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What Happened Happened: Mainstream Alternative Histories?

Alternative histories have long been a staple of science fiction. The basic idea is simple enough: take a key moment in history and play it out just a little bit differently (or a lot differently). The Man in the High Castle, the story of how America lost the Second World War, may be the most famous example, but there’s literally a whole subgenre of literary science-fiction based around the idea of playing things out in a way different from how they did. However, this fascination with alternative history never really spilled over into cinema. However, there are slowly emerging signs that audiences may be gradually adjusting to the genre and the potential it offers.

Twenty more years!

Note: This is not to be confused with the historical school of alternative histories, which are all based on perfectly reasonable assumptions, like if a courier who really existed was late or if a wound to a historical figure had been fatal. It seems in mainstream sci-fi these are more likely to involve pepperpot-shaped aliens or glowing blue supermen. So, some historians out there may object to the term – maybe I should use ‘speculative history’ instead. But it’s all semantics.

It’s interesting. When Watchmen arrived in cinemas last year, there was a lot of discussion about how accessible to regular cinema-goers it could possible be. most of these suggestions didn’t stem from the rather brutal depictions of violence in the film, nor the new nude member of the Blue Man Group, but rather on its setting. It’s set in an alternate 1986 where Richard Nixon is still President of the United States. I’ll concede the movie had a whole host of problems (the most obvious one being that it was too faithful), but it was a very brave movie to put such an esoteric idea in front of film audiences.

Don’t get me wrong, audiences are familiar with the concept of alternate universes. Back to the Future II offers an alternative present based off the actions of Marty and Biff. Films like Brazil and every adaptation of 1984 take place in an alternate history by the very fact that we’ve now passed 1984 and we haven’t always been at war with Oceania yet. Logically, given how ridiculously unlikely the myriad of futures we’ve seen on screen are to happen (particularly films where the future to them is now the past to us, such as the Los Angeles riots in the late 1990s in Demolition Man of the conversion of New York into a prison in Escape from New York), these are all alternative worlds as well. But it seems cheating to count them.

Still, it is very rare to see an alternative history play out on screen. In defense of Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, the best addition to the original story was a ‘how we got here’-style montage recasting the great events of the latter half of the twentieth century, helping illustrate where it all went wrong. It’s a wonderfully effective (and economical) use of celluloid to bring the audience up to speed on the universe. It’s perhaps the most accessible part of the movie, unfortunately.

I can understand the reluctance of movie studios to embrace the idea of alternative histories as a source for movies. Being honest, what might be termed ‘big idea’ science-fiction – the more thought-provoking, chin-stroking kind – hasn’t really gone hand-in-hand with box office success. The vast majority of science-fiction classics exist on the cusp of the pop culture radar – Blade Runner and Children of Men didn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

Where science fiction has found financial success on the big screen has been through simplifying these big ideas – think space battles or superheroes or epics. Even The Matrix, perhaps the most successful thought-provoking science-fiction film of all time, saw its popularity wane as the sequels became more about abstract philosophy and less about people knocking eight-balls out of each other. I’d argue the writing also became weaker and more hackneyed, but there’s no denying the movies became consciously less accessible.

This must have been cut from my Second World War textbooks to make room...

The obvious conclusion that studios reach is that more radical and out there high concept science fiction is tough to translate to screen. In fact my favourite story about how Hollywood works concerns the reasoning for electing not to produce Frank Darabont’s Fahrenheit 451 (“how will we get 13-year-olds to see it?”). Strangely enough, alternative history is a lot more abstract and involves a lot more buy-in from an audience then, say, giant time-traveling robots. At least, that’s why I imagine there’s a reluctance to explore funky and crazy concepts like America losing the Second World War or a different outcome to the American Civil War. It just seems odd that we can imagine a world where a giant naked blue glowing god can walk amongst us, but we have more difficulty grasping the possibility that Nixon could still be President. Such is life, I suppose.

I don’t know. I reckon that, in Hollywood’s constant attempts to peruse Philip K. Dick’s work for snazzy titles/concepts, they’ll eventually come to an alternate history work. Of course, this being Hollywood and given their track record with adaptations (Blade Runner being perhaps the greatest exception), they’ll probably rewrite it to the point where it’s virtually unrecognisable. The Man in the High Castle will become a fantasy epic with dragons, because… well, that’s probably what an executive thinks of when you say the title, right?

I retain hope. Watchmen, though apparently a financial disappoint, was perhaps measured by the wrong yardstick. The superhero epic had already been revolutionised by The Dark Knight, so to expect the film to have the same impact as the book had would have been incredible naive. Instead, perhaps Watchmen should be remembered as the biggest alternate history movie made to date – the closest the concept has been to mainstream. given the general disappointment with the film, I imagine it will be as close as the concept gets for a while. But it’s nice to see the idea at least broached.

This notion occurs to me because it looks like Doctor Who may go down that path next week, with The Victory of The Daleks. It sets the omnicidal pepperpots as the last ditch effort by the British government (under Winston Churchill) to win the Second World War. The nostalgia touches alone look incredible – their dome-lights have been taped over to make them black-out compliant and they’ve all been branded with the Union flag, while carrying and ferrying supplies. I know the series has taken great fun introducing historical figures (like Dickens or Shakespeare) to aliens, but this episode looks to take things a bit further – there are spitfires in space. How cool is that?

I think I might be excited to see the Daleks again.

So, I don’t know. Alternate history? Do you ever think it’ll break mainstream cinema?

6 Responses

  1. The Confederate States of America does a pretty neat take on what would have happened had the South won the Civil War. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389828/

    Oh and there’s Fatherland (based on the Robert Harris book), which has an interesting take on the Nazis winning WWII.

    While the former is more of a documentary the later is a full-fledged story set in an alternate past.

    • Good call. Niall, you are like a film encyclopedia. I wasn’t familiar with either (I knew about the Fatherland book), but I might check these out. Thanks!

  2. Excellent post Darren and you make a great point that alternate universe movies don’t seem to be very successful at the box office. I find that genre of movies to be some of the most thought provoking but it seems the creativity behind it has either dried out or studios are not letting these go through (the latter most likely)

    • I imagine the latter as well – “How the hell are movie goers going to follow it?” I can imagine being asked more than once. Because apparently we’re all morons.

  3. One of the alternative history films I’m looking forward to is “Never Let Me Go” the book is fantastic — I believe the film is due out later this year (filming/distribution depending).

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