On left, a robot from Real Steel, on right from the Twilight Zone episode "Steel" (Dreamworks/Scifi-Universe.com)It's difficult to watch the trailer for Real Steel—the new Hugh Jackman movie that dares to ask "what if boxers were robots instead of people"—without thinking of that classic "two great tastes that taste great together" Reese's commercial. In recent years, audiences have flocked to movies about robots and to movies about boxing, and now, someone finally thought to combine the two. Is "robots and boxing" the "peanut butter and chocolate" of the film world? DreamWorks is betting $80 million that the answer is "yes."
It was probably the easiest pitch in the history of Hollywood ("It's Transformers meets Rocky!"), and variations on its robots-fighting-robots premise have been doodled by elementary-schoolers for decades. Hollywood has spent the past year gobbling up the film rights to every board game imaginable, and with films based on Battleship and Monopoly now in the works, audiences might be assuming that Real Steel is a big-budget adaptation of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. But to find the actual genesis of Real Steel, you need to turn to another, unlikelier source that Hollywood has routinely mined for ideas: sci-fi writer Richard Matheson.
Matheson's writing is "high concept," which for screenwriters means "easy to pitch"
If Matheson's name doesn't immediately register, his pedigree might. Throughout his career, Matheson has seen his work translated into hits (I Am Legend, which has been remade for film no less than three times in the past 50 years) and misses (the syrupy Robin Williams adaptation of What Dreams May Come). Real Steel is very loosely based on a 1956 story by Richard Matheson called "Steel," a fantasy/science fiction story first published in the cleverly-titled Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And Real Steel isn't even the first filmed version of Steel: in 1963, Matheson himself adapted the short story into a script for a four-season episode of The Twilight Zone.
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"Steel" may not hold up particularly well, but Matheson's contributions to The Twilight Zone shouldn't be denied: He wrote 14 scripts during the show's original run, including all-time classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which starred William Shatner at his hammy best. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the science fiction and horror genres were still in their television infancy, Matheson's contributions included episodes of Star Trek, Night Gallery, and the first two televised appearances of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Matheson's six decades of experience as a screenwriter can't be denied, though many of his original short stories remain frustratingly difficult to find in print. But in the past five years, Matheson's greatest exposure by far has come has come with a trio of big-budget films: I Am Legend, The Box, and now Real Steel. These films, based on Matheson's original writing, were often adapted by screenwriters who weren't even born when their source material was first published.
Matheson's writing lends itself particularly well to contemporary Hollywood because it's "high concept"—which translates, in screenwriting parlance, to "easy to pitch." At the heart of Matheson's best tales you'll find a simple, compelling question, from I Am Legend ("what if a mass epidemic left a single man alive?") to "Button, Button," the short story that became The Box ("would a needy family sacrifice the life of a complete stranger for a massive financial windfall?"). Hollywood loves these kinds of stories because they're easy to understand and therefore easy to mass-market. At least, that's the idea, though it doesn't always work in practice: Where I Am Legend succeeded (at least financially) in drawing an audience to Matheson's brainchild, The Box was a bizarre, messy box office-bomb.
So far, Real Steel looks to be taking the I Am Legend road to box office victory. Early buzz and test audience reactions for the film have been so positive that DreamWorks greenlit production on a sequel as early as last April. If audiences turn out for robot boxing this weekend, we'll have plenty more robot boxing to look forward to. And we'll have Richard Matheson to thank.
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