As portrayed in contemporary pop culture, billiards has become surprisingly lowbrow; a game primarily associated with smoke-filled pool halls, barroom brawls, garish intimacy, and/or fast con trick shots. The irony, of course, is that billiards was once entertainment strictly for the gentry, popularized by royalty, such as King Louis XI of France, who introduced the first indoor billiards table.
In literature, the cultivated origins are equally evident, certainly ever since Shakespeare wrote “let’s to billiards” in Antony and Cleopatra (1606). Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll are just some of the canonical authors who appreciated and fervently played the sport. Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, wrote about billiards in his tale, “My Own True Ghost Story” (1888). So, too, did Italo Calvino in “Le Joueur de Billiard,” (1956); Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne in “A Billiard Lesson,” (1914); and Wallace Stegner in “The Blue Winged Teale” (1950).
One of the most notable billiards-themed short stories is “The Billiard Ball,” penned in 1966 by Isaac Asimov, the Hugo Award winning science fiction author, who wrote or edited more than 500 books, including I, Robot, which was made into a movie starring Will Smith. “The Billiard Ball” appeared in his 1968 collection Asimov’s Mysteries.
In “The Billiard Ball,” a journalist recounts the events leading up to the discovery of an anti-gravity device in the mid-21st century. The device results from the efforts and rivalry between billionaire Edward Bloom, who invented the device, and Nobel Prize winning physicist and Professor James Priss, who discovered the theories underlying the device.
Throughout the story, the two men successfully put their differences on hold by competing in friendly games of pool. However, as tensions mount regarding the feasibility of achieving anti-gravity, Bloom opts to prove the success of the device by staging a public challenge on a billiards table. Specifically, he dares Priss to shoot a ball toward the center of a billiards table, where it will enter a zero-gravity field, thereby eliminating mass. Priss takes the shot, sending the ball caroming into the field. But when the ball enters the device’s field, the ball vanishes and Bloom instantly collapses dead with a mysterious hole drilled through his chest, begging the question: Did Priss intentionally murder Bloom?
So what does any of this have to do with movies?
As it happens, in 2013, Chelzea Hendrus and Tyler Johnson, two students at the University of Akron, created a 7-minute claymation adaptation of “The Billiard Ball” for their Extreme Physics (Physics Theatre) class. The film, aptly titled The Billiard Ball, is available to watch here.
The characters’ names are changed (e.g., Professor Priss becomes Professor Higgs) and the film interweaves a lot of physics mumbo-jumbo not covered in the original story, but otherwise it’s an abridged version of the same famous Asimov tale, right down to the fatal, head-scratching carom shot. And the use of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467 Andante” gives the film an appropriately foreboding feeling, even for watching two clay figures interact.
Now, does this signal a cultural shift for pool? A billiards literature renaissance? Will Leo Tolstoy’s “Recollections of a Billiard Maker” (1855) make it to the silver screen, just as his 864-page opus Anna Karenina did in 1987? Given The Billiard Ball only has 310 views, probably not.
But, the notion of sourcing future billiards movies from literature is not as far-fetched as it may sound. After all, the two most famous billiards movies – The Hustler and The Color of Money – were both adapted from novels written by Walter Tevis, as was the short billiards film The Lemon Tree Billiards House, which was based on a shorty story by Cedric Yamanaka. So, if Hollywood is looking to procure new material, there is a catalog of classic billiards stories awaiting perusal.
A special thanks to my colleague René G., who first turned me on to Asimov’s story, as well as many of the other great works referenced in this blog post.