Saturday, November 12, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

It was on April 29 1983 that Walt Disney Productions released an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even then Something Wicked This Way Comes was regarded as one of the classics in the dark fantasy genre. Indeed, the novel had already had an impact on popular culture. Harry Nilsson's 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show drew its name directly from the novel, and it was a major influence on best selling author Stephen King. What many at the time of the movie's release might not have realised is that the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes actually had its origins in film.

It all began when Ray Bradbury and his wife Marguerite were invited to a showing of Invitation to the Dance (1956) by their friend, legendary actor, director, and dancer Gene Kelly. The carnival sequence in the movie struck a particular chord with Mr. Bradbury. He told his wife walking home from the film, "I'd give my right arm to write a screenplay for Gene Kelly." His wife told him she was certain that in his files he had something dealing with carnivals or circuses.

The two of them looked through his files and found an unfinished story entitled "The Black Ferris" that had been meant for The Dark Carnival (Bradbury's first anthology as well as his first book). Ray Bradbury wrote an 80 page screenplay and sent it to Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly loved the screenplay and wanted to both produce and direct it. Unfortunately, he had difficulty getting backing for the project. Gene Kelly sent the script back to Mr. Bradbury. Ray Bradbury then re-wrote the screenplay as a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962.

For those unfamiliar with Something Wicked Way Comes, it is a dark fantasy novel about two thirteen year old boys (Jim Nightshade and William Halloway) who, with the help of Will's father Charles, find that they must defend their small town of Green Town, Illinois against a sinister, supernatural carnival--Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show. Headed by the menacing Mr. Dark, the Pandemonium Shadow Show featured such unusual attractions as the Dust Witch, The Skeleton, and a rather unusual carousel. Ray Bradbury drew a good deal upon nostalgia for his Midwestern childhood for much of the inspiration for Something Wicked This Way Comes, but he also drew upon the horror genre and folk tales a good deal as well. In the end, it is one of the darkest works he had ever written.

While Ray Bradbury never got to make Something Wicked This Way Comes as a film with Gene Kelly, it was only a matter of time before the novel would become a movie. It was in 1977 that Ray Bradbury sold the film rights to the novel to Paramount Pictures. To work on the script with him, he turned to Jack Clayton, who had been one of the associate producers on the film Moby Dick (1956), for which Mr. Bradbury had written the screenplay. Jack Clayton was an established director, having directed such films as Room at the Top (1959), The Innocents (1961), and The Pumpkin Eater (1964). The film would have starred Kirk Douglas and would have been produced by Kirk Douglas's company Bryna Productions. Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures never made the film.

It was in 1983 that Walt Disney Productions bought the film rights to Something Wicked This Way Comes. Starting with The Black Hole in 1979, Walt Disney Productions had been trying to break free of their reputation for family films and animated features by making films that were still family friendly, but included more mature themes. Walt Disney Productions then hired Ray Bradbury to write the screenplay. It was Ray Bradbury who suggested to Disney that they hire Jack Clayton as the film's director.

Unfortunately, production on Something Wicked This Way Comes would not proceed smoothly. Ray Bradbury and Jack Clayton wanted the film to be fairly faithful to the novel, which is fairly dark. Disney wanted a more family friendly film. Disney would eventually insist that Ray Bradbury's screenplay had to be revised. As a result Jack Clayton hired writer John Mortimer to make some uncredited revisions to the script. This led to a disagreement between Ray Bradbury and Jack Clayton.

In the end Walt Disney Productions would wind up taking control of the project from Jack Clayton and Ray Bradbury. A test screening went poorly, and as a result Disney re-edited the film and even shot whole new scenes with a second unit director. A good number of special effects sequences were added. The original score composed by Georges Delerue (who had composed the score for Jack Clayton's film The Pumpkin Eater), which Disney considered "too dark", was replaced with a new score by James Horner (who later composed the score for 1997's Titanic). Neither Ray Bradbury nor Jack Clayton were particularly happy with Disney's interference with the film.

Unfortunately for Walt Disney Productions, their intervention was all for naught. In fact, it seems possible that it could have made things worse. While Something Wicked This Way Comes received mixed to positive reviews, it bombed at the box office. Something Wicked This Way Comes made only $8.4 million at the box office, but cost  $19 million to make. As to Ray Bradbury himself, he said that the movie was "..not a great film, no, but a decently nice one."

As an adaptation of the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, in some ways the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes is a failure. While it does a good job of capturing the Norman Rockwell qualities of small town America in the novel, it falls slightly short in its portrayal of the darkness just lying beneath the surface of life in Green Town. Sadly, it would seem Disney's attempts to make Something Wicked This Way Comes family friendly made it something less powerful than the original novel. Of course, here it should be pointed out that perhaps any adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes would fall short, given the book has been counted among the greatest American novels of the 20th Century.

Considered its on its own, it would seem that Ray Bradbury's assessment of the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes as "..a decently nice one" is fairly accurate. The movie does succeed quite well in painting a portrait of small town life in the first half of the 20th Century, and it does feature some true moments of horror. Jonathan Pryce made for a great villain in the form of Mr. Dark. While the film does not measure up to the novel nor does it capture the novel perfectly, it is quite enjoyable on its own.


Caftan Woman said...

The movie on its own, as you say, is a decent enough film. I have grown quite fond of it over the years often turning to it when the leaves start to turn.

Virginie Pronovost said...

Had never heard of it, but it sounds special! You wrote a great and informative review :)

Joe Thompson said...

I remember when Disney tried hard to break out of the Son of Flubber and That Darn Cat mold. Now Something Wicked This Way Comes with Kirk Douglas. That would have been cool. Good background essay about the movie.


What a fascinating backstory! I have yet to see the Disney film, but without a doubt I'll be thinking "how would this film be if it starred Gene Kelly"? It was a great post, my friend!
Thanks for joining us, Terence, it was great to have you among our guests!

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed the backstory of this film, I recall seeing it on television a long time ago, but did not realize it was a Ray Bradbury film and anything with a Gene Kelly connection gets extra points in my book. Thank you for such a fascinating post! I look forward to seeing this film!

Unknown said...

Wow, this is really a fascinating post, I loved this background information, and anything with a Gene Kelly connection gets points in my book. I saw this film on TV when I was little, but I would love to see it again, after having read this post! Great work, keep it up!