Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Martian Child, a Love Story

There was a Martian mopping my kitchen floor.

The Martian’s Dad told me that Martians love to clean.

The Martian’s real name is Sean and he is the adopted son of science fiction author David Gerrold (perhaps best known for being the writer of Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles.”). Sean’s story, “The Martian Child” is about to be released as a movie, starring John Cusack with Bobby Coleman playing the role of Dennis, the boy who believes he’s a Martian. (Sean legally changed his name from “Dennis”at the same time that his adoption was finalized.)

Gerrold always wanted a child, but as a single gay man, the route for him was obviously adoption. He had already spent more than a year filling out forms and submitting to interviews. “The hardest thing about adoption is that you have to ask someone to trust you with a child,” he says.

In 1992, Gerrold attended the National Conference of the Adoptive Families of America in Los Angeles. While there, he wandered into a room with “rows of tables and heart-tugging displays. Organizations. Agencies. Children in Eastern Europe. Children in Latin America. Asian children. Children with special needs. Photo listings, like real estate albums. Turn the pages, look at the eyes, the smiles, the needs...”

Then he saw the picture that changed his life. It was at the back of a book from the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services. The photo had been added by someone as an afterthought on the day of the conference.

It was a snapshot of a boy with a bike on a sunny, tree-lined sidewalk. “He was caught in the act of shouting or laughing at whoever was holding the camera,” Gerrold remembers. “His blond hair was wild...his eyes shone like stars behind his glasses, his expression was raucous and exuberant.” Gerrold felt that he had found “his” son.

He arranged for a meeting with Dennis’ case worker, where he learned that the boy’s mother was a substance abuser and alcoholic who had abandoned her 1½ year old child in a motel room. His father had died of a self-induced overdose. By 1992, the boy had already been in eight foster homes, and abused in two of them. He was hyperactive, with attention deficit disorder and possible fetal alcohol syndrome. He was classified as “hard to place,” a euphemism for “unadoptable.”

After a lengthy process which included more conferences with social workers and trial visits with Dennis, Gerrold was given the OK to start the adoption process.

This was not an instant “happily ever after” story. Dennis had already been sent away from so many places that he expected the adoption to fail too and he tested the limits. “I had to prove to him that nothing he could do would make me quit, that he was finally in a home where he was loved and nurtured and where he could thrive,” the boy’s father said.

Dennis threw tantrums. “The first time he had a tantrum, I held him in a basket hug for 45 minutes,” said Gerrold. “I told him ‘I’m not giving up on you.’” The next time he only had to hold him for 20 minutes, and by the third tantrum, the boy admitted. “I don’t want to act like this any more.”

It was within the first few months of Dennis’ adoption process that Gerrold got the idea for “The Martian Child.” He was at a party where some women were talking about their children while the kids were playing in the swimming pool.

“They were talking about one of the little girls who thought she was a Martian. At the word ‘Martian’ my ears picked up. The mother explained that her little girl felt she had been implanted in the mom’s tummy. Right away I’m thinking ‘what can I do with that?’”

Gerrold thought that it would be funny if Dennis were really a Martian, but the boy said he was not. “That screwed up a beautiful story idea,” he laughed, “but I wrote the story as if he had answered yes.”

There was lots of material from which to draw. The father and son had been playing games, such as guessing color of M&Ms , wishing for stop lights to turn green, wishing for baseball players to hit home runs. At one point Dennis, always afraid that his luck would change again, said that Gerrold was making him use up all his wishes on trivial things. “No, you can have as many wishes as you want,” his father reassured him. This conversation became a part of the story.

“Almost everything in the story is true,” said Gerrold. “I wanted to capture how much I loved my kid. All of the neat stuff. I began to tweak pieces of dialog. It all fit together that Dennis’ Martian wish was to have a dad.”

Gerrold finished his novelette in 1993, about the time Dennis turned 9. “We had been together 9 months and had reached a point where we had a real father/son relationship. I was having a great time being his dad. The story had become a love letter.”

“I thought it was neat that someone would take time to write a book about my life and to include me in something special like that,” the adult Sean (now 23) remembers. “I was really proud of my dad.”

The problem was that publishers didn’t know what to do with the story. It wasn’t, strictly speaking “science fiction,” yet the Martian aspect took it out of the realm of normal fiction as well. Then Christine Catherine Rush, the editor of “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazine decided to take a chance and published the story.

Two weeks after “The Martian Child” appeared in print the fan letters started pouring in. “It’s one thing to get letters like ‘you touched my heart’ or ‘I really liked it’,” said Gerrold, “but we were getting letters that were so over the top, things like ‘This is the best story I’ve ever read in this magazine since its beginning.’ It was startling.”

The story won the “triple crown” of science fiction that year: The Nebula, the Hugo, and the Locus Readership Poll. “That only happens once every ten years or so,” Gerrold points out, proudly.

Gerrold and his son went to Scotland for the Hugo Award ceremonies. “That was so cool,” Sean remembers. His father brought him up on stage to accept the award. “He asked me if I wanted to say anything,” says Sean. “I took the microphone and said ‘buy my dad’s books,’” he laughed.

Tor Books, which had published the Starsiders series, Gerrold’s books for young people, was looking for new books from the author. It was decided to expand the original novelette into a full length book. The resulting 190 page hardback was the closest Gerrold had come to writing an autobiography. Friends marveled at its uncharacteristic candor.

After publication of “The Martian Child” in book form, several offers to put the story on the screen came in, but Gerrold was waiting for just the right one.

David Kirschner Productions expressed interest and a workable deal was signed, although the screenplay would be written by Seth A. Bass and Jonathan Tolins. Screen credit for Gerrold was arbitrated and ultimately it was agreed that it would read, “based on ‘The Martian Child,’ by David Gerrold.”

John Cusack was cast in the role of ‘David,’ though he would be a widower, rather than a gay man. “I don’t have a problem with his being a straight guy,” said Gerrold. “The story isn’t about being gay and adopting. The story is about adopting, and the focus of the story is that there are kids who need homes, special needs kids. I’m not an activist about gay people needing to adopt. I’m in this because children need loving parents. That was the point of the story when I wrote it in 1993 and it’s the point of the movie now. Being gay is a very minor point in the novel version of the story. My only objection to ‘David’ being a widower is that you don’t adopt a child to fill a hole in your life, you adopt a child to provide something for a child’s life. If someone wants to adopt because they are grieving lost love, that disqualifies them. You have to have your life in order. That must be in the script. ‘David’ can be grieving, but he has to have both feet on the ground. The only valid reason for him to adopt is that he wants to be a dad.”

The movie was being shot in Canada and Gerrold and his son visited the set a few times during filming. “Bobby Coleman makes a good me,” said Sean. “He’s certainly cute enough,” he laughed. “We were on the set for two days and if we had stayed longer, I could have had a role as an extra in the film, but we had to leave.”

Gerrold was pleased with what he saw. “John Cusack and boy did a wonderful job with the relationship. For those who feel concern that I ‘sold out,’ I haven’t. I think it’s important to make the point that straight people can be just as good parents as gay people. It’s not a critical point for the movie,” Gerrold chuckles.

“This story has always been about one thing only: how much I love my kid,” says Gerrold. “Despite the initial settling in problems, one day you realize he may be a loathsome reptilian thing, but he’s MY loathsome reptilian thing. The story is not about the dad being gay or who died or how to raise a kid, it’s about that shift from the real face of not knowing who this other person is, to loving them for who they are, regardless of who they are. Every parent experiences this. That’s what happens in a love relationship. The movie is about that moment in time when a little boy and a grown man become a father and a son. I hope people see it as a simple father/son story and not add stuff to it. It’s like a souffle, if you add too much to it, it collapses.”

Sean, now 23 - Bobby Coleman - David Gerrold
taken at "The Martian Child" premiere in L.A. 10/18/07


Jan said...

Great review! I'd never heard of this movie, but it sounds like a must-see.

Anonymous said...

I've actually been looking forward to seeing this story. And I love knowing the "story behind the story." Thank you!

Jan said...

The Bee's review was dismal, but I went anyway, and I agree with you. (I did cry when the dog died. Too soon after we lost our Sailor!)

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this movie!!! I have watched it every night for the mast month as I go to sleep. I want to be a parent more than anything else in the world. I love the story. Thanks for posting, now I will go find the orginal story and book. Thanks for sharing your amazing story o love!

pike1961 said...

I love the story behind the movie much more than the movie. I appreciate and respect Mr. Gerrold's reluctance to become an activist for gay adoption. However I am dissapointed by it. Who better to be an activist but you Mr. Gerrold? You have lived a beautiful success story. It is December 28, 2008 and we just had a historic election that saw a black man elected as president. However in an ironic twist another minority has had its rights striped away. In California, Florida and Arkansas, basic civil rights have been taken away from gay men and women. In Arkansas they specifically took the right to adopt away from "unmarried" couples. How many children will now not have the same wonderful chance to be loved as your son did? It's a travesty. I hope you start shouting about this injustice from the mountaintops.

Anonymous said...

The idea in taking the "gay" father out of the movie was to make it more digestable for viewers thus more people viewing thus more of the green stuff coming in. There is a lot of money invested in making a movie and the idea is to make a profit. I did not have a problem when I read the book with the father being gay and I understand and do not have a problem with changing him to someone more socially acceptable. This is the way of the world. I just read the story and when I found it was made into a movie I just added it to my netflix queue. I actually listened to the book electronically, very wonderful story!

Anonymous said...

Just came from watching the movie on Netflix! I loved it. I wanted to see what the book was based on. If a kid that thought he was a Martian for real or just a difficult adoption or what? Regarding changing some facts, that happens. Screenplays change race, change gender. Part of that is ok for me becausae the producer and screenplay writers have their visions too when they translate. Ive watched a lot of movies and read books. The worst is the writer babysitting the process until there is none! As far as concept it totally works either way. I think it was great that the Martian ideas came through while going through the difficult adoption and adjustment process. We all adjust! I didnt fit in. Scottish parents. Living in 3 countries before age 10. At that age in the 60s where every bad sci fi movie was what played on tv! I had a high IQ but put in traditional girl roles with an extremely sheltered but mind opening relationship. My mother encouraged education. I read encyclopedias for fun, but we were extremely cloistered. No friends. And add being a twin to that mix. I think this book and movie just speaks to all the problems we all had and will have! After all, who grows up normal anyway>