Foundation On Screen

It’s been a curious things the past few days. I had a thought to reread Asimov’s Foundation books–at least the “trilogy” (actually nine separately published short tales assembled into books around 1950). But I’ve been feeling ornery around rereading stuff. There’s just too much good writing around to “waste” book time on a rerun. But I’m glad I did.

I woke up a few mornings ago with a whole Foundation idea in my consciousness. There’s not a prayer it will ever be done the way I would imagine it, but here’s a try …

The “heroic” age of the Foundation (ca. 100-300 F.E.) would be the early struggles to maintain control of a sphere of influence on the edge of the galaxy. That is where I would see the anchor or the beginning of a long-lived series. I think a series would be of the most appeal to fans. It gives a certain quantity of material, and a large palette on which to explore the abiding Asimov themes. I see three important ones …

First is the place of the individual in the galaxy-wide spread of humanity, and especially in the thousand-year span of the Seldon Plan to restore civilization to the Milky Way. People struggle against the Foundation, and in all the centuries, only one mutant manages to conquer it. Otherwise, ordinary people function in the Plan. Do they lack free will? Or are they able to flourish and be honored as Foundation heroes only to the extent they cooperate with the system, and put their own intelligence and cunning to work to further the Foundation’s goals. This one piece has huge implications for drama, and for individuals who love the Foundation above all else, or who resent it, or who work within or outside the Plan for their own ends.

Another theme is Asimov’s use of religion as a pacifying and civilizing force within the early Foundation Era. Asimov was Jewish by upbringing, but considered himself a non-believer. Very telling is this statement from his 1995 memoirs:

If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul.

I don’t think the religion aspects of the Foundation come off very well. Asimov paints less a picture of authentic religion than a set of superstitions based on the perception of magic and an arbitrary galactic spirit. But perhaps there is more to explore in the idea of religion as a tool to conquer barbarism. Certainly the idea of trimming 29,000 years off a Dark Age is a highly moral undertaking. No doubt, religious practitioners in the Foundation would be across the spectrum–those who would lead virtuous lives and those who patterned their words to impress, and naturally, those in between.

Asimov does think very highly of the clever. And it is illustrative that a random act of mutation almost levels the Foundation. A gesture of great sacrifice eventually puts the Plan back on track in Second Foundation. In a way, the original three books establish a trilogy of human expression. The clever are triumphant at the end of Foundation. In Foundation and Empire, the Plan is nearly demolished by a mutant, an unforeseen glitch in the sweep of history. The Plan is restored in the final book of the original trilogy by a singularly sacrificial act. Intelligence, individuality, and selflessness: not a bad trio to explore.

If a thousand-year stretch of history is impossible to explore in a film (two hours) or a series of movies (ten to twenty), it would be easier to do it justice in a television series (say about 100 hours). Just because Asimov was less skilled in characterization, doesn’t mean an adaptation of Foundation couldn’t or shouldn’t explore that. There was also a surprising lack of wonder in the setting of the Foundation. If you’re going to throw this story up on a screen of any size, you really need eye candy to make it appealing. Give the characters a universe worth saving, worth living and dying for, and it will be more convincing than mere conversation about it.

My thinking would be to establish the story in the second or third centuries of the Foundation Era more from the perspective of the Foundation’s traders and explorers. Introduce the elements of Hari Seldon and the early Mayors through flashback. Then leap forward to tell the concluding narratives in the final ten hours of the filming. I would even consider going off-book, and introducing wholly original characters who will experience the themes of economics, politics, religion as well as the human struggles with individuality, sacrifice, and the search for meaning. That said, the couple Toran and Bayta Darell provide something of a human center to the whole series. They would be a fascinating lens through which to tell the “history” of the Foundation’s three centuries, plus the scope of the Mule Crisis.

Isaac Asimov’s great gift was his ideas. It would be cool to see those ideas explored on a larger canvas than a simple film, however much money it would be liable to amass for our corporate masters.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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