1973’s Soylent Green may be best known for a forty-year-old plot twist, but this masterpiece of dystopian science fiction represents so much more than what first meets the eye. An adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green is more than simple pulp fiction. It addresses important issues like environmentalism, population growth, gender politics, and governmental conspiracy—and like all good science fiction, the setting is only the surface of a deeper story.
The premise is familiar in today’s world: with overcrowding and environmental depletion, class issues and food shortages take center stage. The population in New York City alone has jumped to 40 million people in 2022. Half of these people are unemployed and can no longer afford life’s luxuries, let alone food. Rations made by the Soylent Corporation are the primary sustenance of the people, and a new green wafer version, Soylent Green, has just hit the market.
A detective by the name of Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, becomes embroiled in the murder of a wealthy man and the increasingly odd events that led to his death. As Thorn investigates, he (and we, the audience) see the disparity between the life lived by society’s elite and the vast majority of the world. And of course, he finds the dark secret that nearly everyone knows as a cultural touchstone now: “Soylent Green is people.”
Perhaps it will be a long while before we resort to cannibalism in our own world, but the civilization described in the film doesn’t seem far off. Currently, the world’s population is 7 billion people, with about 8.5 million in New York City. At the rate that people are currently being born (250 every minute), maybe Soylent Green isn’t as fictitious as it is prophetic.
As held true in many movie adaptations of novels, Soylent Green made numerous changes to the original book storyline, which seems more realistic to modern problems. Unlike Soylent Green, the novel that it was based on does not reference cannibalism. Make Room! Make Room! focuses more on the characters’ misery and how their lives deteriorate in a futuristic New York. In both book and film, the earth is incapable of sustaining agriculture, with a character from the book making money selling black market Soylent steaks, which, in turn, can cause even further harm to the environment.
Soylent Green makes a dire prediction for the future, with overpopulation and environmental disasters keeping humanity on the very edge of survival. Audiences today might find this aspect of the story particularly notable with climate talks in the news—and Alberta Energy has reported that even as renewable “green” energy sources are now being pursued in earnest, we’re still adding about 26 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. The gloomy future predicted by Soylent Green does not seem so far-fetched in light of these numbers—not to mention the danger of women’s rights and social justice going right out the window if we ever see the kind of resource scarcity and social unrest that the film depicts. Children and women (particularly of color) tend to suffer the most in these situations—though this is a fact that the film leaves largely unexplored.
The character of Shirl, in particular, suffers notable deterioration in translation from page to screen. Actress Leigh Taylor-Young plays Shirl, a concubine to the wealthy murder victim. In the world of Soylent Green her position is referred to as “furniture”—so much of an afterthought that she is part and parcel of the apartment. This is the beginning and end of Shirl’s story on film, and one cannot help but feel that it could and should have been better explored. It is implied through dialog that, in her position, she could expect to be subject to rape and violence.
In Make Room! Make Room!, Shirl falls in love with the protagonist and leaves her life as a concubine for him, only for their relationship to grow distant and dissolve when it cannot survive the strains of his career and her dissatisfaction returning to an impoverished life. In the film, Shirl is manhandled impersonally by Thorn during her introduction, and during her reappearance twenty minutes later she is used by Thorn for answers and sex, with no tenderness on either of their parts. In Make Room! Make Room!, Shirl comes to live with the protagonist and their relationship grows distant and falls apart when it cannot survive the dual strains of his career and her dissatisfaction at returning to the way of life that she became a concubine to leave.
Sadly, this inattention to an interesting storyline following a strong female character is not a remnant of the 1970s. It is all too easy today to find examples of films where the script seems to be struggling to point out something about the condition of women in the world, only to be immediately stifled when the story ignores it and moves elsewhere. Any film where women are literal possessions—like the replicants from Blade Runner—implies that consent has become an illusion and that these women are equivalent to things. In the case of Soylent Green, a world in which a woman can only find value by becoming literal furniture, this theme is ignored in favor of the murder mystery. On a meta level, this can be a statement in and of itself—the quiet struggles of women in this system are unseen and unheard because the immediate and loud clamors for food and creature comforts are forefront.
As a piece of science fiction, a dystopian masterpiece, and a warning to future generations, Soylent Green holds a special place on film. It seems a pity that so many only know it for its most famous line, when it has so much more to say on the condition of humanity and what we should fear if we do not let compassion temper our judgement.