Okay, I’m a journalist, and journalists put the most important fact in the first sentence: I cried listening to the last chapter of this book. Not because it was sad. Because it made my soul soar. Because it made me cry out, “Yes! This is what a story should be!” Because it grabbed me by the emotions–my happiness, my insecurity, my fear, my memories of and hopes for triumph–and it didn’t let go until I was weeping in an ecstasy of satisfaction.
This is the book I want to read out loud at cons when they’re crazy enough to give me a slot to read… not my stuff! This.
Ironically, I was given this book for Christmas by my parents, probably my Senior year in High School. 31 years later, I’m finally reading it, albeit as an unabridged audio. And I didn’t even set out to read it. I knew the basics of the story. In 1983, Disney made a film version, starring Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce. I saw it once, on a date, with a big, loud guy enjoying some good drugs in the front row and having meaningful, shouted interactions with the characters.
I doubt it had much emotional impact on me. Obviously, since the book sat on my shelf all these years. It’s still there, beautifully preserved and uncreased. If a film has an impact on me, I read the book. Even if I don’t like the film, I often read the book to see why the filmmakers wanted to film the story to begin with. Hell, I even read Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (and have since re-read it many times) because the somewhat cheesy NBC Miniseries raised enough interest in me to do so.
So I guess the film didn’t have much impact.
But last week I was kicking around Daedalus Books. I admit it, I was depressed. Most of my family–my home family and my work family–were out of town, and I was overworked and lonely. I had a perfectly nice time with my son who remained with me and my co-worker who was still in the office, but… It’s not easy when most of your support is not available to you. So I went to the bookstore, as I do.
On the graphic novel shelf were adaptations of The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, adapted by Ron Wimberly and authorized by Bradbury. Since I’ve read the Chronicles so often, I picked “Something Wicked” to read first. I enjoyed it so much that I bought the audio book from Audible. While I was listening to that, I thought, “Maybe I under-rated the movie,” so I watched that.
Sadly, I didn’t really underrate the movie. It’s probably better than I remember, and it was actually written by Bradbury, but it lacks the punch that the novel has. The performances are creditable, especially by the young actors playing Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, but especially the ending comes up wanting, in comparison to the source. Perhaps that’s because Disney made post-production changes that neither Bradbury nor the director agreed with.
SPOILERS AHEAD. You have been warned.
The graphic novel incorporates few changes from the novel itself. The movie is different on several points:
Will Halloway and his blood-brother and best friend Jim Nightshade are de-aged to twelve for the film. In the book, they’re both a week away from turning fourteen. Seems a trivial detail, but twelve and fourteen are very different ages. I can’t help but wonder if the point of making the boys younger was to stave off accusations of homoeroticism. The book is loaded with references to how close these two are, to how they expect to always be together, to how they depend on each other. Indeed, in the book, we see that Jim, the darker and perhaps more sinister of the pair, is developing an interest in sex which Will strongly resents. There’s a house where the bedroom window curtains are never drawn, where a young couple makes loves with the lights on. Jim keeps going back, climbing a tree to watch in fascination. Will stays on the ground and protests, begging Jim to come down. Afterward, Jim begs Will not to be angry with him, and promises never to go back. We know he will go back.
This scene could be interpreted as jealousy, an unfaithful lover promising never to stray again. I say could, because I don’t interpret it that way. I just think others may have, and so the movie throttles down the intensity.
There’s a scene in the movie which serves the purpose of showing that Jim is ahead of Will in his appreciation of the female form: Jim peeks through a gap in the carnival tent where the exotic dancers are entertaining older gentlemen. But, while it shows Will’s disgust with Jim’s interests, it doesn’t include the prolonged anger nor the pleading apology that follow it. And it lacks the impact of the scene described in the book, for, while it’s not stated, you know Jim was witnessing actual intercourse, not just girls in veils.
On a more subjective note, it’s interesting to see Robards playing Charles Halloway, a man whose age is given as 54. Robards was born in 1922. The film was held for a year and recut. Assuming filming in 1981, he was 59, five years older than Charles Halloway, when it was filmed. Not a big deal, but 54 is only five years ahead of me, and I don’t feel anywhere near as old as Robards looks. Of course, 54 was a lot older then. No timeframe is given, but we assume the story is set in the time of Bradbury’s childhood, probably the 1930s. Bottom line: Robards doesn’t look like a middle-aged person to me. I look at one every day in the mirror. I wish he were a little less lined and pudgy in places, but he doesn’t look craggy! Yet.
There’s a subplot is added to the film which is entirely absent from the book. It’s all back-story, in which Will, as a small boy, was caught in the current while swimming in a river. His father, never having learned to swim, was unable to save him, and even afraid to try. Jim’s father, the apparently very disreputable Harry Nightshade, plunged in and saved Will’s life. The scene is no doubt added to the movie, viewers being assumed to be less perceptive than readers, so as to underscore–read: beat the viewer over the head with–Charles Halloway’s sense of inadequacy. Where his counterpart in the book just regrets his age, his failing heart, his inability to play baseball with his son, the movie Charles Halloway must live with the guilt of having his son saved by a no-account who had abandoned his own family. (It’s also hinted in the movie, not the book, that Mrs. Nightshade entertains “gentleman callers” on a regular basis, possibly to make ends meet.)
In any event, the water-rescue subplot does strengthen Dad Halloway’s character arc. In screenplay talk, “SWTWC is about a man who wants to feel like a good father.” If you can’t reduce a story to that simple sentence, then you don’t have a story which can be made into a commercially successful movie.
The movie does an excellent job of letting us know who Charles Halloway is and what he wants. It also does a pretty good job of letting us know that Will is a good boy who loves his Dad, and a somewhat less good job of depicting the beauty that is teenage best-friendship. Again, it probably fails there because of fears of being branded homo-erotic. But, dammit, if you’re a man who, at almost-14, had a best friend, a blood brother, a guy who went everywhere with you and shared ever failure and triumph, then you know that it is possible to have that deep, meaningful friendship without sexual overtones. It’s a shame that a kind of weird Puritanism (which I think is uniquely American) may dulled the edge of a very effective story point in the film.
Still, the sense of who Jim is carries through from book to film, and who Jim is is important. As I said earlier, he’s the more sinister of the two. When Mr. Dark, the villainous owner of the traveling carnival at the center of the story, shows Charles Halloway images of the boys tattooed on the palms of his hands, Jim’s face is tattooed on his left palm. The left is the sinister side. (Yes, shut up, I’m left-handed too.) And Jim is Will’s dark alter ego. He’s less fearful, more frankly interested in adult sexuality, more attracted by danger. When he discovers that Mr. Dark’s carousel can make him older, he’s all for jumping right to adulthood. When Mr. Dark kidnaps the boys to feed their souls to his evil carnival, he specifically recruits Jim to be his new partner. You get the impression he doesn’t recruit a partner often, but he offers to place “Nightshade” on the carnival banner alongside his own name. And Jim is tempted. That’s important, because, when evil comes stalking souls, some good people are always tempted. They’re the ones who are foolish enough to believe that there’s such a thing as a free lunch. That you can get your youth back. That you can bypass awkward adolescence. That you can get rich quick.
Jim Nightshade is the innocent victim that the jaded but hopeful Charles Halloway and his innocent but ultimately strong-willed son are there to save.
But a lot of this careful setup of character, which has such a wonderful payoff in the book, is wasted in the film. The ending is rushed and unsatisfying, leaving out rich detail, some wonderfully dramatic scenes which would have been powerful on film, and, ultimately, missing the point of the story.
The Dust Witch is central to a lot of what’s missing towards the end. The Dust Witch, in the book, is initially a waxworks figure of an old woman with her eyes stitched shut. She’s presented as a mannequin in an automated fortune-telling booth. This makes is extra creepy when she gets up and starts walking around muttering curses, particularly the bit about her eyes being still stitched shut when she’s ostensibly human. In the film, the Dust Witch is melded with the character of the Most Beautiful Woman on Earth. We first see her frozen in ice in a hallucination experienced by Charles Halloway. There’s no real shock when we see her alive and walking later. And she’s not creepy or old. She’s exotically beautiful, with her eyes wide open most of the time. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to avoid unfortunate stereotypes about elderly women. And that’s understandable. But the Witch in the film is not as threatening a character.
Nor are her final confrontations with Halloway satisfying. In the book, she’s sent into the library to stop Halloway’s heart for a time, to put the fear of someone-other-than-God in him. She does this in the movie as well, but Robards’ Halloway doesn’t fight her off the same way. He doesn’t weaken her by laughing in her face. His hilarity, his joy in living, are not shown to cause her pain. He just survives her attempt. And completely missing from the film is the scene in which Halloway volunteers to participate in one of Dark’s magic tricks, where an audience member fires a rifle at the Witch, and she catches the bullet in her teeth. The mark is supposed to write his initials on the bullet, so that, when the Witch produces the caught bullet, it can be identified as the same one. Halloway knows the trick. He knows the bullet in his gun will be wax, that the Witch is already holding the “caught bullet.” So he comes prepared with his own bullet, on which he draws his own smile. He calls a hypnotized Will to help him, and Dark allows it. When the gun is fired, the Witch dies. Now, understand this comes as a surprise to Halloway. He knows the Witch is really magical, and expects that she can defend herself. He knows that his smile will hurt her though. Because he knows that mirth, laughter and positive feelings are poison to Dark and all his people.
Halloway’s smile kills the Witch. I guess this was thought to be too much for a movie good guy to pull off, so it was cut. But that’s two cuts that carve away from the story its central theme: that positive energy, a positive outlook on life, an acceptance of things as they are, can destroy evil.
This theme is most strongly played out in the final sequence, when Dark places Jim on the carousel to make him an adult. Will runs to Jim and tries to pull him off the horse. Jim reaches back. Will’s battle is won, but Jim falls. When Jim hits the ground, he’s dead. The film leaves this point vague. Jim is not moving. Maybe he’s dead. Or maybe he’s just in trouble. So Will doesn’t have to perform artificial respiration, putting his lips on his friend and giving off those gay vibes again.
In the book, while Will fights to breathe life back into his blood brother, his father chases down Dark, now transformed into a nine-year-old boy named Jed. Jed pretends to be afraid and lost. He begs Halloway to rescue him and take him home. Halloway is not fooled. He sees that Jed, like Dark, is tattooed, an Illustrated Boy to replace the Illustrated Man. And so he calls Jed out, embraces him, is kind to him. He refuses to fear, to hate… he’s nice to Jed. And it kills the boy. It kills Mr. Dark. The scene would have been so brilliant in the film, for Jed’s tattoos fly away from his body as he loses his evil power. They flee in fear.
Instead, in the film, Mr. Dark just spins around the carousel, ages, and dies. He is not killed by Hallowell’s bravery or direct action. I guess someone thought that having Jason Robards kill a child, even with kindness, would not sit well with viewers. But, again, this changes cuts out evidence of the central theme.
Indeed, the only trace left of this theme of laughing at the devil comes at the very end, when Halloway convinces Will that the only way to save Jim is to refuse to weep over him, to get up and sing and dance and revel in the joy of living. This scene is way underplayed in the film. Robards and young Vidal Peterson barely dance two steps. There is no prolonged harmonica concert, no chorus of “Swanee River.” And, most assuredly, Jason Robards’ Halloway does not repeatedly slap his son’s face to shock him out of his sense of defeat and hopelessness. That would be too violent for viewers, just as the capering described in the book would be “too silly,” but, as Halloway himself says, being silly is the point.
The passage is beautiful:
The tears burst from Wills eyes. But then, as swiftly, be felt himself knocked, struck, shaken.
“Stop that!” cried his father. “You want to save him?!”
“It’s too late, oh, Dad!”
“Shut up! Listen!”
But Will wept.
And again his father hauled off and hit him. Once on the left cheek. Once on the right cheek, hard. All the tears in him were knocked flying; there were no more. “Will!” His father savagely jabbed a finger at him and at Jim. “Damn it, Willy, all this, all these, Mr. Dark and his sort, they like crying, my God, they love tears! Jesus God, the more you bawl, the more they drink the salt off your chin. Wail and they suck your breath like cats. Get up! Get off your knees, damn it! Jump around! Whoop and holler! You hear! Shout, Will, sing, but most of all laugh, you got that, laugh!”
“Oh, hell, don’t let them drink your tears and want more! Will! Don’t let them take your crying, turn it upside down and use it for their own smile! I’ll be damned if death wears my sadness for glad rags.”
The absurdity, the grotesque spectacle of the man and the boy dancing and singing badly, the violence of Halloway’s outrage as a he slaps his son… They’re uncomfortable. And they should be. For, like Halloway’s slaps, they’re meant to shake us, to wake us up to the fact that moaning and groaning over our troubles is simply playing into the hands of despair, defeat and evil. When their bizarre Vaudeville routine awakens Jim in the book, literally raising the dead, you don’t know whether to laugh of cry. You’re just overwhelmed with emotion, overjoyed by the fact that this strong, humble man has figured out the secret to life. That’s he’s happy. He’s old and he’s going to die soon, but he’s alive now, and he can defeat the greatest evil by laughing at it.
In the film, well, the secret is announced, a few steps are danced, Jim wakes up from being not even mostly dead. The power of the secret is not felt or shown.
Even the storyline created just for the movie is really left unresolved, or at least not explicitly resolved. Why be subtle in the payoff when you weren’t subtle in the setup? While the idea that Nightshade once saved Will is well-developed, the fact that Halloway saves both boys, that he’s resisted evil in the bargain, is not commented upon by anyone. He’s twice the man Nightshade was and more.
I don’t hate the movie. I’ll watch it again. I understand it’s being re-made, and I’m curious to see how it comes out. The graphic novel is a wonderful adaptation, giving the characters faces and setting an eerie tone. But read the book. Bradbury’s prose is meant to be savored as prose.
All in all, I’m glad I waited all these years to read the book, for its point might have been lost on me earlier. “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” But this is not the story of young boys. This is the story of men. And October, the Autumn, is a rare time for boys, especially boys who are suddenly middle-aged men, filled with fear and regret and not sure what to do about it. But they’re still boys, inside, in their souls. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story which “gets” that the boy never leaves the man. He can’t, or the man can’t survive. For silliness, laughter, sheer joy in living, those are the weapons one must carry to resist evil. A man who has left behind the boy he once was doesn’t know how to use them.