Shockingly, A Boy and His Dog is to date the only feature film adaptation of a Harlan Ellison story. Many of Ellison’s stories have been optioned over the decades, including the masterful “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” but so far nothing outside some TV adaptations have occurred. Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski is now the executor of his literary estate, so hopefully we might have more on the horizon. Ellison was the “conceptual consultant” throughout the whole series, which gave him a steady paycheque throughout the ’90s.
Ellison had a notorious reputation in Hollywood, which probably didn’t encourage executives to green-light adaptations of his work. His most notorious Hollywood incident was probably his lawsuit against James Cameron for plagiarising his Outer Limits episode Soldier for The Terminator. Ellison’s case would probably get thrown out today, but it’s undeniable that Cameron stole the opening and basic premise from Ellison—to this day the film carries an acknowledgment to Ellison. Ironically, everybody I know who came in contact with him always said how great a guy he was, including my mother and film director Steve De Jarnatt.
L.Q. Jones, who was an actor and part of Sam Peckinpah’s stock company, met Ellison about possibly directing an adaptation of his novella A Boy and His Dog, which had initially been published as a short story in New Worlds magazine before Ellison expanded it. Ellison was supposed to write the script, but didn’t—it was definitely not a case of writer’s block, something Ellison was rarely known to ever have—he wrote over 100 books in his lifespan. L.Q. assumed screenwriting duties, and it took him a year to finish the script. He would eventually self-finance the film through friends, despite studio interest. It cost around $400,000 to make, which even in 1975 was a low budget for an apocalyptic sci-fi film.
The film is set in an apocalyptic America of 2024, and follows Vic (Don Johnston) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) as they scavenge around the remnants of the world for food to eat and women to rape. Vic has no formal education, and doesn’t understand ethics or morality. Ellison, being the good lefty that he was, wrote it as a critique of male chauvinistic behavior—while Jones reveled in the same kind of behaviour, which created an interesting on-screen dichotomy pitting the two creatives behind the film against each other. The film’s last line was a source of great contention between the two men for years.
A decade before his TV stardom in Miami Vice, Johnson gave one of his most memorable film performances as Vic. The film has a decidedly offbeat nature, which has helped it gain a cult following over the years.
The first 40 minutes of the film is a great apocalyptic sci-fi film with some beautiful shots of Barstow and Coyote Lake in the Mojave Desert. Vic follows a girl, Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), and attempts to rape her, but after he saves her from mutants they repeatedly have consensual sex. He ends up following her down into this underground society that is based on a pre-WWII rural America where everybody is in whiteface and lipstick. The film starts to suffer here, because there are a few dull stretches, but it’s such a bizarre society that it doesn’t suffer too much. Jason Robards plays the girl’s father, and turns in one of his sillier performances in a long and illustrious career.
Since the release of A Boy and His Dog, there have been plenty of post-apocalyptic scavenger films and probably better ones, most notably the Mad Max series (and he even had a dog!) Miller always acknowledged the influence of the film on his own series. A Boy and His Dog may be very much a time capsule from the mid ’70s, and its sexual politics would probably shock some younger viewers who don’t understand there is an element of irony and satire to the film. It remains a bona fide cult classic, and a highly influential piece of science fiction that should be looked back upon, because it’s a really good film. Now it would be nice if I could ever find a copy of the Ellison collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, which includes the novella!
The Blu-Ray from 101 Films uses the previous Shout Factory transfer, and ports over the extras, which include a commentary by director Jones, cinematographer John Arthur Morrill and critic Charles Champlin. The highlight, however, is a filmed conversation between Jones and Ellison, which is wildly entertaining and might be better than the film. They had mutual respect for each other, but had an infamously contentious relationship over the direction of the film, although ultimately Ellison did like the finished film.