Some 62 years after it was first published in 1953, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End remains one of the landmark novels of science fiction and basically required reading in the genre. The book crackles with ideas about the evolution of humanity, how a "peaceful" alien invasion could both benefit and harm the human race, and even how those aliens could have impacted the religious and cultural touchstones embedded in our racial memory.
As with many of Clarke's novels, the most iconic aspects of Childhood's End have found their way into other areas of sci-fi. And while the novel is finally being adapted as a three-night miniseries event by Syfy (Blastr's parent company) starting on Dec. 14, imagery and story ideas from the novel have cropped up in a number of movies and TV series over the years. Below are a few for you to catch up on before the main event later this month -- and if none of these blow your mind, surely Childhood's End itself will (warning: there may be some spoilers ahead for Childhood's End -- the original novel, anyway).
Quatermass and the Pit (1958/1967):
We have no idea whether the brilliant British writer Nigel Kneale read Childhood's End before writing this masterpiece, but the two share one striking similarity: Both Clarke's Overlords and Kneale's long-extinct Martians bear a strong resemblance to the Devil or demons of human racial memory, and it is suggested that contact with both influenced those archetypes. Kneale had a much darker view of his aliens than Clarke; in his story (filmed a BBC series in 1958 and a Hammer film also known as Five Million Years to Earth in 1967), the Martian DNA embedded millions of years earlier in the human race leads to a form of racial cleansing, while Clarke's Overlords are here to peacefully help us transition to the next step in our own development.
Village of the Damned (1960):
British sci-fi writer John Wyndham, whose work needs badly to be rediscovered these days, published his classic novel The Midwich Cuckoos in 1957, four years after Childhood's End arrived on the scene. Both deal with the concept of children spearheading a new form of human and/or cosmic evolution, although as with many of the books, TV series and movies that followed in the wake of Childhood's End, Wyndham took a much more sinister view of such an event. In both Wyndham's book and the excellent 1960 film adaptation (forget John Carpenter's dreary 1995 version), the little ones are an insidious form of alien invasion, as opposed to Clarke's more ambitious concept.
"To Serve Man" (1962):
The truth is that the original short story on which this classic Twilight Zone episode is based was written by Damon Knight in 1950 -- three years before Childhood's End was published (although the seeds of Clarke's novel first appeared in a 1946 short story called "Guardian Angel"). Knight and Clarke were contemporaries, so it's quite possible that they shared some common ideas about aliens providing for humanity, although, of course, Knight's story -- in which aliens called the Kanamits come to Earth and shower us with an abundance of riches, only to harvest us as food -- has a much nastier end in mind than Clarke's melancholy, but ultimately hopeful, tale.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):
Can you imagine if Stanley Kubrick had directed a film version of Childhood's End, as he originally intended? The mind reels at such a prospect, but unfortunately he couldn't obtain the rights. Instead, he and Clarke adapted the latter's short story "The Sentinel" and made it the basis of one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. 2001 shares one major concept with Childhood's End -- that aliens play a role in the evolution of humankind to its next level of existence -- but unlike the Overlords, the beings in 2001 remain offstage, and their motivation stays a mystery.
V: The Original Miniseries (1983):
Like the Overlords in Childhood's End, the Visitors of this fan-favorite miniseries arrive in giant spaceships that hover over the Earth and promise advanced technological and medical wonders in exchange for a small amount of the Earth's resources. Also like the Overlords, the Visitors have a hideous appearance (although, unlike the Overlords, they hide inside human-like skins). Both the Overloads and the Visitors are here to oversee the eventual extinction of the human race as we know it -- but with drastically different end results.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 1997):
This classic Japanese anime TV series depicted a post-apocalyptic Japan in which young people pilot giant machines called Evangelions in battle against monstrous supernatural entities called Angels. Perhaps the biggest link that Neon Genesis Evangelion -- and the 1997 movie The End of Evangelion, which provided a finale to the series after fans objected to the original TV ending -- has to Childhood's End is its climax, which involves a transformative moment for the human race.
Independence Day (1996):
Those giant ships suddenly hovering over dozens of the world's major cities were one of the primary reasons why Roland Emmerich's combination alien invasion/disaster movie was such a blockbuster success nearly 20 years ago, but sci-fi fans almost did a double take when they saw them: that spectacular, unsettling imagery was right out of Childhood's End. And that's pretty much where the similarities between the two end. Clarke's novel is one of melancholy optimism, and its extraterrestrial Overlords are not evil. Emmerich's invaders just want to turn us into ash, until a dose of rah-rah patriotism gives us the strength to kick their butts.
Robert Zemeckis' film, based on Carl Sagan's terrific novel, seems to remain an underappreciated gem. While a bit heavy-handed at times, it does capture the wonder, awe and, yes, fear that first contact with another civilization might engender, while also presenting that contact in realistic scientific terms. While Contact and Childhood's End share very little in terms of narrative and overall themes, what they do have in common is a tremendous feeling of hope about the future of the human race and our possible place in whatever hierarchies of intelligence may exist in the cosmos. Amidst all the darker sci-fi out there -- and the pretty dark times we live in -- such a worldview can be refreshing and inspiring.
We're not going to rehash all the pros and cons of Prometheus again, nor make too much of a case for its similarities to Childhood's End. The fact is, there aren't many, with the exception that Prometheus, like Childhood's End and several other titles on this list, posits that human life and evolution have been influenced by extraterrestrial sources -- sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. With the Engineers of Prometheus seemingly responsible for both the existence of humanity and the Alien(s), we still don't know what their ultimate intentions or motivations were. Hopefully, Ridley Scott will delve into that in his proposed trilogy of sequels.
Childhood's End airs on Syfy from Monday, December 14 to Wednesday, December 16 at 8 PM.