Reading the Screen: Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles

martian-chroniclesAccording to a story on the Los Angeles Times website, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1950 short story collection The Martian Chronicles is being turned into a movie. 

Apparently producer John Davis has optioned the rights to the book. Davis produced 2004’s I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s short story collection by the same name, and that movie bears only a passing resemblance to its source material. And he produced the upcoming Gulliver’s Travels, which has also veered substantially from the book (Jack Black plays a travel writer). I’m not being alarmist, I’m just saying.

On the other hand, Bradbury’s visually evocative, beautifully written stories virtually defy adaptation to the screen. The Martian Chronicles was made into a three-part television minseries in 1980, with a script by fantasy/SF writer Richard Matheson and a solid cast that included Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Fritz Weaver, and Darren McGavin. Everybody tried really heard, and the miniseries looks good, but still: it doesn’t capture the feel of the book. Like the surface of Mars, it’s dry and sterile.

Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), based on Bradbury’s 1953 novel, fahrenheit-451is about as good as a Bradbury adaptation is likely to get. With minimal dialogue, a strong visual style, and a magnificent performance by Oskar Werner, it takes Bradbury’s bleak, frightening story and actually puts it on the screen. It’s Truffaut’s only English-language film, and he could barely speak English when he made it.

I think that’s one of the key reasons why the movie works so well: Bradbury’s novel is about a dystopia in which language is being robbed of nuance and the capacity for expressing original thought, and the movie’s bare-bones script, with its dialogue that sounds not quite like the English we’re familiar with, perfectly expresses that.

So let’s hope The Martian Chronicles, if it gets made, is closer to the Truffault classic than the well-intentioned TV misfire. Let’s hope it gets some of Bradbury’s ideas to the screen.

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