When I was a kid, around the ages of 10-16, I read quite a bit of science-fiction. I wasn’t as big a fan as many people are. Philip K. Dick was far and away my favorite, but I feel like I came to him late, in the early 70s. Mostly in the 60s I read the same hippie material as everyone else, most notably Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But another of my favorites was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. While the book is known for its philosophical bent, the thing that really made an impression on me was the ships of the Overlords, most specifically, their size. Clarke referred to them as “huge and silent shadows” of “overwhelming majesty”. My imagination, fueled by Clarke, got the best of me. In my mind, the Overlords’ ship were so immense they covered the sky. In fact, my imagination was too puny to fully comprehend what Clarke had written ... I simply couldn’t imagine what such ships would look like if they appeared in my own sky.
I didn’t return to the book, at least not until recently, and I forgot most of the plot. But I never forgot the image of those enormous ships. And I hoped that some day Childhood’s End would be made into a movie, so I could see the ships visualized.
Clarke published Childhood’s End in 1953, the year I was born. There were several attempts over the years to bring it to the screen; all of them failed. In a forward to a 2000 edition of the novel, Clarke (writing when the book still hadn’t been filmed) noted that the times had caught up with his book, so much so that if a movie of Childhood’s End was ever produced, people would think it ripped off Independence Day, the 1996 film that featured what Clarke accurately described as “a very impressive version of the opening” of the book.
And it is true ... when Independence Day came out, I remember thinking “this is what I wanted to see of Childhood’s End”. Not the plot ... just the image of that enormous space ship. The quality here is pretty awful, but you get the idea:
Independence Day had a budget of $75 million (1996 dollars, I should add). It’s hard to find budget figures for Childhood’s End ... apparently it got more money than the usual SyFY product. So it may have been a creative decision rather than a budgetary one that gave us Overlord ships that were big but not overwhelming. This took some getting used to for someone like me, who has long hoped to see the ships as big as possible.
Giving the creators three parts and six hours (minus commercials) to tell the story should have allowed room for lots of the book, and I don’t think they missed much. The acting was ok, if nothing more, although it was fun seeing Charles Dance in his makeup (no matter how much demon-face they gave him, his eyes told you it was still him). Workmanlike, that’s what it was. The special effects were good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The story was good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The final section, which reveals the Overlords’ big plan, is OK, but here is where I think the series fell short. In the book, Clarke allows us to understand the evolution of humanity in such a way that it doesn’t seem like the end of people as much as a transformation. (That a book written during the Cold War posits a future of collective thought without making that future completely dystopian would seem to have been startling in its day.) I don’t know what the TV series wants to say at the end. We get the “end of people” aspect, but what happens to the children is largely a mystery, which I think made it seem more negative than Clarke might have intended.
I wanted Childhood’s End to be as awe-inspiring as I found those ships when I first read the book. I always preferred Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Star Wars because for all its excitement, Star Wars seemed prosaic next to the religious fervor of Close Encounters. The TV version of Childhood’s End had dollops of philosophy, a plot interesting enough to get us through three nights, and the great moment when we first see what an Overlord looks like. But it didn’t have awe. B+.