Interview: Greg Bear’s “Petra”, A Movie in the Making, by Andy Miller

Interview: Greg Bear’s “Petra”, A Movie in the Making, by Andy Miller

If Greg Bear‘s work isn’t already on your shelf, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it in your local bookstore.

One of his short stories is currently being made into a feature-length film by C4, a Melbourne-based production company. The story is “Petra,” which first appeared in Omni magazine, back in February of 1982.

20 years later….

So much has changed. “Petra” came out of a typewriter. Omni is dead. A host of electronic magazines have risen to take its place.

And now there’s going to be a movie.

I wanted to ask Greg Bear some questions. I did.


Andy Miller: “What did you find strange or surprising about “Petra” when you first wrote it? How do you see it now?”

Greg Bear: “I was pleased with “Petra” because it combines gargoyles with theology, which is only natural, right? And because I’ve long doubted that God micromanages our affairs. It’s often seemed to me, however, that we could equate the manipulating fingers of God with the rules science has discovered, rules that govern our existence. Thus, if God has died, or moved on, the rules are gone as well….”

AM: “Creationists still raise a fuss over the teaching of evolution in American schools. How can science education be improved? How can it result in more freedom from religion? a more ‘grown up’ society? What can the scientific community do to make this happen?”

GB: “This is a huge topic. Creationists tend to be fundamentalists, and fundamentalists like to tell God (and you and me) how to behave. I try not to, personally. Science tries to discover the rules of our existence without assuming that God does everything for us — an assumption that it seems to me is embodied in the doctrine of free will for all God’s creatures. Science and science education can be improved by dropping the outmoded reductionist and materialist tyranny of the twentieth century without losing the honesty and discipline of trying to see things as they are, without imposing your own list of desires on reality. In other words, we should regard nature as we regard God. Observe — record — be humble — don’t dictate.”

AM: “What’s the relationship of today’s fantasy and science fiction to the stories of the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, etc.?”

GB: “A lot of fantasy and a fair amount of science fiction assumes religious underpinnings. Harlan Ellison seems to tap into Jewish myth in his Outer Limits episode “The Demon with the Glass Hand,” Walter M. Miller, Jr., gives us a Catholic perspective in A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish assumes Milton and Dante to be essentially realists in A Case of Conscience and Black Easter. And so on…. But by and large, science fiction explores the world of scientific culture, and the implications of scientific discovery — power over the material world — to our existence.”

AM: “What do you think is going to be lost or gained by the adaptation of “Petra” to film? What must remain intact?”

GB: “I try not to tell filmmakers what to do. From what I’ve seen, Simon understands the story and will do a fine job bringing it to the screen.”


That’s Simon Ryan, of C4, the film’s producer.

I asked him some questions too.


Andy Miller: “It’s been over 20 years since the story first appeared. Why make a movie of it now?”

Simon Ryan: “When C4 began as a 3d animation and effects company nearly 5 years ago, we contacted Greg Bear to see if he was open to the idea of making a computer game based on the Eon trilogy. While that never came to fruition for various reasons, Greg continued to keep in touch with us. He’s been an avid fan of animation since seeing the classic works of Ray Harryhausen as a youngster.

“As a company we had struggled to find a story that we could animate that was not only original, but also ideally suited to being told as an animation. While I hadn’t read all of Greg’s work, I knew his style and ideas would be perfect.

“In August 2001, I was in the U.S. to attend the Siggraph convention in Los Angeles. I saw this as an opportunity to meet Greg and discuss the possibilities. When we met I told him that what we would particularly like is a modern fable. Greg gave me a copy of Bears Fantasies, a beautiful collection of his short fantasy (rather than science fiction) stories. It’s not a widely published book, and while I knew it existed I hadn’t been able to find a copy. Greg told me a little about “Petra” and I was immediately aware that this was exactly the sort of story we were after. An hour after returning to the hotel, having read the story I was really excited. “Petra” had a great setting, extraordinary characters, and a message for a world which seemed to be gradually moving away from the traditional age-old reliance on an unseen being we call God.”

AM: “What can you tell us about the computer animation, the desired look or feel of the film?”

SR: “As you can imagine Notre Dame cathedral will be an amazing setting. Of course it won’t look much like it does today. Shielded from the light by giant canvasses, it will be dark, smokey and claustrophobic. Parts of it will be crumbling and decayed, other parts will have grown or mutated, as it is influenced by the minds and imaginations of it’s inhabitants. The characters contained within are a myriad of humans, monsters, statue-saints and wraiths.

“While the animation itself is of the same genre as say Shrek or Toy Story the visuals themselves will be closer to those found in Satyricon or the midian underworld of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.”

AM: “How does “Petra” relate to C4’s other work?”

SR: “To date C4 has worked primarily in the games industry. Everything from ingame assets and models to FMV’s (Full Motion Video that a player gets at the beginning or during cut scenes of a game). While this has been our ‘bread and butter’ it has always been our intention to move into storytelling animation.”

C4 commissioned Adam Browne for the adaptation. Adam was a featured writer in Ideomancer last year, and you’ll find his “Captain Thankless” in the anthology Ideomancer Unbound.

What follows is my second interview with Adam.


Andy Miller: “Why should we read the story AND see the movie?”

Adam Browne: “It’s a good question — every time a book I love gets adapted for cinema, they GET IT WRONG — so what is the point of seeing the film? Often, the adaptation is an interesting movie, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is an example, but it’s not a patch on the original.

“There are two ways of going wrong in an adaptation. There’s the danger of being too respectful of the text, ending up with something like Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which, in adhering too closely to Tolkein, was overlong and pretty much lacked a third act…. On the other hand there’s the temptation to take liberties — Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is the most egregious example: Carroll’s beautiful dream-novel was Disneyfied into something sickeningly nice, offensively inoffensive….

“An example of an adaptation that went right, however, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from being made by a consummate genius at the height of his powers, the piece of prose it adapted wasn’t a novel, it was a short story — ‘The Sentinel’ by A.C. Clarke. And because it was a short story, cinema was able to do the idea justice — actually expanding on the central notion rather than lopping at it, shrinking it down to fit the confines of what can be conveyed onscreen.

“The same goes for “Petra”. Greg Bear’s vision is masterfully conveyed by his prose, but the core idea and the themes are big ones, bigger perhaps than the original short story. In fact, whenever I read it I always feel slightly surprised that he’s managed to pack so much into so small a space.

“There’s so much visual potential in the story too. The cathedral where it’s set is reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School; an interior space, but with infinite potential, labyrinthine, almost fractal. It’s a perfect place to let the visual imagination play…. I hope to build on Bear’s vision to create a vivid, thought-provoking, fantastical world — a hallucinogenic science fantasy dream-adventure; its hero a voyeuristic gargoyle leaping about the surreal tatters and fecund, fetid halls of a future-Gothic Notre Dame.”

AM: “What are the greatest challenges that you face, in adapting “Petra”?”

AB: “Even Jean-Luc Godard claimed that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end, “although not necessarily in that order”. The circular framework of Bear’s original story disguises the fact that it doesn’t have much of an end — a climax, but little resolution. I think the film would be ill-served by sticking to the original convoluted structure — the fantastic ideas could be lost in unnecessary complexities and florid plotting. I’ll have to straighten the story’s spine in order to make it acceptable as cinema…. Although of course this is a difficulty facing most writers who tackle adaptations of prose. There is the additional difficulty of writing science fiction for the cinema — how to convey tricky ideas without bogging down in pages of expository dialog. This is one not many filmmakers have successfully solved. A lot of science fiction movies just dispose of the ideas in favour of guns and explosions. Others, like 2001, assume that the audience is intelligent enough to work it out for themselves. I hope to tread a fine line between those extremes.

“Another problem is just doing justice to the original. I remember first reading this story in the 80s in an anthology called Mirror Shades. It was my first exposure to Bear; I’ve read most everything he’s written since. He’s great, as much a part of the canon of must-read science fiction writers as Asimov or Clarke. I love Bloodmusic, Eon, Anvil of Stars, and his short stories are classics…. His recurring character Olmy is kind of a hero of mine — I want to BE Olmy. I only hope I can capture the excitement and sense of wonder of his writing.

“All that said, this is something of a dream job — the story’s a satisfying and visually rich blend of crazy science fiction and magic realism and rich rotting gothic sensibilities — full of cinematic pluripotentialities — in many ways the script is writing itself.”

AM: “What is the ‘spirit’ of this piece, and how is it especially relevant today?”

AB: “One of Greg Bear’s big themes is the exploration of the idea that the observer changes the reality, and not just on the quantum level of things either — this from Moving Mars, for example: “The universe stores the results of its (mathematical) operations as Nature. I do not confuse Nature with Reality…. The results change if the rules change.”… And Bear’s scientists are forever changing the rules, forever arguing, and very convincingly too, that objective and subjective reality are at one level thoroughly interchangeable.

“In “Petra”, the arbiter of objective reality manifests as God, who, we learn as the story starts, is dead. As a result reality has become threadbare and hallucinatory: “With the passing of God’s watchful gaze, humanity…became the only cohesive force in the chaos.” The universal laws are held together with spit and string in isolated bastions such as Notre Dame Cathedral.

“When Friedrich Nietzsche first wrote that ‘God is dead’, he was responding in a poetic way to the moral disorientation inspired by the rise of rationalism and science. Before Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, humanity was at the centre of a universe warmed by the stern but caring presence of a big papa creator. Bear’s story works as an allegory, suggesting that with scientific enlightenment (personified in Bear’s story by the Apostle Thomas — Doubting Thomas, the famous empiricist) there comes a necessary change of perspective — that it has come time to look at the universe more clearly, and make sense of it according to what we know.

“This, to me, is what motivates all science fiction — an attempt to invent or discover a universe which is meaningful in the context of the scientific worldview.

“Bear is saying that we are the answer — that reason and intelligence and humanity are God, and with enough maturity we will be able to create a world with beauty and meaning.”

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