December 10, 2010

SOYLENT GREEN (1973) - film vs book


You can't say they didn't warn us...

Soylent Green is set in near-future Manhattan, when the population explosion is outrunning supplies of water, food, materials and even living space. In the middle of the overcrowded city a wealthy businessman is murdered, but as Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) tries to solve the case, he starts making deadly enemies...

The script was based on Harry Harrison's book Make Room! Make Room! which imagined the effects of extrapolated population growth. Set in 1999 Manhattan (while the film is pushed up to 2022), he simply plotted a graph as if no other factors will come into play - like for instance property prices that would force people out of the city. The premise is that Manhattan simply fills up to bursting point. With natural gas depleted, cars are left in the road to rot. With a lack of manufactured goods, society slows down.

While the film reverts to an unfolding murder-mystery conspiracy, the book is more of a slice of life showing the city through the different seasons. The murder connects the characters, but the author teases us that it could all just have been an accident. Instead Harrison shows us what conditions are among all walks of life. A scenario where Americans are forced to resort to a soya and plankton diet to survive, could be the author's joke at the expense of a meat-loving country.

Besides changing the emphasis of the novel from birth control to food shortage, the film uses the same overcrowded ground rules. While the only sci-fi 'gadget' in the book is a self-untangling barbed wire fence dropped from helicopters to cordon off rioters, the film replaces it by the people 'scoops'. The script also adds a chilling name for the women provided as part of a luxury apartment itinerary, they're called 'furniture'. The detective's ageing flatmate, Sol (Edward G. Robinson), gets upgraded in the film from an ex-cop to a human search engine, working for the police by using his lifetime of knowledge and research. Sol's demise in the film is also far more frightening and central to the story.

Harrison wrote an essay about the screen incarnation of his story for Omni magazine, reprinted in Omni's Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies (1984). Harrison was only half-happy with the resulting movie. After the script had been written without him, he put on a brave face and was present during filming to consult with the actors and designers. Annoyed that the plot had been switched to a more cliched, Hollywood thriller, he still gave the director, actors and production design credit for presenting a convincing premise. He also mentions there was studio pressure to cut Sol's death from the film, for fear it would cause offence as Edward G. Robinson passed away just after filming ended.

I'd agree that some of Harrison's propagandising on birth control should have stayed in the film. But the novel's murder plotline ends more by accident rather than detection. The film's famous reveal of the source of Soylent Green satisfyingly indicates that there's been wide damage to the ecosystem far beyond New York. While I can understand that Harrison is upset with the changes (maybe exaggerated by his raw deal while selling the rights to the book) I now feel that the film improves on the book as a story.

I was drawn back to the film after learning that Harry Harrison is still writing. He's just published a new story about his long-running character The Stainless Steel Rat. I loved these books in the seventies, and started reading the comic 2000AD when it started adapting his stories (artwork was by Strontium Dog's Carlos Ezquerra, with The Rat drawn to resemble James Coburn). Indeed Soylent Green also helped shape Mega-City One in 2000AD's Judge Dredd stories, like the horrors of Resyk...

Back in the mid-seventies when I first saw Soylent Green, it was part of a sci-fi wave of disaster warnings from the near future (three of which starred Charlton Heston). Planet of the Apes threatened nuclear annihilation. The Omega Man and The Andromeda Strain described planet-killing viruses. Westworld warned of malfunctioning entertainment androids. Silent Running predicted an Earth without forests... (Five years packed with futuristic catastrophe films then gave way to five years of modern-day disaster movies.)

At the time, I assumed these future worlds would always be fictional and never achieve science fact. After all, if the dangers of overpopulation had been publicly pointed out in something as major as a feature film, then everyone would be scared enough to steer us all away from disaster. In the nick of time? Wouldn't they?

The film shortens the timeframe and ignores Harrison's changing seasons. It even mentions the term 'greenhouse effect', adding green smog and permanently high temperatures. The last massive food source left in the world is plankton, but after decades of pollution the oceans are also in trouble. One scene casually depicts New York's Tree Sanctuary as literally containing one tree.

I can excuse the 1973 film failing to also predict cordless telephones or even computers (you could argue that it's because of the lack of manufactured resources or the unpredictable power supply), but it gets it right about global warming. Seeing it again, it's saddens me to have learnt about a growing ecological problem nearly forty years ago, when it's still not being taken seriously now. The world of Soylent Green is coming true. I expect that the director's commentary track is 97 minutes of Richard Fleischer yelling "I told you so".

Anyone who knows the last line in the film, may think they know what the film is all about. But jumping to the punchline is cheating yourself of many disturbing and well-constructed ideas. Two flatmates studying meat and vegetables as if they were blocks of gold. The food riot being controlled by dumper trucks that randomly scoop trouble-makers away. Families sleeping on staircases, the only way to get a roof over their heads. And of course, the unforgettable scene of Edward G. Robinson's character 'going home', cleverly, gradually unveiled.

Charlton Heston initially plays Thorn as a rational cop keen to tow the line and keep his job. But when his life is repeatedly threatened, his interrogation tactics get distinctly nasty. An interesting contrast to the scene where the apartment manager beats up his 'furniture', Thorn shows restraint by not decking the guy. I can't imagine a scene like that in a modern film, without the bully getting instant knuckle-justice. Instead it keeps the tension brimming and underlines that Thorn doesn't care (or being seen to care) about those women either.

This viewing, I was surprised to see a vintage arcade video game
Computer Space appearing in the film, gameplay looking like a forerunner of Space Wars and my beloved Asteroids. The Computer Space arcade game was first available in 1971 - that's ten years before Tron! It was a shock to learn just how long video games have been around.

The fast-cutting, photographic, split-screen, title sequence describes American progress from country life to a car-clogged industrial nation. It strongly reminded me of the pace and imagery of Koyaanisqatsi, though it predates it. (It can be viewed in a blog devoted to movie title sequences,
The Art of the Title.)

Other imagery from the film echoed in David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977), where bodies were also carried away in garbage vans, and in Blade Runner (1982), which also staged a gunfight in an overcrowded street.

I think Soylent Green still stands up as serious sci-fi and a gritty vision of a harsh future.

The current DVD release is 2.35 widescreen anamorphic, with a director's commentary track, an original trailer (that very nearly spills the Soylent beans) and two vintage featurettes that include behind-the-scenes footage of the food riots.

The CD soundtrack was recently released as a limited edition.

Here's the spoilery trailer on YouTube...


  1. Interesting; I hadn't realized the basis of the film was a novel.

  2. The title sequence is one of my all-time favourites. I love the way it speeds up, as "progress" itself speeds up. Probably the most impressive aspect of the film, art wise.

    There are so many great "moments" in the film; the butcher with his shabby cut of meat locked in a safe, Heston navigating the crowded stairs, the people scoops, and on and on.

    And, yes, the commentary probably should be just 97 minutes of "I told you so". Noone EVER listens!

  3. Good movie to remind John Q Internet about. Soylent Green features one of Heston's greatest lines (out of a total of four).

    a) Soylent Green is - People!
    b) Pharaoh, let my people go.
    c) Get your hands off me you damned dirty apes.
    d) They did it, they finally did it!