Sunday, 28 July 2013

Paddy Chayefsky: Altered States

Paddy Chayefsky was perhaps the greatest American screenwriter. He started off in TV — in the golden days of live television. His celebrated and touching TV play Marty was made into a movie which won him the first of his three Oscars.  

Chayefsky subsequently wrote a number of classic film scripts, perhaps most memorably the wonderful Network in which news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) suffers an unforgettable onscreen meltdown. His tirade "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!" Is still frequently quoted (and misquoted, like "Play it again, Sam").

But we're concerned here with another Chayefsky classic, Altered States (great title, by the way) in which rogue scientist Edward Jessup suffers a very different kind of meltdown. Using hallucinogenic drugs and an isolation tank (sounds like fun) he explores the outer boundaries of human consciousness. Or probes beyond the outer limits of the human mind — as the Corgi "supershocker" paperback cover would have it.

Chayefsky wrote Altered States initially as a novel, impressively demonstrating that he was as talented in the prose form as he was in film or television scripts. And also, incidentally, that he was as adroit at writing science fiction as he was in any other genre. It's an impressive and gripping book, notable not least for its air of authenticity. It is stunningly well researched and, consequently, disturbingly plausible.

Which is why I was disappointed when, as a result of his reckless experimentation, Jessup  transforms into an apelike prehuman.  Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with him transforming into an apelike prehuman per se. I'm sort of all for it.

The snag is that the prehuman is smaller than Jessup. Do you see the difficulty? What has happened to all that extra body mass? Especially when Jessup reverts back to his normal shape and size.

This is the catch with virtually all transformation and shape-changer tales. Some writers have made admirable attempts to deal with it. As far back as 1933 Guy Endore took the trouble to suggest a solution in his excellent novel The Werewolf of Paris. He proposed a kind of cloud of gas which followed the werewolf around, containing the excess mass which coalesced again when the wolf turned back into a man. Full points for trying, Guy!

Mostly, though, writers just ignore the problem. Which bugs me. It really bugged me when I saw an episode of Fringe where there's a baby who grows into an old man in less than an hour. It also bugged me in an episode of a Doctor Who audio adventure. Luckily in the latter case I was script editing the story and I simply discussed it with my very talented writer, Marc Platt, and he set about fixing it. 

Naturally, then, it bugged me in Chayefsky's novel. Especially so, since the book is otherwise so thoroughly, exhaustively and immaculately researched. So I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to page 135 where Jessup says "We're beyond mass and matter here, beyond even energy."

Okay, it's totally a get-out clause. But it was a very welcome one, and it let me get on with enjoying the novel. And at least, like Guy Endore, Paddy Chayefsky was smart enough to see that there was a problem that needed fixing.

By the way, Altered States was turned into an interesting film, scripted by Chayefsky of course, and directed by Ken Russell. Chayefsky hated what Russell did with his brainchild and disowned the movie. But a lot of the quality of the book survives into the screen version and it is well worth seeing.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. God, that was easy! The non-official movie poster by JE Knight is from Minimal Movie posters.

1 comment:

  1. Same issue Asimov had with FANTASTIC VOYAGE, he re-wrote the novel years later covering the problem of mass