#TBT Classic: “A Boy and His Dog”

In my return to a #TBT Classic review, we’ve got a bit of a two-fer: both the original novella by Harlan Ellison, and the 1975 film starring Don Johnson.  But while I went for both (I had the film on my Amazon Prime watch list, but wanted to read the short story/novella first), you certainly don’t have to.

The story is basically the same: we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, with the surface world a free-for-all of gangs (“roverpaks”) and “solos,” and the “decent” people living, literally, underground in controlled communities.  Vic, our protagonist, lives on the surface, with his dog, Blood (hence, the name).  Vic is completely amoral, as the surface world has devolved to be concerned only about survival; Vic’s interests are limited to finding food, finding sex, and avoiding death.  Occasionally Vic and Blood find some base civilized settlement, run by various gangs, where he can watch “beaver flicks,” and the other men there will overtly masturbate.  Vic is aided in his quests by Blood, with whom he has a telepathic bond; one of Blood’s particular skills is locating females, so Vic can “get laid.”

Blood identifies a girl (Quilla June) while Vic is watching a beaver flick at the movie house, and when they leave, the pair follow her to a YMCA, where Vic intends to rape her.  Unfortunately for Vic, an attack by a roverpak (who likely also became aware of the female) delays his gratification.  Our young anti-hero defeats the roverpak, claims his prize – then deals with the shock of learning that females may have their own desires, and is confronted with the question of . . . love.

Now, I hope your love is pure and true, but that doesn’t make the best drama, so naturally, love is followed by betrayal, which is followed by revenge, which is followed by redemption.  By the end of the story, there is more to life than feeding and getting laid.

Ellison’s original story is a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction.  He was perfect in crafting Vic’s voice – Vic knows the basics about how the world became a dystopian nightmare, but he doesn’t dwell on it.  From our perspective as reader and observer, we can see the dystopia; Vic only sees the challenges of survival, and his carnal desires.  When he is confronted with the “downunders,” those who live in the underground settlements, he views their regimented lives as unnatural.  Vic kills for his own survival, and rapes for his own pleasure, but he doesn’t come across as “good” or “bad,” because such judgments have no place in Vic’s world.  Between Vic and Blood, the telepathic dog usually comes across as the more rational creature.  Still (as the title would suggest, as I don’t want to give many spoilers), Vic demonstrates growth over the course of the story, finally forming meaningful emotional connections.

Ellison’s prose puts you in the mind of the protagonist – we see the world as he sees it.  While the language is crude and the vocabulary sparse, the language evokes the constant action, the reader can share in Vic’s sensations, whether anxious, angry, desirous, even his confusion as he starts to appreciate the needs of others.

By comparison, the movie was a huge disappointment.  It could be my own bias, but from the start Don Johnson didn’t feel right for the role, and it goes beyond knowing how his career would unfold; already 25 when the film was released, he doesn’t exactly scream, “boy.”  I don’t know that I have any complaint about the particular dog used, but the telepathy didn’t work well – it didn’t feel like Blood’s voice as much as it felt like a disconnected foil for Vic (you could argue that this is a possible way of handling a telepathic dog; all I’m saying is that it didn’t work).  Right from the start, “boy” and “his dog” had major problems.

The movie really falls apart when Vic goes “downunder,” though.  In Ellison’s novella, Topeka (the post-apocalypse underground settlement) feels bizarre and unnatural to the savage Vic; but what makes Topeka surreal is how foreign it is to Vic’s reality, and the dangers are those that will naturally accompany a closed, homogenous, highly-regulated society.  Producer and director L.Q. Jones isn’t content to let the juxtaposition of Vic with a puritan society define the surreal; instead, he takes the film through scenes that look like cutting room remnants from A Clockwork Orange.

Blood’s voice could simply be the result of the limitations of the technology of the time, but the major problems I had with the film were more related to the characterizations of the actors, and the choices made by the director in presenting the dystopian future.  Mad Max came out in 1979, and had no significant special effects that weren’t available in 1974-75, but is exponentially better in portraying a crumbling society.  A Boy and His Dog was well-received when it was released, winning a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and earning Johnson a Saturn Award for Best Actor.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stand the test of time.

Fortunately, the novella does.  If you haven’t previously read or seen “A Boy and His Dog,” skip the movie and go straight for the story; you’ll finish it in under an hour (less time than the movie), and your mind will create a world far more vibrant and immediate than the film does.  If you’ve seen the film, whether you liked it or not, you owe it to yourself to check out the novella anyway – it will either redeem the story for you, or show you why “the book is so much better than the movie” even if you liked it.