The Syfy Channel released a television adaptation of “Childhood’s End” this week, and, while the acting was a bit cheesy and the religious themes were a little heavy, I definitely found a lot to enjoy.
Based on the classic 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, the three-part mini-series, whose final episode airs Wednesday night, depicts a peaceful takeover of Earth by the “Overlords,” a superior alien race that brings about world peace and the end of famine and disease, though their motives are questionable.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the first two episodes or seen the book, this gives away some of the plot.)
A modern twist on a sci-fi classic
While there have been attempts to adapt Clarke’s novel for the screen before, most notably by Stanley Kubrick before he went on to direct “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this is the first successful one.
As a big fan of the book and of Clarke, I was excited to see how Syfy’s adaptation would pan out.
The miniseries stayed true to many of the book’s themes. The show’s writer and producer Matthew Graham says a lot of the issues present when the book was written are still relevant now.
“All the things that were weighing heavily on Earth in 1953 don’t seem to have changed in 2015,” Graham told Business Insider.
We’re still facing global issues like bloody conflicts, worries about the future, and austerity, Graham said. And the story also touches on more timeless questions about who are we, what the point of life is, and what happens when we die.
But Graham took a few liberties to make the series more relevant to a modern audience.
More approachable characters
“When Arthur wrote the book, it was a book about ideas, not about characters,” Graham said. But that wouldn’t work for a TV show.
As in the book, the alien invaders are led by a figure named Karellen, the so-called “Supervisor for Earth,” who chooses a human ambassador named Ricky Stormgren to be their spokesperson. But in the TV series, Stormgren (played by actor Mike Vogel) is a Midwestern farmer – a significant departure from the book, in which Stormgren is the UN Secretary-General.
Graham felt that a bureaucrat from the UN wouldn’t resonate with today’s audiences, and a farmer would be more accessible. He liked the idea of Ricky as a kind of prophet communing with a higher power – a fact hammered home by Ricky’s nickname in the series, the “blue-collar prophet.”
I found Vogel’s performance a little wooden, but still found his character sympathetic.
But Stormgren wasn’t the only character Graham tweaked.
In the book, the character Jan Rodricks is an astrophysicist who wants to learn more about the Overlords and where they came from, but we don’t learn anything about his backstory. In the Syfy series, the character Milo (played by British actor Osy Ikhile) is based on Rodricks, but we get to meet Milo as a child, which lets us become more invested in him.
As for the story’s religious themes, they were hard to miss.
The religious angle ‘felt natural’
As in the book, Karellen (played by Charles Dance of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) refuses to reveal himself to humanity until several decades have passed.
When he does, he is a personification of the devil – red body, horns, and all. In the Syfy Channel version, the religious metaphor is much more heavy-handed, with scenes of cross-wielding characters shrouded in blinding light that call to mind classic exorcist films.
But to Graham, the religious angle felt natural. “In the absence of an obvious visible god, giant aliens from outer space saying they’re going to save you felt like a religious experience,” he said.
In fact, the series finale features an experience very much like the Rapture.
As for the series’ ending, I won’t give away details, except to say it stays true to the novel. You can watch it tonight on the Syfy Channel at 8-10 ET/PT.
Watch the trailer for Syfy’s Childhood’s End here: