The television adaptation of Robert J. Sawyer's 1999 award-winning novel Flashforward premieres tonight at 8:00 pm EST on ABC (check local listings). As I'm somewhat grateful that Hollywood studios can actually turn to established genre literary sources to produce movies, TV shows or even theme parks based on those sources, the results don't always turn out well.
Sure, 1973's Soylent Green has its moments, but all anybody remembers about that film is the "Big Reveal" about what the food stuff of the title is made of. The book it was based on, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, was a lot more complex and thought-provoking (and better-written) than the film. (See my earlier post on the book here.) That said though, any kind of alteration the television version of Flashforward undergoes can't be any worse than the source material its based on.
My previous experience with Robert J. Sawyer's work was the "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy of novels (Hominids; Humans; and Hybrids; yes, we carry them), which was an account of the first contact between our world and an alternate Earth where Neanderthals became the dominant race. There are some great ideas in this series regarding attitudes towards technological and religious beliefs, but the books are weighed down by shallow characterzation, repetitive dialogue and an insistance on highlighting the mundane inner conversations of the protagonists. Sure, I like to see distinctive characters with recognizable traits that I can either identify with, or at least find interesting (and BTW I've never bought into the idea that protagonists always have to be sympathetic), but not to the point of mind-numbing banality that Sawyer reaches.
The Flashforward novel also has a great premise. In 2009, an experiment unexpectedly results in a worldwide blackout that lasts just over two minutes, resulting in people seeing what the future will look like for them on that particular day in twenty-one years in a vision or "flashforward". (The TV show has adjusted this to six months in the future; maybe the producers are hedging their bets...?) Meanwhile, due to the blackout, numerous disasters have occurred, due to everybody being unconscious (including pilots, automobile drivers, etc.) while having their respective visions. So, you think the book's take on such an event will be the social and political upheaval the world will undergo as a result, right?
Nope. Though he pays some lip service to what's going on in the outside world, Sawyer's principal focus is on the individual plights of the scientists behind the experiment. It's all about them! The overseer of the project, Lloyd Simcoe, worries that he won't wind up with his fiancee but rather with the different (and older) lady in his vision. (In a rather turgid account of his parents' divorce, Lloyd unloads his fear of rejection to his understandably exasperated fiancee.) His equally callow associate Theo, in between worrying about where he stands in the scheme of things (see the opening of Chapter Three for a really good example of an overbaked internal monologue), discovers he'll be murdered on that future date and tries to track down the killer in order to prevent his own death. Meanwhile, two other scientists discover they're meant to be together...
Everything gets resolved by the time the novel gets to the year 2030. By that time, I gave up caring.
Sawyer does shine in the technical description department. The average reader won't have problems comprehending the various scientific theories and principals quoted by Sawyer's characters; in fact, they're the most rousing scenes in the book! (You'll actually want to get a physics textbook to look up stuff like the "Higgs bosom" particle theory.) And during the 2030 climax, there's a welcome suspenseful tone that grabs your attention. But overall, Flashforward the novel wastes any potential it had. Here's hoping the TV series takes a different tact.