Beginning of the End: Writer Matthew Graham on His SyFy Adaptation of Childhood’s End

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Few science fiction writers are more revered than the late Arthur C. Clarke. Perhaps best known to mainstream audiences as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and co-screenwriter of its classic 1968 film adaptation, Clarke’s oeuvre boasts many classics of the sci-fi genre. Amongst the faithful, one of his most celebrated and beloved works is 1953’s Childhood’s End. Set in the (then) near future, the novel tells the story of a seemingly peaceful invasion of Earth by a group of mysterious aliens who refer to themselves simply as “Overlords.” Their benign dictatorship results in decades of prosperity for Earth’s citizens, but their subjugation of human identity and culture eventually begins to breed discontent.

After more than 60 years spent in various stages of development hell, the book has finally been adapted as a three night, six-hour miniseries airing on SyFy (the first installment aired on December 14). Under the Dome’s Mike Vogel stars as Ricky, a blue collar farmer who is chosen by Overlord spokesman Karellen (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) to be the race’s mouthpiece. As the years pass by, the relationship between the human race and the Overlords grows more and more complicated.

On the day of the Childhood’s End premiere, Paste spoke with the miniseries’ writer Matthew Graham (co-creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes) about retooling the book for television, why Charles Dance makes for a perfect authoritative alien and how a few lines on a single page grew to become the entire middle chunk of the miniseries.

Paste Magazine: I wanted to start off by asking about the book. Childhood’s End is kind of a seminal text for sci-fi lovers. Can you talk about your relationship with the book and Arthur C. Clarke in general?
Matthew Graham: I read three or four Arthur C. Clarke books as a child and Childhood’s End was one of those. I came to it when I was 13 or 14. I knew [Clarke] was an important science-fiction writer, but I didn’t know at the time that it was such a seminal novel. But it certainly stuck with me on a number of levels—the powerful anti-happy ending went against a lot of the books I was used to. But also, the sheer mystery and excitement of wanting to know what the Overlords look like and being told in the book that Karellen is so challenging to look at. It was only as an adult when I went online and researched around the book that I realized what a special place it has in the pantheon.

Paste: Do you think if you had known that going in, you may have been more hesitant in tackling it?
Graham: (Laughs) No, not necessarily. Maybe it’s to do with the culture I grew up with here, but we adapt classic novels all the time in the U.K. In the States too, of course, but we really do it a lot. Dare I say, we’ve done novels that are probably greater novels—and Childhood’s End is a great novel—but we’re tackling Shakespeare or Tolstoy on the BBC. I think you have to jump in with a certain degree of not thinking too much about the significance of the author and the significance of the book. You just approach it the way you would any book—what can I translate to the screen effectively with minimal changes, and what will I have to change quite a bit or expand on in order for it to work on television? It’s an inevitable thing you have to go through, and you try not to think about the ‘Holy Grail’ of it all. Otherwise, you just get too frightened to get up in the morning.

Paste: Obviously, I love Clarke’s work and this isn’t meant to be a knock against him, but he was a writer who always seemed more interested in exploring big ideas than creating fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters. Can you talk a bit about fleshing out some of the characters he introduced in his novel?
Graham: I think that’s absolutely right. That’s probably the first thing that strikes you about the book—that the characters are really ciphers for ideas. And there’s nothing wrong with that in the novel, but it’s dangerous to do in a drama. Stanley Kubrick sort of did it with 2001—I mean, he didn’t even try to make the characters interesting—but he’s Stanley Kubrick and I’m not (laughs). So, I knew I would need to flesh them out and make them more three-dimensional.

One of the biggest changes is obviously Ricky. In the book, Ricky is the head of the United Nations and Clarke wrote the book at a time when I think we still revered our politicians and looked to them as the best and brightest. The United Nations was reflective of us coming out of World War II and looking ahead at how the UN was going to lead us to this great global future. I think we’re more cynical-and more aware now. When I say, “United Nations,” I think bureaucracy, hand wringing, things getting stalled and nations arguing and not agreeing on anything. It didn’t seem appropriate. What I was interested in with the adaptation was making the Overlords more like the Old Testament God and Ricky more like a Noah or an Abraham. So rather than going to find the King, [God] finds the shepherd boy—Ricky is a farmer in this case—and makes him a king. It seemed inherently like there was more to play with dramatically, than if [the Overlords] just went to the President. And we kind of address that in episode one, when Karellen says that [politicians, The Pope] all have baggage and Ricky doesn’t have that baggage. Then with Milo Rodricks [Jan Rodricks in the book], I felt it was a fantastic opportunity to see that character as a young boy, and grow up with him and see how he’s living his dream of entering into the stars. I felt like if we invested in him as a child, rather than just coming to him as an adult, maybe his journey would resonate a bit more.

Paste: Perhaps the most fascinating segment to me is the middle episode, which has a lot of stuff that’s not in the book, and explores a lot of ideas that are only touched upon in the book. Especially in the case of Peretta Jones, Yael Stone’s character. Can you talk a bit about her development?
Graham: It’s funny, that actually came about due to a very practical situation that happened. Originally, the miniseries was going to be a two-parter. It felt very straightforward to me, based on the book, how we could structurally do that. Then, SyFy said they really wanted it to be a three-parter. Suddenly, I have this deserted prairie of a middle section with high winds blowing through it. I couldn’t write about how, ‘Hey, everyone’s happy and gets along during this time.’ So, I went back to the book and there was this page describing the end of religion. As soon as I read that, I thought, ‘For most people, that would be a book in itself.’ That was where it came from. I thought we wouldn’t give up our religion quite so quickly. It gave us an opportunity to explore that a little bit more. So we created this new character, Peretta Jones to be representative of…not fundamentalist, and not a crazed manic thing—although she gets a bit manic—but that’s because she’s fighting for her faith. But she’s actually kind of right in the sense that she’s afraid for the future of mankind. And although no one understands what’s going to happen in the future and can’t even predict it, she’s right to feel that the Overlords are taking over everything. I thought that was kind of interesting, and gave us an opportunity for Karellen to impart wisdom and philosophy about our need for religion and God in a vast universe.

It’s interesting as well in that Mike Vogel, who plays Ricky, is a very devout Christian. He didn’t feel as though it was an “attack” in any way on Christianity and he felt like it’s an interesting dialogue about religion, rather than an atheistic, secular attack on religion. I like that view too. I’m not trying to attack religion. I’m trying to examine it and explore why we have it. All the worlds’ religions can’t all be right. They’re questions really, rather than attacks.

Paste: How did SyFy come into the picture, and how has your working relationship been with them?
Graham: I came to the project via the producer Michael De Luca. I think SyFy came to Michael De Luca and said, ‘Could you find someone to adapt this book for us?’ I came in just for a meet-and-greet with him a few years ago. He knew my work and knew I wrote some science fiction for Doctor Who, and that I did Life on Mars. He presented me with the book and it started from there. But I had to go through a process. I had to pitch to SyFy and convince them that I could do this, and that I had a take on it. Making Ricky a farmer and having this Close Encounters of the Third Kind set-up was crucial to my pitch.

I found SyFy terrific to work with because they very much want to bring these stories to the screen and they have the creative courage to do it. They aren’t saying, ‘Change it and make it Star Wars.’ They’re saying, ‘Let’s take Childhood’s End and do Childhood’s End as much as we possibly can.’ We never had a conversation or argument about the ending, or what the Overlords look like. It was just a question of how far could we go, and how much could we do and achieve on our budget.

Paste: [Overlord] Karellen is such an important role and it’s an essential role to cast correctly. I think you found a great actor in Charles Dance. What was it about him that made you decide it needed to be him?
Graham: You only have to be in a room with Charles for 20 seconds to know why he can be Karellen. He’s a lot more down-to-earth than I imagined he’d be—probably because he always plays period roles—but he has this penetrating gaze. When he turns those eyes on you, you’re like “yes sir…no sir.” Right from day one, he was what we wanted. Just the regal nature of his presence. But also the voice. Karellen’s voice is important—he has to be statesman-like, but he’s also got to be a philosopher, as well as a bit cheeky. It’s a lot to pull off and in a way that’s not too idiosyncratic. You need a voice that has a neutrality to it but, at the same time, resonates. And Charles has that perfectly and he does a lot with what seems like a minimal amount of effort.

Paste: You’re responsible for two of my favorite shows of all time—Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Those were shows that had big expectations when it came to landing the endings, which I think you guys executed brilliantly. When it came to Childhood’s End, as a writer, is there a relief to adapting something and having that ending laid out for you,as opposed to having to come to it yourself?
Graham: Oh, absolutely. You embrace the ending and say, ‘It’s what Arthur wants and I’m just here to facilitate.’ It takes that pressure off you. In a funny sort of way [the ending] was the part of the script that had the minimal amount of work for me to do, even though it feels emotionally and physically very complex on screen. It was actually the most straightforward, because you’re just taking the beats from the book. Anyone whoever’s upset with the ending will have to write to Arthur C. Clarke, wherever he now resides (laughs)!

Paste: Granted, this is a standalone miniseries, but how does working in American TV with the likes of Mike De Luca and Akiva Goldsman differ from working on British television?
Graham: It takes some getting used to—there’s some slightly different ways of working in the U.S. as opposed to the U.K. I actually sometimes slightly prefer the way the U.S. works, because there’s this idea that, as a writer, you’re empowered. In the U.K., that process with the showrunner is still a new idea and people over here are a bit more reluctant. Akiva was a terrific boss because he was incredibly supportive. He knew when to give me a good pat on the back and when to give me a good kick up the backside. And the thing about Akiva is that he’s very good at identifying the problems—whether it’s with the script, the editing, the production—but he always offers up a solution. And he never says, ‘I know everything.’ It’s more, ‘Here’s my solution to the problem, if there’s a better solution, let’s do that.’ I learned a lot from him and Mike over the past year.

Paste: Is a project on this big of a scale something you’d like to do again, or would you want to do something a bit smaller next time?
Graham: It’s funny you say that. After I finished Childhood’s End, I came back to the BBC and wrote a radio play (laughs). It was lovely to have this very small thing we recorded in two days. I think I craved that intimacy again. But, no, I love this scale and I’d love to do something on a big-scale again. I’m in talks to do another project in the States and, if it happens, it will have a pretty big scale to it. So I hope to be going back into that maelstrom eventually.

Paste: What was the radio play?
Graham: It’s called The Stone Tape and it’s an adaptation based on a 1972 TV play by Nigel Kneale. It’s a ghost story—a scientific ghost story—set in the 1970s.

Paste: You’ve spent a good deal of your career exploring various forms of sci-fi. What is it about it that you find so enthralling and such a fruitful genre to work in?
Graham: I suppose a lot of my filmography is science fiction to a certain degree. I never really thought of it as such. I don’t see myself as being a predominately science fiction writer. But I love the opportunity, because I think we’re in an era of television where fantasy has really matured on TV. We all know Game of Thrones and how you can tell really great stories with really great characters in that fantasy world. I relish the opportunity for good drama. If it’s interesting to me, it’s interesting—whether it’s fantasy or not. But it’s exciting to play in that science fiction arena. I would really love the opportunity to tackle another science fiction novel at some point in the future. But I won’t count my chickens just yet. If Childhood’s End goes well, I’d love the opportunity to do another one.

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