Bradbury Festival, Part 4: Approaches to Evil
The story goes that director John Huston, who had met Ray Bradbury before, was in the US for only a few days and, having read the short story “The Foghorn,” was impressed by Bradbury’s poetic style. So he arranged a meeting and invited Bradbury to go to Ireland to do the screenplay for MOBY DICK. Bradbury had read MOBY DICK, hadn’t he?
Actually no, but he stopped at a bookstore on his way home, picked up a Modern Library edition, and leafing through was impressed by the poetry of Melville’s style. So he took the job.
Ultimately, with some changes by Huston (who, as was his habit, gave himself co-writing credit along with Bradbury), the movie came out in 1986 and, despite at one point nearly coming to blows with Huston, Bradbury later said it was his favorite screenplay of all that he’d done. Also that it “opened up Hollywood” for him, leading to more writing offers for movies than he could possibly handle. The problem with MOBY DICK, however, was that the novel was written with several interwoven plots, digressions, philosophical asides, and non-linear structure — in short, rather like Bradbury often tended to write himself, though perhaps in even larger scale. So what he had to do was separate out the main plot, converting seemingly random happenings into a tighter “cause and effect” to give it a structure that could be condensed into less than two hours on the screen.
He did a good job, among other things magnifying the role of Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate, into a more human, more sympathetic adversary to Ahab’s destructive quest for revenge. Thus Starbuck stresses God’s will in the quest to kill whales, to bring oil for the lamps of those on the land, hence defining his captain’s monomania in terms of blasphemy — evil — made all the worse through Ahab’s bringing the crew to his side.
In more ways than one, the film is a classic, much of the credit going to Huston’s brilliant direction, much to the actors (Huston’s style was to cast his parts carefully, but then allow the actors to do their own interpretations with little or no direction on his part — an extreme example being Orson Welles as Father Mapple using his own script from a London play version), also to cinematography using a deliberate painting-like “washed out” color, but also to Bradbury’s first major screenplay.
Thus the first part of a twi-night double feature, including talks both before and after (I’d taken to smuggling in cheese-on-rye sandwiches both Friday and this afternoon, eating them on a bench outside during the twenty or so minute breaks between presentations). Then there was one small bit in MOBY DICK while Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod where an older man, half-mad, identifying himself as Elijah prophecies that the voyage will be cursed. He comes up again, that is the same actor, Royal Dano, as the somewhat eccentric lightning rod salesman in the second film that ended the festival, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.
So this time the “prophecy” is that a storm’s a-coming to Greentown Illinois, deliberately modeled after Waukegan, the town Bradbury lived in until he was 14. Here it’s the arrival of a carnival, out of season for October, and here the evil is more direct in the person of carnival owner Mr. Dark, as seen through the eyes of two young boys.
So, yes, there’s a lot of Bradbury himself here who, as a boy, went to carnivals too. At one he met a “Mr. Electrico” who did a static electricity act and who told Bradbury he would “live forever.” This was, perhaps, the goad that brought him to being a writer, achieving immortality through his work. In any event, vignettes about carnivals kept showing up in his earlier work, finally coalescing in his 1962 novel SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES — one that he was already trying to pitch as a movie, although it didn’t finally get made until 1983. This was a troubled movie, however. Directed by Jack Clayton, its initial version was panned by preview audiences, causing major re-shooting 8 to 10 months later, rebuilding the sets, bringing back the actors including the boys who had grown in the meantime. There was also a falling out between Bradbury and the director, this due to bringing in John Mortimer (also writer of RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY)
as a “script doctor” at the studio’s insistence behind Bradbury’s back.
The major thrust though is the innocence of childhood, with both terror and joy as seen through young eyes, in this case with a carnival which should bring happiness but, instead, preys on the loneliness, the vulnerabilities, the unhappiness of many of the town’s people. Offers are made — people’s dearest desires — but when accepting there’s always a catch. The losses are people’s souls, captured as grotesques to be added to Mr. Dark’s menagerie, who also has designs on the children. And hence the ending, when one of the kids’ father breaks through his regret of years in the past, of having failed his son once when he was little, and discovering as well that the antidote to evil is laughter. Laughter, love, and joy.
As was noted afterward in the discussion, perhaps not all people will buy that premise. And even “corrected,” the ending is still rough. The film, even fixed, was not a success at the box office, according to Wikipedia having grossed a little bit less than half of its cost. Nevertheless, it was still well worth seeing, as Wikipedia further quotes Roger Ebert as stating:
“It’s one of the few literary adaptations I’ve seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel’s style. Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition, and the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie. In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.”