The Ultimate Compromise

After hearing early notice that the film version of I, Robot was nothing less than a crapfest (hardly the stuff of Asimov; the new version had killer robots, no less), and being plagued by lack of time, I avoided the sucker, despite Alex Proyas’ involvement. NPR has gone to the trouble of tracking down the players behind Harlan Ellison’s original script, interviewing Ellison, director Irvin Kershner (who was at one point slated to direct the Ellison version), as well as Proyas. The Jeff Vintar script that I, Robot was based on was originally another script, but later fused with the Asimov label once the I, Robot rights became available. (Amazingly, Vintar is also adapting Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.)

Among some of the more interesting revelations:

  • Ellison used the Citizen Kane template to frame four of Asimov’s stories into a script.
  • Kershner claims that, despite its strengths, Ellison’s script was too expensive and too driven by ideas.
  • The executive behind the production hadn’t read Ellison’s script and Ellison claims (in addition to learning judo from Bruce Lee) that he forcefully grabbed the executive and let loose a farrago of expletives. He was, predictably enough, ejected from the production. Strangely, Ellison boasts about his violence in the NPR interview, as if physically gripping a dumb studio executive were some grand act of bravado.
  • Proyas read Ellison’s script, but states that it wasn’t the movie he wanted to make. This is an interesting revelation, given how much he was attracted to Dark City, arguably just as intricate as Ellison’s script.

In addition, NPR also has two online audio exclusives: one of Ellison reading portions of the screenplay and another, with Ellison relating more of his perspective in a seven minute segment. Whatever the merits of Ellison’s script (or his Sticking It to The Man argument), one is struck by Ellison’s hubris. (“The script was very long and very good.”) He boldly states that he will “write you a screenplay that will win you awards.” There is also a good amount of inexplicable justification in the online interview. (At one point, Ellison states that Asimov had his blessing. But stating this isn’t enough. He also notes that he has “letters to prove it.”)

Was Ellison’s script a hodgepodge of ideas too intricate to be digested for mass consumption? Could the project have been set back on track if Ellison had simply dismissed the ignorant executive and talked with the right people? I remain a fan of Ellison’s stories, but I find it sad that a seventy year old man, who had no problem compromising with AOL, would look back upon a unilateral act of physical violence with such feverish gusto. The tragic possibility is that, in a single moment, Ellison may have derailed one of the greatest science fiction films never made.


  1. Welcome to Hellison. I love the guy, and his writing at its best is as transcendant as anything you’ll read, but tact and modesty have never been his strong suits. I also think he does what thousands of writers only fantasize about–popping idiot studio execs in the name of truth and justice. I’m sure the Writers’ Guild membership is probably designing him a championship belt as we speak…

  2. Yeah. Anyone’s who’s followed the career of the world’s oldest enfant terrible over the years is bound to say, “Eh, that’s Harlan.” This is the man who once amended Robert Heinlein’s rules for writers with the injunction “Kill to maintain the integrity of your work.” I’d say that exec got off easy.

    A few years ago, Ellison did publish the screenplay, btw. Haven’t read it, but maybe I will now.

  3. Harlan Ellison was Guest of Honor at SynCon ’83 (the Australian National Science Fiction Convention held in Sydney in 1983), and at a dinner one night I seem to remember him stating that his screenplay of “I, Robot” was to be directed by the Costa-Gravas, who had just finished filming “Missing” with Jack Lemmon. A director with talent aligned with a writer who knew and valued the material, second only to Asimov himself. What might have been.

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