Thursday, November 8, 2012

"By the prickling of my thumbs..."

A few months back, I reviewed Charles Finney's influential oddity, The Circus of Dr. Lao.  In satisfying my curiosity about Lao's origin and literary history, I came across one of those books I had always meant to read but had simply never gotten around to: Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). After Ray's passing early this year, I decided it was past time that I should get off my duff and take in a little classic Bradbury. And I figured, as long as I was catching up on reading the book, I may as well watch the movie.

Bradbury has long occupied an odd literary position: one of the few widely respected genre writers (up there with Asimov and Clarke), but in many ways, still dismissed as being largely for young adults. My last exposure to him was in high school.  Because I moved around a lot, my reading list was an odd Frankenstein of books. I missed a lot of the one's everyone read, and caught a lot that no one else did.  So I actually read Fahrenheit 451 on my own, but had to read The Martian Chronicles for class.  Fahrenheit is probably the third best known and often cited science fiction explorations after 1984 and Brave New World, while Chronicles is probably the second best known book about Martians after War of the Worlds. And though I recall enjoying them both, other than a few short stories from various collections, that largely ended my exposure to Bradbury.

It's sort of fitting that as my age has more or less doubled since I last read him, that I should return to him on this darkly-tone exploration of age and maturity.  Something Wicked opens on one of those nostalgic buddy stories that began, in may ways in America, with Tom and Huck.  Will Halloway and his buddy Jim Nightshade are inseparable, living the adventures of young boys in rural America.  One day, a strange lightning rod salesman warns them of a storm coming, and come it does, in the middle of the night, in the form of a strange carnival: Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show.  Soon, strange things begin to happen among the locals, and Will and Jim discover some of the carnival's strange secrets which largely revolve around a magic carousel.  The boys quickly end up way in over their heads in confronting the demonic Mr. Dark whose skin crawls with living tattoos, and must enlist the help of Will's father, Charles, the town librarian, in ridding the town of the magical chaos.

The film, from 1983, with a script by Bradbury, is a fun and fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. And, oddly enough, this is one of those few times, where I wouldn't fall back on that old cliché that the book was wildly better than the movie. The book was quite good, and had multiple passage of poetic beauty that were stunning and surprising.  The movie had a good cast, some very fun thrills, and has aged far better than much of its 80's brethren that were aimed at younger audiences. But, I actually would've preferred something that fell between the two.

Now, without trying to ruin either one, I'll try and briefly discuss what I mean.  The book captured the tone of nostalgia better, where the movie just had well made period look without evoking much of the feel.  In a story that's a study on aging, innocence lost, and regret, the stronger nostalgic tone makes the points resonate.  Now I prefer the book's approach of being less direct about the fate of the people who fall prey to the carnival, letting the boys figure out the mystery for themselves...but, I preferred the movie's more active and direct approach in resolving the conclusion.  To explain myself, I'll need to branch off a bit.

In some ways, Something Wicked appears to follow the usual tropes of the hero's journey:  Will and Jim enter a dark place in order to make a journey that will turn them from boys to men as they conquer their fears to conquer the evil Shadow Show.  Problem is, they don't exactly do it all themselves.    Will ultimately is the protagonist, but it's not just his story, nor Jim's, but also his father's.  Charles Halloway, at first appears to be the wise old man character, but about halfway through the book he becomes a sort of secondary protagonist, and in some ways a future mirror of Will, as if both a young and an old version of the character are both competing for the same goal for different reasons: one to grow up the other to keep from dying.  Now, a little after midway in the book, there comes a point where Charles Halloway gets...shall we say..."preachy", and it bogs down the story as Bradbury commits the literary sin of "telling" rather than "showing".  His speech about the "Autumn people", in the midst of this, is a definite highlight to the book, and I was sad to see it get a sort of glossing over in the movie. The movie, oddly enough, does a better job initially of wedding the two threads together, but just like the book, I ultimately began to feel like I wasn't sure whose story this was supposed to be. Now I applaud Bradbury for bucking the system in several ways, but it's funny how much the change in the ancient formula throws things off.

By the end, the movie institutes a more active and satisfying conclusion as compared to the more "love conquers all" plot device of the book.   I'm not sure if that's just because I've become so accustomed to movie endings that anything more abstract feels like I've been robbed, or if I've just become to jaded to believe in a "love conquers all" finale. In some way, I'm thinking it's the jaded one because, funny enough, the very ending of both book and movie are yet another one where you can't help but wonder what's gonna happen once the "feel good" moment has passed and the townspeople start asking where the carnival vanished to so suddenly and the authorities have to start asking where all the vanished townspeople are.

In wrapping up, I'd like to give the movie a little more attention. It's a good looking film with some pretty snazzy effects for the time period.  While reading the book, I had imagined someone like Robards as Charles Halloway, and though Robards looks a little older than the middle-aged book version of Charles, he put in a warm performance. Jonathan Pryce, who's played a fair few villains, has, to my mind, never been as menacing as he was Mr. Dark.  While he didn't have the sharper more devilish features that I had imagined, he pulls off the role with great aplomb.  The real surprise was Pam Grier as the Dust Witch, which did add an exotic sensuality to the atmosphere of the necromantic carnival.  I had been imagining something between Angela Lansbury in Neil Jordan's strange The Company of Wolves and Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive medium from Poltergeist. In all, it was a solid adaptation and enjoyable adaptation.

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