Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Sheckley, from 7 to 10

by Nathaniel Poggiali

Robert Sheckley’s short story “Seventh Victim” first appeared in an April 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and imagined a future society where military wars were nonexistent because of a government-sponsored game that legalized murder. Players alternated the role of Hunter and Victim according to random assignment, with only Hunters knowing the identity of an opponent. Any player that survived five rounds as Hunter and five rounds as Victim was awarded membership to the Tens Club, a position of significant power and wealth. The central figure is Stanton Frelaine, a Manhattan manufacturer of the Hunt-employed body defense Protec-Suit (“Why not drop into the Protec-Store nearest you? Why not be safe?”). When Frelaine falls in love with his seventh assigned Victim, he mistakenly assumes the young woman shares his feelings and decides not to kill her. Bang.

In 1965 director/co-writer Elio Petri made LA DECIMA VITTIMA (THE 10TH VICTIM) as an adaptation -- Sheckley’s name appears under the film’s onscreen title -- but altered the original story, jettisoning characters and switching genders of Hunter and Victim. Superstars Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress were cast, leading roles written to accommodate their distinctive screen personas. Handsome, brooding Marcello Polletti finds himself targeted by an American, Caroline Meredith (Andress), the celebrity assassin on her tenth and final hunt. Harassed by a paranoid mistress and money-hungry wife, in the grips of ennui, Marcello considers a quick death... and falls in love with his Hunter.

In an essay written for Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies (Doubleday, 1984), Sheckley was far from thrilled about the story’s transition to the screen. “‘A small ironic bourgeois comedy,” he writes, “was striving to become The 10th Victim, a fast-paced futuristic sex farce, and not quite succeeding” (125). He mentions several writers “labored mightily” on a script where character motivations are, at best, hazy: “Marcello convinces Caroline not to kill him, but instead to ... Actually we’re not sure what Marcello has in mind because he never tells us …” (126).

Oddly enough, in the essay Sheckley never tells us that he wrote a novel based on the film: The 10th Victim (Ballantine, 1965), the work of an author adapting someone else’s adaptation of his story.

Where the film’s satire focused primarily on commercialism and the media -- a sequence in which Marcello visits the Temple of Venus and Rome is Fellini-esque in its depiction of television advertisements, and characters are frequently using cameras and other surveillance equipment as if privacy carried little weight -- Sheckley’s irony finds much of its interest in the confusion caused by technology (Caroline’s colleagues and makeshift TV crew are bungling amateurs, unlike their counterparts in Petri’s film), but shares the film’s celebration of violence, e.g., a sequence where an enthusiastic crowd of New Yorkers observe the public execution of a man arrested for littering.

Sheckley’s approach to the comic possibilities of the screenplay (by Petri, Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni and Ennio Flaiano) is, at times, dead-on; at times, wrongheaded. The author totally gets Marcello’s character and is able to convey the man’s boredom and indifference in humorous detail. But in shaping other players, Sheckley is less inspired, as with a Chinese bird’s nest salesman and would-be assassin who speaks in pidgin English.

Caroline is another problem. If Sheckley retains Marcello’s (somehow) charming self-pity, he makes Caroline unsympathetic and shifts focus from her during key scenes. In the Omni essay Sheckley writes that Caroline singlemindedly wants marriage from Marcello, and the female Hunter’s words and actions in the novel comically indicate as much. But Ursula Andress, however miscast, brings warmth to the role, and has an appropriate world-weariness that matches Marcello’s disillusionment. In the novel Caroline seems petty and narcissistic to the end, and since we’re never allowed to read her thoughts we don’t see much of a personality. Rather than depicting the scene in which Caroline tells Marcello that she loves him and proposes marriage, Sheckley has Caroline describe the encounter to her colleagues, further distancing us.

Elsewhere Sheckley simply ignores his heroine, as in a comical series of misunderstandings when Caroline and her crew attempt to monitor Marcello in the streets of Rome via radio. This chapter is presumably a creation of Sheckley’s, its comedy of manners similar to passages in the author’s other sci-fi works. In the film, through close-ups and dialogue, we get a sense that Caroline is intrigued observing Marcello; in Sheckley’s version she says little, leaving Martin, a power-obsessed TV executive, to hog the spotlight. Tellingly, Sheckley moves Caroline’s assassination of the Chinese salesman from a nightclub -- where the heroine performs an exotic dance to fool the Hunter -- to a pop art exhibition, where she pretends to be a wax dummy.

Sheckley often undermines the material, not only with Caroline, but with the way minor characters (many unseen in the film) provide commentary. These passages are almost self-referential. After Caroline kills the salesman using twin firearms concealed in her bra, Sheckley has one onlooker telling another that the assassination was “campy” (16). And when Sheckley first describes Marcello (following the protagonist’s dispatch of a Victim at an equestrian competition), he seems to suggest that Mastroianni’s star persona is the character, and essentially all that the filmgoing audience wants to see:

He had high, prominent cheekbones suggesting deep reserves of passion, the restrained smile of the natural skeptic, and the tawny, heavy-lidded eyes which spoke strongly of a streak of indolence in the man. These qualities were immediately apparent to several thousand people in the reviewing stands, and they commented on them with pungent wisdom. (24)

Following his Omni essay on THE 10TH VICTIM, Sheckley penned two more novels about the Hunt: Victim Prime (Signet, 1987) and Hunter/Victim (Signet, 1987), both paperback originals. In Victim Prime one of the characters references THE 10TH VICTIM specifically as “that old movie they made before the Hunt became legal” (71). The introduction shared by the sequels (“The Hunt: 1990-2150”) was added to The 10th Victim when Signet reissued the novelization.

Works Cited

Sheckley, Robert. “Seventh Victim.” Galaxy Science Fiction. Apr. 1953: 38-51. Print.

---. “’The Seventh Victim’ and The 10th Victim.” Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction. Ed. Danny Peary. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. 124-126. Print.

---. The 10th Victim. New York: Signet, 1987. Print.

---. Victim Prime. New York: Signet, 1987. Print.


  1. What a brilliant, insightful and informed article on this seminal satire by Robert Sheckley. Quite a boon for Sheckley fans. Thanks Nathaniel Poggiali!

  2. Thank you, Martin, your compliment is much appreciated! I'm very pleased to get a positive response from someone who knew Sheckley so well and worked with him.