Harlan Ellison’s Nebula-winning story about a young post-apocalyptic survivor named Vic and his best friend, a telepathic, intelligent dog named Blood, has been through many forms. First published in short-story form in 1969, “A Boy And His Dog” was expanded to novella-length for Ellison’s anthology The Beast Who Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World. The story and two others featuring the same characters, “Eggsucker” and “Run, Spot, Run,” were collectively adapted into the 1989 graphic novel Vic And Blood. All three stories and an unproduced feature-film screenplay for CBS formed the core of Ellison’s as-yet-unpublished book Blood’s A Rover. And in 1975, longtime Sam Peckinpah actor L.Q. Jones adapted the original story into the feature film A Boy And His Dog, starring Don Johnson as Vic, and Tiger, the dog from The Brady Bunch, as Blood.
In a lengthy dialogue on the newly restored Shout! Factory Blu-ray release of A Boy And His Dog, Ellison and Jones walk through the history of the film together: Ellison had writer’s block over the screenplay, so Jones wrote the script and directed the film. It’s a startlingly close adaptation of Ellison’s grim story, but upon seeing the rough cut, Ellison was apoplectic about some of Blood’s misogynistic dialogue, and took up a collection to fund some re-dubbing of the dog’s voiceover. But he couldn’t shake Jones on the film’s controversial final line, which makes a sick pun out of what Ellison saw as a tragedy, and that line is still contentious today. To commemorate the film’s collectors’ edition re-release, Ellison discussed that final line, Jones’ adaptation, and the environment in which the original story was written decades ago.
The Dissolve: When “A Boy And His Dog” was published, there was a huge fascination in the culture with post-atomic dystopian films and stories.
Harlan Ellison: Well, we were in the middle of a Cold War.
The Dissolve: Did the other stories coming out at the time influence you in writing it?
"I got a letter, a furious letter, from a very old woman who had taken her grandson to see it, thinking it was a Disney film, with a title like A Boy And His Dog. And she was outraged."
Ellison: Oh absolutely. The sociological aspects of the story, which have been imitated many, many times—I’m not even going to mention the Cormac McCarthy book [The Road] which owes, it seems to me, a great debt to“A Boy And His Dog,” which is unacknowledged on his part. The story and the subsequent movie, now out on this remarkable Blu-ray, was perhaps 25 years ahead of its time. And very few people, if any, were writing about the state of mind of the people in the United States, that we were so abyssally divided between those who lived in a kind of head-in-the-sand Down Under, as portrayed in the movie, full of phony patriotism and prejudice, and those who were above ground and railing against the changing paradigm of American culture and social unrest.
This story, I wrote to please my dog, Abu. I really did. This section,“A Boy And His Dog,” which was made into the movie, is only the center section of a very long novel called Blood’s A Rover, from the A.E. Housman poem [“Reveille”]. That’s why the telepathic dog is called Blood. I parodied the Albert Payson Terhune dog books, like Lad: A Dog, and so many others that were staples of my childhood. It’s kind of a love story. Blood keeps calling Vic “Albert,” and Vic doesn’t understand why. People mistakenly think I’m saying Albert Einstein, but I’m not. It’s an homage to Albert Payson Terhune.
So the irony of the title “A Boy And His Dog” is that it stands that idiom on its head, in the stories and the full novel and the graphic novel. It’s intended to provoke a laugh. And the story itself is a cross between parody and grittiness. The dog is me, of course—I always think I’m the smartest one on the block. Originally, my voice was going to be used, and then I suggested James Cagney. Cagney was retired and didn’t want to do it, so they went with Tim McIntire, who I think is absolutely spectacular.
The story of that section, “A Boy And His Dog” which is preceded by a short story called “Eggsucker” and followed by a story called “Run, Spot, Run” and then the longest part, which is called Blood’s A Rover, which I did as a script for CBS. We were going to do it as a two-hour movie and then a series on television and it never happened, so that has never been published. It’s still sitting here, but it’s a huge long novel, one of my longest novels, and this section of it got written first. I wrote it in London and was contacted by Michael Moorcock of New Worlds and he wanted a story and he gave me the cover story and I said, “Well, I think this part stands alone, but there’s more to come,” and he ran it and the next thing I knew I was getting movie offers left and right.
The Dissolve: What’s the status of the screenplay segment of Blood’s A Rover? Do you still hope to see it made into a movie?
Ellison: A Boy And His Dog, the original film L.Q. Jones made, has been under option [to be remade] since 1975, and there’s even a version—somebody wants to do it as a rotoscope. I hold all the other rights. I haven’t done anything with the screenplay, but if we don’t eventually do it as a film, I will do it as part of the Brain Movies series of my books. Brain Movies are my screenplays and teleplays, and they’ve done four of them. The last one features a two-hour movie that’s never been released or made, called Cutter’s World. We may do Blood’s A Rover. If not, I may do the novel. I mean, who knows what tomorrow brings?
The Dissolve: L.Q. Jones has been talking for decades about the possibility of a direct sequel to the film Boy And His Dog, but with a female protagonist. Would you want to be involved in that?
Ellison: Well, I own the rights to it. How it will be done, I do not know. L.Q. owns the original film. I made very little money off it, although it continues to be and has been, for decades, one of the top five rentals for film societies and colleges—they show it constantly. And it’s been ripped off, and reissued, and on DVDs, though nothing like this incredible Blu-ray Shout! Factory has done, which restores its original, vivid, stark, adept original incarnation.
So this becomes a question of who offers us the most money, because like all storytellers, I sit around the campfire with my turban out and say, “Here’s Vic and Blood and the third leg of this love triangle, a female rover called Spike, the dominant figure in the two-thirds of the book that make up Blood’s A Rover.” When someone comes along, the storyteller says, “And the hero is hanging by his fingertips from the rotting edge of the chasm, and below him, the snakes and vipers and crocodiles are all snapping. You want to know what happened to him, put a few drachma in my turban.” And when someone crosses my palm with the right amount of silver, I will release the screenplay, which is already written and ready to go, and they may either remake A Boy And His Dog, which would involve L.Q., or just make the sequel. This all is up in the air. It’s all ready to go and everything that can be made is under option and everything that I own that’s ready to go, is waiting here for the right golden mouth to open.
The Dissolve: When he’s described the film sequel, he’s also mentioned Spike, so it sounds like you’re talking about the same thing, except he’s positioning it as his sequel.
Ellison: I adore L.Q., make no mistake, I adore L.Q., but he is like a cold you get in May and you don’t get rid of until the following January. He’s a good old Texas boy, and he and I fight each other like Cain and Abel. But I have enormous respects for his talents—and that was what killed the deal with CBS. They loved the script and were ready to go with it, for a two-hour movie, followed by a series about the adventures of Vic and Blood. And I would have brought in Spike, so it would have been three of them, so it’s a love triangle. That’s what the story basically is, in personal terms. But CBS didn’t want to go with L.Q. as the director. They didn’t have the faith in him, although he had produced this wonderful work that has lasted for nearly half a century, and is as popular now as the day it was released. The suits went above the head of network film, who had green-lighted it, and they said, “We want a—in air quotes—“big director.” God knows who they would have gotten. And L.Q. got his dander up and became the thorn under their saddle, and the whole project fell between the stools. So let L.Q. think that it’s his sequel, but in fact, it’s 100 percent out of my fecund imagination.
The Dissolve: He has described Boy And His Dog as really a story about a boy and his father, which doesn’t really fit your description of a story about partnership, or about love.
Ellison: Well, I think I’m right and he’s wrong. [Laughs.] Vic and Blood have a relationship that’s quite clear in the story, and I think quite clear in the movie. That’s the amazing quality of the film, that it is obvious the dog is far more intelligent than the boy. The boy, as written, is about 14, 15 years old. They cast Don Johnson, who was older at the time, and he’s supposed to be just emerging into that stage of adolescence when he’s feeling the stirrings of his penis. And the dog and the boy have a symbiotic relationship—the dog needs the boy to seek out food, and the boy needs the dog to seek out women. I used history as my model for the condition of the country in “A Boy And His Dog,” where, after a decimating war, like the Wars Of The Roses, for instance, the things that become most valuable are weapons, food, and women. Women were traded and treated like chattel. I tried to make it clear in the stories and the novel that I found this distasteful, but it’s the reality of what humanity’s like when it’s gone through this kind of apocalyptic inconvenience, if you will.
The Dissolve: There’s a lengthy feature on the Blu-ray where you and Jones discuss your differences of opinion about the film’s sexism, particularly the final line of the film, which you’ve taken a lot of flak for over the years. Why did you object so strenuously? For me, it plays like the usual kind of grim, black joke that people use to make sense of tragedy, to take the edge off things that horrify them.
Ellison: Your perception is very good and correct.
The Dissolve: But why are you so uncomfortable with it?
Ellison: Frat boys leap to their feet and applaud and love it to this day. People batten on that line. They love it. I’m still uncomfortable with it, as I would be with, say, the N-bomb word, although I’ve used it many times, because it was what was necessary for a story. Or the F-word. I don’t think that line, in these times, is any more comfortable for me than when it first came out. I had terrible trouble with—I would go to colleges, and women’s groups would rise and scream at me from the audience, and I’d have to sit down with them and explain to them that this was not I, but L.Q. speaking. And I don’t make apologies for L.Q. He knew what he was doing for his audience. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, I’m right and if not, he’s right.
The Dissolve: With the film coming about again for a new audience, do you have any thoughts or theories about how differently it will play now than it did back then?
Ellison: That’s one thing I have absolutely no worries about. Years would go by between the time I first saw it and the next time I saw it on a big screen. They had it here in Hollywood at the Egyptian Theater last year, where they premièred the new, clean Blu-ray version onscreen, and it was standing room only. And I sat there and I said, “This is a goddamn terrific movie.” It is a movie that reflects its times, and yet speaks to current intelligence. So I have absolutely no fear about how well this film will do, and how much people will love it. I think it’s an all-time film.
The Dissolve: We’re going through yet another bout of fascination with horrible dystopian future right now, which makes this a timely re-release. Do you have any theory why that is?
Ellison: Well, it’s a shitty world. [Laughs.] What’s that great song from Mel Brooks’ Twelve Chairs? “Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst”? Every day, I look at the news, and every day, I hang my head. I mean, I think I’m a pretty smart cookie. People tell me I’ve got some smarts. Street smarts, if nothing else. And every day, if I have any prayer at all, being a card-carrying, stiff-necked, Jewish atheist, I go to bed hoping that I’m the smartest person on the planet, and hoping I’ll wake up tomorrow as smart as I am, and be the dumbest person on the planet. I think if you look at what’s going on in the world, and in Congress, and in just daily life, and the lack of gentility and common sense and kindness to one another of people, you’d think we ought to kick it in and turn it over to the cockroaches. So I think this film is what they used to call a gardyloo, which is what they yelled in old England when they were going to throw the shit bucket out the window.
The Dissolve: So it’s just a warning about how bad things can get?
Ellison: Yeah. It’s a portrait of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, prognosticatingly extrapolating what the future would be like. And here I have lived to see it. I never thought I’d live to see 1984, which was always the watershed of totalitarianism and horrible civil culture. And here I am now, 79 years old, way past 1984, and it is beyond the description. And every day, I think that a species capable of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, writing Moby Dick, and putting a man on the moon is certainly capable of something better than, I don’t know, Michele Bachmann and reality TV.
The Dissolve: Apart from taking L.Q. Jones to task over the language used in the film, are there larger things you would have done differently if you’d been more involved? Did he add anything you don’t feel positively about?
Ellison: His addition of the character Fellini, who has the sand wagon pulled by slaves—he’s a pedophile and he’s got young boys pulling his wagon—is something I used in the longer novel section of Blood’s A Rover. I brought Fellini, back because I thought that was a very nice addition. I think it was John O’Hara who, when somebody remarked about the difference between his novel and a movie they made of it, said, “They didn’t do anything to it. It’s right there on the shelf.” And my story is right there on the shelf. It’s in my book. Or several books. And I think the job L.Q. did in adapting it was very clever. I have no beef at all with that movie. His choices were his choices. If it had been my script, it would have been slightly different, but I can’t really say I think it would be better. I think it would be different, because it would be my voice, but L.Q. was assiduous in maintaining my voice in the voices of Vic and Blood, and that’s the core of the story. So no, there’s nothing major that he did that I would object to, even today.
The Dissolve: The novella's description of Topeka seems wistful—
The Dissolve: Yes, exactly! Whereas the film brings the satire to the surface, and is much harsher about Topeka. L.Q. Jones says he was making the movie you meant when you wrote the novella. Did he capture your intent there?
Ellison: The Down Under in “A Boy And His Dog” the novella, it’s the Midwest I grew up in. I was born in Ohio and ran away when I was 13, and spent a lot of time working farms, and working in small towns, and riding the rails. Learning the street when it really was a street and the farms, the country. It was a reflection of the 1950s, and that hidebound America we had to live in. Where Playboy was a great scandal, and the sight of a woman’s nipple was considered wildly captivating and salacious. So the people down below were kind of salt-of-the-earth, common-clay people that I had known and lived beside through most of my younger life. When L.Q. did it, he went a little further and did something very clever, I think. He’s got the people wearing that strange makeup. I thought, “Well, that’s very clever,” because if you were to go back to the equivalent culture, you’ll see the court of Louis XIV, men and women were all wearing powder and rouge and flounces and ruffles. I thought, “Well, yeah. Every culture has its own fads.” Today, people dye their hair green and have rings in their noses, and tattoos. L.Q. decided to give them their own particular outstanding cultural fad. Could have been hula hoops. But I think that was very clever of him. Very foresightful.
The Dissolve: The most surprising thing in the Blu-ray package is the trailer, which presents the film as “a kinky tale of survival.” That makes it sound like a cute sex romp, which doesn’t seem like Jones’ intention or yours.
"I would go to colleges, and women's groups would rise and scream at me from the audience, and I'd have to sit down with them and explain to them that this was not I, but L.Q. speaking. And I don't make apologies for L.Q."
Ellison: Well, I’ll tell you, the people who marketed it… I remember when the film first came out, and it was not a huge Hollywood blockbuster. It was made on a budget, and it opened at a lot of drive-ins. I got a letter, a furious letter, from a very old woman who had taken her grandson to see it, thinking it was a Disney film, with a title like A Boy And His Dog. And she was outraged. Her jaw broke off from her face in indignation at the salacious and violent nature of this film she’d taken an innocent grandson to. I think, to offset the title A Boy And His Dog, the people who originally marketed this—I had no hand in it, but they thought they ought to do something that made it look a little more barren, a little more stark. So, as it is on the cover of the Blu-ray, you see Quilla June lying there with her clothing in disarray and her belly button showing, and Don Johnson and the dog and the underground doorway above it, and the phrase, “The year is 2024, a future you’ll probably live to see.” And here we are not many years away from 2024, a lot more than I thought we would be when I wrote this story. I thought 2024 was really kicking it ahead, and that the Cold War was going to destroy us at any minute. It’s a marketing ploy that I think works well now. “An R-rated, rather kinky tale of survival.” I don’t think anyone today is going to be misled by the packaging. I think it’s absolutely apropos at the moment.
The Dissolve: The film does have a more playful feel than the story.
Ellison: Well, L.Q.’s a funny guy! And everybody who was playing in it knew what they were doing. They understood that it was in the grand tradition of Cyrano De Bergerac, which is a very serious piece of work, and yet it’s got an incredibly playful tone.
The Dissolve: Do you see “A Boy And His Dog” as having more in common with older works like Cyrano than with the dystopian films of its era, like Soylent Green or Planet Of The Apes?
Ellison: Oh yeah. Yeah. Clearly now, in retrospect, this film was 20 years ahead of its time. The fact that it’s been ripped off so many times to do this kind of dystopian future, both in novels and film, shows that it was… [Laughs.] I’m trying my best to be humble, which is an act I don’t play very well. Shows that it was done right the first time, and that this film was a landmark. I had George Miller call me from Australia to tell me The Road Warrior was ripped off—and he used the phrase “ripped off”—from A Boy And His Dog, and that he wanted to thank me. But Road Warrior is a great movie. Many of the people who have done films like A Boy And His Dog have done homages whether they care to admit it or not, and I’m down with that. It’s part of being a great silver-maned icon of 20th-century culture.
The Dissolve: Aside from what it inspired, why has it kept such a fandom?
"This story, I wrote to please my dog, Abu. I really did."
Ellison: Because it’s good. Real simple answer. It’s a good film. I sit in audiences and watch them watching it nowadays, as I did at the Egyptian, and people laugh at the right lines, they groan at the places where you’re supposed to groan, and at the end, they’re on their feet. It’s a good film. Anyone who buys this in the Blu-ray edition is getting their money’s worth. Not like buying—well, I could name a million different films. My wife has a penchant for picking up films that went direct to DVD, and they go through you like beets through a baby’s backside. But today you have, in large measure, an ignorant-of-the-past audience, for whom nostalgia’s what they had for breakfast. There’s no way of educating them, short of sitting them down in a classroom and showing them everything from Edison’s “The Kiss” to Birth Of A Nation to Magnificent Seven to The Expendables 2.
You can’t keep trying to educate an audience which is constantly being bombarded by ads and implements that keep them stupid. Not stupid. That’s wrong of me. Uninformed, or ignorant. Everybody’s got the smarts, it’s just easier for them not to use them. You can’t spend your day looking into a screen—whether it’s in the palm of your hand and you’re about to be hit by a 7 Santini Brothers moving van, or a laptop—and then go home and watch television all night, and hope to have the kind of active, engaged intelligence that people had when they used books and audiotapes and comic books. Because those required you to use your imagination. What they give you now fills in all those gaps, side to side, top to bottom, like a bad contract drawn by someone who has only their own interests and making money at heart. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but shit, I’ve lived 79 years, and I’m allowed to look at the world the way I feel like now. I’m entitled. I sucked up all those bullets.
The Dissolve: When are we going to see another Harlan Ellison movie?
Ellison: It’s out of my hands. I have so many things under option, after a hundred books. I have maybe 200 pieces under option, to companies large and small, in all kinds of media. It’s just hard getting a movie made these days. I don’t know when another Harlan Ellison movie’s going to be made. We just came out with—I’m on the New York Times Bestseller List this week, for only the second time in my 60-something-year career. I’m at No. 4 with a book called 7 Against Chaos, which I wrote as a two-hour film 20 years ago, and they didn’t have the special-effects abilities to do it, and it fell between the stools. Just didn’t get made. Now, it’s come out as a graphic novel with Paul Chadwick and Ken Steacy, the three of us are on the New York Times [Hardcover Graphic Novels] Bestseller List today. If you called me two days ago and said, “What’s in the future?” I’d have said, “I dunno.” I’m not prescient. But today I can tell you, at age 79, Dumas ain’t, and Colette ain’t, and Harriet Beecher Stowe ain’t, but I am on the New York Times Bestseller list. [Laughs.] And that’s pretty cool. Pretty cool. I’m enjoying the hell out of it. It’s good to be the king, as Mel Brooks said.