...dean of America's sci-fi writers
He was a wistful, poetic,
child who never grew up
By RON MILLER
Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, was the dean of American science-fiction writers, but, to his credit, he never behaved like a dean of anything.
What he was like, in my opinion, was a kid in the world's largest candy store.
What can you say about a man who speculated all through his life about the advent of new technology, but constantly suggested it wasn't always a good thing? Bradbury distrusted robots and spaceships and just about anything new-fangled. He never learned to drive a car, even though he lived in the Los Angeles area, where all the world's freeways seem to converge, and he refused to even get on an airplane, let alone a rocketship.
He was the antithesis of a techie. And even though his fertile imagination pictured worlds filled with machines that did the work of men, he seemed to exist in order to warn us all to not rely on any of that mechanical stuff.
I grew up on Bradbury's stories, which I first read in pulp magazines and paperback collections or in comic book versions or listened to radio adaptations of the best of them. I still vividly remember how moved I was by listening to the radio version of his story "There Will Come Soft Rains" (from "The Martian Chronicles")--a poetic, but grim tale of an automated house of the future that keeps on preparing meals for a family and keeping the house spotlessly clean, even though there has been a nuclear war and all the people who used to live there are long gone.
I recognized early that Bradbury was completely different from most of his colleagues in the sci-fi world. His stories, even the darker ones, tended to be whimsical in nature. He didn't ever set out to frighten you or titilate you. He preferred to stimulate your imagination with the amazing imagery of his writing.
I met Bradbury on several different occasions--once when he was doing some press in conjunction with NBC's 1980 miniseries telecast of his "The Martian Chronicles"; another time when he was hosting the 1983 celebration of Lon Chaney Sr.'s centennial at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences; still another time when he was a resource for a TV news documentary special on space exploration and yet another time when he was involved with hosting "The Ray Bradbury Theatre" on HBO and the USA network.
A scene from the 1953 film
"The Beast From 20,000
Fathoms," based on a Ray
Bradbury short story about
a lovesick dinosaur.
On all those occasions, Bradbury impressed me with his disdain for the usual trappings of fame and the delight he took in being a little capricious, even when he was talking about serious topics. He gave the impression that he didn't take himself all that seriously and kind of enjoyed being an iconoclastic character.
For instance, I distinctly remember how sure he was that we were going to find life on Mars. But if you pressed him for details of his prediction it turned out that he meant we earthlings wuuld be the life on Mars. (In "The Martian Chronicles," for instance, he depicts our colonization of Mars as something that destroys the native life forms on the red planet. He suggests we'll wind up moving there after we wreck our own planet for good.)
And yet I consider Bradbury to have been the ultimate romantic, not a pessimist despite his negative notions about modern technology. A prime example is his Saturday Evening Post short story "The Fog Horn," which depicts a lonely dinosaur, revived from an icy tomb in the 20th century, ruining a modern lighthouse because it mistakes the lighthouse fog horn for the love call of a female dinosaur. What a flight of the imagination: A lonely dinosaur out of its own time, searching for a mate in a hostile world, and finding a lighthouse fog horn instead!
That story, by the way, became a single sequence in the 1953 movie "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," which extrapolated quite a bit from the original Bradbury tale. It gave stop-frame animation effects genius Ray Harryhausen an opportunity to create a diinosaur for the movies.
When I asked Bradbury once where he came up with such an imaginative notion, he quickly explained that he and his wife had been walking along the beach near Ocean Park Pier in Venice, CA, about 30 years earlier and had come upon the roller coaster, which he thought resembled a dinosaur lying on the sand. He went home and wrote a story to go with his vision. The 1953 movie ends with the dinorsaur being destroyed by fire as it nestles near a roller coaster.
Long before obituary notices and tributes were written about Bradbury, he had secured a place in the history of American literature as the writer who almost single-handedly moved science fiction from the pages of trashy pulp magazines to the mainstream magazines. Though his tales often speculated about the future, he will not be remembered as a prognosticator but rather as a singular visionary in terms of his treatment of the human spirit.
original story for this famous
Bradbury was influenced by a number of writers, including Poe and H.G. Wells, but I personally think his writings often reminded me of Sherwood Anderson in his short stories of the "Winesburg, Ohio" volume. If you read Bradbury's imaginative, but non-science fiction collection called "Dandelion Wine," you will immediately see why I make that connection with Anderson. Bradbury was especially adept at capturing elements of the human heart, even in stories where the setting is unearthly.
At the Lon Chaney tribute in 1983, Bradbury talked in detail about his childhood and how he reacted to seeing Chaney in such early silent films as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera."
"I walked most peculiarly for the next several weeks," Bradbury said after waching Chaney play the deformed Quasimodo on the screen. The writer also recalled cutting an opera cape into bat-wings and wearing it to drop out of trees to scare passersby after seeing Chaney as The Phantom.
Bradbury credited Chaney's movies with influencing many of the visual images of his famous short stories, including "The Veldt," in which children are menaced by the too real African lions in their virtual reality wallpaper. Bradbury credited Chaney's film "He Who Gets Slapped" with those lion images. (A circus lion serves as an instrument of vengeance in that movie.)
Though Bradbury wrote novels, most of them were composites of shorter stories, such as "The Martian Chronicles." He wrote hundreds of short stories and published many collections of them. In the 1950s, he was most prolific and was at the top of his game, in much demand in mainstream magazines and in movies.
fights "Moby Dick"
in John Huston's
1956 film with
a screenplay by
Bradbury wrote the storyline for the classic 3-D science fiction film "It Came From Outer Space," but not the screenplay. Later, director John Huston hired Bradbury to adapt Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" to the screen for his 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Capt. Ahab. The screenplay is renowned for its poetic language and Breadbury considered it his most successful work in movies. He also adapted his stories for Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone."
Of the many movies made from Bradbury's work, including "The Illustrated Man" with Rod Steiger and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" with Jason Robards, which Bradbury adapted for the screen, probably the most enduring has been "Fahrenheit 451," directed by Francois Truffaut with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. The 1966 film ;is based on Bradbury's novel about a future society in which all printed books are banned and firemen are dispatched to burn books whenever they are found somewhere.\
Posters for two films made from Bradbury stories, at left "Fahrenheit 451," and, at right, "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Oskar Wener's name was misspelled in the poster on the left.
Bradbury was not very enthusiatic about "The Martian Chronicles," which was not a ratings success for NBC and, though adapted for the screen by Bradbury's friend, sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, made some unpleasant changes in Bradbury's stories, including the building up of an astronaut role for actor Rock Hudson to play in order to give the six-hour, three-night miniseries a character who continued through the action.
In the TV minseries version of "The Martian Chronicles," the roles
played by Bernie Casey (left) and Rock Hudson (right) were not faithful
to Bradbury's version.
"It's jsut rather boring," Bradbury said of the epic TV program.
Bradbury was a prolific writer, who continued to write well into his old age, even after suffering a debilitaitng stroke. In his later years, he wrote mystery stories and poetry as well as his stock-in-trade imaginaative fiction. In the introduction to his 2003 collection of 100 tales called "Bradbury Stories," the author summed up his career this way: "Writing, for me, is akin to breathing. It's not something I plan on schedule; it's something I just do."
For those of us who find endless pleasure in reading and re-reading Ray Bradbury, one can only be eternally grateful that he maintained that attitude for so long and left so much marvelous fiction behind.
©2012 by Ron Miller. This column first posted June 11, 2012.
You can comment on this column online via our TALKBACK page. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or RON MILLER care of Syndpack @ aol.com
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us