Saturday, May 16, 2020

Lockdown Choices: Something Wicked This Way Comes

This is another in my series of Lockdown Choices, where I seek to entertain you while in coronavirus-isolation, and remind you of Ray Bradbury's great works in this, his centenary year.

In these posts, I cover each of Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories and adaptations.

Lockdown Choices: Something Wicked This Way Comes

First edition, Simon & Schuster 1962. Cover art by Gray Foy.

The Book

Something Wicked is Ray Bradbury's twelfth(ish) book, depending how you count them. At this point, I've more or less given up! It is - definitely - his first true novel. What do I mean by that? Well, The Martian Chronicles looks something like a novel, but it's really a collection of previously-published short stories, stitched together into a new patchwork. Fahrenheit 451 is barely long enough to count as a novel (it's more of a novella), and in any case is an expansion of a previously published short story, "The Fireman". And Dandelion Wine also looks something like a novel, but is really another collection of previously-published short stories, stitched together into a new patchwork.

And that leaves us with the present volume, the definitely, no question about it, never before published original novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Except... It's not an original work... Now, before you start screaming, let me explain: this novel has its origins in a previously-published short story, "The Black Ferris" (1948). Bradbury used this short story as the springboard for an expanded work called The Dark Carnival.

"Dark Carnival? Yeah, I've heard of that. Bradbury's first book, long out of print."

Er, no. THE Dark Carnival, a film script Bradbury wrote for Gene Kelly in the 1950s. A film script which Kelly was unable to get studio support for, and which was therefore abandoned, never to be filmed. Leading Bradbury to re-write it as the novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Something Wicked, therefore, is a novelisation of a film script!

"The Black Ferris" is a fast-moving short story whose location is barely dwelt upon, but passing references to a lake, a ravine and a boarding house clearly place this story in the familiar Bradbury universe. It’s not explicitly named as Green Town, Illinois, but it’s clearly the same place. It's about two boys who sneak out to a fairground, and accidentally witness some strange shenanigans: a man climbs aboard a ferris wheel, runs it backwards, and gets off - but when he gets off, he's a small child. The child runs into town, commits a crime, then returns to age himself once again on the ferris wheel. The story is pure fantasy, of course, but with a great central gimmick.

Mr Cooger, after the ferris wheel runs out of control. Illustration for "The Black Ferris", Weird Tales, May 1948.
By the time Ray got round to developing this story into something longer, he had settled on a carousel for the ageing/de-ageing device. I have a pet theory on how this happened: a ferris wheel has no obvious sense of going forwards or backwards. A carousel, on the other hand, has horses to indicate the direction of spin; if you see a carousel going backwards, you know something is awry.

British first edition of Something Wicked. Hart-Davis, 1963. Cover art by Joe Mugnaini.

"The Black Ferris" gives us one incident that would later be expanded in Something Wicked. But all the other elements and characters come from that screenplay I mentioned, which Bradbury drafted between 1955 and 1959. This contains most of the plot and characters that you find in the novel, although there are some key differences. The principal one is that the character we know as Mr Halloway in the novel is actually a merger of two characters from the screenplay (one is a father, the other a library janitor). It was fairly late in the drafting of the novel that Bradbury hit upon the idea of merging them into one. Other differences include the character names - Peter and Hank, rather than Jim and Will, for example. This reveals the connection to "The Black Ferris", whose twin protagonists are also Pete and Hank. Oh, and Mr Dark - such an important and iconic figure of evil in the novel - is unnamed and rarely seen in the screenplay. He was something of an afterthought, and only really developed as Bradbury converted his screenplay into a novel.

That 1950s screenplay has been published, albeit in a limited edition, Dawn to Dusk: Cautionary Travels (Gauntlet Press, 2011). There you will see it presented as "a screen treatment", although it is sufficiently long and detailed as to really be a full, first draft screenplay. "First draft" really needs to be emphasised, since this version of the story is somewhat unstructured. It has some beautiful scenes which would carry over into the novel virtually unchanged, but the story logic that gets us from scene to scene is sometimes lacking. This isn't a criticism, it's just a fact of life with first draft scripts. In all my study of Bradbury's screenwriting over the years, I've seen very little evidence of Ray starting out with a structured outline. On the contrary, all the evidence points to him just sitting at the keyboard and typing whatever came into his head, exactly the process he recommended for writing short stories. The structure would come later, as he found it within the first draft, and worked to shape it and strengthen it in later drafts.

Dawn to Dusk, Gauntlet 2011. Edited by Bradbury's bibliographer Donn Albright, this limited edition contains one of Bradbury's 1950s screenplay drafts for The Dark Carnival, the basis for the 1962 novel Something Wicked. The wraparound cover art reproduces a Joe Mugnaini painting.

Once Bradbury was sure that the screenplay wasn't going to be filmed, he set about novelising it. In the various stages of his process, he experimented with point of view. One draft of the novel was written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Will Halloway. The working title at this stage became Jamie and Me. Finally, Bradbury switched back to third person narration as he finalised the novel into the form we know it today, and eventually settled on the Shakespearean title Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you've ever wondered why the book seems to spend a bit more time with Will and his thoughts (rather than Jim and his thoughts), it's probably because Will was the narrator during those earlier stages.

The Stories

In this section I usually write about individual stories making up a collection, but in the case of a novel that doesn't really work. Instead, as I did with Fahrenheit 451, I'll write about the best scenes in the book.

Mr Cooger becomes a child - the scene developed directly from "The Black Ferris". For all of the effectiveness and economy of "The Black Ferris", the developed version of the scene in the novel approaches perfection. Remember that here Bradbury needs to establish the logic of how this familiar-yet-strange machine works. It has to support not just a single episode in a short story, but the whole weight of the novel - since the carousel turns out to be critical to the novel's denouement. Heavily condensed, here is how Bradbury does it (in chapter 18):
          With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and a downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved.
          [...] The merry-go-round was running, yes, but . . .
          It was running backward.
          [...] Jim nodded frantically at the man in the machine as he came around the next time.
          Mr. Cooger's face was melting like pink wax.
          His hands were becoming doll's hands.
          [...] The small shape stepped down from the silent world, its face in shadow, but its hands, newborn wrinkled pink, held out in raw carnival lamplight.

From this, you get the mechanism, you get the effect, you get a developing evil. And, carefully controlled on the page through the use of short paragraphs, you get a very clear visual picture of the whole sequence. Bradbury the novelist is here Bradbury the screenwriter, giving us very clear shots and camera angles.

Hiding in the drains - there comes a point (chapter 35) when Will and Jim are on the run from the evil carnival. They hide in a storm drain, and have to suffer in silence as they witness the evil Mr Dark verbally sparring with Mr Halloway, directly above them. This scene comes directly from Bradbury's earliest screenplay drafts, and it plays out the same way there as it does in the novel. Once Bradbury has a good, strong scene, he knows it, and will hone it to perfection, as he has done here.
          The cloudy sun poured light through all the sky.
          The two boys, boxed in light-slotted pit, hisstled their breath softly out through gritted teeth.
          [Will] gazed up . . . Dad looked even smaller up there than he had last night.
          [...] "Sir," said the man named Dark, probing Charles Halloway's face [...], "the Cooger-Dark Combined Shows have picked two local boys, two! to be our special guests during our celebratory visit!"
          [...]"Two selected from photos snapped on our midway yesterday. Identify them, sir, and you will share their fortune. There are the boys.
          He sees us down here! thought Will. Oh, God!
Again, Bradbury beautifully controls the "camera" through which we witness events. We shift seamlessly from down below with the boys, to up above with the two men, and back again. By having one scene play out, witnessed from below, he is able to rack up the Hitchcockian suspense of the scene. It's no surprise that this scene turns up almost unchanged in the 1983 feature film which was eventually made of Something Wicked (see below).

In the library - Mr Dark tracks down the boys to the library, but first encounters Mr Halloway again. Dark is amused to find that Halloway has been researching Cooger & Dark's carnival, and mocks Halloway's confidence that a Bible will protect him. "How childish and refreshingly old fashioned," Dark says as he proceeds to riffle the pages of the holy book, blowing smoke on the pages as he does so.

Shortly thereafter, Dark hunts the boys among the library shelves. They are terrified in amongst the books, but Dark quietly, patiently, climbs the shelves until:
          The eyes of the Illustrated Man came abreast of the eleventh shelf.
          Like a corpse laid rigid out, face down just three inches away, was Jim Nightshade.
          One shelf further up in the catacomb, eyes trembling with tears, lay William Halloway.
          "Well," said Mr. Dark.
          He reached a hand to pat Will's head.

The Adaptations

You're probably aware of the 1983 Disney film based on the novel, which has a screenplay credited to Ray Bradbury himself. But there had been a series of earlier attempts to get the novel on the screen - even after Ray had given up his 1950s efforts with Gene Kelly.

In the 1970s, Bradbury teamed with the legendary Sam Peckinpah, and created quite the most literal screenplay adaptation of a novel I've ever seen. Perhaps influenced by Peckinpah's claim that he could film the novel just by ripping the pages out of the book and stuffing them into the camera, Bradbury's 1974 script is a scene-by-scene transposition of the entire novel into screenplay form. It runs to 262 pages, which would lead to a running time of around four-and-a-half hours if filmed. Actually, it's a little unfair to call it just a transposition, because it does introduce some small new elements, and it is a very well written script. But it's a bit naive to think that converting every scene into screenplay format will produce a well balanced film.

A couple of years later, Bradbury wrote another screenplay based on Something Wicked. This wasn't a simple condensation of the 1974 script, but a completely new attempt. Finished in 1976, this version was to have been directed by Jack Clayton, for Paramount. Clayton and Bradbury had met in England back in the 1950s, when Bradbury was working on the screenplay for Moby Dick. They had a lot of common interests, and maintained a long-running correspondence for years, always hoping that at some point they would work together on a film. In 1976, it looked as if Something Wicked would be it. Unfortunately, the project fell apart as film projects often do - changes at the top of the studio, that sort of thing.

Finally, around 1981, the film was back on, this time at Disney. Bradbury's script was revised, and they were ready to go. Unfortunately, Clayton also got one of his writer friends (John Mortimer, of Rumpole of the Bailey fame) to give the script a little polish. And omitted to tell Bradbury. It was only when they were facing each other in a script meeting that Bradbury discovered Clayton's working draft was different. This put something of a chasm between Bradbury and Clayton, causing Bradbury to continue to work through gritted teeth all the time that he was talking to the press about the film.

The magnificent Jonathan Pryce as Mr Dark leads the parade in the 1983 Disney film.

It's worth mentioning at this point that Bradbury was generally happy for directors and other writers to make changes to his work. He was occasionally delighted when this happened (as with Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, which has some major points of departure from the novel it is based on), and occasionally disappointed (as with Jack Smight's abysmal The Illustrated Man).

But in the case of Something Wicked, the contractually official title was Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Bradbury was the sole credited screenwriter. To turn up to work and find you had been re-written, behind your back, by a director you considered to be a friend... beggars belief. But it's all too common in Hollywood.

When the completed film was screened to a preview audience, it was considered a disaster. Chances are, it was the wrong audience for the film. This is another thing that's all too common in Hollywood: relying on the judgment of an audience who typically haven't even paid to see the film. (Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is the classic example of a studio going into a panic after a bad screening.)

But the poor preview screening gave Bradbury an opportunity to take back control. He made strong suggestions for re-editing and partially re-shooting the film, and some of these suggestions did shape the film's re-making. The autumnal scenes that open and close the film were Bradbury's suggestion, as is the voice-over narration (spoken by Arthur Hill), which brings an authorial tone close to what we find in the book.

In later life, Bradbury would go so far as to claim that he had directed the film during this re-make period, but this is a gross overstatement. While he was influential over some of the narrative re-structuring, my own study of the studio memos and call sheets (in the Bradbury papers held by the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies in Indianapolis) shows that the real directorial control was in the hands of the Disney special effects department. Clayton was present throughout the re-shoots, and Bradbury made himself as available as he could, but both of them were largely sidelined as the technical team worked to knock the film into shape for release. Most of the changes made were to effects-based sequences, and some non-effects sequences were enhanced by having visual effects added. An example of the latter is the subtle addition of flames as Mr Dark rips pages from a book in the library sequence - and this is an enhancement that really works, making a dramatically powerful scene even stronger.

Sadly, the whole affair broke the friendship of Bradbury and Clayton. While they together stood firm against some aspects of the Disney "machine", once it was over they never spoke again.

While there has been talk of a new film version of Something Wicked, there is still no sign of one at the time of writing. But there have been adaptations for other media. Bradbury wrote a stage play based on his novel, some time in the 1990s. It is available for purchase from Dramatic Publishing. It's a fairly direct adaptation, and (judging by a performance I saw about ten years ago) in some places a little awkward it its use of the stage. But the key scenes that work in the novel also work well in the play.

That same play script was used for the Colonial Theatre radio play production in 2007. This production, inevitably stripped of the constraints of the stage, arguably works better than a conventional theatre production, leaving the listener's imagination to fill in the scenery.

Colonial Radio Theatre used Ray Bradbury's theatrical play as the script for their full-cast audio dramatisation. Only the smallest adjustments had to be made to the script.

BBC Radio also made their own full-cast audio production back in 2011, but using an original script by Diana Griffiths. I don't think this was ever commercially released, but it has been given a repeat airing a couple of time.

And even "The Black Ferris", the short story which started it all, was adapted for The Ray Bradbury Theatre. The 1990 episode was scripted by Bradbury himself, and directed in New Zealand by Roger Tompkins.

Find Out More...

Read my review of the Colonial Theatre radio production of Something Wicked, here.

Learn who else might have directed Something Wicked if history had played out differently, in my blog post here.

British novelist Kingsley Amis was a leading proponent of science fiction, but didn't get on so well with fantasy. Read about his scathing review of Something Wicked, in my blog post here.


Bradbury adapted "The Black Ferris" for his TV series, The Ray Bradbury Theater. You can watch this prototype for Something Wicked here.

In 2011, artist Ron Wimberley created a graphic novel adaptation of the Bradbury book. You can see a preview of some of the pages here.

Next Up...

The next of my Lockdown Choices will be the restrospective re-mix collection, R is for Rocket.

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