Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Soylent Green (1973) and Make Room! Make Room! (1966)

Soylent Green won the first Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, for 1973. (This particular Nebula category has a complex history, but this is the first time it was given under any name.) It was also on the Hugo Ballot for 1974, but was beaten by Sleeper which also won the 1974 Nebula. More on that anon. The other 1973 Nebula finalists were Westworld, Steambath (a TV play) and Catholics (a British TV play starring Martin Sheen). I haven't seen any of them, and I hadn't seen Soylent Green before either.

It's the story of New York in the year 2022, where overpopulation and climate change are making the city into an awful place to live. Our protagonist is tasked with investigating the murder of a wealthy industrialist, and discovers much worse things about his society. IMDB users rank it 7th and 12th on the two rankings of 1973 films, with The Exorcist, The Sting, Disney's Robin Hood and American Graffiti ahead of it on both lists.

Here's a trailer:

To start with, the list of returning actors from previous Hugo or Oscar-winning films has one very big name: Charlton Heston, here playing the police detective protagonist Frank Thorn, previously in the title role of Ben-Hur, 14 years ago, and the manager of The Greatest Show on Earth, 21 years ago.



I didn't spot any others, though worth noting that this was the last film of Edward G. Robinson's long career, and that the big secret is revealed to his character by Carole Lovesky, who played the original T'Pau on Star Trek. And the murder victim is Joe Cotton, protagonit of The Third Man.

The film is about a white male hero and his older white mentor (though coded Jewish); the women are all in supporting roles, but we are invited to see that as one of the future society's flaws. Leigh Taylor-Young certainly glows as Shirl, part of the "furniture" in the murder victim's apartment. When we meet her, she is playing the very first video game ever seen in a Hollywood movie:


There are several strong if subsidiary black roles - Brock Peters as police chief Hatcher, Paula Kelly as Martha (like Shirl, a concubine) and Lincoln Kilpatrick as the priest. It is striking that the Taiwanese/Chinese elements of the book have been completely removed from the film.



It's a memorable film in several respects. The future claustrophobic and overcrowded New York is realised in great and convincing detail. Thirty-seven years on, New York may not have grown to 40 million, but it's still a city whose infrastructure cannot cope with a pandemic. The euthanasia scene, and Charlton Heston's final scramble through the Soylent factory to discover its awful secret, are also very well done. And the scenes of police brutally clearing up a riot hit very close to home right now. You can get it here.

I had not previously read Make Room! Make Room!, the novel by Harry Harrison on which the film is loosely based. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Mike gave a deep, throaty gargle, a startling sound when you weren’t used to it, but Shirl had heard it often enough. When he snored like that it meant he was really sound asleep – maybe she could take a shower without his knowing it! Her bare feet were noiseless on the rug and she closed the bathroom door so slowly that it never made a click. There! She switched on the fluorescents and smiled around at the plastmarble interior and the gold-colored fixtures with highlights glinting everywhere. The walls were soundproof but if he wasn’t really deeply asleep he might hear the water knocking in the pipes. A sudden fear hit her and she gasped and stood on tiptoe to look at the water meter. Yes, her breath escaped in a relaxed sigh, he had turned it on. With water costing what it did Mike turned it off and locked it during the day, the help had been stealing too much, and he had forbidden her to take any more showers. But he always took showers and if she sneaked one once in a while he couldn’t tell from the dial.
I read a lot of Harrison's funnier novels when I was younger - the Stainless Steel Rat books, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, The Men from P.I.G. and R.O.B.O.T. and Bill, the Galactic Hero. None of them is terribly deep. So I was really surprised by how much I got out of Make Room! Make Room! - the future New York (in 1999, rather than 2022) is just as convincingly realised on the page; if anything a bit more so, and the plot is frankly more interesting. Harrison's New York is a more diverse place that Soylent Green's, but just as desperate; Shirl is more fully realised as a character; the initial murder is an burglary gone wrong rather than a conspirracy; the state is less inhuman, but society is worse. There was a real heart and soul to Harrison's writing that was completely new to me from this author, and I might look out for some of his other more serious books. It made the (very long) first ballot for the 1966 Nebula for Best Novel; that was won by Delany's Babel-17 and Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. You can get it here
Tags: bookblog 2020, films, sf: nebulas, writer: harry harrison
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