A FRAMEWORK FOR FILMING BASIL COPPER'S THE GREAT WHITE SPACE

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

As much as I enjoy Basil Copper's Lovecraftian opus The Great White Space, my relationship to it has often partaken of the love-hate variety. That statement misleads somewhat, for while the word "love" serves me well, "hate" is much too strong in this context. Still, as my previous essay on that novel shows, I recognize certain obvious weaknesses or curious quirks in that work which unnecessarily detract from its extremely high quality. As a result, I've long harbored the fantasy of rewriting the story my own way, "correcting" what doesn't appeal to me, accentuating the parts that do.

Of course I'm never going to do that. Such a project would constitute approximately 2/3 pure plagiarism, at a minimum, and even if I sneaked past that no one in the world would pay me for it. The writing racket is tough enough as it is, without undertaking a lengthy literary assignment guaranteed to provide no remuneration. So, barring the generation of sufficient independent wealth that I could labor solely for my own amusement, it won't happen.

However, as long as I'm on the subject of sheer fantasy, I imagine the possibility that a motion picture might be developed from The Great White Space. I guess that won't be my doing, yet I can conceive of such a film; ponder its required attributes; speculate as to scriptural alterations designed to render it suitable as a mass market presentation, and in the process tidy up some of the loose ends I've discussed before.

General Plot

This stands as is. It must, for it's the story that grips me so. I like it, it gives me a kick to read it-- multiple times-- I want to see it on the screen. Not for me the junked story, with a stripped title plastered onto another, usually moronically generic or stupidly watered down script... the kind of thing we've gotten too many times from cinematic Lovecraftian treatments. So it goes like this: hero meets the leader of the expedition, visits the headquarters where he learns the bare bones, the expedition charges off into the blue, amidst exotic scenes ventures toward and into the realm of wilderness, then into horrific underground regions, fright piling on scare until the shattering denouement. To this point readers of the book know perfectly well what I mean.

Temporal Setting

Basil Copper offers The Great White Space as a period piece, setting it in the 1930s within Lovecraft's literary world. Mythos fans appreciate that, but it need not be so. Nothing in the story absolutely demands a particular location in time. If, in the interests of economy, a wily movie-maker chose to "update" the tale, I have no objection. I qualify "update" because I don't, in any fashion, allow for asinine modernisms or, worse, post-modernisms, of the sort we tediously find in the plethora of insipid movie remakes or treatments of literary classics dumped on us these days. Mr. Copper, I suspect, would rebel at this, and if he didn't, I would. I don't mean anything like that, merely "now" rather than "then". If it mattered, I could live with that much.

I don't, however, require it, and given my druthers would prefer to retain the period setting. I am a Lovecraft fan, the book was written for fans like me, and to the extent possible I want a film that caters to the same audience. I enjoy period stories, perhaps especially those grounded in the '20s and '30s (and yes, Mr. Holmes, the late Victorian era as well), and this one, to the extent period matters, satisfies me as is. We have a major scene at an old English estate, with all the trappings, we have the early portions of the expedition's trek taking place against backdrops-- Zak, Nylstrom, and the wild lands round about-- torn from old copies of National Geographic. I like that. A few sets, a few miniatures, a few stock exteriors would do the job. Why not?

Rationale For the Story

This has to be provided in a fashion more coherent than found in the novel. Period piece or not, I want immediate understanding of the goals of the expedition, and for that matter of the ramifications of its findings. Why is all this-- ostensibly, at least-- taking place? There should be no doubt in the viewer's mind, early on, what it's all about. If we retain the '30s setting, I advocate a simple journey of discovery; Scarsdale has discovered hints and clues to a marvel, wishes to investigate like any strong-willed old-fashioned explorer. In that case I see him as Captain Scott, daring all to confront the unknown. If modernized, the original story's aspect of approaching peril will serve nicely; "We must plumb the mystery of The Great White Space at all costs, before it is too late". This Scarsdale becomes the clinical scientist wrestling with unusual data. Take your pick.

Equipage

Give me the super-tech tractors, the assortment of heavy weaponry from the novel, and throw in a sampling of arcane scientific devices. That stuff sells, so sell it! Let's be sure it's all put to use, too, in spectacular fashion. Explosions, flashing lights, and roaring motors don't harm the story, may pacify certain segments of the audience. I'm good with that.

The Underground World

After our heroes reach the outer portal, their subsequent venturing must be presented in visual form as lurid and spooky as possible; these, and "awesome" as well, as Lovecraft would understand the term. The novel achieves this magnificently-- I consider it the strongest aspect of Copper's work-- and I don't want to lose one jot of its power. I want the audience shuddering in the black tunnels, gasping at the inner twilight caverns, oppressed by the weird relics of lost antiquity, staggered by The Great White Space. This is a concern for art designers and special effects whizzes. I suffer from a prejudice which may not be helpful in this respect: I don't care for computer imagery. A deadly confession indeed, these days! One that, perhaps, sets me beyond the pale? If so, I plead guilty. They look plasticky to me, and cheap, despite the great technical skill invested in them. I prefer the exotic landscapes fabricated for classic movies such as Die Nibelungen, the original King Kong, or Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island; dreamy vistas that transcend reality. I want the subterranean realm of the Old Ones to look like those. Is that, must that be, an impossible request?

The Climax

Okay, here we have our work cut out for us. There's no way the conclusion can stand as written. It leaves too many questions, will excite too many querulous carps from even dedicated viewers. We need to do something to shake up that ending.

The first item on the agenda is how much to retain. In the book the narrator is the sole survivor, which means everybody else gets bumped off, either in their deliciously original ways, or in some other. Is that necessary? The novel, after all, ends fairly abruptly with the attaining of The Great White Space, with the narrator's lonely escape from the underground vastness only summarily described. Compare that to Hodgson's plotting of The Night Land, in which the return journey is as important to the tale as the outward trek. Are there possibilities here for a major rewrite? Might our characters, having reached their goal, find their troubles only beginning, rather than gruesomely ending? A finish as an "escape" story could work well cinematically. That would require, obviously, a lot of tinkering.

Forget that for now, and consider Scarsdale's unique fate. If that be retained as is, then we need a great deal more foreshadowing to lead up to and sustain that dread moment. It has to be logically justified by all that has gone before. Again, this entails plenty of reworking. We keep the background information pertaining to Scarsdale's previous abortive journey, then wrap him and certain actions of his in mystery. What's he up to behind the backs of his colleagues? What secret does he hide? We get to the end and, "Oh, so that's what he's all about! Ooh, scary!"

That does not appeal to me. I find the out of the blue Scarsdale revelation to be the weakest logical point in the book, undercutting the wonderful character of the man; also, unlike many fans of spooky stories, I'm not enamored of the sudden "Boo!" finish. That Professor Scarsdale should be destroyed by his obsession, that he should be "taken over", become "ONE OF THEM"!, I appreciate, but that should be his climax, not the story's. I lean more toward the escape motif, in which one or more characters struggle valiantly to flee the menace, having abandoned Scarsdale and others when they're lost to mankind, having been absorbed or united with the Old Ones. Something could be made of that union, its wonder and horror, the benefits and dangers of contact.

By the way, one of the biggest factors in the climax must be the creation on screen of The Great White Space itself. The description in the story is striking, if vague, leaving much to the imagination. That's good, in a book. The movie should present an especially striking image, a weird light show radiating from absolute darkness, framed by creepy cavern scenery. I want it strange, frightening, stunning.

The Old Ones

Copper's book delivers to the reader a freakish menagerie of beasties, and reading between the lines one may discern different types. The bat-winged things seem to be putrid, blood-thirsty animals; the grasshopper men maybe (I'm stretching here) servitors of greater masters; the monadelphous blobs the true Old Ones, movers and shakers of the universe, the ones lying behind all the mystery. In the novel the latter come across as surprisingly tame: loathsome, definitely, but dangerous only en masse. A handful of amateurs with a bagful of grenades are just barely unable to hold off the Lords of the Cosmos. I'd think a squad of marines could mop them up before lunch. That is not right. The Old Ones are-- at least in theory, since we know nothing of their motivations-- capable of conquering or destroying the world. Shouldn't they be portrayed as utterly overwhelming, impossible to withstand?

So say I. Therefore I propose a division of labors. Bat-winged monstrosities, perhaps the grasshopper things, constitute the physical threats to the body; the actual Old Ones, on the other hand, must imperil the psyche or the soul. In the book, the narrator Plowright occasionally opines that the Old Ones may be able to reach out with their mystic powers to influence events. I expand on that kernel. Their threat, then, is to the mind, acting via pure alien thought from well beyond grenade range to pluck at the brains of our heroes, some of whom are more susceptible to the insidious impulses. This way we can have our big fight, with guns blasting, caverns echoing to shots and explosions, a monster or three biting the dust, but in the end these puerile efforts, in typical Lovecraftian fashion, count for nothing, as the really dire danger beams through the aether from minds vastly beyond our own, almost impossible to repel.

Accept this as one possibility among many. Several related formulations occur to me. From the book I'm also keen on the notion of human beings, having been apparently eaten, also somehow swallowed alive into the entities, a concept which also appears in Copper's fiendish futuristic tale "The Flabby Men". It would be easy to slip that in as well, providing that much more "pleasing terror" to the audience.

Incidents

Here I wish to deal with specific nodules of plot. Three occur to me immediately: 1) the significance of Zalor; 2) the underground lake; 3) the city of Croth and its subsidiary archeological site of the embalming gallery.

1) Zalor the dwarf intrigues me, but in the end he doesn't count for much in the story, serving only to prove that some men, for wholly unknown reasons, cooperate to a wholly unknown degree with the Old Ones, and that such cooperation doesn't guarantee safety. Unfortunately the character is undeveloped; Zalor never speaks to us, we never learn what is on his mind. What scheme lies behind his attempted sabotage? Are he and the Mir of Zak leagued together? In the novel Scarsdale refers to previous treachery, without specifying where it occurred. All concerned, though, are hazily suspicious of the folk in Zak. More could be made of these matters. I think more emphasis given to the possible reasons for Zalor's grisly demise would prove helpful, too.

2) The tunnels and chambers of the subterranean demesne seem entirely lifeless and abandoned, which is why sounds of flapping wings and the husk of a dead dwarf cause such foreboding thrills, but I casually wonder if the sterile lake carries this too far. A murky lake miles beneath the surface of the earth practically screams for an "event", if nothing more than suggestive bubbles or a furtive stirring of the waters. I don't insist on this-- the deadness of it all hits home strongly-- but I throw it out as an idea.

3) Quite a bit is made of the embalming gallery, which is good-- I believe more discussion of its implications would be in order-- yet the primordial city of Croth, the truly gigantic archeological find of the expedition, is surprisingly passed off in rather summary fashion. Indeed, if one calculates the chronology of the book, our heroes only remain there a few productive hours, moving on briskly after the merest sampling of its mysteries. I argue that Croth should be the major set piece of the movie. So much can be made of its architecture, its optically twisted vistas, and most importantly the ancient storehouses of knowledge it contains. Here, through study and scrutiny by the characters, the viewers may begin to get a genuine glimmering of the horrors to follow.

In Croth the expedition first runs head on into direct evidence of something still existing within those gloomy caverns. Maybe a lot more should be made of that. Perhaps, even-- just a thought!-- that is where the big battle should take place, reserving The Great White Space for more ethereal torments. A running fight among the weird structures of Croth would look morbidly grand on screen.

Dramatis Personae

Professor Scarsdale makes for a great character, and I want him retained pretty much as is. He's the traditional know it all scientist, without the annoying smugness often written into such parts. Van Damm suits me as well, although his bickering with Scarsdale should, in the motion picture version, take more concrete form. Through their friendly arguments the viewers can pick up useful plot information. Perhaps the friendship should be strained at whiles, with Van Damm increasingly perturbed by the daring of Scarsdale's conceptions. There's a possibility, fairly in accord with the book. Prescott is something of a nonentity, but he fulfills decently the role of the quiet, by the book scientist, a part which belongs in this film. Holden is similar, but I like him particularly because he is Copper's best approximation of the typical Lovecraftian hero, the earnest fellow who means well but is gradually ground down by the nightmares he must constantly face. I'd make much-- more-- of his going to pieces.

Zalor I've already discussed. I want him, only fleshed out, made more a contributor to the intricacies of the plot. Here I offer a sound way of handling that: Zalor remains with the expedition for much longer than he does in the book, interacts freely with the other characters, provides more information, at least via hints and portentous declamations, for the benefit of the viewer. Zalor knows more than he is telling-- his curious comments and sneering demeanor tell us that much-- may have an evil agenda of his own, too. Sabotage may play a part, or he acts to lure our heroes into danger. I say Zalor sticks with them all the way into the long tunnel, at least, perhaps there to break away from the group, emitting strangely ecstatic cries, dashes joyously into the darkness, his disappearance shortly punctuated by a distant shriek. Then his remnants can be found as in the novel; or variations on this theme. He could go all the way, or perish hideously in Croth once his usefulness to the Old Ones has ended. Whatever the case, let's make the most of this villainous character.

Now we come to Plowright. Readers of my essay on The Great White Space know what is coming. I don't care for the guy, consider him, as a character, a drag on the story. Mind you, as the narrator of a book he works well-- gets by, anyway-- but as a character, or (God help us) anything resembling a hero he just doesn't cut it. Copper uses him in Lovecraftian fashion, when Holden already fills those shoes better. The biggest trouble with Plowright (besides his uninspiring name) is that he's awkwardly presented to us as one character, then portrayed as another. Is he the strong, thoughtful, dependable sort, the right arm of the expedition, or a weak-kneed dolt?

In the movie he must be the former. He should be played by Rock Hudson, not by Wally Cox. Plowright, or whatever we call him, must be the sympathetic focus of the story. We follow him, we see through his eyes, we know what he knows... and he speaks for us. For the film, I say this characterization is mandatory. Otherwise, we could dispense with him altogether. A movie, after all, doesn't require a narrator.

It does require a character as focus. That, then, will be Plowright. He's strong, tough, tough-minded, querulous, maybe a bit of a trouble-maker (if only because he won't be fobbed off with banal responses and half explanations), but open to ideas if presented at his avowedly ignorant level. We only know what he knows, so occasions must be devised for his questions and receipt of pertinent replies. That should go back to the beginning of the story: Plowright ought to be properly skeptical of what he's told, must press upon Scarsdale the kinds of questions the audience will surely be asking. In return he gets, not a total telegraphing of what's to come, yet enough to inflame anticipation. There will then be opportunities for Plowright to admit, perhaps grudgingly, "You were right, Professor. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."

This Plowright isn't a wimp, nor a simp. He doesn't take any crap from anyone (just about everybody in the novel talks down to him, and he lets them get away with it), but he's a good-natured fellow, as well as a fine buddy to have at hand during an emergency. This Plowright knows how to drive, how to fire a gun; given his status as first-class photographer-- his role in the book-- I think he should be generally proficient technically. He really ought to know how to handle himself in a crisis. As radical as these alterations of Plowright seem, its fair to point out that I'm simply bringing him into line with the majority of legitimate heroes in Basil Copper's stories.

Musings on a plot point: possibly Plowright crumbles toward the end, as the horrors mount up beyond human endurance. I'm not recommending this, for it could still weaken the character unnecessarily, but if so, it should be a case of a well defined strong character wearing down or snapping under strain, not one wobbly from birth.

Who Is This Who Is Coming?

Wait a minute, there's somebody missing from this cast of characters. I've looked high and low, but I can't find this person anywhere. For heaven's sake, where's the girl?

Oh, but this is a Lovecraftian story, and they don't have girls. Well, those written by Lovecraft certainly don't, not even when they should (what a cheat we get from "The Thing On the Doorstep"), but that's more a flaw in Lovecraft than an ironclad rule. Besides, we're considering the movie version. In order to pitch this idea to Hollywood, it better have a pretty girl in it, and the scantily clad chirpies of Zak don't cut it.

Copper follows the olden form of his sexually cramped mentor in the novel, but that's not his natural way, no indeed. His preferred format is entirely the reverse. One of the elements I enjoy most about Copper's period tales are the plethora of lovely, bouncy young ladies who enliven them. In this dreary, politically correct world of ours, I thank him for Pamela Gordon, Fiona Hammond, Nadia Homolky, Angela Meredith, Sarah Purvis, and his flock of other engaging heroines (not to mention the alluring Ravenna Karolides!), all of whom I would very much like to meet. The Great White Space suffers for the lack.

To be fair, a woman, in order to enter into this stag fraternity, has to be shoehorned in, and whatever plot mechanism we employ is bound to feel clumsy. I don't care, I want her anyway. Since I'm not choosy, I advocate without apology one of the oldest methods, the sort that would make Lovecraft blush: the girl is somebody's daughter, who insists on tagging along, despite protests and threats. Lord, how often have we seen that one? Fine, this is one more. I say she's Scarsdale's daughter! There's a twist on the professor's character. Although he objects to her coming, he's taught her a lot, she can contribute, she asks the right questions more often than most, she's great to look at, and Plowright can rescue her.

Ah, the final indignity to the master's memory: romance. Indeed, she and Plowright must form a team of their own before the end of the film, possibly defying Scarsdale in the process, or not. The "escape" conclusion would then likely revolve about her and Plowright's attempt to avoid death or worse after everybody else has been obliterated.

Not to press a point, but if the concept of "Scarsdale's secret" is retained, then his daughter will provide excellent moments of foreshadowing. "Something is wrong with Father"; "He isn't like himself"; "He's acted strangely ever since..." Better she give us this, if need be, than anyone else. It means more coming from her, and her comments may further excite Plowright's suspicions.

If the above doesn't suit, what about those Zak chirpies? We can spin another character from scratch; the Mir's daughter, let's say, lovely, exotic, more modestly attired than the book indicates, knowledgeable of her people's weird legends, which grim stories prove useful to the expedition. I prefer the first option, will readily accept this one.

Putting Together the Pieces

Finally I offer a sample synopsis of the film, one amenable to much modification. Very little of this need be considered set in hammer-busting stone, although I think most of these elements would factor in the ultimate version. It goes like this, broken down into the major scenes:

1) The Meeting: Plowright, summoned by Scarsdale, discusses the vaguely described forthcoming expedition. Plowright, intrigued, agrees to join Scarsdale at his headquarters.

2) The Pines: At Scarsdale's rented estate Plowright meets the principals, including the wonderful daughter, learns enough of the expedition's goals to fire his interest, agrees to join. Concise images of preparation, hints of mystery, follow.

3) Zak: After quick images of travel, the team arrive in Zak, meet the Mir, pick up Zalor. Plowright distrusts the dwarf from the first.

4) Nylstrom: Attempted sabotage, perpetrator unknown, although Plowright suspects Zalor.

5) The Overland Journey: the expedition drives across the Plain of Darkness and into the Black Mountains, completely disconnecting from civilization before, through Zalor's aid, they reach the amazing portal to the caverns.

6) The Tunnel: The expedition drives endlessly into the dark, Zalor more and more excited, for mysterious reasons, about an event he shortly expects. Then he loses control, demands they stop, jumps out and dashes into the gloom, screaming joyously to his unseen masters. The others hear a shriek. Later they find Zalor's body, its condition sickeningly suggestive of lurking, invisible danger. Holden nearly collapses from shock. Van Damm mysteriously speculates that Zalor, by drawing them into the subterranean zone, has served his purpose to those unknown masters.

7) The Lake: They arrive at the twilit cavern, gaze upon the sunless sea, prepare to cross. They first hear the pulsation as they paddle into the mist. Having attained the far side, they make ready for hard marching of unknown duration.

8) The Embalming Gallery: This plays out pretty much as in the book, with more evidence provided the audience as to its potential meaning.

9) Croth: This penultimate stage of their journey becomes a major set piece, lavishly visualized, logically embedded into the plot. Croth stands at the edge of the strangest of the strange; everything there is warped and eerie.

In Croth comes first outright contact with living horrors, in Croth commences the battle. Holden and Prescott are picked off here, but the bat-winged things (and the grasshopper men?) are messily repelled.

10) The Great White Space: The expedition comes to a cataclysmic end when Scarsdale and Van Damm, perhaps to varying degrees of willingness, are drawn in by the Old Ones and translated out of known space forever, last appearing as grotesque, crazily smiling appendages of those entities. Plowright and the girl manage to break free, flee madly from that freakishly enticing and wholly menacing place.

11) Finale: The two survivors retreat unmolested as far as Croth, where one last evil surprise awaits: a sucking trunk snaking around a curiously angled corner after the girl. Plowright dispatches this lone Guardian, after which quick images show them re-crossing the lake, revving up a tractor and racing away. Re-emergence into sunlight offers a moment for regrets, contemplation of their awesome experience, wonder at what the future will bring. Then they head for the distant realm of human civilization.

Something like this sounds like a pretty good movie to me. It would cost a few bucks, need to be played straight to avoid camp, with emphasis on mood and imagery. It's doable. The Great White Space by Basil Copper provides the strong basis for what could be a superb cinematic extravaganza, one that would pack the theaters. I'll line up to buy a ticket!


Return to Essays Page