Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book vs. Film: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Today's edition of Book vs. Film compares Ray Bradbury's 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes with the 1983 Disney film version (which Bradbury had a hand in scripting, although differences of creative vision developed between the author and director Jack Clayton).

The film version is visually splendid, a vibrant translation of Bradbury's poetic descriptions.  Autumn colors suffuse panoramic shots, and the leaf-blanketed lane that runs in front of the protagonists' houses creates a distinct sense of season.  The Disney touch is evident in the rendition of Green Town, the quintessential small, mid-American community.  Idyllic to say the least, with its neatly landscaped town square and quaint shops lining the streets.

Perhaps due to budget limitations, though, some of the more striking aspects of Bradbury's novel are not included in the film.  For instance, the Dust Witch doesn't travel via black hot-air balloon but rather in the form of an ethereal, pea-green smog (an effect more hokey than horrifying).  One of the most thrilling scenes from the novel (Will's bow-and-arrow defense of his home as the Dust Witch hovers overhead and attempts to mark the roof with slimy sign) is thus nowhere to be found.  But the harrowing scene movie-goers are presented instead almost makes up for this omission: the tarantula infestation of the bedroom makes Arachnophobia seem as innocuous as Charlotte's Web by comparison.

The scenes that do closely parallel the novel are well-executed, such as the extended sequence in the library in which Mr. Dark (finely portrayed by a then-little-known Jonathan Pryce) faces off with Charles Halloway (Jason Robards, in another inspired bit of casting) and tracks down Will and Jim in the stacks.  Pryce's Mr. Dark makes for a chilling villain--never more evident than when he terrorizes Will's father while tearing pages out of a library book--but my biggest issue with the filmic figure is that there's little sense given that he is The Illustrated Man (whereas Bradbury's novel makes much ado about the carnival owner's tattoos).

When it comes to the climactic vanquishing of the antagonists, the movie's approach is more spectacular yet ultimately less satisfying than the novel's.  The lightning-rod salesman Tom Fury's rushing impalement of the Dust Witch cannot match the scene in the book where Charles Halloway outwits Mr. Dark (by inscribing a smile onto a rifle bullet) and shoots down the Dust Witch in front of a crowd of onlookers.  Similarly, the scene in which Mr. Dark is fatally aged by the whirl of the haywire carousel (a ride taken by his business partner, Mr. Cooger, in the novel) is stunning to behold but less clever than Dark's manner of defeat in Bradbury's book.

For me, the film falls shortest in its characterization of Will and Jim.  The young actors chosen to play the boys give lackluster performances; Will comes across as prissy, and Jim's impishness is de-emphasized.  More importantly, the novel's coming-of age theme ("And that was the October week when they grew up over-night, and were never so young anymore," Bradbury establishes at the close of the Prologue) is under-developed in the film, virtually reduced to the framing device of an adult Will narrating in voiceover.

The movie is undoubtedly entertaining, but fails to equal the novel for depth of characterization and breadth of theme.  That's why, using the 10-point-divvy system (imagine 10 gold coins distributed on the opposing arms of a scale), I rank the two versions as follows:

                                   Movie: 3
Book: 7

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