I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Another Kind of Adaptation: A Boy and His Dog


by Thomas Michalski
May 22, 2016

Usually, when a movie is adapted from a piece of literature, it’s kind of a one way street; you have the inspiration and subsequently the thing it inspired. Readers can debate a film’s faithfulness to either the letter or spirit of its source material, but that’s because they have this concrete, unchanging thing to compare it to, the author’s original, unadulterated vision. In certain rare exceptions though, what ends up on the screen has an impact on what subsequently ends up (or doesn’t end up) on the page, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which developed as both a novel and a film more or less simultaneously, or Harlan Ellison’s Nebula Award-winning short story “A Boy and His Dog”, which, before L.Q. Jones still-controversial 1976 film version, was meant to take on a very different, much larger form, one that has since been realized in pieces, but never completely.

Initially part of a hefty, full-length novel project, “A Boy and His Dog”was first published as a short story when, in 1969, Michael Moorecock, publisher of New Worlds magazine, phoned Ellison and offered to hold the cover if he had anything to submit. Never one to turn down a paycheck, Ellison looked to what he was working on and put something together. “I said, ‘Well, I think this part stands alone, but there’s more to come,’” he told The Dissolve recently, “and he ran it and the next thing I knew I was getting movie offers left and right.” Later that same year, he expanded the story to an 18,000-word novella length for the collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, but even that was slight considering the epic Ellison initially had in mind.

The story follows the teenage Vic, who fights for survival across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, his only companion a telepathic, articulate dog named Blood. The deserted cities and highways are roamed almost exclusively by men, who, when they’re not taking in a movie, the one human pleasure still respected by the roving gangs, are pillaging for food and raping anything that moves. The latter is what Vic has in mind when Blood picks up a woman’s scent, but what is supposed to be an act of caveman brutality gets more complicated when the girl turns out to be bait, luring him down to one of the underground colonies established by fundamentalist Christians as a wartime retreat to the puritanical values of late 19th century America. Their stifling chastity and insulated, inbred existence has left them unable to conceive male children, which is where Vic comes in.

With its dramatic clash between two worlds, a one where savagery has usurped society completely and one that’s taken strictly-enforced social norms to the brink of disaster, the story proved popular and, as noted, the interest of the major studios was quickly piqued. “I was getting movie offers from everywhere, and big money offers, for this story. This was before I had even finished the novel,” Ellison said, “I turned down Universal and Warner Brothers and Paramount because they all wanted to animate the mouth of the dog.” Eventually he decided to work with L.Q. Jones, an actor known mostly for his association with Sam Peckinpah, who didn’t have much directorial experience, but had Ellison’s trust and cooperation on the screenplay, which Jones himself adapted. The film hit theatres, mostly drive-ins, in 1976, to mild commercial and critical reception (the New York Times rightly called it “a beginner's movie”).

But, as these things go, it became a steadfast cult classic, helped along by its low-budget, but convincing, desolate landscape, a noted influence on George Miller’s Mad Max films, a good dose of campy 70s sci-fi/horror goofiness and a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson as the titular boy, as well as, incidentally, a post-Brady Bunch Tiger as the titular dog. Jones’ film follows Ellison’s story almost exactly, right on through to the original’s shocker ending (spoiler alert, if I need to say that for a movie nearly 40 years old), which finds Vic feeding his love interest/rape victim to his trusty dog to save him from starvation. Though Ellison was extremely pleased with the film overall, he disowned Jones’ handling of the finale. In the story it comes off as a grim decision made by someone weaned on violence; in the movie it’s uncomfortably humorous.

The gruesome twist proved a big part of the film’s notoriety, and while claims of sexism had been leveled at Ellison’s story already, Jone’s jokey ending threw gasoline on the fire. “Sending a woman to see A Boy and His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau”, wrote critic and SF novelist Joanna Russ at the time, and to this day Ellison laments the final scenes popularity among college students and midnight moviegoers, some of whom find its crass final line eminently quotable. There are much more thorough dissections of the relationship between the story, the film and their respective commentary on sexual politics and gender, but suffice it to say that the story is much more unflinching and conflicted from the get-go, setting the stage for what in Jones’ heavily sanitized version feels like just a cruel punch line.

Those sort of things routinely get lost with adaptations, but what’s interesting here is that, despite the film’s lasting cult status, or indeed Ellison’s cranky insistence that there would be more if someone would just pay him enough, the full work that he initially envisioned for “A Boy and His Dog” being but a small part of, a novel called Blood’s a Rover, never materialized. A prequel story, another short sketch entitled “Eggsucker”, was published in 1977, and it along with an previously unpublished segment, “Run, Spot, Run” were collected into a graphic novel, illustrated by Heavy Metal magazine regular Richard Corben, in 1989. The long-promised full book has become legendary among Ellison’s many ardent fans, no surprise considering the author has been dangling that carrot in front of them for decades. In the forward to the graphic novel, Ellison wrote, “If the heavens don’t part and swamp us, it will be published in 1990.”

A fourth piece of the puzzle came to light in the form of a screenplay for a TV movie for CBS, which was also entitled Blood’s a Rover and reportedly told the rest of the story, although Ellison also had hopes it would spin off into an A Boy and His Dog weekly series. He had planned to bring L.Q. Jones back as director, but CBS balked at the choice and backed out, leaving the screenplay still unproduced and a complete novel still tantalizingly on the horizon. The hints he’s dropped in regards to its plot, which reportedly finds Blood losing Vic and roaming the wastelands alone before finding a new, female, master named Spike and later reuniting with his old friend, forming a happy little post-nuclear family, sound intriguing but no one’s holding their breath. Kind of makes you wish he just finished the damn thing in 1969, before Hollywood came calling.

 

  1. http://thedissolve.com/features/interview/73-harlan-ellison-on-taking-flak-for-but-admiring-a-b/

  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-ragogna/ema-boy-and-his-dogem-a-c_b_3748685.html

  3. http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF1738E061BC4F52DFB066838D669EDE

  4. http://books.google.com/books?id=XvaIuzLV41gC&pg=PA149&dq=a+boy+and+his+dog+ellison&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NY18UvuZFtPb4APxpYH4Cg&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=a%20boy%20and%20his%20dog%20ellison&f=false

 

 

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/