St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Battlefield of dreams

L. Ron Hubbard said he didn't want his science-fiction work to be a press release for the church he founded. Nevertheless, the connections between Battlefield Earth and Scientology are worth noting.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


Put him in front of a typewriter and L. Ron Hubbard's fingers flew.

He did not "piddle around" with his prose like other writers, as his friend and fellow science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, observed in a 1982 letter.

Known in the 1930s and 1940s as a writer of exceptional speed, Hubbard banged out fantasy and science fiction stories for the pulp magazines of the time, also producing several novels.

After 1950, when he wrote the self-help book Dianetics and veered into another career, founding the Church of Scientology, his furious production continued. How else to explain the many shelves of impressively bound books available at any Scientology outlet -- thick volumes filled with millions of Hubbard words that Scientologists have come to regard as sacred scripture.

By 1980, the founder had left the day-to-day operations of Scientology to others and returned to writing fiction. He wanted to "complete his life's work," according to Author Services Inc., the Scientology-related entity that manages Hubbard's literary works.

The first fruit of that period was Battlefield Earth, a massive space opera (1,050 pages in paperback) that today is being released as a major motion picture starring John Travolta, one of Hubbard's most visible and loyal adherents and the person who spearheaded its production.

Hunkered at a beachfront home in Newport Beach, Calif., Hubbard wore out two Underwood manual typewriters writing Battlefield Earth between July and October 1980. At 69, he had more than matched the speed of his younger days.

But Hubbard's desire to bring the story to the big screen would not be fulfilled for another 20 years. It was about the time of Hubbard's death in 1986 that Travolta began efforts to convert the massive book into a workable screenplay. It was the first piece of science fiction he really loved, says the actor, who reportedly has $5-million of his own money invested in the film.

"I first read the book in 1982, right after it was published," Travolta told the Starlog Group, publishers of the official Battlefield Earth movie magazine. "I immediately thought it was a great concept for a movie -- a big movie."

What took so long?

Author Services attributes the time lag to a lack of special effects technology in the early 1980s that made it unwieldy and cost prohibitive to translate the full scope of Battlefield Earth to the screen.

Travolta blames a succession of bad scripts. Also, he points out, the movie rights hopscotched from MGM to Twentieth Century Fox before finally being picked up in 1998 by an up-and-coming independent filmmaker named Elie Samaha.

Samaha has said Hubbard's Scientology connection proved a significant barrier as he sought and finally received financial backing for the film. Ironically, big money came from a movie distribution company in Germany, where Scientology is fighting for recognition in the face of government disapproval.

In the early 1980s, when Hubbard was writing the book, a real life battlefield was developing in his own world.

The church he founded nearly imploded under the weight of lawsuits and a scandal in which 11 Scientologists were convicted for conspiring to steal government documents. Scientology's critics, some of them former members, alleged the founder was in hiding to escape legal troubles.

That was followed by a pitched internal power struggle, then by a years-long battle with the IRS for tax-exempt status.

After finally winning the IRS's blessing in 1993, the church entered a period of relative calm and growth, although some of the image scars remain from years of controversial press. Since 1996, the church has been in court battling yet another problem: the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson, while in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.

Into this arena stepped Samaha, who did not respond to an interview request, but recently told the Wall Street Journal: "Everyone thought I was crazy or mentally retarded" for taking on the project. He quoted Travolta as warning him, "lots of people are going to come to you and try and persuade you and be negative about it."

But Samaha, who is not a Scientologist, resisted the negative comments, telling potential financiers the movie had nothing to do with Scientology. "This is what the movie is about," he told the Journal, re-creating the pitch he made to financial moguls. "It's Planet of the Apes starring John Travolta. You're either in or you're the f-- out."

The picture attracted some experienced hands, most notably Roger Christian, a science fiction director who worked on the sets of Star Wars and Alien.

Aside from Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, the only other Scientologist in the cast is Jim Meskimen, a veteran actor who local television viewers know as the witty guy with the microphone in Kash n' Karry commercials.

Battlefield Earth begins in the year 3000 when a ruthless alien race from the planet Psychlo dominates Earth, having gassed most of its inhabitants into oblivion 1,000 years before. The story unfolds in the Rocky Mountains near Denver as Earth's few remaining humans, led by a smart and strapping hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, slowly rediscover their history and resolve to retake the planet.

Travolta plays Terl, the Psychlo security chief. Jonnie is played by Barry Pepper, who was the skilled American sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan. Preston plays a Psychlo secretary.

Neither the movie nor the book contain any references that would cause the average consumer to think of Scientology. However, those already familiar with the church will notice certain less obvious links.

Among them: Unflattering references to psychiatry and psychology, which Scientologists actively oppose and avoid as part of their religious practice.

Page 550 of the book: A human doctor remembers something he heard about a long-ago "cult" before the Psychlo invasion. It was called psychology, he said, "forgotten now." This and similar comments do not appear in the movie, however.

In December 1980, two months after completing Battlefield Earth, Hubbard informed his followers: "I was a bit disgusted with the way the psychologists and brain surgeons mess people up so I wrote a fiction story based in part on the consequences that could occur if the shrinks continued to do it."

Scientologists view psychiatry and psychology as abusive and misguided because both fields, they argue, regard people as "animals" and not "spiritual beings." Doctors in the field are referred to derisively as "Psyches."

The parallel is clear in Battlefield Earth, where Psychlos (read "psyches") refer to their human prey as animals.

The story also is reminiscent of Scientology in a broad thematic sense. Like the small band of humans battling Psychlos in the year 3000, Scientologists in the year 2000 see themselves as part of a determined group engaged in an urgent, uphill battle to save the planet.

The word "Scientology" appears nowhere in the book or the movie. Hubbard explained in his introduction that he didn't want the book to seem like "a press relations job" for Scientology, which he referred to cryptically as "my other serious works." However, the newly released "movie tie-in" paperback with Travolta on the cover invites readers to order more of Hubbard's fiction through Bridge Publications with a mail-in card. It also points to Bridge's Web site.

Bridge is a tax-exempt publishing arm of the church. Although visitors to its Web site can click to see Hubbard's fiction, the initial and more prominent pitch is for an L. Ron Hubbard calendar and an introductory book on Scientology. The church's home page is two clicks away.

Author Services says it will receive a small percentage of any profits from movie-related merchandise such as a T-shirt and a talking 11-inch Terl doll that spouts several of Travolta's lines from the movie, including "rat brain!" and "Exterminate all man-animals at will."

Any merchandising revenue would benefit two of Scientology's "social betterment activities": a drug rehabilitation program known as Narconon and another group, Applied Scholastics, which works to spread Hubbard's "study technology" in schools around the world.

Revenues generated by movie-related sales of the book Battlefield Earth will go to marketing Hubbard's fiction works and sponsoring a science fiction contest started by Hubbard.

According to Author Services, Samaha is solely responsible for Battlefield Earth -- the movie -- and its marketing, "and there was no involvement whatsoever by any Scientology church officials or staff in the making of the film."

On the week of the big opening, church officials say they are more interested in the 50th anniversary of Dianetics, first published on May 9, 1950.

No special screenings have been arranged for local Scientologists. And even the church's highest ranking officials, who are based in Hollywood, say they have not seen it.

One of them, Marty Rathbun, said Scientologists are interested in the sense that they consider Hubbard a friend.

"If anything comes out of this," Rathbun said of the movie, "it's that L. Ron Hubbard liked people. He was for people."

Moviegoers "might get a better understanding of L. Ron Hubbard, and if they do, great," he said. "They certainly won't get a better understanding of Scientology."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.