Thursday, July 28, 2011

Waukegan Revisited

Chicago literature website New City Lit has a new article on a visit to Bradbury's hometown of Waukegan. A decent enough piece, with some welcome photos, it seems to conclude that Waukegan could do more to show its respect for its famous literary son.

While it's true that Waukegan has no statue of Bradbury, it does have a park named after him, and one of five stars on the 'walk of fame' is for Bradbury. Plus there are annual events named after Bradbury - storytelling festival, writing competitions - and another named after Dandelion Wine.

My own report from Waukegan from two years ago goes into a bit more detail, here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Becoming Ray Bradbury

If you have a shelf full of Ray Bradbury's books, you may think you know his work well. You'd be wrong.

Professor Jonathan Eller of Indiana University has made it the work of a decade or so to pull off Bradbury's mask and find what's beneath. Some of this work has been done in studies of single works by Bradbury. Eller has edited, co-edited or contributed to volumes such as It Came From Outer Space, Moby Dick: a Screenplay, and The Halloween Tree. These have all revealed previously invisible aspects of Bradbury's work, by publishing intermediate aftefacts such as screen treatments, outlines and screenplays.

In his work with his Indiana colleague Prof William Touponce, Eller has substantially overturned our assumed wisdom about Bradbury's authorship. Their mammoth study Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction presented new readings of Bradbury's major works in light of archaeological diggings into Bradbury's typescripts and working papers. Before Eller and Touponce, we tended to assume that each book Bradbury put out was a reflection of his writing at the time of publication. After The Life of Fiction we can see that the vast majority of Bradbury's work stems from an extensive outpouring of creativity in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Eller and Touponce are continuing to "set the record straight" through their ongoing multi-volume critical edition of The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury. This series of books seeks to restore Bradbury's original texts and to establish the original compositional sequence and chronology of Bradbury's short stories. It's really quite stunning to discover how many of Bradbury's classic tales were conceived or written before 1950.

Now Eller has completed a volume which serves as an excellent companion to The Life of Fiction and The Collected Stories.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is a biography of Bradbury's early career, concentrating on his creative, literary and intellectual development. It goes up to the key turning point of Bradbury's professional life: his sojourn in Ireland working on Moby Dick for John Huston. The remainder of Bradbury's career is due to be covered in a sequel volume.

There have been Bradbury biographies before, of course, most notably Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles. Why do we we need another?

The answer to that one is simple. Sam Weller writes about every facet of Bradbury. Not just Bradbury the writer, but Bradbury the young film fan who hung around studio gates waiting for an autograph from W.C.Fields. Bradbury the celebrity who walked out on David Frost on the night of the Moon landing. Bradbury the friend of the stars and honoree of presidents from around the globe. All of this makes The Bradbury Chronicles a rounded and fascinating read.

But what Eller does in Becoming Ray Bradbury is carefully examine the details of Bradbury's writerly development. Here we learn of exactly what Bradbury was reading and writing during his early attempts to become a writer; of the importance of mentors such as Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett; of his encounters with the works of Steinbeck and Hemingway. Some of this is covered in Weller's book, but Jon Eller takes us deeply into Bradbury's reading and can tell us that, for example, in 1944 Bradbury read Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend and E.B. White's One Man's Meat. In many cases, he is able to tell us how and why Bradbury came to each volume: perhaps a chance discovery in a bookshop; perhaps a recommendation from friend Henry Kuttner; perhaps a gift from his wife.

Why does any of this matter? Well, because Eller is trying to piece together factors that influenced Bradbury's writing, thinking and worldview. It is clear in the early chapters that Bradbury was quite susceptible to influence from others, as we discover through the account of Bradbury's aligning himself with the "Technocracy" movement. It is equally clear that the young Bradbury was astute in making up his own mind, and having explored an idea in depth would be quite prepared to toss it aside if it was found wanting.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is particularly good in covering Bradbury's early professional years, presumably in part because Bradbury himself kept good records. (He has a reputation, to this day, of never throwing anything away.) It also gives an excellent account of Bradbury's oscillation between optimism and pessimism in terms of his knowledge and understanding of the world. Many critics are confused over this, and find it hard to reconcile a perceived "anti-science" bias in some of Bradbury's work with a profound optimism found elsewhere.

At the heart of Becoming Ray Bradbury is a pair of chapters dealing with Bradbury's "miracle year", a twelve-month period in which he submitted three of his major works: The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and "The Fireman" (the earliest published version of Fahrenheit 451.)

You can probably tell by now that I think highly of this book, but that doesn't mean I find it without its flaws and foibles, although they are really quite minor. Although it is far more detailed than The Bradbury Chronicles, it doesn't attempt to cover every aspect of Bradbury's life. For some readers - particularly those who haven't read The Bradbury Chronicles - that might make this seem an oddly-balanced volume. In fact, the book is probably best seen as complementary to The Bradbury Chronicles. I still think it will make perfect sense to anyone who hasn't read Weller.

The only other slight weakness emerges from the difficulty of trying to draw out themes from a literary career while still sticking to a broadly chronological telling of events. There are occasions where the narrative has to backtrack, and with a work as detailed as this it's easy for the reader (me, at least) to have forgotten a crucial detail from a previous chapter.

The book is very clearly written. Don't be put off that this is written by a professor, and is published by a university press. It is free of scholarly jargon and doesn't demand that you have a degree in Eng. Lit.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is a fine companion to The Life of Fiction and The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury. Together, they round out a significant re-evaluation of Bradbury's life and work.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lost in Development

It's nearly four years since we read the announcements that Zack Snyder was going to direct The Illustrated Man. It's getting on for ten years since we read that, first, Mel Gibson, and latterly Frank Darabont were going to film Fahrenheit 451.

Unfortunately, that's the way it goes in the movie business. It's not that it actually takes four years (or ten years) to make a movie, just that the wheels turn ever so slowly. What I've always found most bizarre is how long Hollywood will spend trying to perfect a script... and rarely succeeding.

We know that both Bradbury himself, and Frank Darabont, have written perfectly viable screen versions of Fahrenheit 451, for example. And yet I bet - if the film ever does get made - it will be neither Bradbury's nor Darabont's name on the screenwriter credit.

According to IMDB, The Illustrated Man is now estimated for release in 2013. And Fahrenheit 451? For years, IMDB has been showing a future date. Right now it says (and I quote), "????"

The Martian Chronicles took 22 years to make it to the screen. Bradbury's first stab at adapting it (for television) was in 1957. He then wrote complete movie screenplays around 1961, 1964 and 1978. It finally got made, inadequately, in 1979, from a teleplay by Richard Matheson.

This is why I refuse to get excited when I read that Xxxx has been signed to make a film of Yyyy. There is, it seems, a 90% chance that it will never happen!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Brand identity

Opinions are divided on what is best in an adaptation. Ask the proverbial man on the street, and I'm sure he will tell you that when he watches a film based on a book he's read, he wants it to tell the same story. Fidelity, faithfulness to the original work, is all important.

Except: it's impossible to achieve, because what works optimally in one medium can be impossible, dull or clunky in a different medium.

And: surely, if you want the film to be exactly like the book, wouldn't you really be better off just reading the book itself.

And: how many people will have read the book anyway?

In the academic study of adaptation, the whole idea of fidelity was considered and rejected decades ago, for the reasons I've suggested above, and for a few others. Instead, what most critics are interested in is for an adaptation to give a new insight into the original work, or to make the original work newly relevant to our world.

Which brings me not to a film adaptation, but to graphic novel adaptations. This summer sees the publication of two more authorised graphic novel adaptations of Ray Bradbury novels, follow-ups to the successful adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 released two years ago.

Ron Wimberly has adapted Something Wicked This Way Comes. In a recent interview he talks about the constraints of adapting an existing work:

You won't fit everything in, but one must try to capture the spirit of the work. The spirit of literature is poetry. Poetry suggests. It's the Impressionism of literature. So I approached it like that. Things are lost, but you can always read Bradbury's original to taste the angel's share.

He then goes on to talk about how, in his first draft of the adaptation, he chose to make the key setting of the story like the "suburban wasteland" of Washington, D.C., where he grew up. Then "Bradbury's people" asked if he could make it more like the Disney movie.

Part of me would be fascinated to see Wimberly's "suburban wasteland" version of Something Wicked. If you're paying an artist good money to interpret a work, let's see his interpretation. If I want Bradbury, I can read the original novel.

But then again, this book is one of a series of volumes that announce themselves as authorised adaptations. That announcement makes a difference. It's attaching a brand to the book. It really has to be Bradbury's Something Wicked between the covers, otherwise it would be like buying a can of Heinz Baked Beans only to open it and find they taste like supermarket own brand. (No, I don't buy that theory that all baked beans are the same. Heinz' taste different, no question!)

Read the full interview with Ron Wimberly here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

RIP: Roberts Blossom

Some sad news: the actor Roberts Blossom has died at the age of 87. He was in lots of great films, usually in small, quirky roles. But for me, he is a definitive Bradbury character: the Burning Man, in J.D.Feigelson's Twilight Zone episode.

Read the New York Times obituary here - and my review of "The Burning Man" here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Theodore Sturgeon

Ray Bradbury is the focus of my academic research into the relationships between literary text and screenwriting. I've also done a bit of study of the literature and screen works of Harlan Ellison. There are a few other writers whose literary and screen careers I have tracked, although I haven't gone so far as to write or publish anything about them. In this latter category is the late Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon was born a mere two years before Bradbury, and yet he so rapidly established himself as a fantasy and SF writer of quality that he was a significant influence on Bradbury's own early efforts. Like Bradbury, Sturgeon developed a reputation as a stylist. Like Bradbury, Sturgeon wrote short stories, novels and screenplays. His best known screen works were Star Trek episodes, including "Amok Time", the episode that not only took us to the planet Vulcan but showed us the curious mating rituals the Vulcan race must endure. Actually, sex and sexuality were something of a thematic preoccupation of Sturgeon's, showing up in several short stories and his novel Venus Plus X (and elsewhere).

Sturgeon was in the news recently, because his personal papers are finally being brought together into a single collection, which will be housed at Kansas University. This is excellent news for anyone researching into Sturgeon's work.

The most detailed report I have seen on this is here.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Trailers from Hell

The always entertaining site Trailers from Hell hosts commentaries on movies by movie makers and critics, and is always a good place to head when you have a spare five minutes or so.

Among the delights are director and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson reviewing the 1956 Bradbury-Melville-Huston collaboration Moby Dick

... and director and screenwriter Darren Bousman discussing the Bradbury-Harryhausen Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Anonymous Tribute

Orange County Screenwriter's Association has a tribute to Bradbury, which tells us how the writer of the article has been inspired by Ray. Unfortunately, the writer is virtually anonymous, posting as "marse". He's probably someone incredibly famous or influential, but there's no way of me knowing that...

This, by the way, is another article that gets Ray's age wrong. We're told he's already 91, but in fact this won't be the case until August.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A Nod to Orwell and Bradbury

The band British Sea Power release a new single on 25 July. Taken from their current album Valhalla Dancehall, it's a song called "Georgie Ray". Georgie is a reference to George Orwell, and Ray is a reference to Ray Bradbury.

The song is a plea for us to act and speak out in order to prevent the destruction of the world. The opening lines are, "
Before this day is cemented/In memory of Ray/Can we all do something, instead of pray."

Bradbury is also echoed in the lines "Can we all sing electric, On the sun?"

According to thedigitalfix, this is what the band's frontman has to say about the Orwell and Bradbury connection:

"Sometimes,” says BSP frontman Yan, “you end up thinking science fiction is all Star Trek and Buck Rogers, but great writers wrote sci fi too. In this song George Orwell and Ray Bradbury are combined into one person. It’s a song that looks into the possibly doom-laden future of nowadays and optimistically hopes for something better."

You can listen to the song for free on the band's official website (look for the PLAY button next to the song title "Georgie Ray").

The lyrics can be seen here (albeit with some differences to what is actually sung on the track).