Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

A Novel by Ray Bradbury  |  A Film by Jim Clayton

A mysterious carnival rolls into the sleepy town of Green Town, Illinois one late October night. Thirteen-year old best friends and neighbors, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, must save their town and themselves from the seductive supernatural forces of Mr. Dark’s nightmare menagerie.  

Ray Bradbury’s dark fantasy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, is required reading around Halloween. I discovered the book as an adult, but I think there’s something about being closer in age to the wistful father and his fears than to the two young main characters that makes it even more haunting. It’s a book about childhood, and the loss of it, as carefree summer months give way to autumn days that grow darker with the shadows of responsibility and regret. It’s this relentless and universal terror that makes Bradbury’s beautifully written novel so timeless and chilling.

Something Wicked was always meant to be a movie. Years before writing the novel, Bradbury had re-tooled one of his short stories, The Black Ferris, into a screenplay treatment for his friend, Gene Kelly. Bradbury long-admired the legendary dancer and director, and was eager to collaborate with him on a project. Kelly loved the idea and wanted it to be his next film, but because it wasn’t the typical musical Kelly was known for, he wasn’t able to get the financing to get it made. Bradbury later turned the idea into a best-selling novel and dedicated it to Kelly.

Hollywood came calling, and Bradbury sold the rights to Paramount with Kirk Douglas attached to both produce and star in the film. But the project never got off the ground. Disney snatched up the movie rights six years later and hired Bradbury to pen the script. At the time the studio was looking to branch into darker fare, and Something Wicked‘s sinister spin on childhood and Americana seemed like a good fit. There was tension from the beginning. Bradbury and director Jim Clayton wanted the film to stay true to the book’s dark themes, while Disney pushed for a lighter, more family-friendly touch. The studio, of course, won out, and Clayton was forced to hire another writer to rewrite Bradbury’s script.

The result is a neutered adaptation that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Bradbury himself was disappointed with the film. Despite some decent special effects and images, the movie falls far short of capturing the menace of his book. It comes off like a second-rate tv movie rather than a feature film. One of the biggest problems is casting. The young actors playing Will and Jim seem like they wandered on set directly from a school play. Jason Robards, who can exude malevolence from his brows, is miscast as the downtrodden Charles Halloway. Bradbury had actually suggested Robards for Mr. Dark—along with Christopher Lee and Peter O’Toole—but the studio had other ideas, and hired the then unknown Jonathan Pryce. Though Pryce would prove himself a marvelously versatile actor two years later in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, his turn here is overly constrained and stiff. In his top hat, long hair, and neatly-trimmed beard, he’s more of a one-note cartoon villain than the charismatic leader of a seductive carnival. Bradbury’s Mr. Dark is a blank slate, and Disney missed an opportunity to create another iconic character for their rogues’ gallery.   

The film does take some reasonable cinematic license. The haggard dust witch, so hideously frightening in the book, is remade as a beautiful temptress and played by Pam Grier. Unfortunately she isn’t given nearly enough to do. Ms. Foley, rather than becoming a lost little girl, becomes a beautiful young woman who loses her sight. Mr. Crosetti, the barber, lusts after women and becomes the carnival’s newly minted bearded lady. Lightning Rod salesman Tom Fury–played by the wonderful character actor Royal Dano—takes on a pivotal role, but one that makes little sense.

One change stands out to me though as representative of what went wrong with the film—Ed, the bartender, the middle-aged ex-football player who lost both his arm and leg, presumably in the war. The bartender was not in Bradbury’s script. The actor who played him, James Stacy, had actually lost his arm and leg in real life in a tragic motorcycle accident that also claimed the life of his girlfriend. He was good friends with Kirk Douglas, who was still a producer on the film. Two years after his accident, Douglas had created a comeback role for him in his film Posse, and did the same thing for him in Something Wicked. The problem isn’t the character itself, but the fact that Ed’s the only person in the town to visit the carnival and actually come out ahead: he’s made young man again with both his arms and legs restored. If there is some dark underside of this, we don’t  see it. What is clear, though, is that the book’s tone was as lost as the people in Mr. Dark’s mirror maze.

It’s only a matter of time before Bradbury’s classic will get the adaptation it deserves, though it may be a long ride on the carousel before that happens. Several years ago Disney hired writer Seth Grahame-Smith to draw up an outline for a new version of the film that would be closer to the original novel. Grahame-Smith adapted his own novel for the screen, 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and says he’s a big fan of Bradbury’s book. There hasn’t been any movement on it since, and Grahame-Smith has been busy writing and producing a sequel to Beetlejuice with Tim Burton that’s been in development for a while. But with Stephen King’s IT killing it in theaters this fall, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood took a closer look at bringing this dark coming-of-age tale to the screen. I just hope that when they do, they take inspiration from the song-and-dance man himself and allow a beguiling Mr. Dark a whimsical swing or two around a carousel pole as the calliope plays. 

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