A Tunnel in the Sky

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A Boy and His Dog

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 30, 2000, with later edits

For those who may not be familiar with this film, or the original short story, here is a brief synopsis: It is years after a nuclear war. Roving bands of survivors, along with "solos," eke out a meager living on the surface by scavenging food and supplies from any building accessible to them. The main characters are the solo Vic and his dog Blood. The dog is telepathic, a descendant of genetically altered dogs used for police work and combat before and during the Third War. The rest of the remnants of American society live in the "downunders," habitats created to preserve the lifestyle and values of the pre-war times.

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I had initially said I would try my best not to compare a film to its source material, but in this particular case I think it is necessary to clarify my opinion. Writing for the screen and for the printed page are two entirely different things. Some people can do one well but not the other. Harlan Ellison is talented at both, however he did not write the screenplay for this film although he may have had some influence over the finished product. I like the story but I do not think it is anywhere near the best of his work, in fact it came before his truly polished and mature work began in my opinion. Of course that doesn't really matter for the case at hand. What we are talking about is the film adaptation of the story. So the question is, "Is the film any good? If so, does it do the original story justice, or if not, is it a disservice to the writer's original vision?"

I have recently both re-read the story and seen the film, and I will begin by saying that while I like the film and story about the same, I would not list the film in a TOP 10 of SF films, or films in general for that matter, possibly not even in the TOP 20. There are some critics who thought otherwise. The late Vincent Canby, writing for the New York Times, proclaimed it possibly the best SF film ever made. I certainly do not agree with that assessment, but I mention it simply as an indication that not everyone had such a negative opinion of this film as might be assumed. Even Ellison was pleased and impressed by the filmmakers' efforts in translating the story. I quote from the liner notes of the laser-disc edition:

"After twelve years of seeing my work butchered by producers, twelve years of openly complaining about the visual interpretations of my stories, at last someone has produced a faithful version of a story very close to me...just the way I wrote it. This is 'A Boy and His Dog'!"

If the author himself can have such a positive reaction why is there still such negative opinion about it among his fans? There are basically just three points where the film altered elements of the story, and in at least two of the cases I not only understand the differences, I applaud the filmmakers' decisions.

First, the story was set in a bombed-out urban area, and even though it was never stated one can assume it was in the Los Angeles area. The producers Alvy Moore and L. Q. Jones (who also directed) were unable to find any area deserted enough to be used for this sort of scenario, and they certainly couldn't afford to pay for an area to be evacuated and prepared for the length of filming that would be necessary. Instead they chose to film in a desert area of California (which stood in for the Phoenix, Arizona area) and then simply stated that after the nuclear war the city had been covered with a combination of ash and dirt. All they had to do was construct a few building roofs at ground level, which was all that was visible of the now buried city. So we see that one change was made necessary by the very low budget within which the producers had to work.

Second, toward the end of the original story Vic follows Quilla June back to the "downunder" where she lives. He is captured by a robotic device and carried to the leaders of the town who tell him they want him to mate with their women because most of the men have become sterile from the years living underground. Vic agrees and he is grudgingly accepted into the community. A week later the town elders come to him and say it is time for him to service his first lady, Quilla June. When they are in her bedroom, they lure her father and one of the elders into the room and knock them out and make their escape. In the film it plays out a little differently, for the better in my opinion. Vic is held in custody until it is time for him to perform his services, whereas in the story he was allowed to roam the town freely so that the people could become accustomed to the idea of what was happening. The filmmakers realized given that amount of time Vic would probably have made an exit, returning to his dog Blood on the surface. Instead, they have him trussed up on a hospital gurney while a minister performs an unusual wedding service. He is not joining Vic and the women in matrimony, but rather marrying the women to Vic's life-giving sperm, which is mechanically extracted from him at the conclusion of each ceremony while all the other girls and women of child-bearing years line up in the hallway awaiting their turn. Not only does this make more sense dramatically, it is an hysterical scene in general. Vic had been more than willing to have sex with the women, and instead he is cheated out of that physical gratification and relegated to merely a provider of Y-chromosomes.

The third element, and the one I have heard criticized most often, is the breed of dog used to portray Blood. I had always visualized either a German Shepherd, Doberman, Great Dane, or similar breed, and I think that is the general consensus. I don't know what the breed of the dog used, perhaps mostly mutt, but in any case not what I had expected. This was another situation where the budget had something to do with it. L. Q. Jones has stated that many dogs were auditioned and time was running out for making a decision. When they saw Tiger they were immediately impressed. Not only that, Tiger's trainer was able to transfer many of the commands to Don Johnson. In most cases with animal actors their trainer is just off-camera giving the commands, but in this case Johnson was able to give the commands himself, creating a much easier situation for the filmmakers, who needed any and all the time-saving measures they could get. And in re-reading the story I think that it was a justifiable decision. At the beginning of the second chapter, Vic talks about Blood's ancestry, which included a German Shepherd police dog named Ginger (an actual Los Angeles drug-sniffing dog if I'm not mistaken) and a Puli named Ahbhu. I have no idea what a Puli looks like, but it is also stated that much cross-breeding of dogs was done to come up with ones most proficient in telepathy. If you cross-breed enough dogs I suppose there is no telling what their appearance might be, so I don't think that argument is a viable one any more.

Other than these three points, the rest of the film follows the story very closely, including Blood's spotting of Quilla June, Vic catching up to her in the delapidated gymnasium, and the rover pack's attack to try to get Quilla June away from Vic. Some of the dialog in the scenes following the fight, both between Vic and Quilla June and between Vic and Blood, are almost verbatim from the story. One of the few things I don't like is the make-up affected by the townspeople of the downunder. Instead of the white pancake make-up with rosy-red cheeks, they should have used something to make them appear to have a tan. Since they are underground away from the sun they would naturally be very pale (which Quilla June obviously was not), and should have sported darker make-up rather than lighter.

I stated previously on the forums that I thought this was Don Johnson's best performance, and after re-viewing the film I stand by that statement. This was one of his earliest roles, before he made it big with "Miami Vice" and became more a star than an actor. He exhibits just the right amount of brash naiveté and ignorant innocence, clearly not intimidated by the fact that the dog is more intelligent than he is. And I think Tiger is more than just OK as Blood. His facial expressions and movements perfectly complimented the vocalizations of his thoughts done by Tim McIntire.

I don't expect what I have said is going to change anyone's mind about this film, but remember I am not saying this is a great film, merely a good and entertaining one. I do think it is a good adaptation of the story, and considering the constraints of the low budget, it is as good a film as could have been expected. At least they did not change the ending, even though it was necessary to be a little more specific in the dialog to make sure the audience realized what had transpired.


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L. Q. Jones

L. Q. Jones
Wayne Cruseturner

November, 1975

Don Johnson
Susanne Benton
Jason Robards
Alvy Moore
Tim McIntire

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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