The Mind Prey TV Movie

About This Page

I made this page to address questions, concerns, complaints, and other issues about the Mind Prey TV movie of 1998 [1]. There's a lot of stuff I can say freely, and there's a lot of stuff I'm keeping to myself for the time being [2].
The biggest issue is the casting. If you've seen the movie, you're probably aware that the Lucas in the movie looks nothing like the Lucas in the books [3]. I'll be addressing that.
I'll also be covering a few of the realities of moviemaking and collaboration that a lot of people who have never been there simply don't know [4]. Yes, it's easy enough to complain about something without knowing all the facts, but when you see all the circumstances behind something, you can at least understand why people did things the way they did. Or, sometimes, it makes the complaints stronger. I'll be going there as well.
What I won't be doing is assigning blame [5]. Let me get this out of the way right at the start: when you're dealing with a huge corporate project, 99% of the people involved are just doing their jobs, and they do so with the competence you expect of professionals [6]. Even for the worst of movies — and a lot of people believe this is exactly that — it wasn't a mass of incompetents milling around, destroying things in a Three Stooges sort of way. The truth is more interesting.
So let's get started.

Movie Rights

I've got a whole page about movie rights, and why authors have such bad luck getting their adaptations into film accurately. You can click here to read the whole thing. The quick, in-a-nutshell version is that before you sell movie rights, you don't have any way of knowing how anything is going to turn out, and after you sell the rights, it's too late. The exceptions are few and far between.
In this specific case, it was even worse: the rights were sold way back in 1990, bounced to a few companies, and then they settled with the current holders, who made both the Mind Prey TV movie and the Certain Prey TV movie. The author had no say, and no choice.
But really, the rights are a minor issue. Most production companies are capable of good films, and they're certainly capable of bad ones. So it's more down to what happens when the company takes over, and the author well and truly out of it [7].

The Screenplay

Adapting a book into a screenplay can be a nightmare [8]. There's a temptation for authors to do it themselves, but what they do tends to be more of a condensation of the original work. They try to get in every nuance, every small reference, every bit of dialogue, all of that. They try to cram in everything, with the result that the screenplay is either 500 pages long, or made up of nothing but huge stretches of exposition where everyone explains everything that is going on all the time. That just won't do [9].
For a good adaptation, you've got to know what can be cut from the original, and what needs to be left in. In Rules of Prey, Lucas gets advice from Elle, the nun. She's part of his tabletop wargaming group, and they're working on a massively complex simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg. How much do you leave in, and how much do you leave out?
Do you introduce all of the people helping Lucas with that game? Do you mention that it's so complex that they need to use computers for some of the battle results [10]? Do you throw in some Civil War backstory? All of that is in the book. Where do you draw the line?
One version: Lucas goes to a college and talks to a nun, who may or may not be named, but with whom he obviously has a personal connection. The game is in the background and while they do not talk about it, it's clearly a thing in which they are both involved.
Another version: Lucas goes to a college and talks to a nun, who may or may not be named, but with whom he obviously has a personal connection. There is no game shown, no game mentioned.
Another version: There is no nun. Her function is picked up by an already existing character. Maybe Sloan has a degree in psychology [11]. He could be the straight-man partner to Lucas's main character.
Any of those are valid approaches, but each one gives the potential movie a different tone. The first one implies a slower film, one that might almost be literary and have real depth of character. The last is streamlined, and you might expect to have a character jump out the window of an exploding building in the third act.
But whatever your approach is, you're limited to about a hundred pages of screenplay. You're always going to leave stuff — good stuff — out. You're always going to streamline things to make the script flow faster. You're going to cut and cut and cut until things are a skeleton of what they once were, and that's before the editing room cuts even more [12].
This is the way it happens.
In the Mind Prey TV movie, Lucas is said to be a gamer. We get a few seconds of screen time of him programming late at night, and a few seconds of John Mail playing a computer game Lucas wrote. That's it. The rest of the gaming side of his personality was cut because it took up too much room [13].
Marcy Sherrill's character was replaced with an all new, original character named Cheryl Vega [14]. She fills the same role, but had a relationship with Lucas in the past, and she's killed later to give Lucas a bit more drive. It's about five character roles streamlined into one.
None of that's in the book. The ambush scene is similar, but executed wildly differently. In the book, it's a wide-scale trap that Lucas sets, disguised as a smaller trap; he figures Mail would see the small one, and get caught in the large one, and it almost works.
In the movie, Mail sees right through it, kills Vega, and there's brief exchange of gunfire before Mail gets away [15].
Streamlining.
I'm not saying it's good — although it can certainly be done well — or that it's bad. Just that it's necessary.
If you want an utterly faithful adaptation of your favorite novel, don't look for a movie version [16].

Casting

This is the big failing for this movie, in the eyes and minds of most viewers. I understand their criticism — honest, I do, as I'm a stickler for canon — but I've also got some complaints about their complaints. But first, let's discuss how movies are cast at all.
Well, if there is a major well-known person tied to the production as a producer, and that person is also an actor, there is a very good chance that that actor will play the main character, or at least a major one. That's how these things work. In this case, Eriq LaSalle was one of the producers, and he's a fan of the books, and he cast himself as Lucas.
Most of the rest of the casting was handled, I assume, by the Casting Director, the person who goes around and arranges the tryouts, auditions, schedules, and everything else for potential actors. Most of the time that works out just fine [17].
In almost no adaptations of books does the original author have a say. There are exceptions. J.K. Rowling had a lot of influence over the Harry Potter movies. But even she didn't pick out each individual actor. The author can frequently approve, and sometimes veto, but they can't control [18].
Anyway, the big problem people have with the casting is that Lucas isn't black in the books. He's a white (if dark-complected [19]) guy, and he's in one of the most monotonously caucasian metro areas in the United States. Instead, the police department looks like it's been hit with the Cultural Diversity Stick [20] that affected a lot of sitcoms in the 80s and 90s [21].
But keep in mind that this is not a movie that is being done by fans, or explicitly for fans. It's its own thing, and if it's successful, it'll be watched by far, far more people than ever read the books. In fact, it was. It got mediocre ratings, and even then ten times as many people saw the movie on its first run than have ever, ever picked up a Prey novel [22].
The fans hated it: Lucas isn't black in the books, Weather isn't black in the books, Lieutenant Sherrill was changed beyond recognition (and is killed off), Lieutenant Black was made into an offensive gay stereotype. Most of the fans of the books tuned out after the first five or ten minutes.
Everyone else who watched it? Eh, it was a mediocre cop show. It wasn't great or anything, but it wasn't terrible. It actually got a lot of people to read the series [23].
Who's right? Well... everyone and no one.
With the exception of Shadow Prey, the Prey series has never been about race or race relations. The important bits about Lucas are that he's intelligent, somewhat violent, a bit of a womanizer, a gamer, and rich. His race has impacted almost nothing in the series.
But... it's wrong. It's not canon. His race is very specifically stated (or at least implied) in the books. Dark-complected, perhaps French-Canadian genes. Weathered skin like an indian [24], but with deep blue eyes. Tall, but not overly so. Strong, but not a professional wrestler or a linebacker.
In a similar way, they got his car wrong. In the books, he's a Porsche driver. In the TV movie, he's got a classic GTO. It's an awesome car, and something Lucas would absolutely drive... if his sense of style were a little less refined than in the books. I suspect that they couldn't fit a Porsche rental into the budget, and so went with the GTO.
None of that has any effect on the story.
I have occasional gripes when it does have an effect on the story. In the Jack Reacher series of books, Reacher is largely defined by his size. He's 6'4, bulky, but it's all muscle, and his presence is just overwhelming. That's a large part of who he is. While Tom Cruise is a perfectly competent actor, he's does not have any of those characteristics that really define Jack Reacher.
Similarly, it's hard to find an actor that really defines Lucas, because all the things that define him are insubstantial. Yes, in the books he's a slightly dusky white guy, and it would be nice if they'd gotten someone that fit the physical profile. But, again, that's not necessary for making a movie.
So yeah. Everyone's right on this one: Lucas isn't black. Also, everyone's wrong: Lucas, in a movie, can be whatever the powers-that-be decree.

Production

A lot of the success or failure of a movie depends on the quality of the script, but a lot also depends on the quality of the production itself. The production value has to be good, or the whole thing will feel cheap. That happened a few times in this movie.
Again, there's nobody for me to blame here other than the corporate structure of making this movie. You put together a huge number of people, and you have to pay them all, and you've only got so many dollars, so things will be cut.
But some things also work. For the scene in which Genevieve is being pulled from the well, there's something about the framing and the music — all production value -level stuff — that almost makes me cry [25]. It's a pure atavistic reaction — I'm not actually that invested in the story, as I've been over it too many times — but I am heavily affected by certain styles of music, and this one triggers my cry mechanism very strongly.
During the aforementioned ambush-trap sequence, there's a lot of running around, and the action doesn't follow the book, and much of it doesn't make sense even in context — John Mail must have almost superhuman powers to be able to do the things he does — but it's shot really well. The cinematography is top-notch through most of it [26].
The sets are well-designed, but there's a certain wrongness to them if you have any familiarity. The Minneapolis Police Department set resembles an old-time newsroom, with typewriters everywhere, no real computer presence, and everyone separated by half-height cubicle walls. In the real Minneapolis Police Department, the offices are cramped, and they feel short to me (even though I know they can't be), and the combination of the paint and the lighting feels oppressive, and everything seems like it's separated from everything else by monitored security doors. It's almost the exact opposite of an open-space old-timey newsroom.
But the sets are done beautifully, and look good on camera, and everyone did their job professionally. It's just not right. Who gets the blame there? Again, it just sort of emerges from the complexity of the production [27].
If you pay attention, you'll see that there are some cut corners. During the final chase sequence, there are exactly two police cars, and they're shot again and again from different angles to make it look like there are about thirty. In the scene, there are supposed to be a lot of cars, but they only could allocate enough money for two. Most of it is shot with an attention to detail, and the action works well, but I can't get over the fact that there are "really" only two cop cars [28].
There's a nice scene in which Lucas and Vega are out interviewing people, and they knock on a door and Lucas announces, "Minnesota Police!" It's the author's strongest memory of it, because it's so wrong — the state of Minnesota may have a socialist tendency overall, but it doesn't have a single state-wide integrated police force.
What he doesn't mention — I don't know that he knows — is that that scene was shot a dozen times. I was there on that day of the filming, and I saw a lot of the footage. About half of the time Eriq said "Minneapolis Police", and the other half of the time was "Minnesota Police." I don't know what made them choose one over the other, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't which one was correct. It would have been about the sound quality, or the shot quality, or that one had a few errors. The person who made the final call about it might not have known that the phrase was wrong [29]. I have no way of knowing, and for a thing like this there's almost no way of finding out.
The whole of the movie was shot in Toronto. Toronto doesn't have the same feel as the Twin Cities, but since the Twin Cities feel isn't really part of the movie — streamlining, as per above — I can't complain too much. It doesn't have a Toronto feel, either. There are some shots inside of buildings, and some shots out in the countryside, and very little else to establish a specific feeling beyond "well, we're in a building now." About the only thing that rings false is when Lucas runs from a store and onto the street with his gun drawn, but only because nobody reacts properly [30]. It doesn't look like the Twin Cities, but it doesn't not look like the Twin Cities. What the Twin Cities looks like on a store-by-store level is almost a meaningless idea.
The whole movie is like that. I can't watch it for content any more. I can only watch it to see if there's a new thing I didn't catch, or a weirdness that someone told me about, or to fact-check something that happened. Yes, the movie feels (on the whole) cheaper than similar movies, but it was made as a TV movie, and had a fraction of the budget of a much larger production.
Would a larger production have been better? It might have had more cop cars. Would a larger production have had casting more accurate to the books? It could have, but there's no guarantee. There's no way to know. The movie is a completely different thing than the book, and trying to say it's good or bad based on that is difficult.

A Perfect Solution?

I don't think there's any way to adapt a Prey book into a movie and keep it faithful to the source material. A TV movie, even more limited, is even more unlikely. With all the streamlining involved, and the bureaucracy, and the cuts, it would turn into just another generic action movie, with appropriate breaks in the action to explain a plot point. Do we really need another one of those? I don't think so.
But I think it might work as an ongoing series, or at least a time-limited series. This is something that exists only in my head — and that's probably as far as it will ever go — but an ongoing series would be able to avoid most of the problems faced by movies.
So, set it as a series on a cable network, one of the ones that lets characters actually swear and which can show violence [31]. Adapt three books per season, each as three episodes, 45 minutes long each. Add in four episodes as padding between the adaptations, including all-new material that the author approves.
As I said, this is a pipe dream. This is nothing that would ever get pushed forward. But if it did, here's my plan for the first 13-episode season:

1. Introduction episode, setting up the characters. There's a quick crime to solve, just a hint, but this is just a furniture moving thing, getting everything in place.

2-4. An adaptation of Rules of Prey, about 50% longer than either of the TV movies made so far [32].

5. An episode focussed on the birth of Sarah, Lucas's first daughter.

6-8 Adaptation of Shadow Prey, three episodes, same length as the previous adaptation.

9. Another filler episode. Either Lucas visits New York (hinted at the end of the book), or tries to reestablish his relationship with Jennifer. Or, possibly, an episode introducing and setting up Randy Whitcomb.

10-12. Eyes of Prey in full, ending with Lucas being forced to resign.

13. Season finale. Lucas's is unemployed and directionless. His relationship with Jennifer falls apart. And then, Bekker escapes... [33]

I think that would work well as a series. You'd get the character development over time that movies don't allow, you'd get most of the secondary and tertiary characters that movies don't allow, you'd get a much greater depth. And there are enough books right now for eight full seasons. There'd be filler episodes filling in the gaps for readers, like an episode all about the Pinking Shears Incident [34]. All of that could be in there.
It won't ever happen, but it's nice to dream.

Footnotes

1. Yes, okay, the movie is listed as being from 1999, but it was shot in 1998, and was supposed to air in 1998, so I say 1998.

2. I'll talk about this kind of "secret stuff" in person, but never, ever on a publicly accessable website. Nope.

3. They even took the effort to put in the eye socket scar, but they got it wrong. That's the part I find most strange.

4. The vast majority of complaints I get are from people who must have never worked in a corporate environment, where "teamwork" and "compromise" can ruin everything without anyone ever knowing quite how.

5. Well, not just yet, anyway.

6. The Minneapolis Police Department set went from being an empty warehouse to a perfectly servicible old-timey police department set in six hours and it was probably three times the size of my house. That was from nothing to fully dressed, and they did it like, eh, just another day.

7. Some of the loudest complainers about the movies are also people who say that, well, such-and-such an author had direct control. Again, that does happen, but they are very rare exceptions. Most of the time the author is not consulted in any way. I went there as a representative of the author, and they let me wander around the sets as a courtesy, but my main objective was to not get in the way. They had no obligation to let me watch, or even let me in.

8. The movie Adaptation has many scenes that are all too familiar to writer-types, and which cause great anxiety in an "Oh my God this is so true" sort of way.

9. And yet, I have actually seen this. The resulting movie never happened, and it's probably for the best. No, I'm not gonna name names.

10. That line might confuse some fans, so I'll say this right here: Lucas never ever worked on video games. Ever. He only worked on tabletop wargames and tabletop role-playing games. They're very old-school. A lot of fans think that RPG can only imply computer gaming, but this was set in 1989, and computer gaming was still in its infancy.

11. Actually, that would explain a lot.

12. And one of the worst things for a writer is to write a really wonderful scene that works on every level... except that it doesn't fit into the book and so you have to cut it [35].

13. And it's still more time than gets devoted to the gamer side of his personality in the Certain Prey TV movie. Namely: none whatsoever.

14. Nope, no idea where the name came from. Cheryl might be from Sherrill, I can see that. But Vega? No idea.

15. This scene still bothers me. It's shot beautifully, but there's no way the logistics work out at all. There's no way Mail can do what he does, unless he's a ninja and can fly. While I'm not saying that would be a bad movie, it certainly isn't this one.

16. If the Harry Potter novels hadn't been streamlined, each one would take about ten hours.

17. And that's no exception here. I felt that the majority of the characters were fine choices. Most of the quibbles are minor. Lucas and Weather are still the big stumbling blocks, but, again, they were cast differently than the others.

18. It's a little more complex. It's closer to there being a trade-off between money and control. If you want to get paid more money for your book, you give up more control. If you want more control, you get paid less. Since a lot of authors are almost starving, they tend to opt for the money.

19. And I am using the perfectly-valid-and-even-in-the-OED word "complected" deliberately to annoy the people who insist it isn't a word. And to further annoy them, not only am I going to start this sentence with a conjunction, I'm going to end with a preposition, if I can think of an appropriate one to end it with.

20. I do not have a problem with cultural diversity. What I do have a problem with is making after-the-fact changes to something and imposing an artificial cultural diversity from above. It's well-intended, but it always feels forced, and they usually get everything wrong.

21. Or, since I'm a Star Trek fan, the Cultural Diversity Stick that hit Voyager up along the side of the head and then bludgeoned it into a coma, dumping the body in a country ditch.

22. You may think I'm doing that thing I do wherein I exaggerate a point for comedic effect. I am not. I may in fact be understating the relative number of viewers versus readers.

23. And that's led to some unexpected letters where people ask what race Lucas is, because they "know" he's black because of the movies.

24. Wanna take a guess at the only major groups that still use the word indian? They're the various tribal councils around the US and the tribes they represent. Opinions will vary between them, of course, but it seems like the people most likely to be offended by the term 'indian' are non-indians looking to be offended by something.

25. Again, you might think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. I know that it's deliberate manipulation on the part of the sound engineer and the rest, but it still works.

26. This is the whole "Style Over Substance" problem in a nutshell. If it looks great, who cares if it doesn't make sense? Well, it turns out an awful lot of people do care. That's why there's only one Matrix movie [36].

27. I don't know if it's even visible, but if you look at the wall map of the Twin Cities during one of the Minneapolis Police Department scenes, you might see a coffee ring from a coffee cup. On a wall map. Mounted on a wall. Vertically.

28. They are both very clearly numbered, and once you see it you can't ever un-see it.

29. Again, not exaggerating. Since the shoot was in Toronto, most of the production staff were Canadian, and they might not be experts at law enforcement in the United States.

30. The just keep sort of wandering by, perhaps mildly irritated, like, "Eh, it's a guy with a gun. Whatever. Jeez."

31. Think AMC for The Walking Dead, or HBO. In fact, the FX series The Shield was very Prey-like in tone. Something like that.

32. That might not sound like much, but some screenwriters would probably kill for an extra fifty pages to play with. And then someone would call in Lucas to investigate the killing, and suddenly you've got Hollywood Prey. Or not.

33. That's pulling some material out of Silent Prey, but there's a several-months gap between chapter one and chapter two, so I think you could get away with it. And it'd end the season on a wonderful cliffhanger...

34. I already know what would happen. Everything would lead up to a confrontation, and... we would never actually see what the woman does with the pinking shears. Yes, I want the viewers to be as frustrated by it as the readers. Some things are better left to the imagination.

35. It's more common in screenplays than books. Books can usually be longer without much of a problem, but you can't go over time in a movie.

36. Don't try to convince me otherwise.