The International Writers Magazine
:Alien Culture

Teen Alienation from novel to screen
Jenny Atkins

Three best friends (one guy, two girls) meet another three best friends (one girl, two guys). Friendships are formed, crushes develop, and there’s 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.

A 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 they’ve known each other for years, the two groups do not really mix until Max’s feelings for Liz almost drive him to expose himself as an alien hybrid. Unable to wait for an ambulance to arrive and treat Liz’s 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.

It’s 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 Dawson’s 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, it’s 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 someone’s 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 show’s events and as a teaser for what is to come in the episode. The attention-grabbing first words in the pilot are Shiri Appleby’s voice-over from the diary: "I’m Liz Parker and five days ago I died."

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 they’d had on the show.

Burns’ and Metz’s episode A Tale Of Two Parties is removed from the general story-line of Roswell and chronicles the characters’ New Year’s 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 episode’s 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 the episode.
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 Dawson’s 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 of Portsmouth

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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