The International Writers Magazine:Alien Culture
Teen Alienation from novel to screen
best friends (one guy, two girls) meet another three best friends
(one girl, two guys). Friendships are formed, crushes develop,
and theres a healthy mix of sweet and sour. It sounds like
life in a typical American high school, and it is, only Roswell
High boasts extra-curricular activities such as exposing an FBI
agent, covering up a shooting in a café, and receiving
a visit from the future version of your boyfriend.
series of ten teen novels written by Melinda Metz and published by Pocket
Books, Roswell High chronicles the lives of Liz, Alex, Maria, Michael,
Isabel, and Max. The first three have been best friends for years, and
have spent their whole lives in the tourist trap town of Roswell, New
Mexico. The latter were thrown together after a tragic accident, and
have been in Roswell since 1947 yet somehow look like 16 year olds.
Although theyve known each other for years, the two groups do
not really mix until Maxs feelings for Liz almost drive him to
expose himself as an alien hybrid. Unable to wait for an ambulance to
arrive and treat Lizs wounds when she is accidentally shot at
work, Max (who possesses healing powers) takes it upon himself to bring
her back to life. Not even in a fictional world does asking her to tell
people she simply fell and broke a ketchup bottle sound plausible, and
the three aliens are forced to tell the three humans the truth to avoid
being reported, exposed, and studied.
Its all pretty far-fetched, but Sci-Fi is a popular genre and
teen dramas have a tendency to secure millions of viewers, so Twentieth
Century Fox purchased the television rights based on the strength of
the first draft of the first novel: The Outsider. Under the direction
of Writer/Executive Producer Jason Katims, the idea was developed into
a show, starting with making The Outsider into a pilot episode.
Faced with the limited time (12 days) and the tight budget (US$ 2 million)
typical of a pilot, Katims knew he was in for a bumpy ride. With no
experience in Sci-Fi and roots in character drama, Katims teamed up
with executive producer David Nutter (of X Files fame) to direct the
show. They held auditions and hired their cast ahead of most other pilot
projects to secure the talented actors they would need to carry Roswell
and face up to competition from the likes of Dawsons Creek and
Buffy; The Vampire Slayer.
Katims and Nutter were keen to do something a little bit different with
Roswell, and knew that such a surreal story based on a famous myth would
be challenging to present in a credible way. As Nutter stated; Roswell
is "not another teenybopper show, its telling a much bigger
story about alienation". One of the key alien elements the pilot
episode introduces is the flashes of images that the aliens (and in
certain circumstances, the humans too) see when things get intense.
This idea of seeing into someones soul is particularly Sci-Fi,
but is tackled emotionally, and so comes across on-screen in an immensely
moving way rather than seeming like a stereotypical power to read minds.
Often in adaptations from paper to screen, a lot of character back-stories
and personal thoughts are lost. Katims managed to keep these in Roswell
by using the flashes to show the history of the characters, and the
episodes are framed by diary entries from Liz as an emotional view-point
on the shows events and as a teaser for what is to come in the
episode. The attention-grabbing first words in the pilot are Shiri Applebys
voice-over from the diary: "Im Liz Parker and five days ago
Apart from the first novel and pilot episode being almost identical,
the two mediums of the story of Roswell go on to follow
completely different plot-lines and conclude in entirely individual
ways. During the third season, the series author Melinda Metz
and her editor Laura Burns were commissioned to write an episode of
the show. They were faced with the challenge of writing for a group
of characters who had not evolved in the same way as their characters
in the novels. Having written the majority of the books once Roswell
was already on air, Metz instinctively pictured the characters with
the same physical attributes as the actors playing the roles, but still
needed to write an episode based on the experiences theyd had
on the show.
Burns and Metzs episode A Tale Of Two Parties is removed
from the general story-line of Roswell and chronicles the characters
New Years Eve. The festive feel and the presence of the characters
Jim and Jeff; fathers of some of the teen leads, give the sense that
the episode is designed for family viewing, and someone who was not
an avid watcher would be able to tune in and not be confused. The episodes
time-frame is messed up and focuses on the relationships between the
characters and their fun-loving nature rather than the repeated life-or-death
situations often tackled on the show. This means the dialogue sometimes
seems a little uncharacteristic, but it is also more humorous and suits
Roswell manages to take a highly implausible, unrealistic concept and
make it completely believable and easy to relate to. This is a hurdle
that many Sci-Fi projects do not successfully get over, but the emotional
honesty of Roswell and the back-drop of the archetypal American High
School set Roswell one step ahead of the rest. Although Roswell found
a loyal niche audience rather than securing the high ratings of other
WB shows such as Dawsons Creek, Charmed, and Buffy it was much
loved by its fans. Despite lasting for only three seasons, the DVD box
sets sell well and the books are still in print. Roswell may not have
been quite the money-spinner it had the potential to be, but it is,
in my opinion, one of the most successful and satisfying adaptations
of recent years.
© Jenny Atkins Dec 2005
Jenny is and English and Creative Arts second year student at the University
Episode commentary for Pilot by Jason Katims and David Nutter
from Roswell: The Complete First Season released by Fox
DVD in 2004.
Roswell High The Outsider written by Melinda Metz and published
by Pocket Books in 1998.
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