SOYLENT GREEN is the 1973 adaptation of Harry Harrison’s prophetic novel of overpopulation, ‘Make Room! Make Room!’
If Twitter had been around in 1973, the film would probably have been slaughtered. Even in the analogue era, the film developed a bad reputation among science fiction fans because Harry Harrison ridiculed the changes the movie made to his novel .

Penguin’s tie-in cover (above) does a good job of selling the novel as a 1984 style tale of star-crossed lovers against a backdrop of overpopulation. But Harrison’s novel is set in an overpopulated New York of 1999. Detective Andy Rusch is investigating the murder of gangster ‘Big Mike’. The readers know it’s actually a bungled robbery, but because Big Mike’s fellow gangsters fear it was a rival mob hit, Andy is given all the time he needs to make a thorough investigation. Andy falls in love with Shirl, Big Mike’s mistress. They spend a short idyllic time sharing Big Mike’s food and air conditioning before the rent is up. Then Andy has to move Shirl into the apartment he shares with Sol, an ex-engineer who has rigged up a bike to power the lights and TV in the apartment.

Harrison depicts a world in which everything is falling apart – petrol, water and food is scarce – the ever-expanding population subsists on Soylent – a Soya and Lentil substitute. When a store gets hold of some rare beef steaks it starts a riot as the New Yorkers sight over the rare luxury. When Sol dies after taking part in a protest in favour of birth control, an obnoxious family is moved into the apartment. Shirl abandons Rusch in search of the privileged life she once had as Big Mike’s mistress. Andy finally tracks down Big Mike’s killer, but is busted back to a uniformed beat as a result of departmental politics.
Richard Fleischer’s 1973 movie Soylent Green makes several changes, although most of these are for the better. The movie shifts the period forward to 2020 and ups the population of New York to 40 million. Charlton Heston plays detective Frank Thorn. As the title suggests – the food substitute is now central to the plot. ‘Big Mike’ becomes an executive of the Soylent Company, played by Joseph Cotten. Whereas the readers of Harrison’s novel know that Big Mike’s murder is an accident, the movie audience knows that Cotton’s murder is an assassination made to look like a robbery.
The screenplay is by Stanley R. Greenberg who developed a reputation for fact-based docudramas such as The Missiles of October but had also been involved with the 1967 ITC TV series Man In A Suitcase. Starring Richard Bradford as McGill a former CIA agent cast-out for a crime he didn’t commit and forced to exist as a modern-day bounty hunter, the series developed a reputation for being harder-edged than most ITC series. In Greenberg’s episodes, McGill operates on the edge of society. He sub-contracts work to small-time private eye’s and criminals. As played by Richard Bradford, he refuses to back down to threat, becoming progressively battered and broken-down as he faces off against the opposition.
Norman Rossington and Richard Bradford in Man In A Suitcase

Greenberg’s script for Soylent Green takes a similar approach. Thorn is literally a thorn in the side of the Soylent company, continuing to investigate the assassination they’ve crafted to look like a robbery gone wrong. Every change Greenberg makes serves to heighten the drama. Assassin Stephen Young (Seaway ) is steered towards Thorn, who continues to push his way towards uncovering the McGuffin – the big revelation about Soylent Green which so annoyed Harrison.

Society has been reduced to the utilitarian. Thorn appears to be on something like a short term contract – only employed as long as he continues to clear up New York’s increasing murder rate. Thorn is casually corrupt, helping himself to the drinks and food of the rich murder victim. Sol (Edward G. Robinson) is now a “book” – a forensic researcher assigned by the police to aid Thorn. Shirl (Leigh Taylor Young) is now “furniture” – one of a number of call girls offered by the high-scale apartment house to prospective tenants.
Sol in the novel appears to be the mouthpiece for Harrison, explaining the causes of over-population and its effect on society and dying from a virus caught while protesting in favour of birth control. As played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie, Sol is at the centre of the most affecting scenes. After his first visit to the scene of the murder, Thorn brings back some plunder he’s confiscated including an apple and a cut of meat. As Sol regards the priceless food items, he’s overcome with regret for the lost past.
Later on, when he pieces together the secret behind Soylent Green, Sol perceives why Cotten was consumed by remorse and accepted his own murder. Sol decides to ‘go home’, entering the church-like Euthanasia centre, where a cheery Dick Van Patten goes through a questionnaire asking Sol’s favourite colour and music. The answers provide an ambience to Sol’s final moments, having drunk a suicide brew.
Thorn pushes his way into a viewing chamber, where he sees the images of ‘home’ – films of the wide open spaces, vibrant oceans and abundant crops of the past played to comfort the dying. For the first time Thorn sees just what has been lost.
Soylent Green is arguably one of the first movies to deal with ‘global warming’. The street scenes are obscured by an optically printed smog. According to a behind-the-scenes report in Cinefantastique, the exteriors were filmed during a cold snap and underclad extras had to be sprayed with a glycerine mixture to simulate the dirt and sweat of a tropical heat. When Heston leaves his apartment at night, he has to manoeuvre his way past scores of extras sleeping on the stairs (an indication of the over-crowding mentioned directly in the source novel). The film’s New York setting tends to mask the fact that the whole world is in decay. Towards the end Thorn explains to Shirl that there is nowhere to run to. Crops have failed, animals have become extinct and even the plankton in the sea have been over-farmed. People queue for cut-price crumbs of Soylent while waiting for the scare rations of high protein Soylent Green to be delivered. The slightest delay in delivery triggers a riot in which protesters are scooped up and dumped into 21st century garbage trucks.
Ultimately, the film of Soylent Green remains pertinent because it is about scarcity of resources. Whatever the cause of the situation it depicts a world in which humans are reduced to commodities – ‘Books’ – ‘Furniture’ – and only the 1% prosper. The ultimate revelation (SPOILER) – the one which offended Harry Harrison so much – is that the source of the Soylent Green has failed and the company has begun reprocessing human bodies from the euthanasia centres. As resources become even more scarce, society begins to eat itself!