Operation Clambake

CINESCAPE, Feb. 15, 2000

Battlefield Earth

by L. Ron Hubbard
from Bridge Publications
ISBN: 0884046818
Reviewed by
Robert Kirkpatrick

In the introduction to his epic, doorstop of a novel, L. Ron Hubbard goes to enormous lengths to convince the reader that Battlefield Earth is pure science fiction. He defines pure science fiction simply as people-oriented fiction with real science trappings, as opposed to either fantasy, or science fiction that emphasizes technology over the human element. However, after finishing the entire novel, I wonder why he bothered to say this. It's obvious that the book has no bearing on reality. You not only have to suspend your belief while reading, you also have to take your belief out back and beat it to death with a stick.
Published in 1982, Battlefield Earth was written mostly for fun, and it shows. The pages rip along from one grand adventure to the next, without much room for logic, pacing, or clear characterization. It can be a joy to read at times, but there are many moments that I wished for a capable editor willing to enforce some changes.
The movie version will be released in May 2000, starring John Travolta and Forrest Whitaker. From what I've heard, there are already two sequels planned, based on early screenings of the first film. Many times with screen adaptations, the actual inspiration gets lost behind the visuals and the big-name stars and the Entertainment Weekly news stories. Sometimes, it's good to return to the source material and see what elements need to be borrowed or changed, in order to make a movie work.
John Travolta has stated that the movie actually only covers the first half of the novel. This makes complete sense, because Battlefield Earth actually seems like two novels combined into one. The first part details the human rebellion against the alien oppressors, while the second part deals with humanity trying to rebuild civilization in the face of the new alien threat. There's no way a feature film could cover both, and still be only a few hours long.
In the novel, the evil Psychlos - yes, that's really what they're called - have destroyed the human population, in order to mine the Earth for its precious materials. They are a greedy and sadistic race who rule the entire galaxy. Humanity has been forgotten, thought to be nothing more than extinct animals, until a particularly evil Psychlo named Terl decides to capture a few. Hoping to use them as slaves for digging gold, Terl teaches them how to speak Psychlo and operate alien technology. His actions incite rebellion among the remaining human population, who - against all odds - wipe out the entire alien species. Mix in an unstoppable drone ship, intergalactic bankers, cannibalistic humans, teleportation, and warring breeds of aliens - and you've got the rest of the book.
The hero is a character named Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, who Hubbard describes as a "muscular six feet shining with the bronzed health of his twenty years" with "ice-blue eyes" and the "wind tangling his corn-yellow hair and beard". Yes, Johnnie really is that cheesy throughout the entire 1,050 pages of the book. Almost as if he were ripped out of a Harlequin romance, a loincloth-wearing Fabio with a laser pistol. What's sad is that Johnnie is supposed to be the hero, and he's by far the weakest character.
If the movie is to succeed, it will have to change the character of Johnnie drastically. In the novel, he is good at everything. He can choke wild boars to death with a headlock. He can kill an entire pack of wolves by throwing rocks at their heads. He is an expert shot and a brilliant mathematician and scientist. In the latter parts of the book, he displays his skills as an intergalactic diplomat, outwitting bureaucratic aliens with his excellent repartee and charisma.
The list goes on, and after awhile, it becomes painfully absurd. Who would root for a character that could do no wrong? I doubt any audience would. It was hard enough in book form. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker - each of these heroes had flaws and limitations. In Battlefield Earth, Johnnie is the ultimate superman, and the only thing he couldn't do was win the respect of the town pastor.
The best part about the novel is Terl, the Psychlo head of security. It's obvious why Travolta chose to portray him. He is by far the most interesting and well-drawn character. His schemes and his cruelty are what drives the book. I wanted him to succeed more than I wanted the humans to do so.
From the current run of promotional materials, it is obvious that the aliens in the film will be represented differently. Psychlos are supposed to be seven to ten feet tall, covered in hair, sporting long claws and fangs. Their face is made up of thick pieces of bone, that move in unison. Usually, the Psychlos have to wear facemasks, because they can't breathe Earth's atmosphere. The film, however, has gone the Star Trek route: aliens are only aliens because they have funny foreheads. Travolta has green eyes, bushy eyebrows, long hair, and a black body suit. If it weren't for the fact that it was a sci-fi film, you might think he was a member of a speed-metal band.
Hopefully, the film will also get rid of the absurd cast of characters that pollute the book. Stereotypes abound. Women, for instance, are never given a voice. They are merely there to chase after Johnnie and to be hostages with bombs tied around their throats. Even the female Psychlos - an advanced alien civilization, mind you - are nothing more than secretaries. The other good guys are the most cliched bunch of heroes you could ever find. Many of them are Scottish Highlanders, complete with kilt and claymore and funny accents.
Hubbard is kind enough to have many of them speak phonetically, just in case the reader ever forgets they are Scottish. If the film isn't careful, it could easily turn into Braveheart meets Star Wars.
And I won't even get into the fact that America is only made up of white human tribes, while Africa is black and Asia yellow. I'm not sure if this separation was intentional on Hubbard's part, or if he just wasn't thinking.
The most inexcusable flaw in the entire book is the fact that Hubbard has a gross tendency of telling - not showing - much of the action. For instance, when Johnnie convinces the Highlanders to join him, Hubbard never shows us this pivotal scene. He spends a couple paragraphs EXPLAINING how Johnnie convinces them. Apparently, he appealed to their sense of romanticism, whatever that means. Many of the actual battles are described in the most half-hearted manner possible - only listing who shot whom. This will never work on screen.
Battlefield Earth is a great book if you're in the sixth grade with a lot of time on your hands. It's popcorn entertainment. If only Hubbard didn't take some of the passages so seriously, it might have been as funny as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. If you are thinking seriously about reading L. Ron Hubbard's fiction, I suggest you try Fear instead. Trust me, you won't be disappointed with that one.
As for the movie: if the moviemakers change the plot, the characters, and much of the setting, it might stand a chance at being good. However, if this movie is actually faithful to the source, then we're all in trouble.

--Robert Kirkpatrick