Jonathan R. Eller’s new biography Ray Bradbury Unbound (University of Illinois Press, 2015) is really only the second half of the story. It follows the famous fantasy/science fiction writer’s career from 1953, after the publication of Fahrenheit 45, until his death almost 50 years later, in 2012.
Bradbury’s professional career started in 1938. He claimed he wrote a story every week of his life, or so he told interviewers. But during his last five decades Bradbury’s output was severely curtailed by the distractions of his sudden fame after The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451. He adapted a handful of his stories for the stage, and worked on numerous films, which, for the most part, never made it to the screen. Almost all of the adaptations of his own works that made it to the screen were filmed without his input, aside from 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a series of shorts for The Ray Bradbury Theatre, on cable from 1985 to 1992. Screenwriting proved to be a frustrating, if lucrative, endeavor.
The vast majority of Bradbury’s writings from 1953 were often loose collections of older stories, or fragments built into a novel such as 1957’s Dandelion Wine. His only other novel during the period, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), originated as a movie idea.
That he continued to seem so prolific, in large part by repackaging his old works in new formats, shows almost as much effort and will as his tireless pursuit of success in the first 25 years of his writing career, and he became one of the most respected and well-known fantasy writers of the 20th century.
Eller’s title, Ray Bradbury Unbound, refers to the fact that most of Bradbury’s writing in the second half of his life didn’t appear in books. More academic than biographic, and gently critical but still enthralled with Bradbury’s powerful earlier writing, …Unbound is really a critical analysis of Bradbury’s output. Following the critical reception of Fahrenheit 451, Eller tracks the slow progress of Bradbury’s problematic “Illinois novel,” meant to break him out of the genre category and into mainstream literary success. That went through numerous revisions until it was strung together with fragments that became the nostalgic boyhood reverie Dandelion Wine. At the same time, Eller traces Bradbury’s failed attempts to get The Martian Chronicles to the screen for 30 years, including as a musical produced by Charles Laughton.
John Huston invited Bradbury to Ireland to help write the screenplay for Moby Dick (1956), a strange and ultimately difficult assignment based on Huston’s admiration of a paragraph in Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn (which had been loosely adapted for the screen in 1953 for Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) that Huston considered to be “pure Melville.” On the strength of this hunch, Bradbury, who had never read Melville’s novel but was a huge admirer of Huston, would endure a fairly traumatic hazing with the filmmaker’s notorious power games and macho posturing for many months. Still, Bradbury came up with the perfect thematic (and cinematic) end that everyone now remembers as part of the book, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel: Ahab becomes hopelessly tangled in the harpoon ropes stuck in the great whale and they’re both pulled down to the depths one last time. It was a moment that Huston and audiences recognized as Bradbury having embodied the spirit of Melville, almost better than Melville.
Bradbury made numerous attempts to adapt his older stories for film and TV in the following years (some would appear on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone). He tried for years to get a post-apocalyptic tale called And the Rock Cried Out produced, with Carol Reed as director, until On The Beach stole its thunder. He wrote draft after draft of The Martian Chronicles and shopped Fahrenheit 451 to everyone from Hitchcock to Huston. He tried to get Jerry Goldsmith to score a cantata based on his poetry, and turned down lucrative offers he felt he wasn’t right for, including Mutiny on the Bounty and Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Bradbury worked as a writer-for-hire for Burt Lancaster’s company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, and wrote the Biblical narration for Nicholas Ray’s The King of Kings (1961). His output of science fiction and fantasy stories decreased markedly during these years, yet his name stayed in the public spotlight because of the numerous reissued and repackaged story collections.
With the publication of the first shots of the lifeless surface of Mars in 1965, Bradbury’s vision of a future in which astronauts walked on Mars were perceived as quaint and increasingly out of date. Yet he became the de-facto go-to spokesman on TV and in print with the rise of the modern space age, expressing hope for humankind via the technology that made it happen.
Bradbury’s unique blend of poetic and inspirational fantasy continued to resist transition to the screen. Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 in 1966 was leaden, and misrepresented the polemics of the original material. Other adaptations, including The Picasso Summer (1969) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), were too literal. Bradbury would eventually write all 65 episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theatre (1985-1992) for HBO and USA, most based on his old stories – a bold exercise doing it his own damn way.
For this biography, Eller benefited from the help of Ray and the Bradbury family during the last 15 years of his life, as well as having access to the subject’s extensive papers. The author is careful to respect Bradbury’s privacy while exposing this hidden aspect of his career that resulted in many unpublished screenplays and so much wasted energy. Letters to his publishers and agents flesh out this obscure aspect of Bradbury’s professional development.
Unbound is Eller’s second volume on Bradbury, after Becoming Ray Bradbury (University of Illinois Press, 2011), although nowhere in the endpapers or the introductory text does he suggest they are two halves of one larger work, such as Peter Guralnik’s two Elvis Presley books. In the first volume, Eller details Bradbury’s early years, where he doggedly built his career amid many rejections while stubbornly refusing to slant his fiction to a specific market. Self-taught, he endlessly sought advice from other writers, some of whom would become famous, including Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner and William F. Nolan.
Bradbury had a strong distrust of commercial fiction and often fought the science fiction label on his works. He preferred to be called a “fantasist,” and he continually fought to keep the words “science fiction” off his books (although the covers of millions of Ballantine paperback reprints in the 1970s and 1980s proclaimed him “the world’s greatest living science-fiction writer”). Bradbury’s unique voice developed from humble beginnings, and grew into an emotionally honest writing style more dependent on personal reverie and faith in human nature than knowledge of hard science or literary technique.
The irony that he spent so much time from the ’50s through the ’80s writing for the screen goes unexplained. He was a populist, and when given the opportunity to write for films, he probably felt it was an opportunity to finally reach the masses that the ghetto of science fiction might have prevented him from doing.
Author and science fiction critic Damon Knight said of Bradbury: “He worked very hard to become Ray Bradbury. He worked very hard to stay Ray Bradbury.” Eller’s book, along with its sister volume, explicitly illustrates the truth of that insight, what “being Ray Bradbury” meant to the larger popular culture, and to Mr. Bradbury himself. It also serves as a kind of cautionary tale; that even someone as focused on his career and as confident in his talent can still be dangerously distracted by what his good friend, art historian Bernard Berenson, specifically warned him of late in the 1950s: “gold and glory.”
Bradbury’s longevity in our memory demonstrates more than the vagaries of simple celebrity. Bradbury made his own luck, and if his focus on storytelling was hindered by his fame and, after the mid-’50s, unable to fully translate to TV and film, he remained honest and true to the dedication that inspired his creativity, in all of its forms.
His optimism – a boy-like innocence for the things that mattered – remains his legacy as much as the work that continues to stir readers. Eller’s unsentimental case study demonstrates how a writer’s career can grow, flourish and wane in a kind of perfect, if lucrative, decline, having reached an aesthetic plateau with all the integrity in the world but without the ability to translate his talent to a new genre.
Roger Leatherwood worked in all levels of show business over the last 20 years, from managing the world-famous Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland to projecting midnight movies to directing a feature about a killer, Usher (2004), that won numerous awards on the independent festival circuit. He currently works at UCLA managing the instructional media collections, which to him is its own kind of show business. His film writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bright Lights Film Journal, European Trash Cinema, and his blog mondo-cine.
Exploring Ray Bradbury
The Bradbury Books
Ray Bradbury wrote hundreds of short stories, at first for magazines and then he moved to novels. He claims to have written every day and his output would indicate that to be true.
The covers of Ray Bradbury books are quite wonderful. His works are always being reprinted, each with new cover art. A web search gives you the bigger picture.
His work continues to be adapted for television and the motion pictures.
A fascinating essay with many valuable links about working with John Huston on writing the screenplay for Moby Dick is found here.
Read the hand-typed screenplay for Moby Dick.
An excellent published edition of the screenplay is also available.
And you can rent or buy John Huston’s film starring Gregory Peck and Orson Welles.
Bradbury also wrote a novel based on his experiences, Green Shadows, White Whale: A Novel of Ray Bradbury’s Adventures Making Moby Dick with John Huston in Ireland (via Amazon or Indiebound).
Many other movies and television adaptations are available here.
The classic 3-D film It Came From Outer Space was a project Bradbury worked on, writing various treatments before the final film was made from another writer’s script. His four versions with notes, letters and much more are available in a pricey but fascinating deluxe volume.
A fantastic selection of these comics pages and the content of that letter are found here.
Brian Cronin offers his opinion on the eight greatest EC adaptations.
Read a complete EC horror story, The Handler.
|First printing of the book; British movie poster; Topps comic book|
Radio was a perfect medium for Bradbury’s stories. Just close your eyes and let your imagination soar.
THE INTERVIEWS AND MORE
A good interview on Indiebound, the website for Independent bookstores.
For all things Ray Bradbury check Phil Nichols’ exhaustive blog BradburyMedia reviewing the works and posting news of new projects.
“In 1991, schoolteacher William Stanhope wrote to a number of high-profile personalities and politely asked for the following: a description of an obstacle they had faced in their lifetime, big or small, and the story of their attempt to overcome it. He then collated the responses and used them to teach his class. This lovely letter was sent to Stanhope by Ray Bradbury.”
At the time of his death a Disney website featured stories and videos about his friendship with Walt Disney.
Ray Bradbury loved meeting his readers by appearing at bookstores, conferences and libraries (where he never charged a fee and let the library keep all the proceeds of book sales). It was always a joy to hear his passion for the things he cared about.
From the 1970s host James Day speaks with Ray Bradbury about his career, the importance of fantasizing, his aspirations as a young child, his dislike of college for a writer, his idea of thinking compared to really living, and his love of the library.
Story of a Writer is a 1963 documentary offering terrific insight about Bradbury directed by Terry Sanders and David L. Wolper
Story of a Writer shows all the contradictions the late Ray Bradbury embodied: An unstoppably curious admirer of science and technology who some called a “mechanical moron,” a non-driver in midcentury Los Angeles, an imaginer of the future who worked in a basement crowded with paper files and tribal masks. We watch the classic IBM motto “THINK” catch the 43-year-old writer’s eye, yet we notice another sign posted above his typewriter: “DON’T THINK!” This half-hour television documentary captures that most instinctual of craftsmen in the rational genre of science fiction in all sorts of activities grounded in his time, place, and profession: telling stories and performing magic for his daughters, offering guidance to younger writers, “workshopping” a piece with a circle of associates in his living room, bicycling through town to get ideas, and touring a fallout shelter showground.
Produced by David L. Wolper, best known for programs like Roots, The Thorn Birds, and This is Elvis, Story of a Writer interweaves with these scenes from Bradbury’s daily life a jaggedly cinematic adaptation of his short story “Dial Double Zero.” In it, a man receives a series of unwanted phone calls from what eventually starts to sound like the phone system itself, which has, for unexplained reasons, spontaneously developed intelligence. In Bradbury’s imagination, technology may do troubling things, but rarely malevolent ones. “I’ve always been in favor of science that can prolong and beautify our lives,” he says in voice-over. The broadcast even includes one of Bradbury’s many plainspoken but enthusiastic lectures about the craft of writing, which has much in common with his similarly themed 2001 speech previously featured on Open Culture. As he sums up his recommendations to aspirants concerned about the quality of their work: “It doesn’t have to be the greatest. It does have to be you.” Courtesy of www.Openculture.com
Enjoy this 2001 speech at the Sixth Annual Writer’s “Symposium by the Sea.”