER REFLECTOR TELESCOPE]

People think I can just walk over and look through the lens like with a telescope in your backyard, but it's very expensive, and time is scheduled months and months in advance. And remember, we didn't know what we were looking at with Rama. We thought it was odd, but we didn't know how odd. And unfortunately, you can't just say, "Excuse me, I don't know what exactly I'm going to be looking at with it, but I'd really like to use the telescope today."

[CUT back to STENTON]

But fortunately — and this is just one of those strange instances where things come together perfectly; it makes you wonder if there isn't some kind of order to the universe — basically, a 50-cent piece of equipment failed on someone else's experiment. And so they couldn't use their time on the telescope, and I got fifteen minutes.

And later, when we looked at the images — well, it was very clear that Rama had been made by some intelligent entity.

And that there was something inside of it.

The impulse to turn any half-decent book into a movie is understandable, especially in the case of science fiction. As rewarding as it is to envision characters and settings and the various trappings of a story in one's own head, there's something wonderful and delightful about having them made manifest for you. Basically, a movie version of Alex and his droogs or the giant sandworms or Doctor Manhattan is the closest you're going to get to meeting them in the flesh.

Hey, Morgan Freeman: Here's how to make a Rendezvous With Rama movie

Now, that said, that impulse to adapt a book for the big screen has become so automatic that it needs to be questioned, especially given Hollywood's track record. Once in a while, you end up with A Scanner Darkly, but more often it seems like you get either The Running Man (perfectly entertaining, but disappointing to anyone who wanted to see the brilliantly grim Stephen King story brought to life) or worse, I, Robot (neither enjoyable as cinema nor faithful in any substantial fashion to the literature that inspired it).

Rendezvous With Rama, however, not only deserves to be a feature-length motion picture, it pretty much demands it. I mean, 90 percent of the story centers on the crew of the spaceship Endeavour's exploration of a small world built along the inner wall of a cylinder 50 kilometers long and 20 kilometers in diameter. That's a reasonably easy concept to grasp in the abstract, but just about impossible to visualize. If any one of science fiction's Big Dumb Objects deserves the grandeur of the silver screen, it's Rama.

The trick, as anyone who's read the book knows, is that Rendezvous With Rama doesn't provide the sort of page-turning thrills that make studio executives' eyes light up. Technically, it's a novel, but in point of fact it reads more like a drawn-out thought experiment with some narrative embellishments. There are no heroes in a Campbellian sense, no villains except for some disgruntled politicians on Mercury, and there's no central conflict at all. There's just a team of highly competent explorers sent in to unravel any mysteries of Rama they can, who are so able and professional that they get the job done and get out with barely a scratch.

The obvious solution here would be for Hollywood to do as it always does, and rejigger the source material not simply to fit the needs of a different medium but to meet the low expectations it projects onto the viewing public. Rather than just the expedition's leader, Commander William Norton of the Endeavour would become a full-on protagonist, and presumably would wind up in a torrid romance with Surgeon Commander Laura Ernst, who gets maybe a dozen paragraphs in the book, total. Some crew member would have to be a bad guy. Maybe mildly wise-ass Lieutenant Joe Calvert? Or Lieutenant Boris Rodrigo, perhaps? Since even though he's about the nicest guy in the whole novel, he's a member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut, and religion in blockbuster SF films is almost always the opposite of science and thus bad? Possibly he could be working with fanatics based on Mercury, led by the wicked Hermian Ambassador, and would aid them in their misguided attempt to blow Rama up.

It would be irritating if the movie went that route — or if it tried to work Earth's Pandoran protesters into the story line, or worse yet, featured a scene in which the cute antics of Endeavour's "simps," or super-chimps, saved the day. But more to the point, it would be a tragic missed opportunity.

Rendezvous With Rama's brilliance stems from how hard Arthur C. Clarke worked to make it feel real. Besides the fact that there's so much science in it and that the science holds up, there are a host of understated elements and touches — like the brief mentions of the Pandorans and the simps — that create a sense that the events of the book take place in a larger world while still inhabiting a microcosm of their own. Which is pretty much how our own lives usually are.

Hey, Morgan Freeman: Here's how to make a Rendezvous With Rama movie

And since the whole point of a documentary film is to home in on one small corner of life and show why it's relevant to the rest of the world, I can't see how any other format would be better suited to telling Rama's story.

Why bother devising a love story or a battle of good versus evil that's just going to infuriate fans of the book and seem hackneyed to newcomers, when instead of trying to force the source material to fit the format, a good director could just go with a format that fit the material? Documentary, after all, is the form of choice for telling stories about teams of hardworking professionals doing all sorts of amazing jobs, and for making scientific findings accessible to a mass audience. And the book would lend itself so well to repurposement as a pseudo-doc made shortly after humanity's encounter with the spacecraft — most of what the Endeavour crew does is film or photograph what they find on Rama.

Plus, a documentary format would actually add something to the story. We already know the names of nearly all the characters involved in Rama's story — now, instead of relying on Clarke's narration, we'd get to hear them tell it in their own words. And whereas science can be dry subject matter when it's conveyed via pure prose — the ins and outs of Raman geography are where my eyes tend to glaze over, anyway — it really does come alive when it's being explained out loud, especially when the explanation is accompanied by video and graphics.

The toughest part of the job would be maybe building bit more of a story arc into the screenplay, but that should be doable, and in the meantime, the individual segments of the plot aren't hurting for filmable action: Jimmy Pak's flight to Rama's South Pole; the abrupt start of the hurricane as the spacecraft is warmed by the sun; the tidal wave on the Cylindrical Sea; and of course, the transition from the darkness in which the explorers find Rama shrouded to its glorious artificial daytime. The climax, of course, would be the crew's long-delayed forced entry into one of the buildings on Rama — if it were part of a traditional SF action movie, their discovery would be a bit of a letdown; in a documentary, it would feel magnificently monumental.

As for the marketing of such a movie, I for one think people would be interested in seeing a documentary from the year 2130. The approach is already a familiar one — it's a big chunk of District 9, right? and that's done awfully well — and the sheer scale of the necessary special effects would beat the hell out of the ones that earned Avatar so much attention.

The end result would definitely be something very different from most of the big SF movies out there, but since Rendezvous With Rama is so very different from most of the big SF books out there, that would be rather fitting, wouldn't it?

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, from 1975.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.