In Our Opinion

RAY BRADBURY CELEBRATES HIS 90th BIRTHDAY

By • Aug 21st, 2010 •

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While known mostly for his literary works, there can be no question of Ray Bradbury’s powerful cinematic connection – he has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame – and so the celebration of his 90th birthday is entirely appropriate at Films In Review, which was actually first published the year before he was born.

An American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and poet, Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. In 1938 he was selling newspapers on the corners of LA while pounding the library and typewriter keys at night. By 1943 he was a full-time writer of published short stories. By 1947 his first anthology, DARK CARNIVAL, was published and was a hit.

1950 saw the novel that would establish him, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, which tells the tales of earthmen attempting to conquer and colonize Mars.

It was, interestingly, his Saturday evening Post story, THE FOGHORN which jump-started the separate motion picture careers of himself and his best friend for some 70-something years, now, Ray Harryhausen, with the release of the movie based on that story, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Harryhausen created the groundbreaking special effects, and the prestige awarded Bradbury from the film’s smash box office hit status, in Bradbury’s words, “Changed my life” in 1954.

Part of that continuing change included writing the script for John Huston’s 1956 classic film adaptation of MOBY DICK, which seems like a funny kind of aesthetic connection, because while the two films in style could not be more different, both deal with titanic monsters of the ocean depths. Given the chance to write the screenplay here, however, Bradbury shows he’s very much more than the movies’ monsters: he cuts the fat from the lengthy (700 page!) Melville novel and focuses down on the moments from the book that bring not no much the whale, but the characters to full-blooded and engaging life. It’s an astonishing piece of creative editorial work and screenwriting, filled with rich moments and an appropriate mix of raw reality and unapologetic sensitivity that makes the period of the film seem so vivid and authentic.
Cinematic translations of Ray Bradbury’s own novels have not always been so successful, however – not because Bradbury’s original works are difficult to translate to the screen (they can be) – but often because producers have entirely missed both the point and style of Bradbury’s works. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, one of Bradbury’s most famous novels was realized as a hopelessly slow mini-series that somehow managed to wring all the gold out of the mining pan and present us instead with little more than the desert dust of the red planet. Likewise, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN is only partially successful in the eyes of many.

Perhaps no work of Bradbury’s saw such a fruitless squandering of initial potential, however, as the Disney’s realization of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. This novel in the original form was a unique and truly sensitive coming of age story about the relationship of a father and his son, developed through the nightmare experiences of a conflict with a carnival of the “dust people” – evil spirits who use people’s needs and fears to draw them into a Faustian pact of damnation, leading them to become themselves sideshow exhibits for all eternity in this carnival that arrives from nowhere, and vanishes without warning. The sometimes brutally honest recreation of coming of age in the heartland of this country in more innocent times, combined with the sort of evil that could otherwise only have been imagined in the Victorian era, makes for a mesmerizing tale.

For SOMETHING WICKED, Jack Clayton, whose brilliant film, THE INNOCENTS, made him a – probably literally – perfect choice to direct, was engaged. Jason Robards was appropriately cast as the father and in the performance of his career (as “Julian Karswell” was to actor Niall MacGinnis ) is Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, the dispassionately evil proprietor of “Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival”. With a solid script by Bradbury, this film could have and should have been everything for which one could have hoped.

But, the story goes, in a maddening moment of an eye-to-brain disconnect, the executives at Disney apparently failed to comprehend in a rough cut what the film was about stylistically and perceived it’s strongest values as negatives. For example, they felt the film was “too claustrophobic”, so they had FX artists direct new shots to “open the film up”, not understanding that Clayton’s claustrophobic cinematic style, which was so perfect for THE INNOCENTS, would have had the same – and very appropriate – effect in SOMETHING WICKED. Eventually so many cartoon-animated special effects were inserted at the whim of the uniquely Disney special effects people, who had none of Bradbury’s and Clayton’s sensibilities, that at times the film is a confusing mess in which we don’t even know whose point of view we are supposed to favor. But the brilliance is still there, and through the loud and over-saturated cartoon animation and poorly re-shot replacement scenes, one can still see that brooding, dark and claustrophobic motion picture masterpiece demanding to be viewed and heard in the explosive dramatic form that would have resulted in its original measured and deliberate restraint. Let us hope that sometime soon the executives at Disney will use a little marketing acumen and release a “restored” version of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES the way Universal seized on the errors of their meddling predecessors and restored Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL to its rightful state as a brilliant film noir masterpiece. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES deserves to be seen as originally intended. Doubtless the footage still exists to restore it. They should.

Such situations led to Bradbury producing his own TV series for several years, RAY BRADBURY THEATER, in which he maintained control over all and in the process provided TV with some truly outstanding moments.

There are more happy exclusions to the poor cinematic treatments, and, for this writer, saving the best for last, there is FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966). Produced and directed by acclaimed French Director Francois Truffaut (Jules and Jim), the British film is a medium-budget futuristic story in which Bradbury’s cautionary tale of television reducing the mass public consciousness down to it’s lowest common denominator is presented full-bore. In that story a totalitarian Government burned all books. It is often assumed, then, that because of the shocking image in that story of great works of literature being burned, that Bradbury was warning the world of the dangers of censorship. But as Bradbury himself is quick to point out, that was only one small piece of the puzzle. In the vernacular of today, his primary warning was one of the Dumbing-Down of the population by pop culture. The original novel, written in 1953, is a bit of clear-headed, prophetic thinking that must rank among the great analytical moments in literature. More striking is that, to the greatest extent imaginable, his warning has come true. Blathering talking heads, endless remote control audience participation of nonsense programming and a relentless focus on the glossy and superficial instead of more significant thought are more the fact of the world we are in then was ever true when Bradbury wrote the tale in the fifties. Indeed, if you had to pass through several walls of internet news and pop culture to get to this site, you just lived the unnerving reality of Bradbury’s cautionary tale.

The final 15 minutes of FAHRENHEIT 451, with highly sensitive cinematography of the Book People among the first light snowfalls of winter, punctuated by one of the most stirring moment’s in music composer Bernard Herrmann’s career, make this sequence, in this writer’s view, one of the finest moments in cinema in the second half of the 20th century.

Let’s take the opportunity of his milestone birthday to learn a thing or two from the undeniably prophetic Ray Bradbury, as common a man in his unabashed love for cinema and the creative as he is deservedly world-renowned for his skill and ability to take a simple today and foresee the complex reality of tomorrow while keeping the reader glued to the page. Still writing and creating and doing a million things behind the scenes that both change and anticipate the whim of destiny, the world is still young and the future vast and welcoming for Ray Bradbury as he celebrates his 90th year.
This author and Films In Review wish him a very Happy Birthday and many more to come.

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6 Responses »

  1. Wonderful! So much I didn’t know about the movies made from his books! Happy Birthday, Mr. Bradbury!

  2. When I was 13 years old, I climbed over the fence behind my house and landed on a grocery bag full of discarded paperback books. Among these abandon treasures was a book by an author I had never heard of: Ray Bradbury. I started reading this fantastic story of two boys, around my same age, and the sinister carnival that crept into town in the middle of the night. The name of the book was “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. I could not put it down and read the whole thing in one day. In the middle of reading it the sky turned an ominous dark grey and orange and it started to pour down rain.It was October and it was a little creepy and scary. It was a life changing moment for me. It changed the way I think. An appropriate and serendpitious way to be introduced to the genius that is Ray Bradbury.Happy Birthday and Live Forever!! I Love you Ray!

  3. Your article is quite good, but it contains at least three errors which need correction. First, although “The Foghorn” was Bradbury’s original title for his story of a prehistoric beast which eventually destroys the lighthouse to which he is attracted, the “Saturday Evening Post” changed the title, for reasons which are still unclear, to “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” a scientifically-implausible title but one which was apparently more attention-grabbing. When Jack Dietz was in the middle of production on his film, “Monster from the Deep,” he decided, for reasons I will not discuss here, that “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” would make a great title for his movie. Of course, the film contains a very brief segment, animated by Harryhausen, showing a prehistoric monster attacking a lighthouse. But I digress.

    Next, Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and “Illustrated Man” are NOT novels. Rather, they are collections of short stories, originally published in a variety of magazines. Bradbury’s agent thought tying the stories together with linking essays would make interesting reading. Obviously, he was correct. Bradbury’s first “novel” was “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

    Finally, Bradbury continues to claim, as recently as last month, that he took “Something Wicked This Way Comes” away from Jack Clayton and “fixed” it. This is highly unlikely. Even someone as beloved as Ray Bradbury isn’t strong enough to take a film away from a director or a studio and change it. Yet, the “urban legend” persists. It’s more believable to simply say that the film fails on a variety of levels and, perhaps, should never have been made for theatrical release. Perhaps it could have worked as a miniseries for TV. But we will never know.

    It’s sad for those of us who love Bradbury to know that, according to statements he has made recently at the San Diego Comic-Con and elsewhere, he spends his DAYS watching Fox News. At the Comic-Con, he actually said “Ronald Reagan was our greatest president” and “we need to take our country back!” Take it back from whom? Did Obama take over the White House by military coup or was he duly elected by a majority of Americans. Bradbury’s hearing loss and diminished sight have done more damage than he can possible ever know.

    In Bradbury’s defense, he spends his EVENINGS watching Turner Classic Movies, so there is still hope for him. So, “Happy Birthday, Ray.” We love you and hope you will change your television channel to something else in the daytime—at least occasionally!

  4. Regarding the filmed version of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” I recall Bradbury speaking at one of Arthur Knight’s classes at USC, in which he stated his screenplay for the film was 200 pages long. Given Ray’s propensity for hyperbole, that’s probably an exaggeration, but equally probably not by much. I suspect length had something to do with any Disney re-edit. A 3-1/2 hour movie would have had slim chance for success.

  5. This article reminded me of the night long ago now..that I attended one of the premire’s of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES at the Hollywood Palace….they rigged a screen an showed the film in the worst possible conditions to a crowd of Hollywood Blvd types that came to party and not a watch a film….Ray arrived half way through and using a mike told them all they were his children and in a sense they were just that…..it was bittersweet I am sure since the film could not help but disappoint with all the tampering done after Jack Clayton was let go…Disney should be ashamed but hey they did the same thing to WATCHER IN THE WOODS so what can one expect from a bunch of idiots in charge….

    I was sorry to see Ray in such bad shape physically and hope he is not in too much pain. Like Bette Davis after her stroke some of us would rather remember our hero’s the way they were rather then what they have become through misfortune etc…in any case he reached a milestone and we are all glad to see him still among us…..

  6. Lovely and well deserved tribute David.

    Max.

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