18 October 2016

Military Sci-Fi Oddities: The 1983 FOREVER WAR Theater Adaptation by Yoel

Thirty-three years ago today at the small Theater in Chicago a play was aired, the theatrical adaptation of Joe Haldeman's 1974 military science fiction novel The Forever War. Haldeman's masterpiece was and still is one of the pillars of MSF and along with its yin-yang counterpart, Star Ships Troopers, it defines the genre for both writers and readers to this day. The theater play, however, was short-lived, it runs for six consecutive weeks and ended without any trace. Giving that the entire lifespan of the show was in the pre-internet days, there was little information known. There is a reason why we call those days the Dark Age or as Nintendo tried to teach us: "Everything not saved will be lost" and it seem that this unique and bold attempt to bring two distance worlds together, the Military SF and theater, was lost, well, forever. Well, all is not lost, after months of assembling bits of information, interviewing members of the stage play and A LOT of googling, I present you, the dedicated readers of FWS, my own show, this MSF Oddities article – The Forever War Theater adaptation!

This article wasn't possible without the help, information and source material provided by the than Organic Theater members who direct and made the theater adaption. I would like to thanks the following individuals:

-Director Stuart Gordon for answering my ever continuing questions regarding the play, script and the difference between the novel and the adaptation.

-Photographer, Jennifer Girard & costume designer Cookie Gluck for their rare photos of the actors, actresses, and stage.

-Morrisminor of the internet blog 'A subtle echo' for helping to obtain rare concept art images of Neal Adams's take on the TV serious adaption of The Forever War.

The Road to the Theater –the Background Story
In the early 80's, the Chicago Public Broadcast Service (PBS) initiate an attempt to capitalized Haldeman's novel, adaptation it into a lavish well-funded four episodes mini-series. The network already had a good record of transforming Sci-Fi novels to the small screen, Ursula LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven adaptation was first aired in 1980 and quickly become one of the most high-rated and successful shows PBS ever made and there were great hopes for similar success with The Forever War shot. Indeed PBS spared no expense, the original budget of mere one million dollars grew into three million; and both Stuart Gordon and Joe Haldeman were hired to direct and advise, respectively, this endeavor. For the role of concept art creation, PBS enlist comic artist Neal Adams and those rare and beautiful concept examples are all that is left of PBS aborted attempt along with being a painful reminder of what could have been.

In January 1981 Ronald Reagan was sworn to the 40th president of the United States and governmental support for public arts was largely redrawn. When PBS funds cut in half, they had to cut down on their productions and the number one item on their budget was The Forever War mini-series...so it had to go. So, it seems that Reagan Administion cost us fans The Forever War TV adaption! Well at least, he beat those bloody Communists, so I guess it makes us even...maybe.
But, while PBS dumped the production, Stuart Gordon wasn't going to let the central idea of transforming that iconic military sci-fi book into a media form. In the early days of the PBS television production when Gordon and Haldeman were discussing the best and most streamlined way to break the novel into four episodes, Joe told Stuart that the last episode will likely be the easiest to shoot and translate into a stage play. Gordon, who was the owner and director of the small fringe theater in Chicago, the Organic Theater, took notice and when PBS pull the plug, he offered Haldeman to do just that, convert the last part of the intended episode into a live stage play for Gordon to produce.As with PBS, Stuart Gordon & Organic Theater weren't strangers to Sci-Fi adaptations, the theater produced and performed a successful science fiction play named Warp! in 1971 which followed by two sequels. Gordon disliked the sterilized depiction of violence used by the popular media, like the then brand new Star Wars. Gordon believed violence should be presented without filters and served as gory, merciless and pointless as he believes it is. Haldeman accepts the challenge and on October 18th, 1983, the Organic Theater present Gordon's and Haldeman's joint project. The Organic Theater run the stage play for six weeks and didn't proceed in the following season. According to Haldeman, financially, was only a mild success returning the production costs but nothing more. With such lukewarm box sales records, the theater never renewed the stage play and the project ended in November of 1983.

The Difference between the Novel and the Theater Play
With any adaptation effort that takes a story from media form to another, there are going to be changes and some of them are not going to be pretty. The same is very true for the effort of translating the classic 1974 to the stage. The major difference between the novel and the live performance is, of course, the fact that the stage play was centered around the last campaign of the novel and starts off with Mandella strike force embarking to Sade-138 campaign, instead of the book, which has the characters in a form of basic training. The events of the stage play pretty much identical to the last part of the novel: 'Major Mandella'. A few detailed however been removed and other been 'dragged' in from earlier two parts of the novel. The most significant change is the absentee of Marygay Potter! No really...there is no mention of her ever exist and when William return to Stargate there is no letter for him from Marygay inform him she is waiting for him on the planet of Middle-Finger. Without her, the theatrical interpretation completely detours from the end of the novel.

The play begins as Mandella regrows an arm after lost it last battle, his 8th campaign. In the novel, Mandella loses a leg not arm and it is after his second campaign to Tet-2. To put this in some perspective, this means that the stage play would be like the reader picking up the 2003 Eos edition of the book and starting around page 176 (out of 277)! The play also relocated the war some 70 years to the future compared to the novel, William been born in the mid 21st century rather than the early 80's of the 20th century. While the soldiers in the novel encounter the Taurans face-to-face at the first campaign to Aleph-1, according to the play the Taurans never been seen by humans, they are always pushing the self-destruct button before defeat, leaving Terran scientists with nothing more than ashes. In the novel Mandella, Alsever and five other soldiers survived the last battle and returning back home. In the play only Mandella & Alsever are the sole survivors of the strike force ground troops.

Lead Actors & Actresses
-Bruce A. Young, actor -- Major William Mandella

-Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, actor -- Lieutenant Diana Alsever

-Gary Houston, actor -- Captain Charlie Moore

-Linda Kimbrough, actor -- Lieutenant Hilleboe

-J. Pat Miller, actor -- Private Graubard

Why is The Forever War Theatrical Adaptation is an MSF Oddity?
A military sci-fi theater play is quite a unique and rare phenomenon with the exception maybe being Jeff Wayne's live performance of his 1978 The War of the Worlds Musical as another example of a military science fiction live performance show. In fact, there aren't many Sci-Fi theaters plays to speak of. To begin with, the mere effort of translating of the book-to-the-stage made The Forever War theatrical adaptation stand out as a bold experiment that made it the first and only time in the entire genre of Military Science Fiction. This makes this 1983 military SF Play wholly unique and there wasn't and still is not any direct competitor or even something to compare the  theatrical adaptation to. A second reason to add this adaptation into the oddities list is the weird way the Organic Theater handle the source material. Organic Theater adaptation approach to the beloved book was to base the stage production on a third of the book, focusing on William Mandella last campaign of the Eternal War: Sade-138. Nowadays when movie producers consider taking a novel through the shock treatment of movie adaptations, they have two options to bring the story to the silver screen.
The first and the most common is to skim down the central story to its bones, removing any sub-plots, keep major characters under-developed and under-explained, dump outright many minor characters and basically speed forward the plot in order to cram a 600-page long book into a 2-hour long film. The best (or should I say worst?) example is 1984 David Lynch's DUNE. Even at a nearly 3-hour runtime of the 1984 DUNE film (2-hours and 17-minutes of the original cinematic release) wasn't nearly enough to fully bring the complex and highly detailed universe of DUNE to the screen. 
It was hoped that what audiences would be seeing was a touted sci-fi epic that would be hopefully compared to Lawerence of Arabia. Instead, audiences were left with was instead a hollow shell of a film, containing scenes, events and peoples taken from the original material and placed tightly with director David Lynch's hopes that the viewers could complete the gaps from their own memory of the novel. That's right, the intention was to have the audience play "fill in the blanks" with a film that cost an estimated $40 million in 1984 money. That is the risk that you take when taking an iconic and beloved book, as the case was with DUNE and translate into a film: alienated the core audience and bewildering new ones.  

The second scheme that the film industry used for the massive undertaking of adapting a book to a film in the past few years is to break the novel into two or more movies in a row. The recent Hobbit movie trilogy is the most noted example with results opposite from the 1984 DUNE experience, the short story of the Hobbit is mercilessly stretched to three long movies. The Gordon and Haldeman take on adapting The Forever War book is quite unique and as far as I remember, no movie adaptation just pick a third of a story with no intention of sequels.

Theater and Science Fiction
The current status why theaters are largely devoid of any Sci-Fi themes seem to universal true, there occasional successful accidents like Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show which arguably could be labeled as Sci-Fi but the broad observation remains unchanged – there is a wide gap between the theater and science fiction. That not always been so, in the beginning of the 20th century before the visual media took off there were several remarkable theater plays presented stories and elements we today recognize as hardcore science fiction.
Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah dealt with the effects of potentially enhanced longevity on society and Capek's Rossumovi UniverzálnĂ­ Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) basically is the proto-ancestor of all robot apocalypse as well as coin the term "Robot" ever since.
But that was a century ago and it's raised the necessary question, what has changed? Or more accurately: why is there no tradition of science fiction theater productions?

Here are a few answers:

1. There might be a lot of Sci-Fi stage plays worldwide and throughout the century, played on the stages of small fringe unheard theaters of that none of us have heard about. Totally unseen to the all-seeing eye of Google.

2. While the theater is essentially elitist medium, Sci-Fi is mainly popular genre, those two groups of Sci-Fi consumers and theatergoers are non-overlapping groups results in Sci-Fi theater be a un-bankable endeavor.

3. Historical accident, when it comes to theater most people, both managers, directors, and customers, tend to stick to what already tried and familiar. There are little to no theater westerners or detective live performance for the simple reason of no one made westerners or detective on stage before and science fiction suffered the same fate.
4. SF nerds - a difficult audience. Let's face it, Science Fiction fans are a very opinionated people! Any SF movie production, both original and adaptation, is been exam under scrutinized eyes and it hard to satisfy all or even few… Any potential SF theater will face similar treatment especially if that theater play is an adaption of some beloved book or TV serious. Just ask any Trekkie what his thoughts about William Shatner's proposed Star Trek: The Musical! and you'll get a full ear! How about HALO as Greek tragedy? How about ALIENS, the opera (it ain't over till the fat Alien queen sings!)?

5. SF movie adaptions in general and MSF in particular relays heavily on current visual miracles of computer technology. Science fiction adaptions are usually expected to be spectacular and in the arena where CGI dominates any cheap trap door and invisible fish wires have unfairly competed.

6. A derivate of previous reason - many SF readers are happily settled with their own image of the book's universe, a product of their own imagining and the way they imagine the characters, scenes & events. Those readers will reject any movie adaption attempt as "force feeding" of their beloved universe through the lenses and imagination of someone else. Other readers can enjoy those adaptations, marvel at the visual and audial wonders the wizards of cinema can produce. Sadly, theater seems to fall between the chairs with the former group of readers reject the theater adaption as the reject the cinema and the latter group views theater special effects as a lukewarm alternative to movies SFX.

My Thoughts
I first began interested in the forgotten theater adaptation two years ago when I read about it in FWS blogpost: "What Is Going On With THE FOREVER WAR Movie?!" as a side note, it mentions the adaptation but without any information about such unique experiment. Google searches result in nothing as well. As months past, I decide to search and find and eventually craft my own article about the theater play.
There two main reasons pushed me to that goal:
For start, I'm a big fan of Haldeman's novel and any chance I've to learn more about his work the merrier it is. As Gordon's script landed in my mail I had a chance to read sort of "director cut" of The Forever War novel features all of Haldeman sharp humor and read the same loved story with slightly different plot and I'm grateful to Mr. Gordon for this exclusive experience.
Second, most of my life a tour to theater seem to be more as a punishment than something I am interested at. Most of my encounters with theater plays were force one so to speak as part of elementary and later high-school education programs. My interest in science fiction never met with any theater play and it appears naturally to assume that theater and SF are two separate realms. The notion that not only it is possible to engage those two together but also it has been done and it was The Forever War adaptation sparked my firmness to write this article. As to criticism regarding the play, there is only one – I felt terribly sorry for the lack of Marygay Potter in the adaptation. Marygay, Mandella's lover and the only one remains alive from his old world he knew and lost, was simply erased from the script.
As sort of compromised Mandella and Alsever chose to retire together in Middle Finger which is a heterosexual reservation planet after she chose to stay and live her entire life with Mandella. Answering her decision the two human clones in Stargate perform a magical hetero-conversion to Dr. Alsever before they teleport both of them to the reservation. In one of the old scanned newspaper, I found during my search for clues I found some too optimistic prediction: "there is the possibility of further dramatization of sci-fi novels if ' The Forever War' turn out to be the breakthrough in bringing sci-fi to the stage"
Sadly that never happen…

Next Time on FWS...
Surrounding us is the vast population of insects of all sizes, shapes, and aggressiveness that creep, fly, and crawl. Given the common human response to insects to run screaming away or kill it. this fosters the insect to be a template for a hostile alien species bent on conquest and control. In the next installment of the continuing FWS serial, "our enemies", we will exploring and explaining hostile insect aliens.


  1. I was in this production and recall it fondly. But I think we all felt that we were competing with movie magic. Thank you for writing about us.

  2. All the thanks goes to you guys that were bold enough to embark on this endeavor and to Yoel for piecing this story together. I am just glad FWS had be the host of this!

  3. An excellent article on an interesting and unique take on a science fiction classic. A shame so much was cut and changed. I look forward to more.

  4. As an aside it's worth mentioning Starstruck by Elaine Lee and Michael W. Kaluta, a Marvel graphic novel based on the stage production of the same name: an off-off Broadway production. Over here in the UK there have been I believe two productions of Return to the Forbidden Planet, stage sequel to the film and obviously inspired by the Tempest.

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  6. Just finished reading the book a few hours ago, and like you, I'm sad to know that they left Marygay out of the theatre production.

    I really liked the novel! I'll have a bit of a look at his other works too I think.

    Do you know what sort of reception the theatre production received, from the general public? Negative or positive? You know, what the theatre goers said about it, not the critics? Is it even possible to find out?

    A very timely post, Cheers :)

  7. The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Cuts out the bull of the book to keep the movie focused.

  8. Excellent article, and really interesting! - Classic SF Stories and More https://www.facebook.com/classicsfstories/

  9. Thanks for very interesting article.

    As to Sci-fi in theaters, adaptations of Stanislaw Lem works are rare but regular features of Polish theaters. Sometime in strange forms of musical or ballet.

    1. Ex: Promo of Solaris adaptation for the theatre