Bradbury's 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'; Turning a good book into a good film is a tricky business
New York — It was Ray Bradbury stories that first hinted to me, as a young reader many years ago, how language could be reveled in for its own sake - how words could take on lives and beauties all their own, aside from their usefulness in spinning tales and exploring ideas.
Not many Bradbury yarns have been successfully translated into film, and the reason may lie in his verbal wizardry. When a story or novel travels from the page to the screen, its tone - the subtleties of language and structure that give it a flavor of its own - often perishes along the way. The plot remains, the characters are the same, yet the essence of the work seems changed or diminished.
Tone is especially challenging in fantasy, Bradbury's special realm, where mood and atmosphere are main ingredients. Take an event that seems bold and imaginative when described, use the wrong set of images to visualize it on film, and the result can look unconvincing or downright silly.
For example, remember ''The Shining'' a few years ago? The horror of Stephen King's novel stayed intact, but gone was the book's other strong quality - the sense of family warmth that made us care about the characters. The outcome was a cold and unengaging film, scarcely redeemed by director Stanley Kubrick's technical expertise.
Perhaps because of such ''translation'' problems, most successful fantasies of late have been written directly for the screen. Pictures like ''E.T.'' and ''Poltergeist'' are conceived in visual terms from the start, so images can be dreamed up and juggled at will, with no question of staying faithful to (or bogging down in) a familiar text.
But for every trend, there's a maverick. This time it's Walt Disney Productions, which has been struggling to broaden its audience beyond a kiddie constituency.
In a brave maneuver, the Disney folks have tackled Bradbury's 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, a book that thrives on nuances of word and phrase. How to film a work that lives so thoroughly in its language? How to reproduce a verbal web of strangeness and ambiguity that could easily defy the camera?
The answer is: carefully. It's hard to remember a fantasy film sewn together with such precision of style and texture - the ''Star Wars'' epics look slapdash by comparison. Forms, colors, shades of light and dark flow with rhythms as insinuating as Bradbury's prose; almost every scene has some surprise for the eyes or ears, if not for the mind.
I'm talking about how the movie is built, mind you, not about every moment along the way. Problems intrude. The plot is not thoroughly resolved, and a key part of the climax (the rescue of a little boy) is botched. Some of the special effects are so cheap looking that the movie would be better off without them. Not all the performances hold up. And the author throws in too many themes, from fatherly love to fear of old age, diffusing the tale - a flaw in the book, too, as I recall. Moreover, this is not a Disney film for the whole family: The intensity of some scenes, including a spidery nightmare sequence, put the show off limits for squeamish adults as well as young children. (The rating is PG.)
Even the unique Bradbury touch may rankle some viewers, especially when it comes to dialogue and narration. In the screenplay, as in his printed work, people don't speak English, they speak Bradburese. Florid touches that seem precious on the page - an adjective like ''leaf-whispery,'' say - sound even more stilted in the movie house. And characters declaim when you or I would just talk.
But these characters are emphatically not us. Among them are the demonic proprietor of Dark's Pandemonium Carnival; a mysterious seller of lightning rods; small-town victims of a sinister sideshow that trades in dangerous dreams; and two adventurous boys who are almost destroyed by the enigmas that invade their lives. Bradbury puts them all through their phantasmic paces without pausing for logic, and director Jack Clayton makes the illusion complete by treating it with full conviction.
The result is a self-contained world that shares the emotions but not always the reasons of our own reality. Like the verbal cadences of the original novel, its autumny images and rolling rhythms are their own reward.
It's a limited achievement, trading in imagery so closely tied to the ephemeral plot that it starts fading from memory the moment the movie ends.
Still, few recent fantasies have plunged with such assurance into territory so rich and strange. As an evening of family entertainment, ''Something Wicked'' is probably far too exotic for its own good. As an excursion into the domain of dreams, it's often a fascinating voyage. Praise before accomplishment
Something is badly amiss in American movie criticism if a third-rate soap opera like Lianna can ride to long-running popularity on the coattails of enthusiastic reviews.
The same thing happened with John Sayles' previous film, too, but at least ''Return of the Secaucus Seven'' had some plot originality to make up for its flat style. ''Lianna'' is a stale melodrama that rests on a single twist: The protagonist leaves her husband for another woman, not another man.
You can tell Sayles means this as a feminist fable, since every male in the story is a weakling, a clown, or both. Yet not even the female characters are real; they're like cardboard figures in a medieval parable - the Concerned Woman , the Sensitive Woman, the Free Woman, and so on. What a bore.
Maybe it's the steamy sex scenes and mostly foolish humor that have boosted ''Lianna'' at the box office and not the favorable notices alone. But the picture was rapturously received by many critics, who seem snowed by the ''purity'' of Sayles's forthrightly low budgets and artistic posturing. Happily, his new picture - Baby, It's You - shows a lot more flair than his earlier efforts. Though it's also marred by arch performances and poor taste, there's a toughness to its portrait of teen-age tribulation that makes it a touch more memorable than, say, ''Diner.''
Here's hoping Sayles' work keeps improving until it catches up with his reviews. Fierce political fable
Whatever its title might suggest, Alsino and the Condor is not the gentle story of a boy and his bird. Rather, it's a surprisingly fierce fable about a Nicaraguan peasant child whose land and people are caught in the crossfire of struggle between American-backed government forces and rebellious guerrilla fighters.
The portrait of this conflict and the depiction of an unsavory American ''adviser'' played by Dean Stockwell have a strong leftist slant and are anything but flattering to United States political or military interests. Yet the film has made a splash on the American movie scene, earning one of last year's Oscar nominations for best foreign-language picture.
Its credentials are as unusual as its story: The first feature-length fiction movie ever made in Nicaragua, it is a coproduction of that country with Mexico, Cuba, and Costa Rica. The director was Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin, who ran the nationalized Chilean movie industry under the Allende government and now lives in Mexico. ''Alsino'' is his second Oscar-nominated picture in less than 10 years.
During a recent American visit, Littin told me through an interpreter that ''Alsino'' has been received with great enthusiasm in Nicaragua, where it has been shown not only in Managuan theaters, but in portable ''cinemobiles'' throughout the countryside. Yet he wished to speak to North American as well as Central American audiences, the director acknowledged.
''I wanted to say: Don't sacrifice any more generations to wars that don't belong to them,'' he remarked. ''People like Frank already suffered and died in Vietnam,'' he continued, referring to the fictional American adviser in the film. ''It's not necessary for them to go to Central America. . . .''
After being invited by Nicaragua to make a film there, Littin says he spent much time in the country talking with peasants and taking copious notes, ''trying to understand what was going on there through the human feelings of the people.'' Then he began the screenplay, mingling his research with what he calls ''my own dreams as a child.'' His aim was ''to show how the life of a country, a particular village, and a little boy are transformed by violence.'' He also wanted to explore the question of why a child might choose to take up arms.
''We may know why an adult would choose to fight, to take control of his situation and his destiny,'' says the filmmaker. ''But why would a child do this - at an age when normally he'd be playing? This is a very hard thing to understand, yet perhaps it has great importance. . . .''