So Monday night I attended for the first time our local library’s book club. It may also have been my last.
The club was discussing Something Wicked This Way Comes, the creepy seasonal novel by Ray Bradbury. I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about not liking this novel quite as much as it probably deserves, but after listening to everyone else give their impressions, I felt like a positive fangirl. Oh, sure, a few enjoyed it, but at least half the group hadn’t even finished the book.
That’s not what got me into trouble, though. No, this particular session of book club offered dinner and a movie, and we watched the film adaptation for further discussion.
I realized I was both dominating the conversation and sounding rather negative, both of which I figured were bad for a first-timer, so I squelched myself a bit. And thus a blog post was born! But the comparison really does offer a really spectacular example of what removing the stakes and changing motivations can do for a story.
Book versus Movie
First, let me repeat that I’m not an enormous fan of the book. Though I’m hardly in a place to quibble about someone like Ray Bradbury, I have to say while some of his literary flourishes are pretty awesome, other aspects of his style don’t fascinate me. But that’s all style, and his substance is solid. The story itself is creepy and well-structured. Simply put, I don’t always like how he does it, but I love what he does.
The film adaptation, though, totally disconnects the drive train. The stakes are removed for many key scenes, and as a result the story falls flat. Mindy, the service dog in training, started snoring during the film. So nearly did I.
Okay, that was a bit harsh. But we really can learn a lot from comparing these two tellings of the same premise.
Avast! — thar be spoilers ahead! Both for the book and film. Ye’ve been warned.
Ray Bradbury did the screenplay, and in fact Something Wicked This Way Comes started as a screenplay before becoming a novel, so I’m not sure how the disconnect happened. In part, I blame the ’80s. That’s when the film was made, and it definitely reflects the more disjointed storytelling of many contemporary films, especially horror films. Lots of visuals, less cohesive narrative.
I tried to explain this. “Has everyone seen The Shining? Stephen King said about the movie that it was like a big fancy car, with leather seats and sexy curves and shiny chrome, only it had no engine. I feel like this movie is the same, only without the leather and chrome.” (I paraphrased pretty freely, there.)
“It’s like a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.” Stephen King
There are a lot of visual nods to the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, but if you hadn’t read the book, I can’t imagine the movie would make much sense, let alone frighten you.
In the film of Something Wicked, this is in great part because the stakes are lowered, not raised. Charles Halloway is troubled not by the great age gap between him and his son, but by a memory of not being able to save toddler Will from drowning, because he himself didn’t know how to swim. Will was saved instead by Mr. Nightshade, Jim’s father, a couple of years before he left his wife and child. I’m not sure what bringing Jim’s deadbeat dad into Halloway’s backstory was supposed to do, other than complicate things, but it certainly undercuts Halloway’s flaw. Instead of crippling self-doubt, ever-increasing lost opportunities, and encroaching mortality, Halloway was merely scared by a legitimately frightening situation which ended safely. Ten years ago.
Someone suggested that this was to make a more concrete problem for the film, as it would be hard to visually depict lost opportunity and years of wandering. Except that in the book, Charles Halloway only tells us directly that he used to wander from place to place, never settling until he came to this town and met the woman who would become his wife. It’s dialogue in the book; it might have been dialogue in the film as easily.
See also the replacement of the boys’ scrubbing away the Dust Witch’s mark to save their houses and parents with a dream sequence involving spiders. Because ’80s movies and spiders. (“Let’s not show our protagonists actually doing anything to oppose their adversaries, let’s just put 200 tarantulas in a room and then have them wake up. That’s way more compelling. Spiders are scary, right?”)
But most obvious is the library scene where the Dust Witch is sent after Halloway. In the book, she is to kill him with her magic. Halloway is in very real danger, and in surviving he discovers how to counter the Autumn People with laughter and love.
In the film, however, Mr. Dark tells the Dust Witch to simply frighten Halloway: “give him a taste of death, so he will recognize it when it comes again.” In other words, we all — Witch, Halloway, and viewer — know that Halloway is in no real danger. He’s going to be fine in a minute. And these terrible, terrible people are actually not going to hurt him, despite his knowing exactly who they are and what they do, so maybe they’re not so terrible.
Because Charles Halloway does not discover the effective counter to the carnival people, he cannot effectively act against them. And so he simply goes back to the carnival and (stupidly) enters the mirror maze at the suggestion of a dwarf, rather than going to do battle for his son as he does in the book.
Thus my favorite scene in the book, the death of the Dust Witch, does not happen. Instead, a lucky bolt of lightning just happens to strike Tom Fury (in the electric chair, in this version, instead of Mr. Cougar) and energizes him enough to run down and stab the Dust Witch with a lightning rod. And because Charles Halloway does not know how to love Mr. Dark to death, a second lucky lightning strike has to hit the carousel and fry/age Mr. Dark. Our protagonists aren’t heroes who discover a great truth about life, but instead lucky blokes who just happen to land the incalculable odds of being struck by lightning. Twice.
The Stakes Matter
If there’s nothing to lose, there’s no tension. Which makes your pulse quicken more, a roulette spin where you’ve bet nothing, or where you’ve put some money at risk? Or a roulette spin where you’ve put thousands on the table? Or maybe a roulette spin with a revolver containing a single round? The greater the stakes, the greater the risk, the greater the hook.
Negating the danger to Charles Halloway may have made the movie more family-friendly, as Disney wanted (because that’s exactly what a horror story should be, right?), but it took all the power from both the villains (not scary) and the heroes (not overcoming).
Make us care. Show us what they — and we — have to lose. Give them a fight, and the power to fight it.