ASCII by Jason Scott

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Like anyone who went to film school or liked watching movies, I always harbored a set of “properties” (books or short stories or other written material) that I’d like to make into a film of my own. Two of mine share a similar situation: the play Hackers by Mike Eisenberg and the book The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas J. Ryan.

They share a positive and a negative: they were lifelines of artistic justification for an interest in computers that I held, and they both have really fatal flaws.

I saw Hackers because of an article I read about a play being produced that would be about computer hackers. This was absolutely mind-blowing to me at 13 because I couldn’t imagine what that would entail. Really, I didn’t understand plays much at all either, having gone to a couple local “shows” of various types and not having been at full-scale professional theater much at all. I’m sure my dad dragged me to a few plays or events during this period, but a lot of them are dim memories at best. This, however, was me wanting to go to a play and dragging my dad to one instead.

I should ask him what he thought of this idea, his 13-year-old having to spontaneously see an off-broadway play, but the fact was I’d dragged him deep into New York City for “Pac-Man Day” in recognition of the release of the Atari 2600 pac-man cartridge, so I guess this wasn’t entirely a surprise. But still.. a play!

Hackers was mounted along a theater row off-broadway deep in New York City, and my father and aunt came along as I attended an evening performance in what I probably thought passed for theater clothes but which I’ll bet looked like I fell out of a laundry hamper. I thought the play was just fantastic; people talking about computer hacker, adventure games, chess playing, Turing machines… this was a play for me; this is what I expected them to be like. I was one happy fellow, and good memories were made that evening.

Similarly, I had picked up a book just a couple years earlier, in the home of my friend Chris. His grandparents, who he lived with at the time, were quite technologically savvy. This was, in fact, the first time and place I ever encountered a BBS; Mt. Kisco NY, in the spare bedroom of his grandparents’ home, using an acoustic coupler to call a Dial-Your-Match BBS. Besides the tech, they were also avid science fiction readers (avid anything readers, really), and they had a copy of this book, The Adolescence of P-1, lying around. One afternoon over at Chris’ house, I picked it up and read through a lot of it, and was again stunned at the powerful idea of a computer, specifically a computer virus, that would spread itself through networks and seek out its creator. This was heady heady stuff for an 11-year-old, and I never forgot that book.

So both these creations stuck around in the back of my mind as things that, some day, with my requisite million dollars, I could make movies out of. The questions of budget and rights and all the little logistics were another set of problems, but I felt that there was potential here, going for “properties” that nobody else might pick up.

So fast-forward to 1998-1999.

It turns out to be a relative pain in the ass to acquire the script for a play, especially once that hasn’t been mounted in a significant amount of time. I don’t have any evidence that “Hackers” was ever mounted after its initial run, but I do know the publishing rights were picked up by the Samuel French company, which is where I bought a copy of the script.

Buying an old book, meanwhile was extremely simple in the era of Amazon, where it was just a matter of deciding what amount of money to pay for what quality of book. I think I ended up paying $50 for my particular copy (“like new”) and it was pretty nice.

So, in the tail end of the 20th century, I read these two works that had played a major part in several memories of mine through my early teen years. And guess what!

They both fall flat in the third act.

Both are, like I had expected, interesting takes on computers and technology, P-1 especially so considering it was written in 1977. They both put together some cool thoughts on technology, and the virus-as-intelligent-creature take in P-1 is especially great, as is the adventure game sub-plot in Hackers. But by the time we get to the third acts, they both fall apart: the climactic line in Hackers is a cheap knockout, and P-1 nearly becomes incomprehensible at the end.

So I guess I could get the rights and rewrite them, but at that point I’m making the movies in my head, not the ones written on paper. And seriously, I might as well just make up my own stuff, then.

Now, as it turned out, I’m a documentary filmmaker! So I don’t have to worry about licensing novels for plots anyway. (Although a lot of documentary filmmakers have made fiction films, to a wide spectrum of success and failure). But my plate’s filled for years, so I don’t have to worry too much.

Now, if someone was to take these creations and make movies out of them, I’ll be the first guy in line at the premiere. But I’ll guarantee they’ll be pretty radically changed. And I don’t want to be the one to change them.

Here’s the New York Times theater section review, if you’d like another take on the play. Here’s the page for Adolescence of P-1, which will serve as good as anything.

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One Comment

  1. Mike says:

    So glad that someone else remembers Pac-Man Day! April 3rd is still marked on my calendar every year since seeing it mentioned in Atari Age Magazine in 1982.