Welcome to the final chapter of this Bad Movie Night/Book 2 Screen Saga. It has been a long, arduous and tiring journey… then again so was reading the book and watching the movie so…
Thus far, we’ve taken a detailed look at the plot of both the book and the movie and I’ve discussed the things I appreciated as well as where I felt each went wrong. But how do the two compare? Which medium is the most effective when telling this particular story.
The novel tells the story of how Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, while a prisoner of Terl, learns about the initial Psychlo invasion that killed off most of the human population, learns of the intricacies of the Intergalactic Mining company currently oppressing the Earth, and formulates a plan to not only escape, but to free humanity from Psychlo rule. This is more than enough story for a science fiction novel, however, Hubbard is not one to be outdone. No sir. The story goes on well after the initial rebellion and delves into the redevelopment of the planet, finding new pockets of civilization, creating a planetary government, dealing with corruption in government, and then fending off the threat of other alien species to Earth’s newfound peace. But then it goes even further! They explore the bureaucracy of intergalactic diplomacy and banking, and discover why the Psychlo’s became the evil race they were. With those secrets revealed, they finally create peace not just on Earth but throughout the 17 galaxies! And it’s all thanks to one man. Johnnie Goodboy Tyler! The greatest man to ever live, period!
The movie adaptation opts to tell the story presented in the first half of the original novel. Here, Johnnie is captured by Psychlos after he leaves his village to explore the outside world. He and hundreds of other humans are held captive at the Psychlo mine site where they are forced to endure hard menial labor, but when Johnnie shows a level of aptitude that distinguishes him from the rest, Terl decides to use him to carry out his gold mining plan. After learning about the Psychlos history, language and weaponry from a learning machine, Johnnie leads a small army of his fellow captors and free men in a rebellion against their oppressors. Their plans ultimately succeed, resulting in the Psychlo mine site being brought down and the entire Psychlo planet being destroyed. The movie ends with Terl, defeated, locked in a cage inside Fort Knox, surrounded by all the gold he could ever want.
I’ve already mentioned that the film only covers the first half of the book, so I won’t go in to detail about that. So other than the length, how do these two movies differ, thematically?
The biggest difference would be Johnnie – how he’s portrayed and what the audience is meant to feel about him. In the novel, Johnnie is described as blond haired, blue eyed, strong, muscular, and in peak physical condition. He’s also very young. I believe the novel states he’s only about 18 years old or so, which I guffawed at when looking at the man on the cover of the book. Novel Johnnie does have the help of “learning disks” but it does not mean that he instantly learns. He must replay them over and over and memorize. Still, Johnnie’s ability to become proficient in anything and everything gives him a godlike quality and the people around him treat him accordingly. This treatment continues even after quite a few of his fellow rebels have already learned the Psychlo language and come up with their own ideas to assist in rebellion plans. Characters like Robert the Fox are important military leaders and allies to Johnnie but they never come close to being the symbol that Johnnie becomes. Novel Johnnie is treated as a legend by his fellow humans even before they’ve successfully defeated the Psychlos. After the rebellion, he is treated as a savior, a messiah. People incorporate Johnnie into their various religious beliefs – a fact
that the “always humble” Johnnie finds embarrassing but can’t really do much about… I’m getting some major L. Ron Hubbard vibes from this guy – or at least who Hubbard pictures himself to be.
By comparison, Movie Johnnie feels more like your typical action hero. He is brave and kind, he fights for his fellow man, he learns everything about Psychlo, inspires people to join him in the fight, and shoulders the burden when someone dies – just like Novel Johnnie. The difference is, Movie Johnnie doesn’t feel flawless. He is not some unbeatable godlike warrior. He is just one man, and he needs his fellow humans in order to pull off his plan. The other humans find him irreplaceable, not because they immediately see him as a godly figure but for a much more practical reason. He’s the only one who knows how to speak and read the Psychlo language. He is the only one who can figure out how their teleporter works. He is the only one who has ever used the learning disks. Why Johnie didn’t try to use the learning disks on the other humans to teach them things is one of the movies many questionable decisions and it would have made sense seeing how many of these “primitive men” all of a sudden become expert soldiers and fighter pilots but whatever. The end result is Movie Johnnie is much more “Braveheart” than a laser blaster wielding Jesus. He is more human, and I believe that if this movie were more effective at developing characters – he would be the preferable Johnnie.
Then there is our antagonist, Terl. Novel Terl and Movie Terl are very similar. They are both pompous, evil, conniving, ruthless, fortune seekers. As much flack as Travolta gets for his over the top portrayal of the character – it’s actually a pretty spot on. The only difference is that I felt the book presented Terl a bit more gruff and a tad less flamboyant but he was certainly just as theatrical. Novel Terl’s paranoia left him teetering on the brink of sanity for most of his presence in the story and added fuel to the fire under Johnnie that he needed to enact his plan quickly. Johnnie would often have to appease Terl’s ego just to make sure he wouldn’t get frustrated and suddenly decide to scrap his gold mining plans and kill all the humans in a snap decision. His hatred and vitriol for the planet is so deep that he becomes obsessed with the idea of killing Johnnie, Chrissie, and Pattie and blowing up the planet just out of spite. This level of imbalance is not seen in Movie Terl, who only adopts the Novel Terl’s characteristics of greed, arrogance and cruelty. Take, for example, the scene in the movie where Terl is told that his tour on Earth has been extended for another 50 cycles (however long that is). Movie Terl stands there fuming, then gets drunk at the local hangout spot where he vents his frustrations to Ker and develops the plan to use humans to mine gold, get rich, and leave. Novel Terl, in this situation, would have already had the plan to get the gold and put it in motion because he’s greedy and would have wanted the gold ready when he left. Upon hearing he’d be forced to stay on, Novel Terl probably would have concocted a plan to get his superior to stay and either blackmailed or murdered him to make sure that wouldn’t come to pass. Novel Terl is insane and especially dangerous when he feels cornered, something Novel Johnnie comes to realize and contend with. As a result, Novel Terl is a far more pressing threat and more effective antagonist for the story. However, Novel Terl’s role is diminished as the book continues to delve into more and more issues and Terl eventually transports back to a destroyed Psychlo, never to be seen again. It is an anti-climatic end for a damned good, mustache twirling villain.
Movie Terl also goes out on a bit of a whimper. He is locked in a cage, defeated, yet still arrogant surrounded by the gold in Fort Knox. Ker, whom he has treated like trash has turned against him and joined the human side and laughs in his face and leaves him there. From a storytelling perspective, Ker’s change of heart and the human’s willingness to accept it so quickly, is troubling. Novel Ker is an outcast among the Psychlos. He is a midget and he talks a lot and wants to make friends, which goes against the nature of his species. This makes Ker a potential ally to Johnnie in the novel because he appreciates that Johnnie is willing to talk to him. As a result, Johnnie gets a lot of valuable knowledge out of Ker about the inner workings of the company, about Terl, and about using Psychlo machines. They develop an actual bond, whereas the other Psychlos treat him terribly. Thus, it’s understandable that Ker would turn against Terl and even have mixed feelings about the entire planet being obliterated. This dynamic doesn’t exist between Movie Ker and Movie Johnnie, so Ker’s willingness to look the other way as Johnnie and the other humans destroy his home planet in exchange for being named “Head Psychlo” makes no sense whatsoever. Either Ker is an idiot, or Johnnie is an idiot for trusting him, or both.
At least they gave Chrissie more character in the movie. Women in general play a more active role in the rebellion, even if they aren’t showcased. Chrissie is willing to take a strong stance and wield a gun if necessary. The same can’t be said for Novel Chrissie, who cowers in a cage a simply awaits rescue. Was there any chemistry between her and Johnnie? No. Did they develop her character in any significant or memorable way? No. Then again, that was an issue for all the characters. Not just Chrissie. So fair enough.
These differences in character portrayals and story focus are the consequences of two things. Different mediums and different intentions. In a novel, the author can explain their characters mental process and create a picture for the reader. It is easier for the reader to get an idea of who the characters are, what the world is, what the history of this world is, etc by reading the words on the page and creating the vision in their mind. This is much harder for a movie to accomplish when adapting a book since it is not the authors vision the audience sees. They are seeing the authors vision as interpreted by writers and executives and a director, combined with whatever effects the movie has the budget for, the capabilities and interpretation of the actors, and what is deemed usable by editors. This is true about any book to screen adaptation and is especially egregious in Battlefield Earth. The novel is far too long to be adapted into one movie, and Travolta had every intention of creating sequels to tell the rest of the story. They probably (arrogantly) thought that they had plenty of time to develop characters more and explain more in subsequent movies. However, one of the biggest differences that I took away upon my viewing of this movie, was the difference in intention. What the book was trying to accomplish as compared to what the movie was trying to accomplish.
Now, it’s no secret that Battlefield Earth is inextricably linked to the Church of Scientology, as is any book written by L. Ron Hubbard, if for no other reason than, he is the founder of that church. During my research into the novel, the film, and Hubbard himself, I’ve seen many people state that although Battlefield Earth was written by Hubbard, the story has nothing to do with Scientology. People have speculated that the novel only became a best seller because Scientologists were pressured into buying the book in droves and that quite a few of the reviews heavily praising the book are written by critics who happen to be members of the church – but that the story itself is not about Scientology and one doesn’t have to be a Scientologist to enjoy it. Fair enough. However, this isn’t completely accurate. Upon reading the novel, learning about Hubbard and the beliefs of the church, and watching the film, I have come to the conclusion that although the Battlefield Earth film has nothing to do with Scientology, the Battlefield Earth novel certainly does.
The Battlefield Earth movie was met with a lot of resistance because of it’s ties to Scientology. It also went through many re-writes, so much so that the writer credited on the film openly states that he doesn’t recognize it at all. This was due to pressure to make the movie more faithful to the novel. Yet, the character and premise of the move still feel very different, even if the characters and plot points are the same. The film wants to be a fun, action, revolution film in the vein of Star Wars with elements of other popular movies of the time, such as the Matrix. The movie, though generally unsuccessful, attempts to pull from popular action sequences and war movies to create what is essentially Planet of the Apes, meet Dances with Wolves, meets Star Wars. This move is about rebellion and Johnnie is their dutiful leader. But the film never delves into religion. They never prop up Johnnie to be a savior who manages to keep almost everyone alive and can do no wrong.
Religion DOES come up quite a lot in the novel, however. Ideas of religions and cults are brought up frequently in the novel and, as they delve past the initial rebellion, are brought to the forefront along with some of Hubbard’s and the churches personal biases.
For example, during the rebellion, Johnnie is seriously injured. He is hit in the head with a metal plate and has swelling in the brain and metal chips stuck in his head. When the doctor suggests surgery, he is met with horrified gasps. They eventually get out the metal with some sort of magnetized device and Johnnie recovers. Also, many of the soldiers illnesses are not treated with medicine, only basic first aid and vitamins supplements, which always seem to work. The book even goes as far as to have someone reference that in Ancient Earth there existed a “cult” called Psychology where they’d experiment on the brain and try to control people by physically manipulating the brain but that it “died out”. This idea is met with disdain and relief that it’s long gone by our characters. The moment jumped out so randomly at first, I immediately googled Scientology and Psychology (not being very knowledgeable about their beliefs) and I was not a all surprised to find out that Scientologists believe that Psychology and Psychiatry are an evil that will take over the world and has destroyed countless others. Suddenly things were making sense.
Towards the end of the novel, Johnnie and his crew discover that the Psychlo’s bodies were always sent back to their home planet so that no alien species could examine them and learn about their species. Upon examining the skull of a dead Psychlo, they discover that they all have metal capsules in their brains. Mind control devices that stop them from revealing the secrets of Psychlo mathematics. However, the byproduct of this metal hijacking is that it re-routes the pleasure centers of the brain so that viciousness and cruelty create good feelings in the Psychlos. This is why they are the way they are. In order to crack the secrets of Psychlo mathematics Johnnie eventually comes up with a method to non-surgically remove the metal capsules from the Psychlo’s brains. The result is that they are finally able to talk civilly with a Psychlo and learn how their math works, crack their secret of teleportation, and the Psychlos left alive are better and less cruel for it. They are going to die out but they feel no resentment at all. Johnnie didn’t commit an act of genocide, no! Their species was killed of a millennia ago when the “catrists” took over their planet. Johnnie simply put it out of it’s misery. Johnnie Goodboy Tyler has saved their souls.
That’s the other hint there. The “catrists” were a group of former circus performers who would do cheap tricks and hypnotize people back on Psychlo. But somehow these charlatans ended up taking over the planet. They were stationed in every school and in all of government. They put the capsules in the heads of children and monitored them throughout their education and turned Psychlo from a relatively peaceful planet of hardworking miners into the war mongering species they became.
Put the words Psychlo and Catrist together… Psychlo Catrists… Pyschlocatrists… Psych – Hey! Is it just me? Or is this starting to vaguely starting to sound like the work Psychologist? Or maybe Psychiatrist?
The novel is positively riddled with these little nuggets that have nothing to do with the over-arching plot until the very end. And even then they feel thrown in just for good measure to make sure the reader leaves with a feeling of not wanting charlatans fooling around in their brains. This and the idea of the “educated savage”, the development of social democracy and social banking leading to peace across all 17 galaxies are central ideas in the book and are ideas heavily believed in Scientology. There is even a line towards the end (which had absolutely no place in the story but was just sort of stuck in there) when the local government in Scotland imposes a tax to help rebuild after the country was literally destroyed. Our heroes decide that it’s a bad idea to tax people stating “why can’t the government cover it’s own expenses, why impose this burden o n the little guy?” and instead ask for “contributions”. The people can give as little or as much as they can. Johnnie of course saves the day, as he is now the richest man on the planet, and “contributes” most of the rebuilding costs. This F* U Taxes mantra made me giggle, especially knowing about how the church of Scientology fought tooth and nail for tax exempt status.
By the end, I felt that Hubbard was simply venting a lot of his frustrations and biases on the page whether it be with the South African and British governments by having their countries completely decimated and forgotten, his hatred for modern style homes and fashion, or his aversion to brain surgery and psychiatry.
The film, had none of these elements. It was just a bad movie. Period.
But which was the more effective story? Both were attempts to bring new fresh faces into Hubbard’s vision and potentially grow their membership (whether they want to admit it or not) – but while the novel was Hubbard’s direct attempt to reach new members with a spiraling epic space opera all in one book, the film was made more as an homage to Hubbard himself.Because of this, the novel is far more effective, as I’m sure Hubbard would not settle for anything less that box office glory.
This novel was awful. It was long, self congratulatory, pompous, and boring. It spent way too much time explaining things that didn’t need to be explained just so Hubbard could showcase how many amazing ideas he has. It’s imagery is way too on the nose, with Johnnie being the golden boy, Terl being the mustache twirling irredeemable villain, and Intergalactic bankers being actual “sharks”, and the Psychiatrists – I mean Catrists – being glorified circus performers. His personal beliefs and biases are presented as absolute truths in this novel as though he is the voice of God and it made me actually feel ill as I read more – which is a shame, because there were actually parts of the novel that I genuinely enjoyed.
The film is a slap in the face. It’s plot is paper thin, the acting is hilariously bad, the editing is complete garbage and the it’s full of plot holes. It needlessly adds pointless things from the book, like Johnnie’s father being dead at the beginning, and leaves out things that could actually make the story make sense. It rips off other movies and feels completely inauthentic to cash in on things that other films did better. It is disjointed, lazy, and suffered from having way too many hands and egos in the kitchen. This film is awful.
When I finished the novel, I threw the damned book across the room. I was so happy it was over and mad at myself for reading it in the first place. The film was just tiring, and hard to get through until I decided that I wasn’t going to care and laugh at all the things I hated. Then it became fun.
It’s not a glowing recommendation, but I’d say the film is more entertaining while the novel is more effective in telling the actual story. However, I couldn’t possibly suggest anyone read this book unless you’re REALLY in to that sort of thing. The film is good for a laugh though and I could see myself watching it again with friends just to make fun of it, but I will never pick up that book again.
It’s pure trash.