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FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: THE UNPLEASANT PROFESSION OF JONATHAN HOAG (2011)
 



 

Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City and I, Robot) is set to direct The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, an early work of sci-fi giant Robert Heinlein . . .

Not many of Heinlein works have been made into movies to date. The most notable ones are the dry Destination Moon, The Puppet Masters (an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like tale) and of course Starship Troopers, which wasn’t exactly an adaptation of the material, but more of a commentary on it.

This controversial science fiction author (he probably did believe that one should do military service before being allowed the right to vote as is the case in Starship Troopers) is perhaps best known as the author of the ground-breaking 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel for which he won one of four Hugo Awards. That Charles Manson professed to liking Stranger shouldn’t really be held against it. After all, Manson also liked The Beatles’ White Album, even though he misunderstood the lyrics. (A “helter-skelter” was a spiraling amusement park slide, not a coded prophecy of an impending racial war).

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is however an atypical Heinlein novella in that, unlike his later novels, little of his scary libertarianism makes it to the printed page. Clocking in at a mere 121 pages it is now out of print, but can still be picked up at second-hand book stores. To pad the number of pages the novella is usually bundled along with some other short stories by Heinlein.

Written in 1942 the novella comes across as The Maltese Falcon meets a J-Horror flick, something like Geoul sokeuro (remade as Mirrors recently). No seriously. It is part horror flick and part ‘Forties noir detective story. In this old-fashioned tale, very much a product of its time, a somewhat prissy sophisticate named Jonathan Hoag one day realizes that he has no idea what he does for a living during the day. Who is paying the bills for Hoag’s posh lifestyle, the expensive apartment and the fancy gloves and top hat? Hoag has no idea. What he does during the day is a complete blank. He has no recollection whatsoever of what he does during office hours.

"Little of Heinlein's scary libertarianism makes it to this book . . ."

The issue of Hoag’s “unpleasant profession” is the mystery that lies at the heart of Heinlein’s novella and it is only revealed a few pages before the story’s ending. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is, but I will tell you that you probably won’t guess what it is. The denouement is however pure Heinlein. Or even Douglas Adams for that matter. The point is that Hoag is disturbed by the fact that he doesn’t know what he does during day-light hours and before you can say “split personality” he hires two private detectives – a husband and wife team – to secretly follow him around and find out what exactly it is what he does for a living . . .

Our detective heroes (one can just see how Bogart and Bacall inspired Heinlein originally) have however bitten off more than they can chew. As I’ve said earlier, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is more of a supernatural thriller than Heinlein’s normal hard sci-fi stuff. (Except for the ending of course.) It involves amongst others mysterious and threatening figures “living” inside mirrors, something taken right out of Alice in Wonderland.

The last few pages of the novella seem like pure Stephen King, something out of The Mist, and this is probably the route that the film-makers will take with the material. It would be interesting to see however whether they will keep the early-1940’s setting. One cannot imagine the prissy Jonathan Hoag being anyone else but some top hat-wearing dilettante from the era. Keeping the ‘Forties setting may mean a bigger budget for Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, but it will give director Proyas – who has done his own particular brand of noir production designs in Dark City – to out-Angel Heart Alan Parker himself!

Anyway, if they stick to Hoag’s profession in the novella we’ll be the first ones to queue up to see it!


 



 

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