By right and nature, all October babies should love Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is a love letter to autumn, and to the Halloween season in particular, a gorgeous take on maturity and self-acceptance and all the dark temptations that come crawling ‘round when the calendar creeps close to October 31st.
It’s October 23rd in Green Town, Illinois, and two boys born on just opposite sides of the first minute of Halloween discover that an uncanny carnival, Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, is on its way. Cautious Jim Halloway and rambunctious Jim Nightshade are drawn to explore the carnival when it arrives, but their boyish curiosity leads them to uncover the dark secrets at the heart of the funhouse flash. Even as the carnival’s evil sinks its tendrils into the places in town that should be safest — the home of their trusted fuddy-duddy teacher, their own homes — the boys resist, and with the aid of Jim’s father, fight back.
This being Bradbury, fighting back is not about rousing the town or going in guns blazing. It’s about embracing joy and possibility and what all the characters have and might yet be, instead of the cheap and easy route the carnival offers. When it’s time to be boys, be boys, and when it’s time to be a man, be a man. So says the book, ultimately banishing the carnival’s temptation of a fast road to adulthood or an easy path to youth with laughter and joy and an ultimate understanding that all things do indeed have their time.
For all that the ultimate message of the book is one of redemptive joy, however, this is one of Bradbury’s darkest works. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the consequences of human weakness. There are moments of genuine terror and dark majesty here — in the powers and temptation of the Dust Witch, in the knowing evil in the eyes of the young Mr. Cooger when he impersonates poor, lonely Miss Foley’s nephew, in the person of Mister Dark as he stalks Charles Halloway in the library. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the depth of the abyss both Will and Charles narrowly avoid falling into, and while they make good their escapes, we also know that Miss Foley wasn’t quite so lucky.
More can and has been said about this book, but really, it’s better read than described. It’s certainly better read than analyzed, for all the wonderfully juicy symbolism Bradbury has sprinkled throughout the book, and for all the rich themes that are there for the taking. If you’ve read it, you know this. If you haven’t, then the book’s true depth of riches are best discovered one page at a time.
For those too impatient to read the book, however, there is the 1983 movie adaptation, starring Jason Robards as Charles Halloway and a very young Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. Filming Bradbury has always been chancy at best; as Harlan Ellison noted in Watching, the sheer richness of the language Bradbury uses is utterly uncinematic. Convey it visually, and the magic of Bradbury’s words are lost. Convey it literally, and the result is dialogue that’s often impossible for an actor to deliver, as formalized and unique in its demands as Shakespeare.
(Or, you could just go the Sound of Thunder route and pretty much ignore the source material entirely, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
With that in mind, the film could easily have been a disaster, especially since the director at one point brought in another scriptwriter to polish Bradbury’s own take on the script. Instead, it’s not at all bad, and if it fails to pack the wallop of its source material, it still manages some genuinely terrifying and disturbing moments. Chief among these is the library sequence, where Pryce’s Mr. Dark rips out the pages of the book of Charles Halloway’s life with bone-chilling evil. Indeed, Pryce’s performance is one of the highlights of the film, full of brooding menace while mockingly offering all the gifts his carnival has to offer.
Pryce is matched by Robards, here promoted from janitor to full librarian. His Charles Halloway is not bitter, but regretful, and we see the pain of growing old too fast with too young a son on his face in every scene. Robards takes material that could easily have been rendered mawkish or self-pitying and keeps it sympathetic, and when he is roused to the defense of his boy, it’s an impressive sight to see.
The film also benefits from one of James Horner’s best scores. Jagged, shrieking woodwinds and sawing strings mix with off-kilter carnival music. The result serves admirably to keep the viewer on edge, and to reinforce the notion of the friendly carnival gone horribly wrong. Credit, too, goes to Disney for not insisting on an overly saccharine and insufficiently dark adaptation. (If you want to see how one of those comes out, check out the animated Halloween Tree, with Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Moundshroud. I don’t, however, recommend it.) While the film remains very much in the “family friendly” zone, it doesn’t do so by cheapening the material. Bradbury’s work has always demonstrated that terror can be conveyed without gore or overt violence, and the film, working from his script, adheres to that notion.
Does the film replace the book? Absolutely not. But it can serve as a more-than-serviceable introduction, and it certainly is not an embarrassment to either the source material or the folks involved in making it. It might even make for a fun night of viewing. . .
. . .as long as you read the book, too.
(Simon & Schuster, 1952)