It’s a tricky business, adapting a book into a movie. And trickier still with a writer like Ray Bradbury, whose strengths – atmosphere, language, description – don’t always translate smoothly from the printed page to the silver screen. The adaptation of Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes is interesting because much of what shouldn’t work in the movie does – but there are enough flaws to make the film an interesting failure.
Though I’m a fan of Bradbury’s, Something Wicked… is not my favorite work of his. Bradbury’s a far better short story writer than a novelist – a sprinter rather than a marathon runner – and in Something Wicked his ornate descriptions and atmospheric ramblings often get in the way of the story proper. Still, Bradbury’s screenplay gets to the core of the story – what price people will pay for the things they want most.
The story opens in Green Town, Illinois, a quiet rural town. It’s a peaceful place where visitors seldom come, especially in the fall. But this October a carnival comes to town. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival captures the interest of young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson); his father Charles (Jason Robards), the town librarian; Will’s best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson); and many of the townsfolk. Mr. Dark himself (Jonathan Pryce) is a suave and sinister figure first glimpsed casting leaflets advertising the carnival into the blustery air of the town’s main street.
Will and Jim already know something is strange about this carnival. They sneaked out of bed when they heard its train arriving, only to find the carnival itself set up in a matter of seconds. The carnival in daylight is even more sinister: all the rides and attractions seem to be run by one man, Mr. Cooger. There’s the mirror maze that seems to cast a powerful spell on those who enter it. And there’s a mysterious woman (Pam Grier) linked to the disappearances of people who’ve been to the carnival. Will and Jim soon find themselves pursued by the carnival folk, and enlist the help of Will’s father.
Something Wicked… is at its most chilling in its depiction of those who are tempted by what the carnival offers. The carnival gives people their dearest wish, but the price paid for that wish is very high. What’s more, these are wishes that any of us would have – for love, sex, money, beauty, youth, second chances. It brings the horror close to home.
While the concept is realized very well, the execution often falters. The special effects of the time were limited, but what is truly annoying is Disney’s insistence on jazzing things up unnecessarily. People don’t simply walk into the mirror maze – their entrance is accompanied by a gaudy flash of light. Ooh! Shiny! Likewise, a scene involving lots of tarantulas adds nothing to the story and was clearly inserted at a later date (the child actors are clearly older in this scene than in the rest of the film) to add some ooga-booga.
Also problematical is the setting. While there’s a lovely October feel to the surroundings, the town’s main street always looks like a soundstage, not like a place where real people live.
Probably the most crucial flaw is in the casting. What works does so very well – so well that it makes what doesn’t work that much more obvious. The children who play Will and Jim aren’t terrible actors, but they seem to be in a vacuum – never interacting with the adult actors even when they share the scene. Worse, they have no chemistry with each other. If the narrator didn’t tell us they were best friends – indeed, blood brothers – we’d never know it. (Plus Peterson has a distracting resemblance to the kid from A Christmas Story – I half expected him to ask for a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.)
Pam Grier isn’t charismatic or beautiful enough for her role as the Dust Witch/Most Beautiful Woman in the World, but she does a good job and the casting is sufficiently intriguing for me not to dock points.
The film’s saving graces are Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce. Robards gives a wonderful portrayal of a man who’s feeling the weight of years and the accompanying regrets, along with doubts about his worth as a father. Pryce is magnificent, seductive and frightening at the same time. One of Bradbury’s greatest idiosyncrasies is that his characters do not speak English – they speak Bradbury. In the film’s best scene, set in the library, Robards and Pryce have a standoff that lets them find the rhythms of Bradbury’s language and turn what could have been a dull scene into something magnificent. It’s worth the price of a rental to hear Pryce say:
“We are the Autumn People. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. To stuff ourselves on other people's torments. And butter our plain bread with delicious pain ... Funerals, marriages, lost loves, lonely beds - that is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet.”
Unfortunately this scene is so powerful that everything following it smacks of anticlimax.
The DVD, sadly, squanders its opportunities to explore the history of the novel and the film. Instead, we get a choice of widescreen or pan-and-scan, and the original theatrical trailer. Be still my heart.
Still, I recommend the film to Bradbury fans – while far from perfect, it’s an interesting translation of the book.