Saturday, August 22, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Ray Bradbury, Lyrical, Starry-Eyed Futurist, Born)

Aug. 22, 1920—Ray Bradbury, who imagined the opportunities and terrors of a science-dominated future in approximately 600 short stories, novels, poems, screenplays, and teleplays of indelible vividness, was born in Waukegan, Ill.

Like other mid-20th century writers in the sci-fi, horror, and crime genres such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silberberg, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Roald Dahl, Bradbury benefited from two vehicles: first, pulp magazines, and second, anthology TV series. These forums furnished the opportunity for these authors to be productive and to expose their work to mass audiences.

In high school one year, I spent an entire quarter on science fiction. The nun who taught the class, Sister Margaret Bradley, did not use the term “science fiction,” but rather “alternative futures,” because she did not want to emphasize gadgetry but speculation on the possibility of changing human nature. Bradbury, I think, was the author who best epitomized what she had in mind.

The best-known work in Bradbury’s seven-decade career is probably Fahrenheit 451 (1953). That warning on the dangers of censorship, coming after the collapse of Nazi Germany but at the height of the McCarthy Era in the U.S., became the basis for a “Read-a-Thon” this Saturday streaming over YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Library of Congress, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, along with other public and university libraries nationwide, joined together for this event.

Bradbury was concerned not just with what human beings might encounter in the future but with how their frailties might lead them to squander the possibilities of all the new vistas opened to them.
Such was the case, for instance, with The Martian Chronicles (1950), in which mankind repeatedly attempts to colonize the Red Planet, only unable to shed longtime prejudices in this new environment.

The fantastic visions of Bradbury’s fiction are manifested through a sensory, even lyrical style, marked by striking metaphors and similes. “Once you hear a metaphor of mine, you won't forget it,” he said in a 1990 interview with Starlog Magazine.  A dinosaur falling in love with a lighthouse, boom, there's your metaphor. Once you hear that, you say, ‘Gee, I gotta read that, I wonder what happened?’"

In the impressionistic opening paragraph of one of his most anthologized stories, “The April Witch” (1952), he conveyed the (literal) flight of fancy of a 17-year-old witch seriously thinking of giving up her extraordinary power if she can only experience human love:

“Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy. Invisible as new spring winds, fresh as the breath of clover rising from twilight fields, she flew. She soared in doves as soft as white ermine, stopped in trees and lived in blossoms, showering away in petals when the breeze blew. She perched in a lime-green frog, cool as mint by a shining pool. She trotted in a brambly dog and barked to hear echoes from the sides of distant barns. She lived in new April grasses, in sweet clear liquids rising from the musky earth.”

Movies started to shape Bradbury’s imagination during the silent-film era, and his education in the performing arts was even more thoroughly grounded in 1940, when he became active in amateur productions of actress Laraine Day’s Wilshire Players Guild for Mormon actors.

From early in his writing career, filmmakers were anxious to adapt his fiction, or even engage him in original work for the screen. But his experiences with Hollywood were frequently unstellar and often unhappy.

It took Bradbury years to see virtues in Francois Truffaut’s first English-language feature, a 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The Martian Chronicles gave him a case of double agita: first, when a story from it inordinately influenced an early Twilight Zone episode and damaged Bradbury’s relationship with friend and series creator Rod Serling; and second, when NBC ran a 1980 miniseries based on it starring Rock Hudson that Bradbury dismissed as “just boring.”

But the experience that may have soured Bradbury most deeply on Hollywood was his assignment to adapt Moby Dick for the screen for John Huston. The legendary director, impressed with Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” asked that the sci-fi author work on adapting Herman Melville’s novel in Ireland, where the film would be shot on location off the coast of County Cork, Ireland.

The initial high regard that the two had for each other began to erode as they spent more than half a year revising the script. But Bradbury became particularly angry when the director pulled a maneuver that Orson Welles had originally tried out more than a decade before with Herman Mankiewicz on Citizen Kane: i.e., gaining co-screenwriting credit. Huston proved more successful than Welles in that effort, even managing to overturn the Screen Writers Guild’s decision to award sole credit to Bradbury.

Decades later, the two wrote accounts in which their initial admiration yielded to disgruntlement. In his 1980 memoir An Open Book, Huston confessed to bewilderment about an author terrified by airplanes and fast cars even though his fiction inspired authors, astronomers and astronauts to dream of the stars.

Bradbury responded first with the 1984 short story “The Banshee,” which depicted a screenwriter tormented by a womanizing, sadistic famous director on his remote Irish screen, then nearly a decade later with Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), whose title and quasi-fictional format recalled an earlier screenwriter’s account of working with Huston on location, Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart.

Perhaps the most satisfaction that Bradbury derived from adaptations of his work came with The Ray Bradbury Theater, a Canadian-American anthology series that ran for six seasons on cable TV. The series was nominated 10 times and won six for the coveted ACE (Award for Cable Excellence) from 1985 to 1992.

As executive producer and chief contributor to the series, Bradbury took a page from Serling in hosting the show. Unlike his estranged friend, his introductions framed the fantasy elements of the show squarely within his own creative process:

"People ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Well, right here.  All this is my Martian landscape.  Somewhere in this room is an African veldt. Just beyond perhaps is a small Illinois town where I grew up. And I'm surrounded on every side by my magician’s toyshop. I'll never starve here. I just look around, find what I need, and begin. I'm Ray Bradbury, and this is The Ray Bradbury Theater. Well then, right now, what shall it be? Out of all this, what do I choose to make a story? I never know where the next one will take me. The trip, exactly one half exhilaration, exactly one half terror.”

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