I just had the unique pleasure of watching SyFy’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End into a three-part miniseries, and in what little free time I had, I wanted to share a few thoughts I had on it. Childhood’s End is one of my favorite novels (despite its drawbacks including clunky writing and potentially colonial apologetics), but SyFy has an unimpressive adaptation track record, and so I had high hopes but low expectations for Childhood’s End. As such, I wasn’t terribly devastated by the adaptation, but nor was I impressed.
Childhood’s End is a story of First Contact, in which the aliens (the Overlords) come to Earth, but do not “invade” to conquer, but instead bring mankind into a Golden Age, though ultimately do so for a purpose both beautiful and horrifying.
In my earlier review of the novel, I argued that the central character of the novel was collective not individual; the character was humanity itself, and Clarke, in the novel, made this so by drawing out the Overlord’s management of Earth over fifty years, so more than one generation. SyFy’s miniseries shortened this time to fifteen years in order to focus on the more easily relatable, individual characters they created by fusing other characters from the book. Thus, we lost sight of the character of humanity that made Clarke’s novel so interesting.
This is not inherently a problem, but the way in which SyFy did this in a way that created needless drama that made the story much less thought-provoking. A greater focus on the micro-dynamics of the Overlord’s occupation would have been very interesting, and the show clearly tried to go in that direction, but did a poor job of it. The needless sub-plots about Annabelle, Ricky’s (not Rikki, like in the original novel) sickness, and confronting Karellen about the loss of religion added nothing to the plot, distracted from the interesting moments, and seemed to me to dumb down the story a bit by focusing on human questions in ways that were not unique to this show or informed by the unique context of the invasion.
The one interesting and unique addition SyFy added was the emphasis on the loss of religion, and a waning of faith in God as these powerful aliens took over the planet. That was a very interesting angle they started to explore, but they did so in less than stellar ways, and the conclusion of this arc (with the confrontation of the Overlord’s caretaker of Earth Karellen) was very unsatisfying.
The other thing that SyFy lost in its adaptation was the character of the Overlords themselves. In the novel, the Overlords were sad and curious, excluded from the Overmind (also, SyFy’s blatant equation of the Overmind with God was a little heavyhanded…) while also serving it faithfully, giving them a sort of martyr-like quality that was completely lost in the SyFy adaptation (not to mention the absence of Rashaverak and, until the end, any Overlord aside from Karellen). In focusing on (and failing to effectively explore) the personal aspect of the Golden Age of Man and Earth’s occupation, it fails to capture the big questions and sense of grandeur that Clarke had managed to capture so effectively.
Regardless, it was still enjoyable to watch, and Charles Dance as Karellen was perfect. The Overlord visual design was fantastic; I just wish there had been more of them.