Master or Mastered: Machine or Alive

The following essay was a paper I wrote for a class I took called “Science Fiction and American Culture.” It compares Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master” to the movie based on it, The Day the Earth Stood Still. “Farewell to the Master” first appeared in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Stories. You can find a copy of it online on Amazon. The Day the Earth Stood Still was directed by Robert Wise and released in 1951, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. You can find more information at IMDB. You can find this movie in multiple formats on Amazon.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

By 20th Century Fox (20th Century Fox) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Translating the printed word into a visual medium is not always easy. Oftentimes, films based on short stories or novels turn out pretty bad, especially in comparison to the original work (Clan of the Cave Bear and Dune are two that come to mind.) Often what can be written down and be exciting to read becomes boring and dull when placed on the silver screen. Changes have to be made for the story to be entertaining visually. I think The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was a successful translation of Harry Bates short story, “Farewell to the Master.” What follows is my reasoning.

For me the key points in both the short story and the film were: the robot, the spaceship, and Washington, DC.

The Robot

The robot played a much more important role in the short story than it did in the film. In both the short story and the film it was a symbol of raw, unadulterated, and incomprehensible power. In an effort to render Gnut harmless, the scientists in the short story “sent electrical currents of tremendous voltages and amperages through him. They applied terrific heat to all parts of his metal shell. They immersed him for days in gases and acids and strongly corroding solutions, and they … bombarded him with every known kind of ray.”

In the movie, this wasn’t done, but in both, the robot was encased in a clear block of solid plastic or glass-like material. And in both the short story and the film, the robot broke free of this prison.

The robot’s name changed from story to film, I think, was a good move. When I read the word “Gnut” I get a different image than if I just heard it. In the movie, “Gnut” would have sounded more like “newt,” which doesn’t imply the same sense of the unknown. “Gort” was appropriate because there is not a common word, “gort,” that means something in English. It sounds alien.

The Spaceship

The spaceship in the film was much how I imagined it when I read the story. It was smooth and sleek. It looked like flying saucers are purported to look. “No slightest break or crack marred the perfect smoothness of the ship’s curving ovoid surface,” wrote Bates.

The spaceship in the movie was similar, as Sobchack (1987) describes, “treated as a thing of beauty, the … flying saucer … is so pure in line, so ascetically designed … that it concretizes the Platonic virtues of clarity, sanity, reason — virtues sadly lacking in the Washington, D.C., mise en scene in which the saucer comes to rest.” (p. 77.)

Washington, D.C.

The mise en scene, so to speak, for the short story was more the Smithsonian museum than Washington, D.C. However, in both versions, the importance of the place is not necessarily as important as what those places represent.

Washington, D.C., is a place where the primary government of a major world power rests. It is a town that is relatively easy to get around in. It seems a logical place for an alien to land. It also has a large press population and can be considered the seat of American patriotism.

In the story, these aspects of locale took more of a back seat than in the film. In the film, Arlington Cemetery was an important symbol of humankind’s petty wars. The “great words” of Lincoln served as a catalyst to spur Klaatu on to his next contact, Dr. Bernhardt. It would be difficult to find such commonly known symbols in any other town.

What the Printed Word Can Do that Film Can’t

“Bates’ story is a hoary piece of work when reading today and Edmund H. North’s screenplay was a great improvement on it.” (Brosnan, 1978, p. 85.)

I disagree with this statement. I found the story to be quite riveting and tense. I wanted to keep reading. I felt the fear that Cliff felt, as well as his curiosity. However, I also agree that the screenplay was an improvement for the screen. Bates’ story, as written, would have been a boring movie. The tension was more psychological than visual. It would have been very difficult to get the same emotional impact on screen as there was in the written story.

What Film Can Do that the Printed Word Can’t

I also disagree with Brosnan’s comment about the interior of the ship: “though its interior was a disappointment and showing it destroyed the essential mystery of the craft.” (p. 84.) I thought the use of lighting (compounded by the moody music by Bernard Herman) was quite effective. It adequately gave the impression of sterile science, of the frightening unknown, and of mysterious, alien origin.

The sound is an added effect available to film that the printed work cannot imitate. The music track for this movie was very effective — if not a bit too loud at times. It set the mood of the movie as a whole, as well as for each scene. It made benign images seem terrifying.


The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 Movie Poster

By Source, Fair use, Link

What impressed me the most about both the story and the movie was the concept of the robot. In the short story, Gnut was another race. He was another form of life incomprehensible to people with carbon-based biases. He was the “master” in the sense that he was more technologically, and maybe even emotionally, evolved than Klaatu. The story implied, for me, that Klaatu was like a beloved pet. Gnut’s efforts to bring Klaatu back were reminiscent of those many times when I rushed my pet rat to the veterinarian because she was ill. My pet was a life dependent on me and I felt responsible for her. I imagine that Gnut felt the same way about Klaatu, that Gnut felt guilty of putting Klaatu in a situation where he was unable to protect him.

I disagree that this story, and the film as well, was pessimistic; that it portrayed a “brave new world run by robots,” as Healy and McComas (1945) suggested. Brosnan (1978) said that “the idea of placing our basic human rights in the custody of a machine, or any ‘superior force’, is not only an admission of defeat but also one which smacks of totalitarianism.” (p. 84.) I think they missed the point. In the story, Gnut was another form of life. Nowhere in the story does Klaatu say that Gnut was manufactured. However, in the movie, Klaatu does say that Gort was made — but to free them. To say that relegating police authority to robots is like acquiescing to totalitarianism is like saying the mechanization of production is also that.

Humanity has always sought for easier and faster ways to do things, thus freeing up more time for leisure. Since crime threatens leisure time, as well as other things, it makes sense to mechanize a method for preventing it as well.