Saturday, September 28, 2013

Books on Film: Sphere

We're entering the month of fear and fright, chills and thrills. What better way to celebrate it than with a scary book? But be careful if you choose to explore the world of Sphere -- the movie adaptation is scary in all the worst ways.


The Book

Michael Crichton published Sphere in 1987, but it's still terrifying today. The book begins with psychologist Norman Johnson, who is just beginning to get a little grumpy as he edges into the outskirts of old age. He's being flown to a classified location by the Navy, and so far they aren't telling him anything. When he reaches a full-scale military operation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he's told they've discovered an alien spacecraft...well, Norman pretty much wishes they had decided not to tell him anything at all.

The spacecraft has been there for a while. Judging by the coral, it's been in place for over 300 years. Norman is only one part of an elite task force that has been assembled to investigate. The rest of the team includes mathematician Harry Adams, biologist Beth Halpern and astrophysicist Ted Fielding. Norman soon realizes that this is the exact team that he put together in a report he was asked to write years and years ago by the government. Norman was tasked with creating a plan if and when alien life was discovered on Earth.

When he wrote the report, Norman thought it was a joke. Now, on a Navy vessel with his team and a crew of soldiers he realizes that this is no joke. It's definitely not a joke when they're all put on a submarine and taken to the bottom of the Pacific in order to study and explore the spacecraft.

 During the mission, they learn that the spaceship isn't alien after all...it was built by Americans. It's not a spaceship, not really, but a timeship that was (one assumes) accidentally sent back to the wrong time. But on board the ship, there is definitely something of alien origin. 

It's a sphere.



By the way, there's a storm topside (that means above the water) and the submarine has lost all communication with their support up above. The team of scientists has decided to focus on the sphere. They attempt communication with it, and Harry eventually uses his math skills to find a way inside. 

Very strange things begin to happen, and the sphere begins to exhibit a very distinct personality. It puts all of Norman's skills to the test to manage the truculent sphere and the increasingly stressed-out team of experts.

Things get really scary and really interesting, and the book is definitely worth your time. The movie...is a bit of a different story.

The Film

The book became a film in 1998, with Dustin Hoffman starring as Norman Johnson (Goodman on film), Samuel L. Jackson as Harry and Sharon Stone as Beth. It was an utter flop, and the critics hated it, too.  It earned around $37 million at the box office, far below the $80 million budget.

Yeah, the studio poured a ton of money into the film. They hired the best actors they could get. And they chose an excellent source of material to create a story. So why is this film so very bad? 

The special effects are good, but somehow the roles never quite fit the actors. Hoffman isn't methodical enough to be Norman, Jackson is too angry to be Harry, and Sharon Stone is sort of just...there. Too much quick dialogue pull and push the viewer through the plot, instead of allowing the story to unfold naturally.

And that's only part of the problem.

What Got Adapted?

Sphere as a movie didn't follow the book too well. Where the book exposes many of Norman's inner thoughts, the movie jumps from perspective to perspective to confuse the narrative. Many events are changed or eliminated, and some characters are removed before their time should come. Many, many writers have called this movie one of the worst adaptations ever...so think about that before you take the plunge and watch it.

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