I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream Hero

The sci-fi adaptations of Harlan Ellison

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Jun 28, 2018

Earlier today, Harlan Ellison passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind an incredibly large legacy in the realm of science fiction. Over the course of his 63-year career, Ellison penned approximately 1,700 to 1,800 short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, articles, and more. Ellison also contributed scripts to the original Star Trek, The Outer Limits, the Logan's Run TV series, Babylon 5, Silver Surfer, and even an episode of The Flying Nun.

However, there were comparatively few adaptations of Ellison's stories that managed to be adapted for film or television. Ellison's body of work may not have always been fully appreciated by Hollywood, and he was famously combative and outspoken. Regardless, Ellison's vast library of stories may eventually be given new opportunities in live action and beyond. For now, SYFY WIRE is looking back at Ellison's sci-fi tales that were brought to life by other writers and by Ellison himself.

A Boy and His Dog

A Boy and His Dog

Back in 1969, Ellison wrote about the then far-off year of 2024 in A Boy and His Dog, a post-apocalyptic novella about a boy named Vic and his telepathic dog, Blood. Six years later, L.Q. Jones wrote and directed the feature film adaptation, which starred a young Don Johnson as Vic, with Tim McIntire as the voice of Blood. Unlike the rather serene title, the relationship between Vic and Blood was far from ideal. And the introduction of Quilla (Susanne Benton) challenged their bond.

The ending of A Boy and His Dog is somewhat controversial because of a choice made by Vic. However, Ellison voiced his objections to a line added by Jones that closed out the film. David Lee Miller is attached to direct a new adaptation of this story, so we may see another take on A Boy and His Dog within the next few years.

Tales From the Darkside: "Djinn, No Chaser"

Tales From the Darkside Djinn No Chaser

Just over a decade before Shaquille O'Neal played the titular genie in Kazaam, NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar starred as a bitter genie in a 1985 episode of Tales From the Darkside. Haskell Smith adapted Ellison's "Djinn, No Chaser," a story about Danny (Charles Levin) and Connie Squires (Colleen Camp), a newlywed couple who unwittingly unleashed Abdul-Jabbar's Jan Bin Jan. Unlike Aladdin's genie, this djinn tormented the Squires with almost everything he could conceive. It's not the most beloved adaptation of Ellison's work, but it was a part of his legacy.

The Twilight Zone: "Shatterday"

The Twilight Zone Shatterday

For the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, Ellison's "Shatterday" had the honor of being the very first story of the new series. Horror icon Wes Craven directed Alan Brennert's teleplay, which starred Bruce Willis as Peter Novins, a man who unexpectedly found a way to call and speak to his other self. Only one of the Peters could ultimately survive, and it made Peter both his own savior and destroyer. That seems like a very Ellison way to go.

The Twilight Zone: "Paladin of the Lost Hour"

The Twilight Zone The Paladin of the Lost Hour

"Paladin of the Lost Hour" is unique because Ellison wrote the script and the short story at the same time. The published version went on to win a Hugo Award in 1986. For the television adaptation, Danny Kaye starred as Gaspar, an older man who befriended Billy Kinetta (Glynn Turman) after seemingly meeting him by chance. Because Gaspar was at the end of his life, he wanted to pass a secret on to Billy that could affect the fate of the world. But first, Billy had to pass one test. This episode was also one of Kaye's final performances.

The Twilight Zone: "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty"

The Twilight Zone One Life Furnished in Poverty

Ellison isn't typically known for his uplifting tales, but Alan Brennert's adaptation of Ellison's short story took the trope of a man literally revisiting his past and gave it a different spin. Peter Riegert portrayed the older Gus Rosenthal, who found himself in his hometown befriending his younger self and making amends with his father. Gus doesn't make all of the right choices, but the ending leaves him in a much better place than he started in. Gus actually learns his lesson and applies it to his life, which is more than most characters can say in The Twilight Zone.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (Video Game)

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is one of Ellison's most famous stories, and it was also a Hugo Award winner in 1968. It hasn't yet been adapted as a film or for television, but in 1995 Ellison played a direct role in the video game adaptation by Cyberdreams. And Ellison did it at a time when he didn't even have a computer of his own.

The game maintains the post-apocalyptic setting of the original story, which took place in a world controlled by a vindictive supercomputer called AM. Only five humans were left alive, as AM constantly subjected them to torture and mutilation. Ellison expanded the story for this point-and-click adventure, and the game gave players the chance to prove that humanity could ultimately find redemption and prove their superiority to machines. Although that didn't significantly change most of the game's alternate endings. Let's just say that AM really seemed to enjoy turning its victims into jelly. Hence the title of the story. Still, this might be the very best Ellison adaptation of them all, and it has his fingerprints all over it.

The Outer Limits: "The Human Operators"

The Outer Limits Human Operators

While Ellison wrote for the original incarnation of The Outer Limits, his contribution to the revival series was based on a story he co-wrote with A.E. van Vogt in 1971. Naren Shankar adapted this story for television, which followed an unnamed man (Jack Noseworthy) and a woman (Polly Shannon), who came to realize that they were little more than slaves to their ships. Sci-fi icon Malcolm McDowell provided the voice of the ship.

Masters of Science Fiction: "The Discarded"

Masters of Science Fiction The Discarded

Ellison and Josh Olson co-wrote "The Discarded," an adaptation of Ellison's short story "The Abandoned." Star Trek: The Next Generation star Jonathan Frakes directed the tale, which followed a collective of deformed mutants who made a questionable bargain with the rest of humanity in return for being welcomed back to Earth. Several familiar performers, including John Hurt and Brian Dennehy, were featured in this tale, which does not have a happy ending. At all. It was a very bleak outcome, but very true to Ellison's body of work.

What were your favorite Harlan Ellison adaptations? And which of his stories would you like to see as TV shows, movies, or games? Let us know in the comment section below!