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Ray Bradbury: fleeting on screen, eternal in literature

Born in 1920, he was a science fiction writer, a productive writer and author of five hundred tales, some thirty novels, numerous poems, plays and scripts for television and film.


Rodolfo Santovenia*


His journey through film was sporadic and of relative success. He began with “Sea Monster”, by Eugene Lourie, a French scenographer who had worked with the master Jean Rendir before making the jump to Hollywood on the outbreak of war in Europe.

It’s a modest science fiction film, but of relevant historical importance introducing of new branch of the genre on screen.

The situation that, as we know, the Japanese cinema industry was quick to exploit up to the point of exhaustion, with espantajos of the mood of “Godzilla”, the monster created by the Japanese filmmaker Inoshiro Honda, from which an entire series was created.

Based on a tale, the film possesses a poor script and a mediocre set up.

However, the monster’s fleeting appearances, attacking a bathyscaphe under the sea or taking to a lighthouse by a near relative, excited the gullible viewers, nonetheless only counting on the special effects by Ray Harryhausen, creator of the Superdynamation method, and his animated rubber monsters.

Prior to the commotion, that same year, 1953, he filmed, “They came from another world”, by Jack Arnold, in which some aliens land in a proverbial town located in the desert due to mechanical problems.

After a start that is usually quite typical these days (the aliens take on the personality of various locals), the story takes a turn when they make contact with the protagonist and ask him to leave them alone to repair their space ship in order to continue their journey, then to return normality to the ‘hostages’.

Made with stereoscopic photography used in ‘3D fever’, the film was a precursor to the decisive “Living Dead”, by Don Sieguel, where the same idea of the usurpation of the human body is prolonged, until its last moments.

In this way, the film by Arnold pulled away from the horror scene to offer a story about extra-terrestrials completely devoid of all apocalyptic temptation and converted, on the contrary, into an open renouncement of xenophobia and of the intolerance of the unknown.

In agreement with statements by the creator, Bradbury wrote his story a little before “Fahrenheit 451” and emerged,  therefore, under the influence of the “witch hunting” of the senator McCarthy.

Because, in fact, if the film about the fire-fighter Montag can be considered an indictment of intellectual censorship, the idea of aliens coming from outer space is nothing more than an argument against the fear of difference.

Hence the emphasis that was placed on trying to identify the most likely appearance of the visitors in a human form, taking the ambiguity so far as to suggest that the protagonist himself could also be an ambushed ‘invader’.

“When McCarthyism was prevalent, we were afraid of everything and the most important thing was not to be suspicious of communism. These were the two most important things which we wanted to express. Universal were in opposition, but we could carry them forward because it was a film full of fantasy that had nothing to do with what was going on throughout the nation”.

For Francois Truffaut, director of “Fahrenheit 451”, the theme of the film was the love of books. And on a less intimate and individual level, the issue interested him because the burning of books was a reality, the persecution of ideas and the fear of new concepts; elements that return again and again throughout the history of humanity.

For the French filmmaker, filming was a risky and difficult endeavour. For the first time he was working on a foreign production with a much greater budget than that which he was at the time accustomed to, in a language that he didn’t understand (English) and within a genre (science fiction) that was very far from his usual work.

Truffaut read the novel by Bradbury and immediately decided to bring to film this exciting tale in which the human spirit, like a phoenix, rises from the ashes. But the film turned out to be a commercial and critical failure.

According to some specialists, it failed because the film never found its footing. The script demanded all the time to be straight forward, explicit, a predestined pattern not permitting subtleties or the unexpected. And part of the problem is that, for the first time, Truffaut’s starting point wasn’t a person or a relation, but rather an abstract concept; an opposition of ideas.

Other critics were more direct: “Bradbury’s novel, like the Alphaville, by Jean-Luc Godard, is deeply rooted in politics. And Truffaut’s film ignores it.”
Of others of Bradbury’s works (who died in June 2012) very few were adapted for film. Such are the cases of “The Illustrated Man”, by Jack Smight, and of “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, by Jack Clayton, with the script written by the writer himself. They have some good moments. And nothing more.

*Cuban historian and film critic


(Translated by Eleanor Gooch – Email: eleanor.gooch@googlemail.com)

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