There have been multiple attempts to adapt Arthur C.Clarke's classic novel Childhood's End to the silver screen and the small screen. The most well-known attempt was by famed director Stanley Kubrick. Unfortunately, at the time someone else had the movie rights, so Kubrick and Clarke collaborated to adapt Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were other attempts over the years, but for one reason or another the plans always fell apart. That is, until 2015 when Syfy, former known as The Sci-Fi Channel, adapted Childhood's End intoa three-part miniseries. Adapting such a beloved novel is no easy task, so how does it hold up? Let's take a look.
I should preface this by saying that spoilers ahoy will be occurring from this point forward. Turn back now if you don't like that sort of thing.
Okay, so first of all let's discuss the setting. The novel was published in 1953 and is set, at least initially, in what was then the relatively near future. The miniseries, by contrast, is set in the present day. In the book the United States and the Soviet Union are involved in a Space Race and teetering on the edge of nuclear war. This gives the Overlords' intervention a seems of urgency, though they probably still would have intervened anyway. In the miniseries, the Overlords still justify their intervention on the grounds that humanity is destroying itself. Don't get me wrong, they have a point, but pollution and climate change just don't have the same sense of urgency that nuclear war do. To be fair, Clarke himself admitted that assuming the Soviet Union would still be around was, in hindsight, a mistake on his part.
All things considered I think they made the right call with the settings update. What about the characters? Before we get to that I think I should also address the time span of the series. The book spans of multiple decades of history, but the miniseries greatly condenses the time span. This was most likely so that they could use the same actors throughout the whole production. It might upset purists, but I understand why the change had to be made, and it didn't really bother me that much. Now then, let's talk characters.
First, we have Ricky Stormgren. In the book, he worked for the United Nations, but in the miniseries he's a farmer from Missouri. He's noted for his ability to broker peace during times of crisis and tension. He's about to marry a beautiful woman named Ellie, but he's still haunted by the memory of deceased wife Annabelle. Now, in the book, Ricky's love life didn't really factor into things. Some might say that this was pandering to the lowest common denominator, but I disagree. I thought it added depth to Ricky's character. He's been asked to shoulder an enormous burden for an alien race who, initially, won't even show him their faces. He certainly more than rises to the challenge, but at the end of the day he's still just a man. He has hopes, fears and dreams just like the rest of us. There are times he isn't perfect, but he tires his best to do right by those he cares about.
I actually think making Ricky an average Joe was a smart move. Everyone would expect the Overlords to pull the "take me to your leader" cliché. Plus, let's be honest, the United Nations is hardly the most objective organization in the world. They bully Israel, but never condemn atrocities of the Islamic world. They condemn American slavery, 160 years after the fact, but not the slavery going on the Islamic world here and now. They give equal speaking time to nations that deny freedom of speech to their own citizens. They even...well, you get the point. Again, this is another example of time working against the book's original setting. Moreover, I think Karellen does a good job justifying why he picked Ricky to be his representative.
Something else of note is that Ricky's actor, Mike Vogel, is pretty much the sole American actor among a cast of Australians, Brits and the odd Irishman or two. This is in large part because the miniseries was primarily filmed in Australia. Now, most of the actors involved with the miniseries have appeared on America TV shows and, in some cases, American movies. So it not like they're a cast of nobodies hired to cut down cost. On the whole, they do a good job of faking American accents. That having been said, it does make for a jarring experience to hear them speak in their natural voices during interviews.
In other notable characters, we have Milo Rodericks. In the book his name was Jan Rodericks and was half-white and half-black. In the miniseries, besides the new name, he appears to be fully black. I don't know why they felt compelled to change his name; it certainly seems to be something of a trend for Syfy to change at least one name with each of their adaptations. Leaving their mark on the production perhaps? Anyway, what drives Milo more than anything else is his quest for knowledge. He wants to know everything about the universe, but interest in science start to decline as the Overlords make the world into a utopia.
Like Ricky, Milo's relationship with his girlfriend gets a lot more focus in the miniseries. Again, I think this was a smart move on the producer's part. In the book, when Milo's decides to stow away on a ship bound for the Overlord's homeworld, he leaps at the opportunity without hesitation. In the miniseries, his decision carries more weight because now he stands to lose something. There's a certain poetic element in how he ultimately becomes the last of the old humans and dies in Africa. Humans originated in Africa, so it makes a sort of poetic sense that the last human would be of African heritage.
So that brings us to the Overlords themselves, specifically Karellen. First of all, let's talk about their appearance. Yes, it is a bit on the nose to have them look like stereotypical red devils, but I think it kind of works out. In the years since Childhood's End was first published, science fiction writers have dream up all sort of weird and wonderful winged aliens. The Overlords had to look more obviously demonic so that would look like they inspired the Medieval image of demons. Otherwise people would be more likely to compare them to science fiction aliens.
I think pretty much everyone was expecting that Karellen was going to be a CGI character, but nope, not the case. Charles Dance appears in full make-up and prosthetics to portray Karellen. Though a few shots are obviously manipulated to make him appear taller and more imposing, since Charles Dance isn't quite as tall as Karellen is supposed to be. I gotta admit that is impressive; especially considering the hell is must have been to have all of that make-up and prosthetics put on every day of filming. The scene where Karellen finally reveals himself to humanity is one of my favorite bits. I knew what was going to happen, but it was just shot so well I had goosebumps the whole time.
The plot of the miniseries actually follows the plot of the books fairly closely. I'm certainly impressed that Syfy was able to pull it off. Don't get me wrong, Childhood's End is a great book, but it never struck me as particularly filmable. I always figured that was one of the reason it took so long to get a solid production going. Each episode, each of which clocks in at a little less than a hour and twenty minutes, adapts a third of the book. The first episode is excellent. Pacing is good, acting is also good, it's an all-around good time. I do find it a bit funny that the leader of the anti-Overlords faction vaguely looks and sounds like Alex Jones. Granted, it was probably unintentional on the producer's part, but I thought it was humorous.
Of the three, episode two is definitely the weakest. I feel like some of the stuff in episode three should maybe have been in episode two. It would have helped things out with pacing of episode three, but we'll get to that in just a minute. Now, the middle part of the book is primarily just characters talking and that would have been a bit difficult to translate to a visual medium. It also kind of feels like the original script wasn't quite long enough and the producers were struggling to fill the extra time. They also kind of half-assed it when it came to addressing the quasi-supernatural elements. It's like they wanted to keep it true to the book, but they got cold feet half way through production.
The biggest flaw, however, came towards the end of the episode. Karellen pays Ricky a visit...in the middle of broad daylight, while there's a large crowd of people around Ricky's house. One of the subplots of the episode has followed this woman named Peretta. She used to work as a missionary with her mother, but religion more or less died out after the Overlords showed up, and she thinks they're demons. She decides to see Ricky and Ellie for...some reason, and hang out with the other people hanging around their house. So, Karellen shows up and she sneaks past the rope, which is guarded by police. She does this by saying that she's a friend of Ellie. Uh, what? You seriously expect me to be live that nobody else pulled that sort of stunt? I mean, how dumb were those police?!
Oh, but there's more. Ricky has been shooting tin cans to blow off steam and brings his gun with him to meet Karellen. Karellen is there to explain why Ricky and Ellie are having trouble conceiving...despite that fact that it's implied he already did that earlier in the episode. Then Peretta bursts in and start blabbering about Ricky being a false prophet, and Karellen being a servant of Satan. Despite the fact that there is a crazy woman in his barn, Ricky doesn't do anything to prevent his gun from getting grabbed. And wouldn't you know it, Peretta grabs the gun and shoots Karellen. Thankfully, Karellen has given a panacea earlier, and Ricky selflessly uses it to save Karellen. Peretta is completely crestfallen, leaves in defeat and commits suicide by jumping off of a building.
What irked me the most about this scene was that it required pretty much everyone involved to act like idiots. I get what the producers were trying to do with Peretta. They want to show that, even in this world of plenty, there are still those who are dissatisfied. Problem is that they already have that opportunity with the island of New Athens. As I was watching this episode I was wondering if they were gonna drop the New Athens subplot, but it appears in episode three. We'll get back to that in just a minute. There's also a bit of a plot hole when Karellen gets shot. In the first episode, Milo got shot, but the Overlords transferred his injury to the person who shot him. Why couldn't they do the same with Karellen? Granted you could argue that humans and Overlords are different species, so it might not work, but it irks me still.
For that matter, why didn't Karellen just send a hologram instead of showing up in person? Again, I see the intention. They want to show that Ricky is selfless and willing to put other's needs ahead of his own. I can see the intention, but it wreaks of bad writing. I also don't like that it's implied that the children awaken their psychic abilities because of stuff the Overlords did, rather than a natural evolutionary process. I know it gave it a hard time, but there were some good moments in episode two, mostly set up for the final episode. Okay, enough about episode two, let's move onto the final episode.
Overall, I'd say episode three did a pretty good job. Like I said, we get a proper view of New Athens in this episode. Everything about it checks out fairly well in relation to the book. We also see the children awaken their powers and their leader comes to embrace her destiny. What is the name of the leader of these children? Her name is...Jennifer. Granted, there was a character by that name in the book, though not nearly as important. It just struck me as...I don't know, anti-climactic? The scene where the children all chant her name just wound up look more silly than creepy, in my opinion.
In other developments, Ricky finally succumbs to his illness because he used his panacea on Karellen. In the process of his dying he finally makes his peace with Annabelle's death. There's some really touching scene of Ricky spending his last moments gazing at the stars with Ellie. We also get a brief montage of their happy times together. Okay, it wasn't actually a montage, and I do think it would have been better to have lingered just a little longer. I mean, a major character whom we have become emotionally invested in has just died. I'd say that merits a bit more lingering.
So, Milo embarks on his journey to the Overlords' homeworld, gets to meet the Overmind and then immediately demands to be taken back to Earth. Yeah, I get the feeling that the production team were pressed for time by this point. They probably could have avoided that, if they hadn't dawdled around with episode two. This is one of the big reveals the series has been working towards, and they kind of just drop it within a few minutes. I would have liked to have seen more of the Overlords' homeworld, and their museums, but I understand that might have been outside the budget of the miniseries. Plus, more Overlords means more people sitting through hours of makeup and prosthetics, and that's bound to drive up cost.
Milo returns to Earth, and since it was a eighty year round trip, he's now a the last human on Earth. His girlfriend Rachael, and presumably her and Milo's fellow scientists, appear to have died in a cryonics accident. It's time for the kids to join the Overmind, and Earth must be destroyed for that to happen. This is an instance where being true to the book actually works against the miniseries. When the book was written, environmentalism hadn't really taken off, so it glossed over the fact that all life on Earth is being destroyed. They kind of address this with all of the animals the Overlords were taking to be part of their zoos, but it's seems kind of flimsy to me. Why not use one of the many lifeless planets in the solar system for the energy and spare Earth?
Anyway, let's talk about the ending. Karellen offers to let Milo explore the universe with the Overlords, but Milo rejects the offer. Instead, he chooses to report and record the last moments of Earth from the surface. We're back to where the miniseries started. He's scared, but he has Karellen's kind words to comfort him. As the world crumbles around him Milo begs Karellen to save something to serve as the enduring memory of the human race. Karellen complies and plays a recording of the orchestral song "The Lark Ascending". Everything about that scene is just so perfect. The music is perfect, Milo and Karellen's expression are perfect, the pacing is perfect.
And so the Earth is destroyed, humanity joins the Overmind, and the Overlords move on. Karellen leaves the music for whomever passes by to hear. It was such a beautiful ending, and I can't think of any way it could have possibly been better.
Alright, that's all well and good, but what's the verdict on this one? I'm giving it a thumbs-up and a happy recommendation. I know I kind of dwell on stuff that could have been improved, but that's always a bit easier than talking about what I liked. When I consider Childhood's End as a whole, I really think that it got far more right than it got wrong. Even if it wasn't always perfect, they followed the method of adaptions that I prefer the best. They stayed true to the source material, but made change where necessary to better fit the new medium and time. It's clear that the producers had a great amount of respect for the book. Some people have been waiting their entire lives for this miniseries, and I promise you, it is well worth the wait.
I think that it's really great that Syfy is getting back to its roots and adapting great works of speculative fiction, both classic and modern. So there you have it. Childhood's End is a worthy adaptation that should appeal to fans of the book and the general population. With that I wish you all the best, and I will see you guys next time.