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How Showtime's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' Updates Walter Tevis' Classic Tale

Showtime's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' adaptation tackles climate change themes while centering characters of color in the story.
by Whitney Friedlander — 
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Naomie Harris and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'

Showtime

Not all projects need remakes. And Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet knew that The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film adaptation of Walter Tevis' science fiction novel, was one of them. 

Through the eyes of David Bowie's alien who crash-lands on Earth in order to bring water back to his drought-stricken planet, that original adaptation explored themes of addiction, "otherness," religion, and the idea of how easy it can be to get distracted from one's main purpose.

Clearly, not much has changed since the film's release in 1976.

So, for their Showtime series of the same name, the writing-producing team also known for such projects as CBS' Clarice and several of Paramount+'s Star Trek series, wanted to not to reboot, but to reimagine, broadening the scope of the story. 

This story focuses on Chiwetel Ejiofor's alien who eventually adopts the human name Faraday. He, too, crash-lands on our planet and is here to fix the water-shortage problem his predecessor couldn't solve 45 years ago — although the opening scene's flash-forward might suggest he finds his own form of distractions. For now, and for reasons unclear to both of them, he's also been instructed to seek the help of Justin Falls (Naomie Harris), a single mom and a caretaker to her father Josiah (Clarke Peters), who is barely making ends meet despite being much more talented than even she knows. A road trip ensues.

Here, Lumet and Kurtzman talk to Metacritic about the themes of their series and the importance of science fiction in telling audiences things that they may not want to hear.

How do you continue the story started by an author who, unfortunately, has passed away? And a film whose star and director have also died? You can't get their blessing on it. Does that make things easier because you don't have to answer to anyone?

Jenny Lumet: We knew that we were taking on something that people were really committed to and that people really loved. And that can be a really scary situation. This is going to sound cheesy, but it's true. Those artists who contributed to the book and the movie — all of them [film director] Nicolas Roeg, Walter Tevis, and David Bowie — we tried to be as brave as they were and as curious as they were and as generous as they were. Both of those pieces of work were seminal and we didn't want to change them. We just really tried to be brave and honor the spirit of those folks who made that art.

This series is science fiction and about people from other planets. But it also talks about such real-world topics as climate change and water shortages that are obviously a big part of the conversation now. But I don't know if it was when Tevis wrote the book, which was published in 1963.

Alex Kurtzman: It was, actually. Great science fiction tends to be prescient in that it's reflecting. Even if you're writing a story that takes place in the future, you're really writing about now. Unfortunately, we've been dealing with the same problems since he wrote the novel. We've come so far, and yet, not far enough. We started writing the script in 2018. And it went through many different iterations. But I think that we're always looking to reflect the world around us in some way. 

The nature of this particular material asks these huge questions: How did we get to this place as a species? What choices have we made that got us here? What choices are we going to make? What will our future be? Who's on what side of that line? How are all the things that are supposedly connecting us right now actually also serving to divide us so gravely?

You've also made a point of casting people of color in the lead roles, which automatically brings up another set of issues that the movie didn't address. A Black man (Ejiofor's Faraday) wandering naked through foreign-to-him lands is going to be received quite differently than someone who looks like David Bowie.

J.L.: There are three answers to that question. When Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris and Clarke Peters want to do your script, you just kind of say, "Thank you very much" and get out of the way. So, that's the first answer. The second answer is we really embraced [Harris'] character of Justin Falls first. She's human and we understood her. We knew that she had to be a woman of color because I'll make the argument that women of color are one of the most dangerous populaces on the planet. And we wanted that perspective. And if I were coming from outer space, I would speak to the most vulnerable to get a true idea of what humanity is all about. The third answer to that question is every time you see a person of color on television, it becomes less remarkable that there's a person of color on television — especially in genre. And that's the team we play on.

But you do specifically address race in the show. Faraday is beaten up and held at gunpoint by white people.

J.L.: We didn't necessarily want to make an eat-your-vegetables kind of show, but the day-to-day experience of walking around and brown skin is more dangerous. Sh-- happens to you because of other people. He's quite innocent to the ways of Earth when we meet him. So, we didn't want to make a race-first story. But this is the experience every day.

You've also cast Bill Nighy as Thomas Jerome Newton, the lead character from the book and the film. Were you actively looking for someone who could resemble David Bowie?

J.L.: Replacing David Bowie would have been the kiss of death. There is no one like him.  He was a miracle and a unicorn and there's one man like that. However, I now believe that we can absolutely say that about Bill Nighy. 

There is a lot of cursing on this show. Why was that decided on? Obviously, this is something you can't do on broadcast TV.

A.K.: I think it's probably 20 years of pent-up [frustration about] not being able to swear on television.  But in some ways, the answer to this question is very similar to the answer to the question you just asked before, which is, we were looking to reflect reality in many ways. And people swear. They swear all the time. You just don't see it on television. 

Faraday is learning English, and eventually other languages, at a rapid rate. Was there a discussion of how fast he'd learn to speak and learn to enunciate certain words?

A.K.: Chiwetel and I worked very closely on every little micro nuance of Faraday's evolution from the pilot all the way through to the finale. And you'll see, over the course of the season, that the evolution is very carefully calibrated per episode. He can process things with, let's say, with the speed of a card-shuffling machine in Vegas. He's an extraordinary mimic — he can mimic anything — but mimicking is not the same thing as generating your own sense of autonomy and communication. In the very first scene when he runs into the cops, all he can do is repeat. And in that process, he's learning and metabolizing what's happening. In the second scene, he's waking up [and] now beginning to understand how to take those words and use them. He's using them incorrectly, but he's beginning to understand how to put them in a structure to communicate with others.

Both of your careers, but particularly Alex's, have been heavy on science fiction. Alex, what is it about this genre that you think makes it work so well for storytelling?

A.K.: I've always loved science fiction. It's certainly where I lived and breathed a lot as a kid. It's definitely not my only interest.  But I think that the reason that I, and many others, have gravitated to it over time is because the best science fiction is always allegory and metaphor for the world that we live in now.  People take the stories that we're experiencing, and they figure out a way to translate them and interpret them. And there's something about processing our reality through that prism that deepens our understanding of the world around us. 

Especially on television, when you see something that's more straight down the middle of, "Here's just the world as it is," It's a little harder to take sometimes — especially if you're trying to say big things. Science fiction allows you a buffer that both entertains, but also in a strange way, amplifies all of the feelings and perspectives that we have about the world.


The Man Who Fell to Earth airs Sundays at 10 p.m., beginning April 24, on Showtime.