I’ve been reading a draft of the Alien script for the last few days and have long since concluded that it’s a lot of fun. This earlier draft is quite different from the movie and is therefore its own kind of document, the foundation, the rudiments, of a work of art that was never actually created.
It’s written as a kind of touchstone of the imagination; extremely quick descriptions are meant to create an eventual rather than an immediate image. For instance, the following, from the script—
The beam reveals that he is in a stone room. STRANGE HEIROGLYPHICS are carved into the walls. They have a primitive, religious appearance. Row after row of pictograms stretch from floor to ceiling, some epic history in an unknown language. Huge religious symbols dominate one wall.
Spaced at intervals are stylized stone statues, depicting grotesque monsters, half anthropoid, half octopus.
This is meant for a future cinematic screen and not the imaginative screen flickering inside our skulls, though oddly enough I think its terseness succeeds at creating an attractive image far more effectively than the following similar passage from H.P Lovecraft’s Dagon—
The writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books, consisting for the most part of conventionalised aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales and the like. Several characters obviously represented marine things which are unknown to the modern world, but whose decomposing forms I had observed on the ocean-risen plain.
The first passage lets your imagination fill in the gaps, gives you freedom; Lovecraft’s passage brow-beats you into viewing something far more absolute. It’s a wonder he didn’t look through an encyclopedia and provide the Latin names of his “molluscs”—but that kind of listing would be far more decadent.
One more parallel. The Alien pyramid—
LONG SHOT OF THE STONE PYRAMID, dust blowing in front of it. It is a crumbling, ancient edifice, made of eroded grey stones, windowless, tapering toward the top.
becomes, in Lovecraft—
I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aerial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the wave of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.
Lovecraft’s ridiculous racism is suppressed, but the imaginative splendor of this pyramid-containing passage (as well as the others in his work) is focused, refined, and shines with a far brighter splendor in Dan O’Bannon’s script. It’s reasonable to suspect a Lovecraftian influence in this movie—which is far and away the best of the “Lovecraftian movies”, a genre as debased as Lovecraft’s inbred cast of Dionysian barbarians—due to the screenwriter’s involvement in a straight-to-video release called The Resurrected, which, according to wikipedia, is based on one of Howard Phillips’ stories.
Lovecraft can be fun to read but he’s definitely a one-trick pony, and his impossibly baroque style slams you over the head like a Poe-shaped mallet, almost as if he’s trying to make up for something—like the lack of plot or depth, or a teeny willy—flying in the face of the little I know about composition. When I was much younger I frequently imitated Lovecraft to the point of parroting mimicry, but nearly got a story published that way. Actually I think one of the editors sent the manuscript back with a note, a rare point of triumph, which read: “stop imitating Lovecraft to the point of parroting mimicry!”
The O’Bannon script is a much better example of fine writing for me. Beyond the philosophy of finding the right word (Lovecraft believes in finding the right paragraph…), you really can’t put it down; it transcends the edifice of all literary theory, a house of cards, and sticks itself to your fingers like bubble-gum mixed with peanut butter.
P.S: The pyramid also makes an appearance in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel, though far more solemnly in this foundation for 2001; and incidentally there’s a monolith in Dagon, I can just web the whole world together indefinitely…