Logan's Run: The Sci-Fi Blockbuster That Wasn't

By David Konow

Logan’s Run definitely had big ambitions, and you get the feeling that there's a great movie hiding in between the frames of the finished reel. We chatted with the writers of the novel the film was adapted from, to hear what the original vision was for the story.

In the future, you can live a life of complete pleasure, but you have to die when you turn twenty-one. Not everybody’s going to go along with the program of course, and two people decide to flee for their lives. That’s the premise of the novel Logan's Run, which differs a bit from what eventually became the cult classic film. And among your Hunger Games and Divergents and Maze Runners, it's the kind of story that could make a great blockbuster for today’s audiences. In fact, Hollywood’s been trying to remake Logan’s Run for the last eighteen years, most recently with a script being penned by game designer Ken Levine. Whether or not this version gets off the ground and makes it to the theater is anyone's guess, but this is is one sci-fi story that actually deserves a second chance on screen.

When you go back and watch the 1976 version of Logan’s Run, it really feels like a missed opportunity. The film came out the year before Star Wars, before science fiction films proved they could reach a mainstream audience. Logan’s Run definitely had big ambitions, and you get the feeling that there's a great movie hiding in between the frames of the finished reel. We chatted with the writers of the novel the film was adapted from, as well as the son of the film's director, to hear what the original vision was for the story.

George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan wrote the first draft of Logan’s Run--the novel--back in 1965. “I came up with the idea of reversing the old cliché of ‘life begins at forty,’” Nolan says. “In my original concept, life ended at forty, which I scaled down to twenty-one in the novel. It was much more frightening to have young people just out of their teens being executed by the state.” This was, of course, a very dark idea, and there’s a strong message at the core of Logan’s Run that society could learn from, but Nolan says, “As a writer, I feel that you must never preach to your readers. The message must always be subliminal. In Logan’s Run, the message is that you can’t run a civilization with middle-aged and older people eliminated. The society collapses on itself."

"Science fiction has always projected dark futures,” Nolan continues, “which I personally find depressing. Therefore, all four of my Logan novels have happy endings.”

As George Clayton Johnson explains, Logan’s Run was also influenced by Fahrenheit 451, “where you had an underground, a group of people that were against the status quo, some kind of a weird dictatorship where people were burning books, or in this case, executing all the old people. Nolan and I came from the standpoint that it was time for a big budget science fiction piece. As we plotted it out together, we decided should we write it as a movie, or as a novel? We figured a novel would give us the greatest freedom, because if nobody wanted to buy it as movie, it would be pretty dead, whereas we could go from trying to sell it as a book, to trying to sell it as a movie, it would justify the effort. So when we did Logan’s Run, we were more thinking about sociology rather than outer space.”

While Nolan and Johnson weren’t thinking about a “crossover” science fiction film, they did want Logan’s Run to be a big success that would appeal to more than just sci-fi fans. “Nolan and I deliberately offered our books not to Ace Books or one of those science fiction publishers,” Johnson says. “We wanted to get out of this generic business and into the mainstream. We submitted our book to Grove Press, Dial Press, which was famous for all of its great authors, including Norman Mailer. We wanted our book to be stamped with that literature mark instead of that pulp fiction mark. The only way to break out of that pulp fiction thing was to have literary credentials.”

After the rights to the novel were purchased for a film adaptation, Logan’s Run was stuck in development hell for a number of years at MGM before it finally went into production in 1975. The studio was famously going through financial problems to the point where they were auctioning off its famous memorabilia, including Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Two movies helped turn MGM’s financial fortunes around, the Blaxploitation classic Shaft, and a little sci-fi movie called Westworld.

At one point, Irwin Allen (Lost in Space) was attached to make Logan’s Run, and reportedly George Pal (The Time Machine) was going to direct as well. Eventually the job went to Michael Anderson, who had directed Around the World in 80 Days, and many other films.

Anderson’s son, Michael Jr., also had a featured role in the film as Doc, a plastic surgeon. Even though his father ended up in the director’s chair, Anderson Jr. felt Pal could have done a great job if he ended up making the film. Anderson recalled that Pal would have made the movie “in a more intimate way,” which he felt would have suited the story better instead of the bigger, epic approach.

“Pal was going to stick with the concept of dying at 21, which is very potent,” Anderson continues. “If people die at thirty, that just doesn’t have the same impact as children being murdered. If I was going to remake that movie, I would do it as more of a terrifying love story of people on the run who refuse to play the game. Give it a people escaping Nazi Germany kind of feel, because I think that’s more true to the feel of the book. It’s a love story about two people on the run. You could set that anywhere, any time, it just happened to be set in the future.”

When Anderson Jr. first saw the Logan’s Run sets, he felt the movie definitely had a shot at being a hit “because you knew they were doing it with care.” Yet here is one of the biggest problems with Logan’s Run, namely the inconsistency of the effects and production design. In fact, in a number of scenes it’s obvious that the city of the future is a shopping mall in Dallas.

Not to mention the outside view of the city of the future is clearly a gigantic miniature model that looks like it should be displayed in the window of FAO Schwartz. (The character of Box is also one of the most ridiculous looking robots in cinema history.) There were still a lot of bugs to be ironed out in special FX technology in the mid seventies, something Star Wars did quite well a year later, but as Anderson Jr. explains, “You just didn’t have the same tools we do today to make all these things look authentic.”

“Our problem was lack of money,” Johnson says. “They cut some of the best FX out of it because they couldn’t afford them. They made that model city the way they did it because they had to do it the cheap way. They also didn’t have trained people around who knew how to use blue screen.”

Anderson Jr. recalled the budget for Logan’s Run being in the range of $6.8 million (IMDB reports $9 million), which was definitely outrageous for the time. “Up until Logan’s Run, they hadn’t spent that kind of money on science fiction films because they weren’t getting the audience,” he says.

For Stephen Katz, a sound mixer who worked on both Logan’s Run and Star Wars, the movie failed because the story felt like more conventional sci-fi, and “it didn’t have the mythic qualities that Star Wars did.” Anderson Jr. says, “My father always felt that they were trying to make an 8x10 out of what should have been a 5x7. MGM wanted to make a bigger film out of it, but I think Logan’s Run should have been more intimate, with the science fiction as more of a backdrop.” Anderson also remembered his father was going through a divorce, and then met up with an old flame, which may have distracted him. “He was more interested in trying to find her phone number than he was with the movie!”

The casting for Logan’s Run was also mixed. Michael York is a fine actor, but he was probably too old at that point to be playing 29. On the plus side of casting, Logan’s Run gave the world the first featured role of Farrah Fawcett, who hadn’t read for Charlie’s Angels yet, but who was clearly going to be a star. “Farrah was a real pretty little firecracker,” Anderson says. “Delightful, adorable.”

There was also a cameo performance from the acclaimed British actor Peter Ustinov, who played the old man Logan encounters near the end of the film. (When he’s brought back to society, everyone is shocked to see an elderly person.) Ustinov did a wonderful job, and his role may have been a bit of a precursor to Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan.

And though it wasn't a smash hit in theaters, Logan’s Run has developed a bit of a cult following from subsequent TV showings, and there was also a short-lived series version on CBS from 1977 to 1978. Anderson Jr. says MGM didn’t want to dismantle the miniature city of the future model, and launched the series so they could reuse it again.

Where the late Richard Matheson has been able to see three different movies of I Am Legend made in his lifetime, William F. Nolan is hopeful that a new version of Logan’s Run will eventually get made that will do the novel justice.

“Lord knows if it will ever reach the screen, but they still want to do it,” Nolan says. “I have my fingers and toes crossed.” And with dystopia stories the hot thing right now, “It would make a stronger statement after updating,” Nolan continues. “A director with younger energy and vision is exactly what I hope for.”