Welcome back to the Battlefield Earth Saga! Last time, I went into detail about what I liked about both this novel and this film. However, there were quite a lot of questionable decisions in both mediums that killed all my joy.
Why the Novel Sucked
Although I enjoyed most of Terl and Johnnie’s first interactions with each other, I realized I couldn’t get swept away. I felt as though the story was moving at a good pace and that I should have been halfway to three quarters of the way in. Then I realized I wasn’t even halfway through the novel and my heart sank a little.
A major issue I had while reading this story was the length of the novel. That isn’t to say I can’t pay attention to a long read. On the contrary, I love long winding stories. The problem was that this novel didn’t need to be 1000 pages. This didn’t need to be one book!
There are 4 major plot arcs in this novel with four different antagonistic forces. The first Arc is the battle for Earth with the main antagonist being Terl. The second arc is about rebuilding the planet with the antagonist being Terl and Brown Limper Staffor. The third is the Intergalactic Conference with the antagonists being the the Tolneps and the Galactic Bank. Finally the fourth arc centers on Johhnie keeping his promise to the Emissaries and the Psychlo revelation with the antagonists again being the Galactic Bank and (by proxy) the former catrists of Psychlo (don’t worry, I’ll explain them later). The decision to make these four stories into one novel appeared to be less about any kind of creative or artistic statement than about the author showing that he could. He could make the science fiction novel to define science fiction novels and make it a best seller.
Adding to the length of this novel is Hubbard’s writing style. Over the course of the novel, Johnnie becomes proficient in everything from mining techniques, to nuclear physics, to advanced mathematics to intergalactic diplomacy. Many of the details are things that Hubbard will completely create from his own mind because they do not exist in the real world. This, however, does not stop Hubbard from going into excruciating detail into how it all works. Every aspect of every technical thing Johnnie does is elaborated on and explained at length, adding pages upon pages of explanations for these things that literally halt the story in it’s tracks. Now, I will give allowances as this is a completely new world with advanced theoretical technology, so for the sake of world building I gave it a pass on numerous occasions. However, there were entire chapters dedicated to mining techniques or how they put out a fire that did little to serve the overarching story other than show Johnnie, over and over again, being a perfect hero that gains everyone’s love and respect.
This leads me to my next big issue. Johnnie Goodboy Tyler. It is the perfect name for a generic “good guy” hero. He is the most boring protagonist ever. Johnnie is the peak of physical and mental perfection who cares deeply for all life, is humble, and beloved and even worshiped by all. In 1000+ pages, Johnnie Goodboy Tyler never showcases a single character flaw. Those who dislike him or disagree with him are portrayed as delusional or jealous evil characters (such was the case of Brown Limper) and Johnnie never lets this get to his head. He showcases no arrogance, no boastfulness, no indication that any of the adoration he’s received his entire life has had any effect on him whatsoever. Likewise, the antagonists of the novel, Terl and Brown Limper for example, are the exact opposite. They are generic “bad guys” with no redeeming characteristics. They are simplistic in their ambitions and motivated by greed (Terl) or jealousy (Brown Limper). I understand that Hubbard is a “golden era” science fiction writer. Many of the science fiction stories of that time were epics with very defined and simple characters. However, that was in the 30’s and 40’s and those stories typically weren’t as long as Hubbard’s novel. Battlefield Earth was published in the 80’s and these stilted generic characters just don’t cut it anymore and they certainly can’t retain your interest for over 1000 pages! Perhaps Hubbard should have spent a little more time fleshing out his characters and a little less fleshing out the minute details of his world.
Another issue I had with the novel was how information about the world would be relayed to the reader. For most of the book, Hubbard shifts focus back and forth between Johnnie and Terl. Sometimes, their accounts of events would overlap which was interesting and effective. As the story progressed and more people became involved in the story, we see chapters that focus on events from other people’s point of view. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue for me, except that sometimes it would create redundancy.
What I mean is; there would be a chapter or two dedicated to telling the story from someone else’s point of view which would give the reader new insight. However, in the next chapter all that information would end up being relayed to another character – which is pointless because the reader already read about what happened.
Even more annoying is Hubbard’s use of third party accounts. Having a third party tell our main characters something that happened elsewhere is a habit of Hubbard’s throughout this novel. Whole plot points and revelations are relayed to Johnnie or Terl through a tertiary character we know nothing about. For example, a main antagonistic force in the second arc of the novel are a group of human soldiers from Africa called the Brigantes. Johnnie and his crew are flying over to Africa to overtake a Psychlo base by Victoria Falls and while they are en route, they get a communication from a random ally of theirs who was already there. This ally proceeds to tell Johnnie and the crew about the Brigantes for the first time; including who they are, their relationship with the Psychlos, how they ended up in Africa before the invasion 1000 years ago, their culture, their friggin breeding habits! It just goes on and on. And he structures it as though this were a natural conversation. As though ANYONE would have a conversation about a hostile group THAT detailed in casual conversation. This actually happens a lot. Characters will stop Johnnie right in the middle of the plot to spin exposition, which drags on and on and they will do it as though this is how people actually talk to one another.
I had simply accepted that this was the only way Hubbard could get this information to his readers. Then, in the last few chapters of the novel, he made a stylistic choice which just angered me. On two occasions towards the end of the story, he placed an asterisk next to a word and then had a reference note at the bottom of the page – much like in a textbook or in some Shakespeare plays geared towards novice readers – explaining the context and some of the backstory. I was floored! If this were an option, why hadn’t he done this throughout the book? Why had I been forced to sit through pages upon pages of explaining how force propulsion works when he could have done that from the start? Why not have Johnnie organically come across the Brigantes in Africa but never truly understand who they are, all the while giving the reader insight with an asterisk and a reference note at the bottom of the page? Had he just gotten lazy towards the end of the novel when he came up with that genius idea.
But even that makes no sense from a story telling perspective! And all because of one line towards the end of the book. In the last few lines of the novel, the book becomes self aware. It refers to itself as a story about the legend of Johnnie Goodboy Tyler. It also thinks quite highly of itself as it references another book that was written as being very simple and “not as good as this one”. If this story was supposed to be told as though it were a history book or a legend that someone in Hubbard’s story could read for themselves, then why not use the “reference note” approach much earlier. If this is a third person’s account of the legend of Johhnie Goodboy Tyler, how did they know what the antagonists were doing, plotting, and thinking when there was no one else around? It doesn’t make much sense.
Finally, my last grouping of concerns revolve around implied bias. Every storyteller spins a narrative from their own perspective and thus, their own biases leak through. In the case of Battlefield Earth, his personal beliefs about mental health, medicine, women and African people were issues that made it hard for me to enjoy this story at all.
Let’s start with women. In this novel, they barely exist. They are rarely acknowledged except as damsels, romantic fodder for our brave heroes, or support in the field of crafts. Take, for example, Chrissie, Johnnie’s girlfriend. She serves no purpose in the plot except to give Johnnie a face to put on the thousands of human’s whose lives depend on him. She seems to have no interests except for him and keeps herself busy by doing typical domestic duties. The female Psychlo’s in the story are vain, fickle and only seem to care about makeup and finding a husband. The only proactive women you see in this great battle to save humanity are the Scottish widows who aid the troops in duties like sewing and repairing uniforms and tending to the wounded. Very rarely are these women ever given a name. They are simply referred to as the old widow or the female nurse or some other vague descriptor.
Then, there is the treatment, not only of black African people but of the continent itself. It is a pet peeve of mine (and it happens quite often unfortunately) when a film, television show, or novel depicts a global catastrophe – they treat the entire continent of Africa as a country. They refer to it simply as Africa in a way they wouldn’t simply refer to North America or Europe. What’s more, they treat it as a country unable to defend itself. In Battlefield Earth, there are a few pockets of humanity left after the initial Psychlo strike against Earth. Many of the people who survived did so because they were able to hide in bunkers or in mountainous regions. Yet, despite Africa being our largest continent with a substantial amount of people and mountainous areas, African people have been all but exterminated. In the book, they mention people of all shades and languages coming together to praise Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, yet you never see any black African person speaking in an authoritative capacity. Yet they do spend a good amount of time in Africa in Kariba (Zimbabwe) and by Lake Victoria (which runs through Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya). The only Africans that we do encounter are the Brigantes, an antagonistic force described as “mixed race”, “savage”, “cannibalistic”, and “foul smelling”. They are the descendants of native people and European mercenaries who were in Kariba to overthrow the government. The Brigantes would sell people to the Psychlos in exchange for goods and were basically “idiots in monkey skins”. They are constantly mocked and reviled both by our heroes and our villains.
The treatment of other non-white ethnic groups wasn’t much better. South American’s were just that, South American’s with no distinguishing countries or cultures. They were on the good guys side and they were mainly cattle herders with the exception of one female who married one of our good guys and had a baby. Then there were the Chinese, who had a very large presence in the final two arcs of the novel, but even they were little more than stereotypes. They had one Chinese man who became an advisor to Johnnie because apparently his ancestors were advisors to Emperors in the Ming dynasty or something, and he suddenly had all this insight into dealing with the hoity toity emissaries. As for the rest of the Chinese, they were praised for their artistic talents. I nearly choked on my tea when, in the novel, they saw what great hard workers the Chinese were and shipped a boatload of them to Kariba to build the transport platform. When Johnnie returns there, they’d basically build a city for themselves. Using Chinese workers to build the infrastructure of a county in Africa?… hmm, where have I heard that before?
Seriously, the amount of pages dedicated to hypothetical forms of “force propulsion” and Johnnie’s various costume changes could have been toned down to allow the surviving members of humanity some attention and respect. Then again, I don’t know how much the author actually respects those cultures. I’m sure his treatment of black Africans had nothing to do with Hubbard’s own claims that “…the African tribesman, with his complete contempt for truth and his emphasis on brutality and savagery for others but not for himself, is a no-civilization.”
Yeah. Stay classy.
I will go more into Hubbard’s implied bias in the field of medicine and mental health in part 3 of this review, since it delves more into Scientology and how the novel compares to the film. For now though, these generalizations and focus on the strong, white savior made me feel sick reading this book. Perhaps some people who read this novel can simply enjoy the ride without thinking about it. I’m not one of those people. This book wasn’t published in the 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s. This book was published in 1982 and this insistence on portraying women as happy domestics and black African’s as savages with no hope for redemption unless following the white savior Johnnie Goodboy Tyler is insulting and ignorant.
Why the Film Sucked
At least the movie, wasn’t offensive! Not to me, anyway.
Where the novel erred in it’s propensity to linger on details, the film erred in it’s propensity to cut corners. This became an especially egregious sin because of their commitment to staying faithful to the source material while trying to condense and shorten things for the sake of the new medium.
For example, the decision to establish the human’s as a free unskilled workforce for the Psychlo’s makes sense for the translation from 1000 page novel to 2 hour movie, however it creates many plot holes. Namely, why wouldn’t the Psychlo’s have realized humans were smart enough to mine if they’ve been enslaving them for 1000 years? As funny as the “raw rat” scene was – why hadn’t they figured out what humans prefer to eat?
The need to condense the events in the books also becomes problematic when the film delves in to the planning of the humans rebellion. Sure, Johnnie was able to absorb massive amounts of information thanks to the learning machine, but the rest of his crew hadn’t. The result is a laughable scenario where primitive men learn how to become expert fighter pilots in a matter of two weeks. Two weeks! A month ago these men fought with sticks and thought statues were frozen people. They couldn’t fathom humans creating concrete buildings, let alone flying and maneuvering in 1000 year old fighter jets! What’s more, these weapons and jets and flying simulators were all in perfectly good condition! After 1000 years? Seriously? Cutting out details in order to get to the battle sequences (where they obviously spent most of their money) cost this film a lot, including the audiences ability to suspend their disbelief.
Another issue with this film’s story is the main character. Just like in the book, he is the most boring protagonist ever. Johnnie is, again, a standard do no wrong protagonist that everyone supports. He has no character development, barely any inner conflict, and his motivation seems bland. In the beginning of the movie he is riding back to his village with medicine but is told his father already died. He screams “No” and expresses grief for all of about 5 seconds and then he’s seemingly over it, planning to see the world outside. What’s the point of that? To prove he gets over death relatively quickly? I guess that ‘s a good trait for someone about to lead dozens of people to their deaths in a rebellion. While Chrissie is given a little more prominence in the film version, their romantic interest in each other is pretty much non-existent. Johnnie shows no more interest in her than he does… the stick he throws at the Psychlo plane. We see Johnnie strapped in to the learning machine and from there he becomes determined to learn more and destroy the Psychlos. What did he see? Why is he so determined to wipe out, not just this Psychlo site but the whole planet. As a book reader, I know, but the film audience doesn’t. It’s swept under the rug and justified as , “he’s the good guy, he needs to save the day”. That’s not good enough.
When you have supporting characters that are full of personality, it’s striking when your hero is so bland. Terl is an idiot and so is Ker (Forrest Whitaker). Travolta has no problem hamming it up in his role. Whitaker is being a good sport about it all. Even Kim Coates character, Carlo (Johnnie’s best bud in the film), seems to understand. This is an absurd movie, so it’s okay to be a little extra.
Speaking of Johnnie’s buddy Carlo… what the hell? He was my first indication that the approach the director chose to take this film was Star Wars meets Planet of the Apes… and the humans were the apes. Watching him was like watching a magnificent train wreck. He jumped back and forth from hooting like a monkey to speaking perfect English. In fact, many of the humans being held captive acted the same way except for Johnnie. He had war cries – sure – but they sounded more like he was trying to affect a Native American man than a monkey. It actually gave me a feeling that this was Star Wars, meets Planet of the Apes, meets Dances with Wolves… This movie is all over the friggin place.
All over the place… like the glass… You know, the glass from the dome that encased the Psychlo mine site, holding in their atmosphere which the humans blew up in order to kill all the Psychlos but which was just as likely to kill all the humans inside too due to – you know – giant hunks of glass falling from the sky! Think People! Think!
Of course, the film also has many well documented issues with how it was shot and edited. Notably, the decision to shoot most of the scenes at what’s called a “Dutch Angle” where it’s tilted. There are also very extreme blue and green filters on scenes where the Psychlos are in their “home” environments. There is the inconsistency of the use of make-up and prosthetics, where all the actors playing Psychlos have heavy face prosthetics except Travolta and Whitaker. There is the painful use of slow motion and dropping the audio to create a “dramatic effect”. There is the fact that you never see them travel anywhere. The passage of time and place are indicated almost entirely through dialogue. All of these things and more add up to a movie that fails miserably in the visual storytelling required of the film medium. The choices that they make are unnecessary and confusing. They add nothing and are distracting.
In part 3 we will explore the choices the film made that stayed true to the book and what they did differently. Who did what better? Which is the more successful story?
My money is on neither!