The Source Material for… (Episode I of these episodic posts: The Bicentennial Man)

About five weeks ago I reviewed the movie The Bicentennial Man. I pointed out that it was based on two sources: on Isaac Asimov’s novelette of the same name and on the later adaptation of that novelette into a full-length novel, The Positronic Man, written by Asimov in collaboration with Robert Silverberg. I also said “I don’t remember [the novel] clearly, so I’m going to read it again next week. But it couldn’t have been very memorable if I don’t remember it much.”

OK. Apparently I lied. Twice.

It turned out that I didn’t re-read the novel until four weeks later (life interfered, as it has a way of doing), and it also turned out to be more memorable than I had thought. The trouble, as you might expect, is that one’s memories get all tangled up after absorbing three different versions of the same story, especially when spread out over a period of almost half a century.

If I were still a student—if I were, say, taking a course in SF or speculative literature—I suppose I would now go into a detailed “compare and contrast” analysis of all three works. But I’m not going to do that. All I will say is that the novelette is possibly the most powerful of the three, but the novel provides the most depth and the movie provides the most realism. One trouble with movies, of course, is that it’s hard for the viewer to see into the characters’ heads: interior monologues are always awkward in a visual medium. On the other hand, the visuals of course make it easier to visualize the characters and the action.

When I first read the Asimov-Silverberg novel version, it felt padded. I thought the only justification for writing it was that the publisher wanted to sell a book-length story. But, on re-reading it this time, I came to a different conclusion: the novel fleshed out (so to speak) the characters and provided a different experience from the novelette, even if some of the power was gone.

Speaking of power, I was struck by a line from the novel version: “With great power goes great responsibility.” What is that doing in a work by Asimov and/or Silverberg? I thought that quotation was from Spider-Man!

Well, let’s see what The Google says about this…

Hmmm, among other sources Google refers us to Quora, which tells us that it “doesn’t seem to have a known origin.” Not very helpful.

But a Quoran refers us to Quote Investigator, so let’s check it out there. We see a whole passel of possibilities, including Voltaire, Spider-Man, the Bible (of course), Lord Melville (who quoted a maxim “the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility”), one Reverend John Cumming (who said “wherever there is great power, lofty position, there is great responsibility”)…okay, okay, there are just too many sources here, and I have no idea who gets the original credit. A gold star will hereby be awarded to anyone who can resolve the dispute with incontrovertible evidence.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV