The idea of remaking the 1973 Richard Fleischer film Soylent Green, based upon Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room!, has been floating around for the past decade or so but has never really made it out of the think tanks of the various producers and writers attached to it. With unique concepts constantly evading the creative minds that drive Hollywood, the remake has become a mainstay in recent years and annoying one at that, but not because of the recycling of the material. The great tragedy of remakes like The Stepford Wives (2004) and Total Recall (2012) is that so many opportunities to mold the stories’ themes so they could be relevant within contemporary contexts were grossly overlooked – the overlying concern seemed to be that the movies needed to instantaneously interesting rather than anything of substance. Soylent Green was a movie that touched upon a lot of prominent socioeconomic issues, like pollution and overpopulation, which are still applicable to modern worries. A big reason to remake this particular movie is to expand upon these ideas, especially since they were sloppily integrated into an already clunky story with poor pacing.
The original version is set in future New York City stuffed with forty million citizens. Charlton Heston plays Detective Thorn, a greasy and opportunistic guy who lives with an elderly pal named Sol. The main action of the film is Thorn investigating the murder of a rich high society man during an apparent robbery, though Thorn suspects a political assassination. Most of the movie is a languid whodunit trope, filled with predictable moments and plot developments and not because the movie’s conclusion is so famous. It is filled with cool ideas that never really seem to find their moment, buried underneath innocuous drivel…which make it prime for a modernized reworking.
A good place to begin would be to examine great detective movies and what makes those movies so great. As plot driven stories, detective stories become really boring very quickly; with so many procedural dramas on TV, connecting the dots to divine who killed so-and-so and why is offensively easy. But when you place the focus on one protagonist and let the story be driven by character, the effect is two fold: one, the element of intrigue is the fate of this hero therefore making it more human and far more relatable, and two, the investigative portion appears more mysterious because the focus is directed elsewhere. Some good examples of such movies would be David Fincher’s 1995 serial killer chronicle Se7en, Michael Mann’s 1986 Hannibal Lecter thriller Manhunter, and Andrew Davis’s 1993 epic caper The Fugitive. All of these films feature relatively predictable mystery stories, but the beating heart of the films is the personal journey of the main characters – Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset coming to terms with consequences of the actions of his work and life, William Petersen’s Will Graham recognizing the duality of human nature within himself, and the effects of desperation on Harrison Ford’s Richard Kimble.
Steering a modern Soylent Green in this direction would definitely serve as a grounding force for the whole narrative. Within keeping of the personality of Heston’s Detective Thorn, building off the idea of the coming to terms with consequences of self-serving ideals and purely selfish agendas would likely yield a rich and intriguing movie. Thorn is, with the minute exceptions of his friend Sol, driven by his own wants and needs while living in a world that has scarce allowance for allocating such motives except by unsavory means. Narrowing the view of the story to Thorn and his slow realization that his attitudes toward the world are completely parallel and just as destructive as those of the greedy corporations that subject poor people to unknowingly indulge in cannibalism would instantly make this movie something different and probably better for the Fleischer predecessor.
To parallel the themes of self-preservation, enhancing the characters of Sol and love interest Shirl would do a lot to expand the scope of the message. For example, let us say that when Thorn was a boy his parents were killed one day when they were robbed on the way home from procuring their water rations, and Sol, a childhood friend of Thorn’s father, took young Thorn into his home and raised him to keep him out of the treacherous public orphanages. Now the two live together in a cramped apartment, Thorn taking care of Sol who is dying of cancer unbeknownst to Thorn. After Sol makes his discoveries about the lies of the Soylent Corporation, he leaves the information behind for Thorn to find and then in an act of selflessness commits himself to the death house to unburden is foster son. Thorn thinks Sol has gone crazy and makes a desperate attempt to stop him the suicide, following the disposal truck with Sol’s body to the Soylent plant where he sees with his own eyes that…well, you know. Since everyone will already know that Soylent Green is people, disposing with this knowledge as something revelatory and instead making it an inevitable and happenstance point of grotesqueness would open a lot of narrative doors. Revising the Sol’s death at the euthanasia center to being motivated out of love for Thorn would certainly have this effect. The importance of Sol to Thorn is never explicitly explained is Fleischer’s film, but making this clearer would give that ending a bigger edge and lasting impact in this new context. It also would serve as a deafening part of the huge wake-up call of the results of egoism.
One thing that the original excels at is that it is never inclined to explain things and instead lets the relevant information unfold and reward the attentions of its audience members, like with the presence of women known simply as “furniture.” If you are following along well enough, it is easy to discern what they really are. Thorn meets “furniture” named Shirl while investigating the alleged assassination of the rich guy she lives with. Increasing the action of Shirl’s role would be a subtle way of exploring the views of opportunism within this dilapidated society. Thorn can’t figure out whether to return the love and affection this gorgeous woman offers to him or to reject it for survival tactics, his suspicions of her motives making him blind to his own.
Crafting this story would have to begin with the right screenwriter. While writer/directors Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann would unquestionably make something extraordinary out of this remake, hoping for their participation may be confined to wishful thinking, so first choice screenwriter and director for that matter would definitely be Tony Gilroy. His screenplays for all four Bourne movies and his first time writer/director attempt with Michael Clayton are all phenomenal examples of taut and intricate thrillers. With this man behind the typewriter and camera, Soylent Green would find a voice it never knew it was capable of as a film that Harry Harrison would be one hundred percent proud of.
While technical aspects of filmmaking are all relative depending upon the director (with Gilroy, one would imagine a realism-driven vision of futuristic New York City, keeping F/X as minimal as possible without losing effectiveness…oh, all that and audience involved action sequences), the other big element to consider would be casting. For Thorn, it would be important to cast an actor who is approaching middle age, but not too old – someone who fits in the happy medium of being a believably apt and competent homicide detective while still having enough of the follies of youth to believably let his self-centeredness skew his vision of the truths of the society he lives in. First thoughts jump to Edward Norton, who is definitely underappreciated as of recent years, an unassuming actor with chameleon acting abilities who could own a role like Detective Robert Thorn. Other good choices could be Jake Gyllenhaal, a handsome and versatile actor who plays cop really well, James McAvoy, an adaptive actor who fills the screen with whatever character he plays, and Ryan Gosling, who can easily embody intense and relatable.
When considering the role of Sol, the wise and sympathetic father figure for Thorn, the first name that comes to mind is Anthony Hopkins who, aside from being a brilliant actor, can simultaneously be personable and mysterious. The list of other good possibilities include Jeff Bridges, Michael Caine, Bill Nighy, and Robert Redford, but it is impossible to tell what kinds of roles those amazing guys might take. And finally there’s Shirl (a name change should be considered – something a little more appealing and a little less confusing perhaps?) who should be pretty young though old enough to plausibly have her adult wits about her, say early twenties. Just because she is such a rightfully hot commodity in Hollywood right now, Elizabeth Olsen would be the perfect choice if not because she is naturally lovely and a wonderful actress then because she is fearless (see Martha Marcy May Marlene and Oldboy). Other good options would be Saoirse Ronan, who in her short career has proven she is capable of playing any and every kind of role, and Amanda Seyfried, who is so pretty you almost forget how good at acting she really is.
Who knows if this movie would ever get made, but the simple thought of the potential of the story is enough to make any science fiction enthusiast excited. Here’s hoping for an overcrowded and over-polluted future ripe with murder, prostitution, espionage, and cannibalism.