Something Awkward This Way Came

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By Scott Ross

All movies based on great literature are, necessarily, diminutions of their sources. The best one can hope for is the occasional transmogrification that distills the essence of its subject: Horton Foote’s screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind, and even it misses, presumably due to length, one of Harper Lee’s central metaphors. There are, however, some titles whose technical innovations are so strong, and whose prose is so rich and ruminative (I’m thinking at the moment of Toni Morrison’s novels and Harlan Ellison’s stories, and the meta-fictions of Gore Vidal) they should never be touched by filmmakers. All their would-be adapters can achieve is a bare-bones fealty to a narrative arc, losing the essential, interior psychology — and the idiosyncratic dialogue, so dazzling on the page, which comes off as false when spoken by actors. High on the list of books that militantly defy adaptation are Ray Bradbury’s, and especially high is this Bradbury. In its 1983 Disney adaptation, nearly everything that could go wrong with a movie of Something Wicked This Way Comes, does.

First, the casting is off: Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade are, in the novel, 13 going strong on 14 (“Both touched toward 14; it almost trembled in their hands”) and I suppose for those who no longer recall the difference between 11 and 13, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson are perfectly adequate, if determinedly unexceptional. But as both boys look no older than 10 at best, their physiognomies further dilute their wan performances. But Disney, attempting at the time to stretch into a more adult market, was also trying to have it both ways — filming material that might attract adults while casting it with actors childish enough to appeal to those moviegoers’ offspring — and so achieved (Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz notwithstanding) neither truly mature pictures, nor movies wholly appropriate for small children.

Additionally there are undercurrents of eroticism in the novel, both homoerotic (between Will and Jim, but especially on Will’s part toward Jim, an observation Bradbury would no doubt have disputed with vociferation) and heterosexual (Jim’s interest in the strange “theatre” in town of whose offerings he has caught furtive glimpses and longs for more and which one presumes are orgies being held in someone’s private home, along with his aching general desire to be older, a common dream which nearly always includes sexual experience within its yearning) and which the Disney concept cannot accept, let alone navigate — although the filmmakers shift desire to the barber, Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), ultimately making him a prisoner of it. And however fine an actor Jason Robards, Jr. was, and as rich a portrait of Will’s aged father as he gives, Charles Halloway is only 54 in the novel, not 61…  and in Robards’ case, a hard 61, exacerbated by alcohol, that looks and feels rather more like 71.

Second, the screenplay, which not only reduces the poetic scope of the novel but alters its actions, sets what seems to me a deliberately timeless story in the 1930s, creates new characters (the double amputee Ed the Bartender), puffs up existing ones (Crosetti, Mr. Tetley, Mrs. Nightshade, Tom Fury the lightning rod salesman) or alters their narrative arcs and their characters for no discernable reason (The Dust Witch, Miss Foley), creates pat psychological alibis for Mr. Holloway’s inaction, blithely ignores period racial norms, turns the Cooger and Dark Carnival into Dr. Lao’s Circus, and literally reverses the deus ex machina of the climax. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “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…” While I disagree with Ebert’s further observation that “the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie” (it’s completely missing) his take on Bradbury is apt. The man was a prose poet wed to pulp material, and his best work — Something Wicked, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, From the Dust Returned — sings. (His actual poetry hewed to rhyme, and was less interesting.) And if the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes owes a debt to Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, the progenitor of all creepy side-show stories, it’s one the book wears lightly, unlike the movie, which essentially rips Finney off.

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13 going on 11: Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

It’s hard to know who is to blame for the movie’s fatally confused script. Bradbury adapted his book not long after its 1962 publication and attempted to get the studios interested, unsuccessfully, for years. And while what’s on the screen is credited to him, the director Jack Clayton brought John Mortimer on to prepare revisions, a decision as bizarre as it was a betrayal of Bradbury. What in the British Mortimer’s background — he was the barrister author of the Rumpole series, remember — suggested him for this project? And that the Disney suits fired Clayton, reshot several sequences and dumped Georges Delerue’s lyrical score as “too dark” confuses the issue even further. The picture is such an unholy mess it’s almost impossible even to get angry at it; the stench of desperation wafts from it like a choking miasma.

One example of many should suffice to illustrate what I mean. In Bradbury’s novel, Dark (Jonathan Pryce) sends the Dust Witch — a truly frightening and unnerving figure, eyes sewn shut, a hag reaching out with her senses, not the sultrily sexy enchantress portrayed by Pam Grier in the movie — to scour the area for Will and Jim, whose names he does not know. She does so in a monstrous balloon, which Will shoots down with an arrow, diminishing (although not, alas, destroying) her power. In the movie, Dark instructs her to find the boys and — this is important —  bring them back. An eerie green mist is then deployed on the town, reaching out for the Halloway and Nightshade homes like a pair of ghastly hands. Does the Dust Witch then do as she has been ordered? She does not. Are Jim and Will grabbed, and brought back to the carnival? They are not. They are instead assaulted in Jim’s bedroom by armies of tarantulas, which they fend off together as best they can before suddenly awakening in their separate beds, in their separate homes, implying that the entire attack was nothing but a supernaturally shared nightmare.

I don’t know what purpose the sequence was meant to serve but whatever it was, the boys are decidedly not brought back to Dark. And wasn’t their specifically ordered abduction supposedly what mattered? If so, what was the point of what we just saw? I gather a more elaborate sequence was planned, one which would have made extensive use of computer animation for the first time, but was junked as too expensive. So why concoct a replacement sequence that makes no sense? I can only assume our not seeing the carnival coming together by itself as the boys watch near the beginning — which could have been utterly, if eerily, entrancing — was, similarly, a victim of the budgetary chopping-block.

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Dark: Jonathan Pryce…

Speaking of the Dust Witch, I feel that little was gained by casting Pam Grier in the role, especially as she has so few lines and such a vague raison d’être. (In the movie she is also, naturally, the figure in the ice at the beginning. So why is she not the Ice Witch, then?) Mr. Tetley (Jack Dengel) becomes a blubbering fool at the sight of her sitting alone on a Ferris wheel seat and hastens to join her, but however heavily veiled she is, she is quite obviously a black woman. And as the picture is at pains to tell us it’s set in the ‘30s, how many white men would have been willing to make such public idiots of themselves over a figure they in their most charitable moments would have regarded, with a contemptuous sniff, as a Negress? Similarly, where in the novel the Dust Witch goes to stop Halloway’s heart and is nearly done in by his laughing in her face, here she merely slows it down. Why would Dark, who intends running Will backwards on his enchanted carousel, returning him to infancy in order to stop his mouth, leave his father alive? He wouldn’t. (And while we’re on the subject of Charles Halloway, it should be noted that the movie turns him from a somewhat disreputable if autodidact library janitor into the town’s librarian. Could the people at Disney simply not imagine a man content enough to immerse himself in literature without making its custody his profession? One assumes so, since they also subject Dark to what in the original does Cooger in because, one assumes, they could not conceive of filming his end as a dead child.)

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… and light: Jason Robards, Jr.

The picture is filled with such frustrating inconsistencies and betrayals of the original material. Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) rather than being a favorite teacher who foolishly allows herself to be seduced by the house of mirrors and is ultimately rendered a little girl, becomes a termagant, angry over the loss of her youthful beauty, who is granted it again, but at the cost of her vision. Why? Why do Jim and Will spit invective at each other constantly, yet behave as if they love each other dearly when it suits the story? Why does Tom Fury (Royal Dano) dispatch the Dust Witch as if he was an avenging Ishmael and she (ironically) the great white whale?

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Pam Grier as a dustless Dust Witch

The movie gets almost nothing right, including James Horner’s replacement score, a conventional affair with a good theme and one neat percussive effect for the spider sequence which Horner all too typically lifted for his later score for Aliens. Only two sequences really work: The long scene of the boys hiding beneath the sidewalk grate in front of Tetley’s cigar stand, and the confrontation between Dark and Mr. Halloway in the library. And they succeed because they a) in the case of the former, hew closely to Bradbury’s original; and b) in the case of the latter, lift, shuffle and reassemble Hollaway’s dialogue to the boys before Dark’s arrival into a colloquy between the forces of seductive darkness (Pryce) and strained light (Robards), suiting striking action to potent word as the Illustrated Man rips a magically illuminated page from Holloway’s father’s journals for every year of the man’s life counted down. That both sequences also give the movie’s leading actors (and the actors in the picture who most give over to the roles) something to play doesn’t hurt. Yet even this is muffed: When Robards leaves the library he wears a bloody handkerchief around his hand, but, unlike in the novel, we haven’t seen Dark crush it.

The mirror sequence near the end is rather more effective than most in the picture, but it elides the horror of Jim and Will being made blind, deaf and mute by the Dust Witch and turned into living wax figures beforehand. And the finale of the thing is as confused as the tarantula sequence, with Mr. Halloway giving only a hint of the capering hilarity that in the novel brings Jim back to life, as if actor and filmmakers were too embarrassed to make much of it. It’s such a fey conception in Bradbury you can’t, if you know the book, imagine how anyone could bring it off, convincingly, on screen. But the people behind this Something Wicked didn’t even try.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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