This is a 2,312-word essay on Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999) for a cancelled companion titled When Worlds Collide: The Critical Companion to Science Fiction Film Adaptations for Liverpool University Press. I wrote my first draft and submitted it on May 30, 2009 (discussed here). A year-and-a-half later, the editors sent me suggestions and feedback on Jan. 31, 2011 (discussed here). I returned my substantially revised final draft (included below) on Mar. 1, 2011. My enjoyment of Isaac Asimov’s original novelette and novel-length-expansion with Robert Silverberg as The Positronic Man led me to write for this project when I first saw the call for contributors (even though I had not yet seen Columbus’ film!). I was thick in my PhD work when I wrote the first draft and nearing the end of that phase of my career when I submitted my revised copy. It is, unfortunately, a reminder that sometimes projects don’t work out for any number of reasons. I didn’t want my writing on these stories and its film adaptation to disappear, so I’m sharing it here. I am presenting it as-is based on the original document, which followed the house style provided by the editors–with only changes from British to American English spellings and punctuation use.
Bicentennial Man (1492 Pictures, 1999)
Adapted from Isaac Asimov, ‘Bicentennial Man’ (1976) and Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man (1993)
(Dir. Chris Columbus; Sc. Nicholas Kazan; Pr. Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz, Laurence Mark, Neal Miller, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan; Cin. Phil Meheux; P.D. Norman Reynolds; SFX. Dream Quest Images; starring Robin Williams (Andrew); Sam Neill (Sir); Embeth Davidtz (Amanda Martin/Portia Charney); Wendy Crewson (Ma’am); Oliver Platt (Rupert Burns))
Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” (1976) won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novelette in 1976 and 1977 respectively, and it has appeared continuously in print in various anthologies over the past three decades. Later, Asimov and Silverberg co-wrote a novel-length expansion of the original novelette which appeared in 1993 as The Positronic Man. These two works share a nearly identical plot, and the only additions in the novel include elaborate descriptive language, ancillary dialogue, and notable chapter expansions relating to the history of robotic development and the robot-protagonist Andrew’s trip to the Moon. These expansions are largely insignificant and did not influence Columbus’ critically derided and commercially unsuccessful adaptation.
Asimov and Columbus use their respective media to tell a similar civil rights allegory about a robot with human-like qualities who aspires to a human identity and the rights that accompany it. In Asimov’s original novelette, the robot named Andrew overcomes real threats to his existence and he re-engineers his body in order to convince his society and government to grant him the legal status and rights of a human being, because he desires full self-determination. In this telling, Andrew seeks the legal authority to marry from his government. Both the film and the novelette carry an important message about equality and human dignity, but Asimov’s original story carries the burden much more confidently than the more recent film interpretation of that message.
“The Bicentennial Man” is a unique Bildungsroman about Andrew, a robot who desires and ultimately achieves his humanity by freeing himself from the bonds of robotic servitude through his creative works and personal biology-machine negotiations. Andrew begins his life as a purchased NDR robot by the Martin family and he is assigned domestic duties in their household. Soon after, he is named Andrew by his youngest charge, Little Miss. However, he quickly displays an unexpectedly preternatural creativity at woodworking, carving, and original thought. Andrew’s abilities allow him to obtain his freedom, write a history of robots from a robot’s perspective, develop a new science of biological prosthetics, and transform his machine body into one that is organic. On his 200th birthday, and after orchestrating his own mortality, he achieves recognition from the World Government that he is indeed human. Humanity however besets Andrew’s development from robot to virtual human being, which positions the story as a veiled social critique. A significant scene early in the story establishes why Andrew desires a human identity despite his robotic physicality and grounds the story in the American civil rights era: Lost in the countryside, Andrew is confronted by two men who agree that, “If it doesn’t belong to anyone, he could be ours as much as someone else’s” (Asimov, 1991: 262). At this point, Andrew’s situation connotes the predicament of former American slaves prior to the Civil War who traveled with manumission papers fearing they might be enslaved once again. The men’s disregard for Andrew’s freedom and personhood constitutes a powerful episode in the novelette, because it demonstrates a threat to Andrew’s personhood and a reason for his continuing work toward becoming human. Its absence from the film adaptation is symptomatic of the mishandling of the source material, which will be elaborated below.
Columbus’ Bicentennial Man follows the narrative arc of the original, but it departs from Asimov’s novelette in a number of significant ways with the most consequential being Andrew falls in love with a human woman. It is Andrew’s desire to marry that provides the film a different allegorical message while maintaining a focus on Civil Rights. However, it is important to first note that in the original and adaptation, Andrew attempts to purchase himself from Sir, his human master. However, in the novelette, Sir initially refuses to grant Andrew’s freedom in exchange for money. It is only after Andrew wins a suit brought against robot freedom in the courts that Sir concedes to give Andrew his liberty in exchange for money. In the film, Sir immediately liberates Andrew with the caveat that Andrew vacate the Martin home immediately, and Sir says, ‘You wanted freedom. You must accept the consequences.’ In this regard, Andrew’s initial taste of freedom reflects how African-Americans were evicted from plantations following the Civil War with nowhere to go, but Andrew easily overcomes even this situation. It is on this point that the film fails where Asimov’s novelette endures. Andrew in the film never encounters a potentially hazardous circumstance on his journey to be human, and his battles are not convincingly hard-won. Then, finding himself alone in a world dominated by human beings, he serendipitously meets the cyberneticist Rupert Burns who helps his transition to a mortal human body so that he can romantically pursue Little Miss’ great-granddaughter Portia Charney. Instead of wanting the protections and rights of a human being due to his ambiguously defined legal status as in the original story, Andrew’s motivation for human identity comes from his desire to marry Portia. The film’s approach to a civil rights allegory is significantly different than Asimov’s story, but it is of significant importance to contemporary civil rights, which is addressed in the conclusion. Unfortunately, the film is marred by questionable issues in its handling of its source material and an unusual casting considering its subject matter. The first issue has to do with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. In the important closing scene moments after Andrew’s death, Portia orders the android Galatea to unplug the machine keeping her alive after Andrew’s death, which is a gross violation of Asimov’s First Law of Robotics: “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” (Asimov, 1991: 126) More importantly, the film’s cast is overwhelmingly white except for the only two prominent characters of color: an unidentified jazz singer (Paula West), and President Marjorie Bota (Lynne Thigpen). Each of these African-American actresses plays an influential role at key moments in Andrew’s transformation from robot to human being. The singer presides over the dance where Andrew begins to understand his feelings for Portia and the President grants Andrew’s request to be recognized as a human being. However, it is surprising that more persons of color were not cast as principles in the film, despite Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing ethnic roles or embracing diversity in its films’ casts considering the allegorical subject matter of the original and its adaptation.
The presentation of the narrative in the original and film also greatly differs. Asimov builds momentum in the novelette through flashback and twenty-three short chapters. These chapters are snapshots in the long life of Andrew Martin as he attempts to transform from robot to human being. Additionally, these episodic chapters rise and fall with dramatic impact from event-to-event until the reader learns Andrew’s ultimate choice and his fate. On the other hand, the film is generally divided between Andrew’s life with the Martins, his search for robots like himself, and his transformation into a human being as he falls in love with Portia. The narrative is slow and plodding, and Robin William’s humor is lost behind the film’s script and special effects veneer. Through its narrative, the film presents a brighter and less dangerous narrative that follows Andrew’s human friendships and ultimately his courtship of a human woman. Besides its relaxed narrative that keeps Andrew out of harm’s way, the film has generally well lit and immaculately clean settings within the home and in the world-at-large, which conveys a sense of safety for Andrew as well as humanity. Furthermore, Columbus avoids dramatic tension by evading conflict or quickly diffusing stress between characters, such as between Andrew and Portia. The director also regularly employs wide shots, which lessens the emotional significance of many scenes. Despite its cinematographic deficiencies, the film endeavors to present a Civil Rights allegory that is closely aligned with its source.
The novelette and film respond to issues of equality and Civil Rights found in many of Asimov’s stories in which robots have to deal with demanding human ‘masters’ spouting slurs, which in other contexts would be considered racist (the use of “boy,” for example: Asimov, 1941: 124). For Asimov and Columbus, Andrew is a bonded servant on two levels – as a thing purchased, owned, and controlled, and as a robot bound by the Three Laws of Robotics first enumerated in Asimov’s short story “Runaround” (1942). Andrew transcends these restrictions on his being and his behavior in order to achieve personhood just as some former African-American slaves overcame their status as property in order to register themselves as persons deserving freedom and equality. In Asimov’s original novelette, Andrew overcomes the threat to his right of self-determination by convincing his society and its government to grant him identical status as a human being, a “Bicentennial Man” (Asimov, 1991: 290). On the other hand, Columbus’ film places its emphasis on a threat to Andrew’s and Portia’s family by calling into question the right of a robot to choose to marry a human being and vice versa. Both are momentous civil rights issues, but the film’s execution of its message appears weighted more toward Andrew’s socialization as Portia’s mate rather than the harsh realities of a society against the marriage of a particular group.
“The Bicentennial Man” deals with ontological concerns and identity politics as is true of many of Asimov’s robot stories. However, Andrew’s story more fully explores one robot’s path from robotic slavery to human freedom, and it does so by closely following models of American slave narratives that emphasize emancipation and personal development. These include Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1798), Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901). These authors demonstrate their subjecthood as equals of all human beings through their lives and writings, and furthermore, they prevail over Thomas Jefferson’s comments on American slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784): “that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” and he “never [saw] even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” (Jefferson, 1984, 267). Likewise, Andrew overcomes society’s expectations by demonstrating that he is artistically creative and an independent thinker who desires freedom. Asimov mirrors slave narratives in his futuristic story: Andrew obtains a personal awareness of his oppressive situation as a robotic slave, he attempts to purchase himself from his master with money saved from his creative labour, he experiences a different way of interacting with humans and robots on the Moon, and he spends his life proving himself an equal of other humans. Andrew, like former American slaves, also demands to know why he is not considered an enfranchised human. He challenges his society’s beliefs about robots, and he ultimately convinces his society and government to grant him equal status with human beings. However, Andrew’s successes in the novelette and film are an oversimplification of the past and present difficulties of people of color to achieve the full benefits of civil rights and wider societal acceptance, but it could be Andrew’s desire to marry a human being in the film adaptation that gives the film more contemporary, perhaps even prophetic importance.
Despite Bicentennial Man’s problems, it may signify the future of civil rights issues in its handling of an individual’s right to marry. Asimov’s novelette appeared a few years after the landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court in ‘Loving v. Virginia’ (1967), which made all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional thus legalizing all mixed-race marriages. However, this issue was not explored in the original story. On the other hand, the film relies on the right to marry as the motivation for Andrew’s development in the last half of the film. In order to marry the human woman Portia, Andrew must transcend his robotic body and convince his society and government to allow him the right that human beings take for granted. This civil rights issue raised in the film is prophetic of the growing call for gay men and lesbians to share the legal right to marry. The film appeared three years after the passage of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which broke the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It dictates that the States must respect the laws of other States. Without DOMA, all States would have had to respect the marriages of gays and lesbians if any one State had made those marriages legal. Civil rights are and will continue to be a struggle for minority groups in the United States, and it is in this light that Bicentennial Man succeeds as a film veiling a message on an on-going civil rights debate.
Isaac Asimov, ‘Bicentennial Man’ in I. Asimov, Robot Visions (New York: ROC, 1991), pp. 245-290. Originally published in Stellar #2 (1976).
Isaac Asimov, ‘Runaround’ in I. Asimov, Robot Visions (New York: ROC, 1991), pp. 113-134. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction (April 1941).
Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1793).
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 266. Originally published in 1784.
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: an autobiography (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1901).