Will Earth Abides Be Filmed? (II) (Waiting With Bated Breath, II)

This is a short update of a post from some time ago, about the possible filming of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.

Since the earlier post reporting on possible filming of the novel, information has surfaced about the team interested in filming Earth Abides.  Two of the principles in the production company won Academy Awards; one was involved in the excellent (and similarly hard to film) Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and has a strong interest in filming science fiction classics.

The  team plans to do the film as a mini-series.  That’s a good idea, since the highly-competitive premium channels are interested in such stories – consider The Handmaiden’s Tale and HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon — and are always looking for projects to film.  A mini-series would be an ideal way to  bring the novel to the screen.

The project is still “under development.”  That can mean a search for funding, or the talent to turn GRS’s book into a successful film.  Development can take a long time – it took years for a successful version of Lord Of The Rings to be produced.

In the case of Stewart’s fine novel, any potential producer will need to work hard to convince the money men that the film can turn a profit.

Earth Abides would be a difficult work to transition to the screen.  Much of it is somewhat philosophical, or technical.  In a way that is distinctly different from current films, violence and sex are low-key and “off screen.”  There are no major battles or graphic sex scenes or gun fights.  To add such scenes would change the special nature of the book.

(The danger of a bad film translation can be found in Stewart’s own experience.   Stewart’s Fire was filmed twice.  The Disney TV version keeps the ecological focus of the novel.  The other version, by Paramount, was changed to emphasize sex and violence, and ignored the ecological focus.  It became Red Skies of Montana and a good example of how NOT to translate a novel to the screen.)

Ø Ø Ø

The news about the team is encouraging.  But there’s still no word about the actual filming.  So we continue to wait with bated breath.

 

The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse, II: The Ben Sharpsteen Museum

You might think scholarship is boring.  Dull as dirt.  Best reserved for those in the monastery or the ivory tower.

You’d be wrong.

Scholarship is an adventure, a  treasure-hunt.  And the quest brings surprising and unexpected discoveries.   Researching the George R. Stewart biography, for example, I discovered that famous writers like Stephen King and Wallace Stegner and William Least Heat Moon, musician and composer Philip Aaberg, scientist Dr. James D. Burke of JPL, and Jimi Hendrix were influenced by Stewart’s works.

Walt Disney was also a great fan of Stewart.  He even hired Stewart to work at the studio as a consultant.  Stewart discussed ideas with various studio personnel; then submitted a report about the potential for American folklore films, and educational films.   Stewart’s recommendations went to Ben Sharpsteen, legendary Disney producer and director.

In preparing materials for donation to the George R. Stewart Collection at the University of Nevada, Reno, I happened upon a copy of Stewart’s report to Sharpsteen.  The copy came from the Walt Disney Archives (Stewart’s copy is in the George R. Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library).  That discovery inspired a wander through Wikipedia and Google to find what was available online about Ben Sharpsteen.  Sites recorded his extensive contributions to Disney, where he began as an animator, became a Director (Pinocchio, Dumbo), and eventually produced True-Life Adventure documentaries – work which earned Sharpsteen and the studio multiple Oscars.

And there, among the Google listings, was a golden Sharpsteen nugget:  he and his wife, Bernice, had founded a museum, in Calistoga, California, at the base of Mt. St. Helena.

The Ben Sharpsteen Museum preserves and interprets several chapters of California history, with emphasis on the pioneer days and Sharpsteen’s work for Disney.  Trip Advisor gives it a 4.5 rating.

The museum includes the home of Sam Brannan, who started the Gold Rush when he rushed through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle filled with gold, yelling, “Gold, boys, Gold!  From the American River!”  (Brannan was a businessman – he started the Gold Rush so he could profit from selling supplies to 49ers.)  The Brannan cottage contains exhibits and artifacts from the pioneer era in California, including some from the Donner Party, and a massive diorama of the Hot Springs Resort that Brannan founded in Calistoga.  (The resort was supposed to be named the “Saratoga of California,” they say, but Brannan’s consumption of the celebratory champagne at the resort’s dedication befuddled his tongue and he toasted “The Calistoga of Sarifonia!” and Calistoga it is.)

The Sharpsteen Museum includes a Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit.  Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, visited the area on their honeymoon; and Stevenson used local geography and history in the writing of Treasure Island.

And so we circle back to George R. Stewart, who explored the area in 1919-20  researching his Master’s Thesis on Stevenson and Treasure Island.  Stewart had been fascinated with Stevenson’s novel since he discovered it as a boy in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Stevenson’s use of maps in the book became a foundation of Stewart’s later work.

Treasure-island-map

Stevenson  once wrote “It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words….As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.”  Stewart’s ecological novels and histories, like Stevenson’s Treasure Island, would be based on maps.

Stevenson once admitted the scenery in Treasure Island was based partly on California locations.  Inspired by that comment, Stewart set out to discover what areas or history were foundational to the novel. He explored the area around Mt. St. Helena, including Calistoga (and with his passionate interest in the Westward Movement, which led to books like Ordeal By Hunger, it is certain he visited the Sam Brannan Cottage.)

Stewart’s field research in the Calistoga and Mt. St. Helens area, his interviews with pioneers who remembered the Stevensons, and his geographic explorations gave him the answer:  Flat-topped Spyglass Hill was based on flat-topped Mt. St. Helena.  The Stevensons’  honeymoon spot, an abandoned mine on St. Helena – the Old Juan Silverado Mine – gave readers the name of one of the great characters in literature, “Long John Silver.”  There is a collection of photographs in the George R. Stewart Papers related to his Stevenson research; some may be from his 1919 reseach trip.  (Stewart also met and interviewed Stevenson relatives during his 1921 bicycle trip through Europe – three elderly cousins in Edinburgh who remembered RLS as a boy; and Lord Balfour in England.  Davey Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, was based on a real RLS relative.)

Later, Stewart would write his discovery about Treasure Island into Storm – the first ecological novel and the book from which we get the practice of naming storms.  Each chapter ends with a “litany” of landforms or places.  Here is the beginning of the litany of the coastal peaks:

“This is the roll-call of those chief summits rising against the first in-sweep of the storm from the ocean.  Mt. Sanhedrin.  Mt. Kinocti that watches above the lake.  Sulphur Peak on whose slopes the geysers fume and spout.  Then flat-topped St. Helena, named for a Russian princess, transmuted in romance to Spy-Glass Hill.  …”  [emphasis added]

Disney, who produced what is perhaps the best film version of Treasure Island, would also film Stewart’s Storm for the Disney TV show.

So the circle continues:  Stewart discovers where Spyglass Hill is located, explores Calistoga along the way (and certainly the Brannan Cottage).  Later, Walt Disney hires Stewart as a consultant, and he sends his recommendations to Ben Sharpsteen – who eventually turns the Sam Brannan Cottage into a museum, interpreting some of the same history as Stewart – that of the Donner Party, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Disney.

(It’s a personal circle, too.  Our family friends, the Broughtons, had a Disney connection.  Bob Broughton was in charge of the multiplane camera, the camera department, special effects.  The multiplane camera crew included the first employees in the new Burbank studio, working on Pinocchio.  Bob worked closely with Ben Sharpsteen on the complicated 6-level shots. Eventually, Bob, like Ben Sharpsteen,  became a Disney Legend.)

Inspired, I called the Ben Sharpsteen Museum.  Two members of the Board of the Directors, Kathy Bazzoli and Pat Larsen, answered by speakerphone.  It was a pleasure to talk with them – they’re knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  Kathy followed up with an email that referenced a book for sale in their bookstore, Dutton’s “They Left Their Mark,” which mentions Stewart’s research.

If you’re a Disney fan (and who isn’t?) or a Robert Louis Stevenson fan (and who isn’t?) or a George R. Stewart fan (and there are millions of those), I encourage a visit to the Sharpsteen Museum…and to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena.  The Sharpsteen Museum is certainly at the top of my travel list.

 

 

Earth Day Reflections on George R. Stewart

I am convinced that the Founding Father of Earth Day and the Environmental Movement was George R. Stewart.  Many contributed, of course – Mary Austin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the Sierra Club, Stephen T. Mather, Ansel Adams, TR, Gifford Pinchot, and so on.  But before Stewart, the preservationists, conservationists, and environmentalists spoke mainly to a literate urban elite, not a vast middle class.  So the ideas stayed within a comparatively small circle of people.

George R. Stewart, professor at Berkeley, was a member of that elite circle; but he was also a great admirer of the common man.  His interest was in educating the general literate middle class about the ecological point of view.   So he wrote for that audience (and did it in a manner so well-researched and literate that he also reached those in the small circle of elite environmentalists).  His first ecological novel, STORM, focused on common folks as ecological heroes.

In FIRE, his next ecological novel, Stewart makes the different but related views of the common man and the elite when he  introduces two characters who represent the views of the two groups:  In one of the most remarkable passages, an old ranger and the young college-educated Chief Ranger debate the value of fire in the ecosystem.

Stewart used several techniques to reach the literate middle class.  Primary among these was basing the novel’s human protagonists on the common man – and in fact at times using the real stories of real people who became the real-life models for the heroes in his novels.   Johnny Martell (as I recall the name) apparently did walk across the front of a Sierra dam as storm water poured over the dam’s top.

Other characters, like  The Junior Meteorologist, are never named — thus making them Everyman.

Letters to Stewart show how powerful and appreciated was his presentation of common folks as environmental heroes.  In one, now in the Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, a supervisor involved in the incident with the over-flowing dam, thanks GRS for showcasing the daily courage of such people, most never named or known.   In another, relating to Earth Abides, the writers talk about how that book encouraged to “the little people” like themselves. (That letter is also in the Stewart Papers.)

STORM and FIRE became international best-sellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections.  Millions of people, most of them NOT in the older environmental elite, read the books and were educated in the ecological/environmentalist point of view and were inspired to see humans and their world in a entirely new way.  Although there was little in the national media about that viewpoint – the media, like the government, is usually years behind the general literate population – it had spread widely, long before there was an “Environmental Movement.”

Some elites helped the process when they, like GRS, spread the word.  Walt Disney, a great fan of Stewart, presented a fine short film version of Storm on the widely-viewed Disney television program and the ecological message of the novel reached a massive audience.   A Storm Called Maria, aired in 1959, trumpeting Stewart’s educational message to a huge audience.  Since it was airing when the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams/Nancy Newhall exhibit, This Is The American Earth, was first presented, the Disney film saw its influence – and the teachings of GRS – multiplied exponentially.  Those who’d read the GRS novel could see the characters – especially the storm, Maria – come to vivid life, reinforcing the message that environmentalism belongs to all of us.  Those who’d not read the novel were educated in the ecological point of view by the film.

Since Disney used real people in the real roles they play in the novels, it underscored the idea that common men and women, not simply the elites,  are environmentalists.  Disney’s subseqent TV film, “A Fire Called Jeremiah” expanded the audience and reinforced the GRS message.

By the time Stewart wrote Fire he understood what his vision was and how he could teach it to others.  In an extraordinary letter, sent in 1948 in answer to questions from the publicist for the Book-Of-The-Month Club, Stewart wrote:

I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment.  I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.  

Long before “ecology” became a common phrase, Stewart had realized he was teaching his readers – his vast number of readers, some in the elite but mostly middle class people – the values and principles of the ecological or environmentalist point of view.  He was doing it as early as the mid-1930s, in his ecologically-based history Ordeal By Hunger.  But by 1948 – seven years before This Is The American Earth and two decades before the first Earth Day, Stewart was preparing his readers – teaching them – educating them – to the ecological point of view.

Clearly, George R. Stewart was a Founding Father of Earth Day.  Perhaps THE Founding Father.

 

Meeting Conan on the Trail to GRS

As you wade into the writing of a book, you realize you’ve begun walking down a new trail, unlike any you’ve known.  The trail will lead you to pain — as author Rinker Buck says, “It’s a total pain in the ass to write a book” — but also to encounters  beyond your wildest pre-writing imagination.
The writing of the Stewart biography led to meetings with several best-selling authors (Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson, Poul Anderson, William Least Heat Moon, Ivan Doig),  scientists including James D. Burke, composer Philip Aaberg, and others.
One of the most interesting meetings was with prolific author Leonard Carpenter.  Leonard wrote many of the Conan The Barbarian paperbacks, and a treasure trove of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels.  We met on a beach near San Luis Obispo, a stretch of sand on the edge of sea otter water — a good place to run, swim, and relax from the work of creating literature.
Leonard invited me to his writers’ group.  I joined, meeting others who had written themselves into some small fame and fortune — inspirational and encouraging to an apprentice wordsmith. Leonard critiqued our writing.  When he sent my manuscript back,  with many deletions and suggestions, my first thought was “Leonard’s turning the GRS biography into an exercise in Conan prose!”  But after thinking it over, I realized he’d taught an important lesson – “Lean up that prose!  Cut to the chase!  Move the narrative along briskly!”  I took his advice, and the book is better for it.
Leonard’s latest book moves him away from fantasy, SF, and horror, into speculative historical fiction.  It’s the tale of the sinking of the Lusitania, based on recent research which indicates the British wanted the vessel sunk,  to create a casus belli that would bring the USA into the war on the British side.  I found the well-written book provocative, and was inspired to review it on Amazon.  Here’s my review:
Leonard Carpenter has combined his excellent wordsmithing skills with thorough research to create a partly-fictional, partly real historical novel about the sinking of the Lusitania. As always, he writes a page-turner. Once a reader is into the story, the book hard is to put down. His research and his story lead to a disturbing conclusion: The people who died on the Lusitania were purposefully sent to their deaths to create a casus belli to bring the US into World War I – one of the most useless military tragedies in a century of military tragedies – on the side of the Allies.
Carpenter personalizes his story with subplots about two American journalists, two American nurses – one of whom is actually impersonating a nurse – and their nursing colleagues traveling to Europe to aid in healing the wounded, a thug pursuing the nurse impersonator, a “Dutchman” (not what he seems), and brief sketches of others. His scope is broad, and he includes short chapters focused on British war personnel and others told from the viewpoint of soldiers in battle. The effect is to give the reader an understanding of the vastness and complexity, and the human tragedy, of World War I.
His characters are generally not given depth or rich histories so to some extent they’re one dimensional. (After all, this is not so much a character study as a book of historical adventure and action.) But the main characters have brief moments of exposition which lead readers to a deeper understanding of their personalities.
Several of the greatest historical mysteries of recent times have to do with the convenient attacks on the US, which become casus belli for undeclared (and thus unconstitutional) wars. They take tens of thousands of lives, even after they’re proven to be based on untruths. There was no incident in the Tonkin Gulf, but 50,000 Americans and untold thousands of Vietnamese died because of that untruth. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (except for the poison gas which George H. Bush gave the Iraqis), and, besides, most of the supposed attackers in the September 11th incident were Saudis, but Iraq is as destabilized as Southern Sudan, the carnage has spread, and the US is suffering the longest – and for the war profiteers, most profitable – war in US history.
The implication in Carpenter’s novel is that the sinking of the Lusitania was facilitated by the British as a casus belli. The book’s opening quote, from Churchill, in News of the World, seems to make that clear: “In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favorable to the Allies.” On the other hand, if it was intended as a casus belli, it wasn’t very effective. The sinking took place in 1915; the US didn’t enter the war until 1917.
Whatever the true story may be, the book makes for wonderful reading. Its characters are generally likeable, the history is intriguing, and the amount of Carpenter’s technical research about the ship and the era brings the age, its technology, and the sinking to vivid life.
Be forewarned – the book’s ending will leave readers up in the air. But since that seems a sure sign that Carpenter is planning a sequel, it’s the right way to end the book.
Buy, it, read it, think about it. Then speculate about what really happened to the Lusitania; and wonder where Carpenter’s next book in the series will take his characters.
lusitania lost cover
If you ever write your book, remember how interesting and painful the task will be.  But like raising a child, writing a book, if you are ethical in the task, will take you to many extraordinary encounters.  It is a great gift of the adventure.

Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.

 

 

 

Earth Abides to Be Filmed?

(Another repost, so it’ll get to the FB page.)

Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s great classic – in 20 languages now, and never out of print in 77 years –  thanks to Alan Ligda, who published the book for a few years through his Hermes Press when the Trade publisher dropped it and thus kept it in print until the Trade publisher realized its mistake  – is long overdue for film treatment.

 

ligda

ALAN LIGDA, Publishing Hero

In the old days of movie-making, before computers and computer graphics, it would have been nearly impossible to film.  But today, when The Martian can re-create a believable long-distance shot of the Martian surface with a few layers of computer graphics, the post-apocalyptic Earth of Stewart’s novel would be easy to re-create.

Today long films based on several linked novels – think Lord of the Rings – make it possible to film long and complex books like Earth Abides.  EA, with its three sections (each in fact a novella) and its shorter interchapters between the three, could be filmed in a three part or five part version.

And Stewart’s Greek Chorus of observations, the beautiful bits of poetic prose set in italics which filter through the text,  would work as well with a viewing audience as they do with a readership, to help them see Stewart’s overview of events.

So it is with great interest I hear rumors of a plan to film Earth Abides as a mini-series.  A mini-series, it seems to me, is not as worthy of the book as a film or films would be; but remember that Lord of the Rings went through several anemic visualizations before Jackson made his mighty epic. So an Earth Abides mini-series would be a start; and if properly done, a fine start. It would certainly expand the fan base; and in so doing, eventually lead to an audience for a feature film or films.

IMDB has announced the mini-series plan.  There’s no detail about the series, but the public IMDB pages let us know it’s being considered.

Without giving away any secrets, I can confirm that another source has indicated the truth of the project.  No more details than are on the IMDB page, but one small slight confirmation of the interest by filmmakers, and their first steps to make it so.

Stay tuned.

 

ea-cover-copy1.jpg

Sally van Haitsma-Agented Book to be filmed

(Again, a re-post to get this shared on FB)

Sally van Haitsma is my agent.  She’s been of invaluable help in seeing the GRS biography through to publication; and she’s supported it even though the publisher sells few copies.

Now she’s struck gold.  The Leisure Seeker, one of the novels she represents is going to be filmed.  According to Hollywood Reporter today, the film will star Meryl Streep and Donald Sutherland.

The book is a wonderful read – and dangerous if you’re a geezer, because it’s the story of a older, ill couple, ignoring their children and heading out in their RV – the Leisure Seeker – to travel Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica…and Disneyland.

Congratulations to Sally, author Michael Zadoorian, and the filmmakers and actors wise enough to make this film.  It will probably win many awards.

Now – if someone would only buy the film rights to the story of George R. Stewart’s life…..