Last week saw the release of Tolkien (see it here), Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the Lord of the Rings author and his early life before World War I. It’s getting middling reviews, with the general consensus being that it lacks the sense of wonder and mythos that the trailblazing author brought to his works. But it got us thinking about other science fiction, horror and fantasy writers who could support their own biopics. Writers can have pretty insanely interesting lives, and here are 11 geek authors who could make for hit flicks.
Arthur C. Clarke
Back in the day, writers didn’t necessarily spend all day at their desk -— they had rich and often wild lives aside from their work. One of the best examples is science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke, who supplemented his novels and short stories with all sorts of other activities. If we were going to pick an event in his life that would be dope on-screen, it’s when he left Britain in 1956 to move to Sri Lanka to scuba dive. While there, he discovered the Koneswaram Temple, which was built in the 4th century and destroyed in the 1600s. Clarke’s obsessions with both space and the undersea world would make a fun film.
The author of the Wheel of Time series didn’t start writing until 1977, completing his first novel, Warriors of the Altaii, in a mere 13 days. What gave him that sense of urgency? Well, it might have had something to do with the three years he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. Army helicopter gunner. Jordan saw more than his share of combat in ‘Nam, and he spoke to interviewers about how his time there sort of recalibrated his moral compass when it came to matters of war. Nicknamed “The Iceman,” Jordan went through a lot in Asia and it’d be cool to tell that story in a movie.
L. Sprague de Camp
This is kind of a three-for-one, but it’s a cool story. L. Sprague de Camp was one of the most respected science fiction writers of the 30s and 40s, and is credited with coming up with the term “E.T.” for aliens. He was an aeronautical engineer by trade, and during World War II he was posted at the Philadelphia Navy Yard doing research alongside fellow science fiction legends Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. That trio of future thinkers headed up a number of initiatives at the Yard, including the development of the first spacesuit that NASA would eventually use. Think of it like Hidden Figures but for science fiction, with the three bouncing ideas and trying to one-up each other.
James Tiptree Jr.
Science fiction has long been regarded as a boy’s club, but the story of James Tiptree Jr. might change that perception. He was actually a she — Alice B. Sheldon, who took up writing as a young woman and sold stories to the New Yorker before taking up a male pseudonym to submit sci-fi to the pulps. Before she started living that double life, she was also working for the CIA as a spy. Tiptree was relentlessly protective about her secret identity, never making public appearances until revealing the truth in 1977. The combination of real-world espionage and multiple identities make her life story very cinematic.
Incredibly prolific sci-fi and fantasy author Jack Vance had a career that lasted for nearly sixty years, from the early days of the pulps to his retirement in 2009. As a young man, Vance thirsted for adventure, moving to Hawaii to work at Pearl Harbor. He wanted to enlist in the Navy, but poor eyesight prevented that. He solved that problem by memorizing an eye chart and using that to join the Merchant Marines, where he served for years as a seaman. His adventures on the high seas would go on to inform much of his writing, and he started getting stories accepted when he was still in service, and once he left and married his wife, the duo would travel the world together by boat as he wrote.
Born Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, the man known as Cordwainer Smith would be best known in literary circles for his contributions to pulp magazines in the 1950s, but his real life was nearly as crazy as his fiction. His father was tight bros with Sun Yat-Sen, the Chinese politician who helped overthrow the Qing dynasty, and the Linebarger family moved all throughout Asia when he was young. During World War II, Linebarger helped to organize the U.S. Army’s first psychological warfare division, developing new methods of messing with enemy morale. Combine that with the rumors that Smith was mentally obsessed with the “Barsoom” sci-fi books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and had a psychotic break where he thought he was the main character and you’ve got the foundation for a hell of a psychological drama.
Philip K. Dick
One of the most unique and idiosyncratic science fiction writers of all time, the life story of Philip K. Dick was shot through with mystery and terror. One of the most bizarre events in his life came in 1974, when he was recovering from the removal of an impacted wisdom tooth. A young woman came to deliver him painkillers and when a ray of sunlight glinted off the necklace she was wearing, Dick reported being pierced by a “pink beam of light” that permanently rewired his brain, causing him to experience vivid hallucinations for the next few months. Those hallucinations intensified to the point where Dick believed he was living two lives at once – one, a writer in 70s California, and the other a Christian in the first century AD. If that isn’t a Hollywood high concept we don’t know what is.
Probably the least-known writer on this list, Wisconsin-born sci-fi writer Cleve Cartmill deserves a movie about his life thanks to one completely insane incident: the 1944 publication of his short story “Deadline,” about the plot to develop a fission bomb that used Uranium-235 as a power source. The story, which was published in Astounding Science Fiction, drew the attention of the U.S. government, which was at the time right in the middle of a top secret experiment to produce… a fission bomb that used Uranium-235 as a power source. That was the famous Manhattan Project, and when FBI agents raided Cartmill’s home to find out what he knew about it things got pretty scary for the author. You could easily wrap a movie around the idea of a science fiction author who inadvertently invents the most important weapon of the 20th century.
This one’s not an adventure but for a horror author as prolific and beloved as Ramsey Campbell, examining the horror at home is the way to go. The English author was raised by feuding parents, with his mother beset by crippling schizophrenia. She dreamt of becoming a famous writer, but when she didn’t find success young Ramsey did, completing his first collection of ghost stories at the age of 11. Young Campbell read the extradimensional creep stories of H.P. Lovecraft at the age of eight, internalizing his dark mythos. We’d love to see a flick melding those two worlds — his grim home life and the horrors lurking at the edge of vision.
A lesser-known but interesting writer, Abraham Grace Merritt published in the pulp magazines starting in 1917. He had originally trained as a newspaper reporter, but when he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer he underwent an experience so terrifying that he refused to ever speak about it in public. That trauma colored his otherwise successful life, giving him a number of bizarre quirks like relentless hypochondria and an unstoppable urge to sample any food he found lying around. He also cultivated an exotic garden of plants connected to witchcraft and supernatural experiences like peyote, datura and cannabis. That’s a combination that could lead to some serious weirdness.
Born in 1931, John Frederick Lange, Jr. — who wrote under the pen name John Norman — seemed like a normal guy on the surface. Born in Chicago, he got his PhD from Princeton and has been married to his wife Bernice since 1956. But underneath that ordinary exterior seethes the heart of a truly dedicated pervert. Starting in 1966, Norman began publishing his Gor series, a long-running fantasy epic that’s up to 34 books of sexual slavery. The world of Gor is one where women are chattel, chained in subservience to manly barbarians, with point of view character Tarl Cabot being transported from Earth and learning their ways. Their have been a pair of Gor movies, but we’d love to see a flick about the man behind the action.
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