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A Boy, A Dog, A Woman -- and L.Q. Jones and Harlan Ellison: A Writer's Wounds 40 Years Later

A column article, Riding Shotgun by: Don McGregor

I liked Blood.

I liked Blood right up to the end.

I liked Blood until Blood, the telepathic dog, the sardonic sage, laughed callously at the death of a woman, until Blood dismissively made a cruel joke out her and then laughed until fade-out.

A Boy and His Dog film

Shout! Factory has released the 1975 cult film A Boy and His Dog, on Blu-ray, directed by L. Q. Jones, who also adapted the literate and multi-faceted Harlan Ellison's award winning novella for the screenplay.

This film about a post-apocalyptic Earth, set in the first half of the film in barren desert landscapes, bleached of color, bleached of life, probably set the tone for many later films depicting the aftermath of nuclear war, including the Mad Max films, before Mel Gibson revealed maybe he wasn't just acting nutso crazy mad.

A Boy and His Dog film

One of the major differences between A Boy and His Dog is that the boy, Vic (Don Johnson) is honestly motivated by sex, even when Blood, the dog who can communicate thoughts to him beyond the Vic's capacity to comprehend. Blood has a running caustic commentary every time he knows the boy over-rides caution and reason because of sexual need.

This is a bleak and violent world. Survival isn't a word for discussion; it's a daily battle, to stay alive in a hostile environment filled with rampaging, brutal gangs.

L. Q. Jones is adept at capturing the desert landscapes, and this Blu-ray showcases the natural lighting of the cinematography.

The second half of the film is set within a brightly lit world of artifice, a world of conformity and rigid rules and grotesque cosmetic and fashion trends. L. Q. Jones is less capable of capturing this world, although he neatly handles one of the key sequences underscoring the recurrent theme of sexuality in the film, capturing it and making it clear what is going on in a fashion that certainly wasn't common-place in the mid-'70s in pop culture.

A Boy and His Dog film

I know. I was there. And believe me, violence was never the problem when writing comics.

Sex was the problem. It was sexuality that would come under attack by those who would determine what you could get to see…and not see. I often suspected that those editorial censors were like "family value" politicians. It's okay for them. Not for you.

Shout's Blu-ray of A Boy and His Dog is invaluable to writers (and to those who want the history, the background of what shapes and influences the movie they have known for years).

What I find most interesting and emotionally raw is the 40 minute video interview on the Blu-ray of Harlan Ellison, the creator of the story, of this novella he has loved and had turned into a film, and L. Q. Jones.

A Boy and His Dog film

For those of you who already own this film in some long ago earlier version, I can only tell you, if you're a fan of A Boy and His Dog, or of Harlan Ellison, then you'll want this edition, just to see these two men talk to each other, in extremely complicated courtesy and regret.

If you have any interest in this film, but don't know what went on behind the scenes, this is riveting stuff, not just for this film, but for anyone who sees their work transformed by others, by those who express love for the material, for the story, for the characters.

The film is a fascinating study in how close someone can get to translating a writer's work into another medium, and so totally not get it right at the end, twist the story into something it never intended to state, and that now, the writer for all of his or her life will have to live with. And know it can't be changed.

 


NOTE: this is not the interview included on the Blu-ray

 

The interview unfolds quietly. Harlan, who has always been a vocal defender of his work and of the courage a writer must have, is almost subdued in the beginning, as L.Q. Jones speaks about his initial approaches to Harlan to adapt A Boy and His Dog.

I thought, "It's an older Harlan. We get older. We don't have the energy we had."

I understand that. When your physical health steals some of that inner fire, and it is harder to find the words.

I know Harlan had a heart operation some years ago.

How could I forget? Lloyd Kaufman wouldn't let me.

A Boy and His Dog film

Back when I was doing Lady Rawhide for Jim Salicrup, and was sitting at the Topps table promoting the book at the San Diego Comic Con (when it still had a vestige of comics and less con), Harlan had come by our booth. This was Harlan doing his comic convention, public appearance persona, a lot of quips, incisive, outrageous, seeing what kind of response a line might get.

And this was me, back in the days of screwing around. Hell! It's a comic convention, it's supposed to be wild, isn't it?

I don't recall what Harlan said, but I leaped over the table at him, which I was wont to do back then, just having a good time, no idea I was going to do it seconds before I did it. Normally, I would forget I had done whatever it was five minutes later. Others would remind me sometimes of such incidents, five, ten years later. Most of the time, I would have no memory of the moment they were speaking about as if it happened yesterday.

I had no idea, I swear, that Harlan was just recently out of the hospital from serious surgery. Lloyd Kaufman kept telling people the entire con in his enthusiastic exaggeration voice, his Troma films traditional delivery, that "Don McGregor almost killed science fiction great Harlan Ellison!"

That was Lloyd being Lloyd and loving my bowed head reactions to his mantra.

I could have come back with something, I suppose, but I felt really bad. Harlan was fine, nothing had happened to him. He may not even recall it, but I was chastened by it.

L.Q. sits at the table, facing Harlan, reflecting on trying to get the rights to make the film, the lack of money he had at his disposal, the difficulty in reaching Harlan at times. It's clear Harlan likes L.Q., and the L.Q. likes Harlan, and there is the courtesy two gunslingers might give each other in their conversation, but the end fact is, they are still facing each other when it comes time to draw the weapons.

A Boy and His Dog film

Harlan's reactions to Blood, to the telepathic dog he had given his writer's voice, and seemed to give L.Q. the go-ahead to do the movie because L.Q. wasn't going to animate the dog's lips, are somewhat akin to what I opened this piece with, as an outsider viewer.

I love the idea, and as a writer I totally understand it, that Harlan was taken with the fact that L.Q. didn't have the typical Hollywood mentality, that the audience would not understand how the Boy "heard" the Dog in his head.

That L.Q. understood, Blood was not Mr. Ed, the talking horse!

It isn't until about 20 minutes into the interview, when L.Q. is discussing preview screenings of the movie, when Harlan finally decides to see his novella's film version.

Time may have ravaged the clearness of Harlan's voice, but the passion is still there.

He is dismayed that with all that L.Q. got right; L.Q. also imposed his own world view on the film, in that last voice-over by Blood, and by that callous laughter.

I watched the film with my wife, Marsha, and when there was such a cavalier attitude at the loss of a woman's life, that the film stated bluntly and with a smirk that a woman's life held no consequence, it turned her off to the film.

A Boy and His Dog film

I knew nothing about the movie. I'd never seen it. I knew it existed. I had some vague impression of it being set in a desert wasteland, but that was about it.

I was aware of the novella, but I had not read it.

After I started writing "Killraven" I didn't read much science fiction after that. The problem, for me, was that all writers dealing with futuristic scenarios are dealing with and projecting with where we are at now, and the issues and ideologies and human interactions that will be in the future. We are dealing in the same clay. And in this particular medium, a lot of people like to think, "Oh, he got that idea from here or there, or this writer." I more-or-less stayed away from science fiction for quite a long time so I hopefully wouldn't be influenced unduly, unless I made clear where I was purposefully doing so.

Harlan tells L. Q. that he had to bring his misogyny into the film.

L.Q. nods and matter-of-factly states he in a misogynist, apparently even at this late date in his life. I have no idea if L.Q. is married, lives with someone female, had lived with someone female. I don't know. He doesn't elaborate. I would have been interested in learning what the term misogyny meant to him, how he personally viewed it. That's not forthcoming.

What does happen is that Harlan did not have a misogynistic agenda in his mind for his novella.

A Boy and His Dog movie

As close as L.Q.'s screenplay apparently stays with Harlan's story, in the very last seconds he takes it to a place that stabs into the heart of the story.

This is the moment, during the interview, when Harlan just puts his hands up to his face, shaking his head, almost in an agony he can't express.

The writer's wound is still there 40 years later.

The wound is as fresh and bloody as yesterday.

The pain still slices behind the eyes.

The hands up to the eyes can't diminish the pain.

It is difficult for people to understand how story-tellers can react so violently to such a rape of their stories so many years later.

When people come up to me at a convention with certain comics that have been weakened by other people, I see only the things that were supposed to be. I don't remember everything in the stories. But I do know, as strong and as hurtful as if struck a moment ago, what damage was done to that story.

Not once, in all the years I have been a writer, have I had someone come up to me and ask, "Why did the editor do this, Don?"

It is your name on the story.

It is your name that people remember when it comes to something you never intended.

The people who did those atrocities will come up to you, want to shake your hand, forgetting what they did to your work, forgetting that the only reason they could do what they did was because at that moment they had the power to emasculate your story.

Writers may be, as in film, second rate citizens, until the story-teller is needed to have script pages to film the next day, or have a page drawn the next day.

But when it comes to the individual voice, making a statement, as one of misogyny in this case, it is the writer who lives with it.

And a writer who cares about their work takes it to the grave.

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Don McGregor


Support Don McGregor's new project, Sabre: the Early Future Years on Kickstarter! Illustrated by Trevor Von Eeden, it's science fiction action adventure as only Don McGregor could write it!

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