With the news the Watchmen screenwriter will adapt Dragonriders of Pern, it's time to face facts. Hollywood has picked up the wrong Anne McCaffrey novel to adapt. Instead, someone should tackle Restoree, her 1967 take on Golden Age heroines.
Spoilers for Dragonriders of Pern ahead!
Dragonriders will be absurdly difficult to get right — and there's a sizeable fanbase that will not be pleased if the source material is abused.
The protagonist Lessa is prickly, assertive, and obsessed with revenge, and that kind of female character isn't exactly Hollywood's specialty. Then there's the massive scale on which the riders live, with their space shuttle-sized dragons and volcano-based Weyrs. And let's not forget the dragon mating scenes. They're pretty crucial for the plot, but if they're done wrong it'll turn this into the Showgirls of science fiction. It's easy to understand the financial appeal of a long-running series, but there's a better candidate for adaptation, and that's McCaffrey's Restoree.
Manhattan, in the late 1960s — Sara is a disgruntled farm girl turned ad-agency librarian. She's convinced that if she just had smaller nose, all her romantic problems would be over. One hot summer night, she escapes her cold-water flat on 48th street, goes looking for a breeze in Central Park and is promptly abducted by aliens. When she comes to, she's one of many oddly vacant attendants in a mental hospital on the planet Lothar. She has oddly golden skin and her much-desired new schnoz (which she'll soon discover means she was taken by the flesh-eating Mil and therefore had to be "restored"). It's quickly apparently that her charge, Harlan, is being drugged to keep him from returning to his position as the planet's Regent. She prevents them from slipping him any more mickeys and they begin to plot their escape, and Harlan's return to power.
Here's why this is a more promising movie:
It's a Golden Age period piece
It would be tempting to relocate the story to the present, but that would be a big mistake. The late-1960s setting is important because it turns the whole movie into both a tribute and an affectionate reexamination of classic science fiction. That means retrofuturistic set pieces. Take the 1939 World's Fair as design inspiration and go nuts. Great big shiny rocket ships! Great big shiny buildings! To appease the bean-counters, a fair amount of the action happens indoors and the bulk of the budget could go to just a couple of blow-out exterior scenes. For example: One crucial plot point involves smuggling Sara into the capital city during a huge, boisterous festival. Everyone's in costume and carousing in the streets. It all leads up to her slipping into at the opulent palace gardens, mingling with aristocrats and the creme de la creme of society. That's the kind of thing that wins Oscars for costumes and set design.
An appealing female lead
A plucky heroine is one of the best things going for Restoree. Sara's a very deliberate response to the shrieking, fainting babe associated with SF from the period. Compare the book's Hildebrant cover (cropped up top) with the famous Forbidden Planet poster, featuring a bikini-clad Alta passed out in the arms of a Robby the Robot. The message: "Quick, daring young spacemen! We must save her!" On the cover of Restoree, Sara is wide awake and grinning up at her ugly alien boyfriend. The message: "Why deal with sleazy Mad Men, when you could be having the time of your life? Outer space is awesome."
There's no shortage of problems to overcome, starting with escaping the asylum and right up to a full-scale Mil invasion, but Sara never freezes up or awaits rescue, even when way over her head. In a pinch, she can sail a boat, sneak into a place, whatever needs doing. She's practically the MacGyver of alien abductees. What's more, she seems to be having a blast the entire time.
A charming — rather than overwrought — romance
Harlan isn't Prince Charming. He's only Regent because he's honor-bound to protect his nephew, the heir to the throne, and he would happily cede the position. A natural-born explorer, he just wants to go looking for new planets and new alien races. He's not even that handsome, though he's more appealing once the drugs wear off and his normal personality returns. Sara saves his butt at great person risk, braving beatings and worse if she's discovered, and Harlan loves her for it.
In short, he's well-matched to our unconventional, planet-hopping heroine — and he realizes it right off the bat. There's none of McCaffrey's typical romantic angst. Harlan starts putting the moves on Sara as soon as they're out of the asylum, and Sara's equally straightforward about her attraction to Harlan. They make a great team, and they know it, and that's refreshing. A smart screenwriter could take these two, add some snappier dialogue, and make them a Nick and Nora — or at least a Harry and Sally.
A simple story
There are lots of political machinations in Restoree, along with some convoluted planetary history and general scheming. It's probably too complicated for a two-hour movie, but a good script could pare it down.The stuff that matters is pretty simple: Girl gets abducted. Girl meets boy. Girl and boy face inter- and extra-planetary obstacles to be together. They live happily ever after. Everything else is just window-dressing, and because the novel isn't as well known, there's plenty of room to play with the various plot elements. As long as the writer keeps the Mil and Harlan's political antagonist Gorlot, it's easy to make necessary changes and preserve what makes the book worth adapting.
Mediocre books can make great movies
I'm under no illusions that Restoree is secretly McCaffrey's finest work. The world-building isn't as solid or as imaginative as pseudo-Medieval Pern. And it has little in the way of scientific underpinnings. For one thing: What are the odds that a human and an alien — even a sexy one — could bump uglies with any great degree of success? I'm going to say not great. Sometimes the writing is downright clunky, and the dialogue comes with extra cheese.
But sometimes it's the lesser-known, less well-written books that make the best movies. For example, To Have and Have Not isn't Hemingway's finest work, but William Faulkner's screenplay and the chemistry between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart turned it into a pretty great movie. There's a reason the celluloid Mildred Pierce is more famous than the book. And while Iron Man certainly had his fans, he wasn't a superstar until Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. took the character and gave him an excellent popcorn picture. Adapting something less well-known means no shortcuts and no assuming that the audience will automatically fork over their hard-earned cash. That's the kind of creative pressure that turns out tightly plotted, well-made movies.