Sunday, March 4, 2012

Written on

Books Vs. Films in Science Fiction Romance

Round One: Fight!
I received an email late last week from a student--we'll call her S.--who is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing. Her current assignment is a project that focuses on blends of science fiction and romance.(Boo-yah!)

S. came to me with some questions and after I answered them I thought it would be worthwhile to open up the discussion for my Galaxy Express passengers. S. kindly granted me permission to share her question and my answer.

My answer became quite long and complex (and I'll be the first to admit some of my personal biases came into play), but I'm sure that one could write a whole book on the subject. Therefore, I invite you to answer the question as well or comment on some aspect of my answer. Whether you agree, disagree, or would like to contribute other information, I'm sure S. would appreciate the input.


The appeal to cross the two genres doesn’t seem to be a popular choice. Yet in film, this same cross genre has had incredible success (Star Wars, Avatar, Wall-E, Back to the Future). Why do you think that is? What are your thoughts on the discrepancy with regards to wide audience appeal in movies versus novels, especially in these mixed genres?


Short answer: Most people would choose a movie over a book.

Long answer:

It's important to distinguish between what is being marketed and what is the actual content of a film. Films, even if they contain a significant amount of romance, are usually marketed as "action-adventure SF" or "SF thriller" or simply "SF."

The goal of studios is to attract a wide audience (based on their perception/definition of a wide audience), in particular the 14-24 *male* demographic. Therefore, the success of romance-SF blends in films is more by-product than original intent. The question then becomes, could this by-product success be further exploited? Would viewers embrace or reject a film whose marketing campaign embraced the sci-fi romance framework?

Plus, most if not all of the successful SF-romance films are actually romantic SF as opposed to a more evenly split romance-SF mix. In other words, the SF elements drive the plot. You could remove the romance and the story would still work.

An exception is Avatar because if you remove the romance, the story falls apart. Avatar successfully integrated a romance plot with an SF one, so much so that if you go by box office success alone, the men and boys who saw Avatar didn't seem to mind the romance. I blogged about this issue in more depth here:

Isn't it romantic?
Avatar is currently the exception, however, in terms of its romance-SF mix. Because it is so overtly SF and didn't rely on traditional romance tropes, I do wonder if many romance readers overlooked the romance angle. This is especially so regarding the trailers for the film, which focused largely on the SF elements. Imagine how differently the plot of Avatar would have seemed if the studio had cut a trailer that placed the emphasis on the romance.

So we have a situation where movie studios ignore just about half of the movie going audience, namely, women. Women are, however, voracious consumers of books (maybe because studios have ignored their interests for so long?). Publishers know this and have fine-tuned their marketing campaigns when it comes to romance novels.

In romance stories, the emphasis is on the relationship. The romance development drives the plot. In many science fiction romances, this is also true. But there are also sci-fi romance stories featuring an external plot (e.g., there's a romance but also an external threat to the couple or to their world that they must overcome). Sci-fi romances that feature a significant external plot (say, a 50-50 blend of romance plot and SF plot) begin to look more like their counterparts in film (e.g., Avatar, Wall-E).

This is where it gets tricky and it's also the place where one encounters the challenge of marketing sci-fi romance to female romance readers. The more a book moves away from the romance plot, the less likely the story will attract readers who are accustomed to reading stories where the romance *is* the plot.

On the other hand, these same readers have been under-served by studios that have the choice--but have chosen not to execute it--to make films that would appeal to women. In general, romance has been segregated from action stories, so women grow up thinking that they don't have an interest in action-oriented SF films *even if the films feature a strong romance*. Thus, by extension, they don't think they'd have an interest in similarly structured science fiction romances. And trailers that fail to highlight the romance plot certainly don't help matters.

This story has cool mecha, so where's the love?
Another reason for the discrepancy is simply because of the inherent differences in the mediums. Books can't deliver 3D effects or allow for readers to become immersed in the visuals. Films do the work for viewers, but with books, readers have to actively engage with the text in order to reap the benefits. Plus, films often have millions of dollars of advertising dollars behind them. The publishing industry can hardly compete at this point in time.

If female romance fans know romance is in an SF film, they are likely to be more willing to see it or at least give it a chance. Men, on the other hand, seem less likely to seek out romance books *even if they know the action/SF elements are present in significant amounts.* I’m guessing this is because for the most part, the emphasis in romance novels is on the relationship. Without specific guidance to certain books that resemble the film experience, there's no incentive for men to seek out romance stories. They've been conditioned to avoid it, after all.

Therefore, a science fiction romance that has a 50-50 mix of romance and SF elements is, in effect, inviting readers of both genders to adjust their expectations and overcome entrenched biases. I'm guessing that the number of women for whom a 50-50 blend delivers enough romance is rather low; however given the rise of geek girl culture I'm betting this number will increase in the future. More uncertain is the point at which men, in general, overcome their bias against romance-based stories or stories where a romance has a significant component.

In short, the reasons for the discrepancy between romantic SF films and science fiction romance books are based not only story content, but also gender bias, medium, and marketing strategies.


Your thoughts?

Joyfully yours,