The 60-Year Struggle to Bring Childhood's End to Screens
Arthur C. Clarke loved Sri Lanka. His passion was diving, and the oceans were filled with the kind of fantastic creatures that could stimulate the author’s imagination. He made it his permanent home in 1956, three years after his novel, Childhood’s End, gave him a reputation in science fiction fandom as a man of deeply philosophical leanings.
Childhood’s End was one of the first works to explore the idea of massive alien spacecraft materializing over major cities—an image that would be used and reused in popular culture. It was also an early representation of the idea that extraterrestrial visitors could arrive with ethically questionable intentions. The Overlords, as Clarke named them, arrived with promises of curing disease and facilitating peace. The human price for that utopia is withheld, hanging over the book’s narrative like a guillotine.
Clarke finished Childhood’s End in 1952; it was published in 1953. By 1954, it was being optioned for a motion picture, a kind of semiconscious development state it would endure for nearly 60 years while Clarke looked on with amusement from Sri Lanka. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make it, but he and Clarke collaborated on 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. Other filmmakers followed, only to be held back by a hesitancy to embrace Clarke’s depiction of a world where aliens carry threats more complex than ray guns. No one fires a weapon. No one is inherently “evil”—not even the strangers, who refuse to let humanity see them for fear they’ll be terrified of their image.
“There’s not necessarily a military response,” says Matthew Graham, the writer of the Syfy miniseries (airing December 14, 15, and 16) that finally put an end to the project’s inertia. “It’s more Biblical. People are dumbfounded that there’s something bigger out there.
“I don’t think we’re used to stories where the protagonist has no control. And no one in Childhood’s End is ever in control.”
Shortly after the release of 1964's Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick grew interested in making a science fiction film. “Don’t laugh,” he told a studio publicist, “but I’m fascinated with the possibility of extraterrestrials.”
Kubrick had already asked his assistant to draw up a list of renowned sci-fi authors; the publicist, Roger Caras, told him to throw it away. He only needed to consider Clarke, Caras said, and offered to send a cable to Sri Lanka to see if there was interest.
“Stanley Kubrick … interested in doing film,” he wrote. “Interested in you. Are you interested?”
“Frightfully interested,” Clarke wrote back.
Kubrick and Clarke met in New York in 1964, strolling through the World’s Fair and talking about science and speculative fiction for hours. Kubrick had pored over hundreds of titles, but it was Childhood’s End that remained foremost on his mind. The premise is simple: aliens arrive with gifts of advanced science. They appear in the guise of deceased friends or relatives to appeal to humanity’s emotional triggers. But they’re also reclusive, waiting years to reveal themselves. And once they do, they take great interest in children.
Clarke’s bleak vision of a future made perfect at a unconscionable price intrigued Kubrick, but Clarke’s agents had bad news. A writer-director named Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it and seemed determined to see it made. Polonsky, however, was part of the Hollywood blacklist that arose out of the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, freezing whatever ambitions he had.
Instead, Kubrick selected Clarke's short story “The Sentinel,” and worked with the author to develop what would become 1968’s 2001. It would be the first and last time a Clarke story would be filmed for nearly 50 years.
Around the same time, Polonsky broke free of the blacklist stigma, made a series of films (Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, Romance of a Horse Thief) and, in 1971, announced his intentions to proceed with Childhood’s End with producer David Haft. Polonsky had written a script with screenwriter Howard Koch; it languished, with producers wary of spending a fortune on an existential alien invasion movie where most of the trauma is emotional.
By 1975, Universal owned the rights to the book and tasked writer Gene R. Kearney (Night Gallery) with streamlining the narrative. (In the book, decades pass between the aliens’ arrival and the discovery of their real motives.) When Kearney left the studio, they passed it to Philip DeGuere (Baretta), who worked on additional bridging—the middle portion of the book exploring humanity’s new standard of living is only loosely tied to the first and third sections—but ran into new problems. Producer George Litto, who had since left the studio, held the rights to an adaptation even though Universal still owned the book option. Childhood's End seemed destined to remain a developmental nightmare.
It was George Lucas who provided new opportunity for the production: His 1977 release of Star Wars was a blessing for sci-fi projects all over Hollywood. On the back of its success, Universal decided to pull Childhood's End from the freezer and settle the rights issues with Litto. They asked DeGuere to proceed, this time conceiving it as a television miniseries, estimating it would cost roughly $10 million to produce; CBS, anxious to get into pop culture's space race, agreed to broadcast it.
To help executives understand Clarke’s work, DeGuere asked comic artist Neal Adams to do production design sketches and paintings. Adams imagined ships, panicked people, and the distinctive look of the Overlords, a revelation Clarke teased for the first third of the book. (Humanity, they believed, would need years to prepare for the sight.)
CBS wound up losing interest, however, and the project was recalibrated for a single television movie at ABC, where Variety announced it would appear as a three-hour special. They enlisted science fiction “consultants” to help massage Clarke’s ideas into something palatable for television; DeGuere himself went to the source, phoning Clarke at 1:30 a.m. west coast time to catch the author at a decent hour in Sri Lanka.
Just when it seemed things were progressing, DeGuere learned that Universal’s deal with Clarke contained dated contracts that went back to the 1950s; it took lawyers from both sides nine months to restructure the deal to everyone’s satisfaction.
By 1981, Childhood’s End had proceeded so glacially that no one felt any particular sense of urgency. DeGuere felt that Adams’s drawings might have been a little too spectacular, giving the studio sticker shock. He consulted with their in-house special effects team, looking for ways to minimize expenses. At the time, showing a giant ship surrounded by blue skies and clouds was too unforgiving for a television budget; the aliens would have to arrive at night, when it’s easier to hide visual tricks and where a beam of light can adequately represent a visiting alien race.
DeGuere waited for a green light, which he felt might have been forthcoming if the studio’s Flash Gordon did well. It did not, and Childhood’s End receded into the background once more.
Clarke was amused to see a miniseries titled V air on NBC in 1983. A Twilight Zone-ish story of a malevolent alien race arriving in massive ships and promising prosperity to humans while disguising their true intentions, it was enormously successful. In a new foreword to Childhood’s End published in 1989, the author wrote that "if [the book] never does make it to the big screen, millions of people have watched a very impressive variation on Chapter 2 in the TV serial V." (Clarke also wrote that the conceit of aliens hovering ominously over Earth pre-dated his work; author Theodore Sturgeon wrote a short story titled "The Sky Was Full of Ships" in 1947.)
Projects like V and 1996’s Independence Day plucked some of Clarke’s concepts to use as scaffolding for a lot of action. As a result, the relative introspection of Childhood’s End didn’t seem economically sensible when aliens were busy blowing up the White House. A BBC Radio drama appeared in 1997; a Broadway show was once considered. Clarke, who died in 2008, profited from Hollywood’s habit of paying him for work they didn’t know what to do with.
Meanwhile, some of Universal’s literary properties began to trickle down into the company’s distribution outlets. The Syfy channel asked producer Michael De Luca to develop Childhood’s End, this time with a new result: Advances in computer effects could handle Clarke’s landscapes, while the increasingly ambitious, mature world of cable television wouldn’t be inhibited by some of his more provocative themes.
De Luca arranged for a meeting with Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Doctor Who), pulling the book out and asking Graham if he’d ever read it. He had, at 14; the unimaginable nature of the Overlords seized his adolescent brain. “The thing that grabs you most is the idea of what they look like, that human beings can’t handle it,” he says. “You’re going, ‘Oh, God, how awful can they look?’ It gets you deeper into the book.”
Graham’s pitch involved making one of the central characters, Ricky Stormgren (Mike Vogel), a farmer rather than the United Nations ambassador of the novel. Like astrophysicist Milo (Osy Ikhile), who also appears throughout the 25-year time span of the television series, he’s a non-military party. “Aliens coming to speak to politicians would be following our protocol," Graham says. "They’re going to follow their own protocol. In the Old Testament, God doesn’t pick kings. He makes them.”
The December 14 premiere of the miniseries marks the end of six decades of effort to translate Clarke’s novel into another medium. “I think the problem was that it was too big for a movie and television wasn’t sophisticated enough,” Graham says. “Now it’s arguably more sophisticated than the movies we see. There’s time and space to develop ideas.” And to prove that someone involved in Childhood's End finally has some control.