Book vs. Movie
I, Robot
By Kim Hollis
July 28, 2004

Anyone seen Alan Tudyk?

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

I, Robot

For our inaugural edition, we'll begin with I, Robot, the science fiction extravaganza that was not precisely adapted from the Isaac Asimov collection of short stories, but is rather said to be "inspired" by them. When the trailer for the film was released, the frequent comments from devout students of Asimov's "Laws of Robotics" included such stuff as "Asimov must be turning over in his grave" and "travesty!" So, in the end, was the film a mockery of the principles and ideas set forth by the popular author? Or were screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman able to craft a smart script for director Alex Proyas to adapt with his own creative approach?

The Book

Isaac Asimov's I, Robot is not a novel in the strictest sense, but rather a series of interconnected short stories. The character who narrates all the tales is one Dr. Susan Calvin, a woman who has worked as a "robopsychologist" for US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. almost her entire life. An unattractive, plain woman, her devotion has been limited to the robotic men that she analyzes.

In the various robot stories, Dr. Calvin traverses from tale to tale, explaining the importance of the three "Laws of Robotics" and how important it is that the robots adhere to this always-vital programming. The laws are as follows:

1) A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by the human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict the First or Second Law.

Dr. Calvin is narrating the tales to a reporter who is looking for a more "human interest" angle on the subject of robots. Dr. Calvin begins with a simple story about an early, basic version known as "Robbie", who cares for a young girl that is utterly devoted to him. This simple story illustrates all of the most basic elements of the laws, and also emphasizes the natural technophobia present in all humankind, not to mention why such feelings are unmerited. From there, she moves to more complex situations that developed as the technology for the creation of robots grew over the years.

In "Runaround," a robot that has been commanded to mine selenium seems to "lose its mind". When the two men who are in charge of the Mercury base where it is stationed investigate, it is discovered that the equilibrium between the three laws has been thrown into misbalance, causing the robot to digress into a form of lunacy rather than try to suss out which law is the one that ultimately should be obeyed.

Other stories involve a robot that can read minds but lies to humans in order to keep in line with the first law, a robot that decides to take the order "get lost" entirely too literally, and ultimately, a robot posing as a human being to run for the highest elected office in the land. And in the end, it is this robot that must contend with the Machines, powerful supercomputers that control the world's economy and production, when they start giving instructions that seem to go against their designed function.

The common thread in almost all of these stories is that the robots do in fact seem to be behaving contrary to the laws that have been programmed inside them. Ultimately, what each tale demonstrates is that the robots are not in fact going against the laws, but are actually obeying them in such a way that could not have been properly anticipated by the human minds that created them.

The intertwined stories are a compendium of fascinating ideas written in a somewhat pedestrian fashion. There are no truly great characters; the dialogue is stilted and often technical and jargon-filled. As a result, the book is not quite as timeless as it could have been had it dealt with its themes in a more universal fashion. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read and I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys puzzling things out or fans of the science fiction genre in general.

The Movie

In reality, the movie I, Robot has very little to do with the aforementioned short stories other than title and common ideas. Although Dr. Calvin is one of the central characters, she is played by the lovely Bridget Moynahan, who could hardly have been what Asimov envisioned as he incorporated Calvin into his numerous robot-themed works. Additionally, Dr. Alfred Lanning, a man who makes a couple of appearances in the Asimov stories, is present in the form of James Cromwell. He makes a rather early exit from the film, as he is the character whose death results in the investigation of the robot Sonny. No such events occurred in the book, but really, the human characters in the story have a lot less personality than the robots in the first place. They're just there to drive events, and the Dr. Lanning of the movie is much the same.

All similarities end there, though. Instead of US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., the primary company is US Robotics, which is a real-world company that currently deals in modem technology and wireless connectivity. Sure, it's close, but not precisely the same.

From there, we shift from the basic, straightforward sci-fi of Asimov to a story infused with humor, character and action. Will Smith portrays a technophobic police officer named Del Spooner, who had befriended Dr. Lanning some years in the past. When Lanning is killed, he leaves behind a holographic recording specifically requesting that Spooner be assigned to the case. Spooner quickly comes to the conclusion that a robot discovered in Lanning's office must be responsible for the murder. Naturally, it's all much more complicated than all that, as Lanning has specifically led the detective to Sonny the Robot in order to work through an intricate puzzle. This puzzle will eventually prove to be vital to the continued survival of humanity.

And while Asimov devotees have made much of the fact that I, Robot appears to evolve into a simple "killer robot" film, it's by no means that elementary. All of the actions taken by the robots are in fact the very result of the laws that have been ingrained into them, and the approach the director and screenwriters take to accomplish such a result is done with an intelligence and ingenuity that stays very much within the paradigms defined by Asimov. That the creators of the motion picture were able to do so while incorporating thrilling action scenes and marvelous special effects really speaks to their innovative abilities.

The Verdict

While I do understand that long-time fans of Asimov are unlikely to come around to liking or appreciating the theatrical version of I, Robot, I do feel that this is a case where I can recommend both book and film. In fact, for those who enjoy reading but don't particularly like the science fiction genre, the two work especially well in tandem. The dry, somewhat scientific approach Asimov uses in his writing is nicely counterbalanced by the more human elements and action peppered throughout the film. Reading the classic selection of short stories provides a nice introduction to the ideas and themes set forth by the author, and makes the incorporation of the premise in the movie much more interesting. While it would have been easy for Proyas et al to relegate the Laws to the sideline in favor of a Big Dumb Summer Movie, that's not the case at all. Both I, Robot the book and I, Robot the film are intelligent examinations of the dangers and conveniences of the growth and importance of technology in our lives.