R.I.P. William Harrison, writer of Rollerball

R.I.P. William Harrison, writer of Rollerball

The Arkansas Times reported yesterday that novelist and screenwriter William Harrison died on Tuesday at his home in Fayetteville, just a week shy of his 80th birthday.

Though he published nine novels and more than 50 short stories in his career, Harrison is best remembered for “Roller Ball Murder,” a dystopian sports story set in the faraway future of 2018, which first appeared in the September 1973 issue of Esquire, and was later adapted by Harrison for the 1975 film Rollerball. But the bulk of his novels were set in Africa—including Burton And Speke, which became the 1990 film Mountains Of The Moon, the story of the British expedition to discover the source of the Nile River.

After seeing a fight break out during a college basketball game, Harrison was inspired to write "Roller Ball," the blunt, straightforward story of a veteran athlete playing a violent futuristic sport that's a mixture of lacrosse and demolition-and-roller derby, with 40 players competing on a highly banked loop. In it, player Jonathan E. enjoys superstardom and luxurious wealth, while his corporate team owners continue to tamper with rules to make the game more dangerous and exciting for global viewership. (“They’ll change the rules until we skate on a slick of blood, we all know that.”)

Norman Jewison, director of In The Heat Of The Night, Fiddler On The Roof, and Jesus Christ Superstar hired Harrison to adapt his own story into a screenplay. The film hit theaters mere months after Death Race 2000, another gore-as-entertainment action parable, and Rollerball joined Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and other films among the message-oriented science-fiction pieces of the '70s. While filming, Jewison— in an ironic imitation of the plot—allegedly lost control of the production to star James Caan, who insisted on improvising, as well as the stunt crew, who began to demand lines. The film ended up being the first major Hollywood production to include stunt professionals by name in the credits.

The fictional sport has entered the pop-culture lexicon, as a violent, financially driven creation that reflects the modern proliferation of the increasingly defensive attitude of professional leagues toward their labor unions. Harrison foresaw the over-corporatization of sports and how the business would dominate and dehumanize the players, grinding them into dust and reaping the profits from the luxury boxes. In an episode of Slate’s Hang Up And Listen podcast this past summer, co-host Stefan Fatsis discussed the modern mythology of Harrison’s creation, and referenced a 1975 Sports Illustrated piece from around the film’s release that presumed Rollerball to be a sport of the future—not unlike how Jai Alai was depicted on Mad Men.

In 1966, along with poet James Whitehead, Harrison founded the creative writing program at the University Of Arkansas, which is still a top program today. He continued to publish through his later years, up through 2011’s Black August, and hopefully never had to lay eyes on that abysmal 2002 remake of his most well-known work. 

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