Why Hollywood is Ignoring Octavia Butler (and Other) SF Writers, Redux

18210405973_c003564ecb_bI wanted to address one of the stories in this morning’s link post.

Writing for Fusion, Shawn Taylor tries to argue that Hollywood (and the tv studios) is taking special care to ignore the works of Octavia Butler, a black SF author. While that is true to a degree (there is a racial bias in tv and movies, even in 2016), my problem with Taylor is that his premise stinks:

Here is a brief survey of the current field of science fiction adapted to film. Jules Vern over 140 adaptations. H.G. Wells? Over 80. Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson have over 70 each. Mary Shelley has been adapted close to 60 times. Michael Crichton and Philip K. Dick, both in the 20s. We haven’t even gotten to Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or the rest of the old guard science fiction canon. What do they have in common? They are all white, and aside from Shelley, they are all male. While these authors aren’t telling the same story, their stories have similar themes, color and cultural palettes.

With all of the multiple adaptations of the aforementioned authors, why can’t Hollywood make any space for Octavia Estelle Butler? It boggles the mind that an author whose work is remarkably suited for film and television has been made to sit at the back of the science fiction adaptation bus.

I am no fan of the “white man saves the world” trope as exhibited by movies like World War Z and Interstellar, or the way Hollywood white-washes stories like The Last Airbender, Akira, or Ghost in the Shell, but Taylor’s examples still stink.

All of the authors he cites may be white, but that is about all they have in common. The reason their works were adapted was not that they are white.

  • Verne, Wells, and Shelley each have a lot of adaptations for the same reason that Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted multiple times: their works are in the public domain.
  • Matheson, Bradbury, and Ellison all lived and worked in and around the studios in southern California, and both Ellison and Matheson wrote numerous scripts for the studios.
  • Crichton mostly wrote medical thrillers which were easy to adapt, and he also wrote movie scripts as well.

So for most of the authors mentioned, it’s easy to see why so many of their works have been adapted. And while I can’t explain why so many Philip K. Dick titles have been adapted, I would point that neither Asimov nor Heinlein have had much luck in getting their works adapted for the big screen.

I don’t know of any Asimov adaptations (the Will Smith movie doesn’t count) and of the three adapted Heinlein works only one (Predestination) is worth mentioning – and it didn’t come from Hollywood.

To put it simply, Taylor’s argument that Butler is being singly ignored is sloppy and poorly researched.

He should have made the argument that Matheson, Bradbury, Ellison, and Crichton each had the field tilted in their favor in ways denied to Butler because she was black and a woman.

That point would be hard to dispute, given Hollywood’s current and past demographics.

But to claim that all white authors have more access? That claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

image by dotun55

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Luca Albani6 July, 2016

    Two more (forgettable?) Asimov adaptations: Nightfall and Bicentennial Man 😉 Anyway it seems impossible for me to understand why the Foundation series has not been developed yet as a TV series, please Jonathan Nolan hurry up!

    1. Nate Hoffelder6 July, 2016

      I forgot BC Man, but never saw Nightfall. I’m going to go check it out (I’ve heard it’s terrible).

      1. Fjtorres6 July, 2016

        Your eyeballs will never forgive you. It is worse than the Tracy Lords/Antonio Sabato PRINCESS OF MARS.

        Not even late night will touch that borefest.

        1. Nate Hoffelder6 July, 2016

          I saw the trailer – or about half of it.

          I am not watching the rest.

          1. Fjtorres6 July, 2016

            Wise. It is on the short list for worst movie ever.

  2. Fjtorres6 July, 2016

    The main problem with SF is that Hollywood has a very low opinion of the viewing public. So they tend to go for short, simple, and “accessible” material. That they can adapt to their “vision” and politics without fans griping. Which is something “the literature of ideas” rarely is. Not the really good stuff.

    They go after Dick because a lot of his stuff is all of the above: short stories and high-concept stuff they can twist beyond recognition without much pushback.

  3. Syn6 July, 2016

    Alexander Dumas is also in public domain and his works ha e been on the big and little screen numerous times. I was probably in my 30’s before I knrw he was black. Certainly nothing i learned in school.

    1. Nate Hoffelder6 July, 2016

      Good point!

    2. Moriah6 July, 2016


    3. Redrum7 July, 2016

      He was mixed race.

    4. Sergegobli7 July, 2016

      He is also one of the very few authors writing in French that wrote fun stories. He is way more fun than the English language authors of the period and later, though a bit long. An author way ahead of his time and very talented. His stuff is addictive and witty, which is unusual for French literature which tends to be be pompous and self-important. I admit I have not tried Verne.

      1. Fjtorres7 July, 2016

        He was James Patterson before James Patterson.
        Just ask Auguste Maquet, among others.


  4. poiboy6 July, 2016

    “I am no fan of the “white man saves the world” trope as exhibited by movies like World War Z..”

    the sad thing is that the book World War Z had a solid number of heroic people of colour/non-white races. too bad the movie was not even in the same realm as the book (quality and content).

  5. DavidW7 July, 2016

    When it comes to sf, Hollywood makes pg-13 action movies for the most part. Butler’s novels don’t fit that niche. The biggest problem with the article is the assumption made that Hollywood needs to recognize literary writers. Hollywood studios are not the gate keepers for literature.


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