Top 10 Science Fiction Movies Ever Adapted

Blade Runner

Image from: Blade Runner 1982, Warner Bros.

When it came out in 1982, Blade Runner was a modest success, earning $34M at the box office, exceeding its $28M budget. This success was nothing compared to the impact it would have on its genre. The punkish, eternally dreary dystopia, draped in synthesizer; Harrison Ford’s no-affect film noire cop and the Voight-Kampff test have all become touchstones of science fiction. It even spawned a gorgeous—if financially lackluster—sequel when Blade Runner 2049 appeared in 2017.

All of this innovation started with a destitute, occasionally psychotic, science fiction writer. In addition to winning more science fiction awards than most people know exist, Philip K Dick was at one point convinced that he sometimes lived as a persecuted Christian in 1st century Rome. He also wrote a letter to the FBI accusing various notable people of secretly working for Cold War powers. This was not the only way he was ahead of his time.

Between all this, Dick, found the time to write many of the stories that were later adapted to movies on this list, including “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” in 1968.

The novel was the basis of the movie, with Deckard bounty-hunting renegade androids in both. The philosophical question of what it means to be conscious is examined in both, but with slight differences. While the book ends with Deckard being relatively certain about the differences between human and android and finding comfort in knowing the difference, even while offering electronic “life”, the movie ends with Deckard in love with a known android and not entirely certain that he is human. He leaves on a train, wondering if, as in Roy Batty’s final speech, (which actor Rutger Hauer partially improvised) we are all just experiences that will be “…lost, in time, like tears in rain.”

The Martian

Image from: The Martian 2015, 20th Century Fox

The Martian was one of those science fiction movies that, for a moment, united nerds and sci-fi junkies with the common population. Its humor, its scientifically accurate ingenuity, and Matt Damon’s charisma are undeniable, as shown in its $630M box office performance.

Four years before it was released, the 2011 novel by Andy Weir had a similar effect, on a less astronomical scale. Weir’s book is told through astronaut Mark Watney’s log as he is trapped on Mars. The film makes use of this narrative technique at times but also jumps between Mark’s point of view and NASA’s attempt to save him from Earth. Besides this difference in storytelling, the movie stays true to the book, with some dramatic complications that were cut for time purposes.

A Scanner Darkly

Image from: A Scanner Darkly 2006, Warner Independent Pictures

After a year-long post-production trap involving the film’s distinctive animation style, A Scanner Darkly was released to a lukewarm welcome in 2006, failing to earn back its budget with a $7.7M box office earning.

Perhaps any film that successfully adapted Philip K Dick’s book of the same name would be met with much of the 1977 novel’s struggle. The semi-autobiographical novel was written about a two year period in the early 70’s during which the author lived in his home with a semi-communal tribe of drug addicts. This and his later experience infiltrating a Canadian rehabilitation clinic under the guise of having a heroin addiction resulted in A Scanner Darkly.

While A Scanner Darkly is the truest adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story - not only in the scene to scene retelling but in tone - none of the edges are sanded off for the benefit of a wider audience. The dark, often funny but undeniably disturbing story is enhanced by the unreality of the animation, and stands as a testament to the novel’s original intention, a paranoiac delve into the drug-addled inhabitant of a dark future not all that far removed from our own.

Starship Troopers

Image from: Starship Troopers 1997, Touchstone Pictures

Those familiar with Robert A. Heinlen’s Hugo Award-winning 1959 novel, “Starship Trooper”, might break a sweat at this inclusion on the list. The novel was widely controversial for its support of militarization, which some say bordered on propaganda. Though the 1997 movie earned $121M, the critical reaction was based on many of the same arguments.

What keeps the movie relevant is that it is a send-up of these themes. Its opening scene is propaganda for joining a space-war and taken shot-for-shot from an actual Nazi propaganda film. The movie’s gore and the character’s gleeful enjoyment of it (another sticking point with the critics) is satire, pointed at the very attitudes that the book promotes.

Readers of the book will not only come away with this thematic difference but a host of plot details and alterations, which makes for an interesting read. For a thoughtful counterpoint, Joe Haldeman’s “Forever War”, is a reaction to the world of Heinlen’s novel, a similar space-spanning war narrative with a more cautious attitude towards war.

Minority Report

Image from: Minority Report 2002, 20th Century Fox

Minority Report, released in 2002, was a success at the box office, earning $358M. As a Spielberg action movie helmed by Tom Cruise, this was no surprise. What was different about Minority Report was the philosophical discussion it raised. In a world in which future crime could be predicted by “pre-cogs” what was the meaning of free will?

This is the same question that was pondered by—you guessed it—Philip K Dick. Besides moving the location from New York to Washington D.C., Spielberg made several other changes to Dick’s 1956 short story. For the purposes of the action movie, he upgraded the protagonist from the balding, out-of-shape, cop who created PreCrime to Tom Cruise. In addition, he added an ending and several plotlines, saying, “The Philip K. Dick story only gives you a springboard that really doesn't have a second or third act. Most of the movie is not in the Philip K. Dick story – to the chagrin of the Philip K. Dick fans, I'm sure.”

War of the Worlds

Image from: War of the Worlds 2005, Paramount Pictures

While 2005’s War of the Worlds smashed the box office with a $592M earning, its place on this list was earned by the history of HG Wells’ 1898 novel. The first and most infamous adaption of Wells’ story comes from Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween radio play. Most of the plot was presented as news bulletins, which reportedly caused mass panic, with many people thinking that an actual alien invasion was taking place.

While the 2005 movie doesn’t come close to the radio play’s immersion, Spielberg does retain most of the action of the original: a man tries to reunite with his wife in the chaos of an alien invasion. Of course, it takes place in present-day New York, so the setting of 1898 England is updated. Spielberg also gives the main character a daughter, but other than that, the tone and action of the book are remarkably well preserved. Thankfully, the movie preserves the book ending, in which the aliens are bested by Earth bacteria, even if it ends up being somewhat anticlimactic onscreen.

A Clockwork Orange

Image from: A Clockwork Orange 1971, Warner Bros.

When Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange premiered in 1971, it earned 26.6M at the box office, making it a critical and financial success, with some critics even saying that it topped Kubrick’s earlier work, 2001 A Space Odyssey, in technical brilliance.

Anthony Burgess, the author of the 1962 book of the same name, did not agree, attempting to distance himself from the movie’s reputation of glorifying violence. In spite of this, the movie stays true to the book. Both employ Burgess’ fictional slang, “Nadsat”. Both tell of a dystopian near-future in which young people turn to extremes of sex and violence. In both, Alex, the anti-hero, is subjected to the brutal “Ludovico” technique, which reconditions him to be physically unable to commit violence.

It is the ending, or lack thereof, that Burgess had the biggest problem with. In both the American novel and the movie, Alex breaks free of the treatment and returns to a carefree life of violence and rape. The original novel has an epilogue in which an older Alex naturally gives this life up. Even if it doesn’t redeem the protagonist, it at least offers an optimism to the book’s philosophy.

Total Recall

Image from: Total Recall 1990, Columbia Pictures

Total Recall was one of the most expensive movies made when it was released in 1990, with a budget somewhere in the area code of $50M. It easily overcame that, earning $261M along with critical acclaim.

Readers of the list might recognize Philip K. Dick’s brand here: science fiction innovation with a healthy dose of questioning one’s reality. It’s true that in 1966, the late Philip K. Dick published the novelette “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” which the movie was loosely based on. In this case, though, many of the large changes are adaptable to the story’s original purpose. While Dick’s story of a secret agent on Mars contains more back and forths about whether the protagonist’s memories are real, the movie ends a couple of steps early, offering a high adventure ending that the audience can interpret as real or implanted.

The Thing

Image from: The Thing 1982, Universal Pictures

With the sci-fi/horror genre being as packed as it is, a movie has to be something special in order to stand among giants like Alien. John Carpenter’s The Thing does just this. In 1982, a chilling, suspenseful, sci-fi film was released to a smattering of applause. The box office earnings were $19.5M, which exceeded the budget, but finished far below what had been projected, causing Carpenter to lose future deals with Universal Pictures.

Part of the reason for the lack of success was the movie’s nihilistic tone and violence, which was contrasted by E.T. the Extraterrestrial, its competitor at the time.

John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”, for the most part, shares that tone. Apart from being updated, the movie keeps most of the book’s grit and paranoia, including the infamous “wire test”. One thing that might surprise readers who have seen the movie is that the open ending of the movie is absent in the book. The protagonist neatly eliminates the Thing with a blowtorch, leaving little doubt that the threat had been eliminated.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Image from: 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968, Warner Bros.

The cultural impact of 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t be measured by its box office success. Making about $138M in 1968 is no small feat, but it was clear to most critics, even at the time, that Stanley Kubrick had released a visual, artistically viable, representation of humanity’s relationship to the cosmos while at the same time revolutionizing science fiction.

The story of the book is, in a word, novel. When Kubrick contacted Arthur C. Clarke to collaborate on a science fiction story, he selected “The Sentinel”, a 1951 story that told of an obelisk found on the moon which transmitted signals to deep space. In the story, mankind follows its usual m.o. and blows it up. Kubrick and Clarke spent the next four years expanding that story and the result was the movie, along with a full novel, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which follows the action of the movie and has become sort of a guide to the largely visual movie.