Sunday, March 4, 2012



Ray Bradbury adaptations are strange creatures. His stories, although dark, contain a sense of childlike, wide-eyed wonder. Most adaptations, even the most loyal ones, lose that and become bleak. THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969) is the darkest of all.

Rod Steiger plays a wandering hobo with a singular mission in mind—find the woman who “illustrated” his skin and kill her. What he thought would be simple tattoos turned out to be far more sinister. Each image tells a story. Literally. Anyone who lays eyes on one of the images falls into the story. And these stories do not end well. In “The Veldt”, two spoiled children are given access to a room that can become anything they desire…even a deadly African Jungle. Four survivors of a rocket crash landing on Venus stumble through “The Long Rains” in search of a Sun Dome which will allow them reprieve from the constant downpours that are slowly eroding at their sanity. And finally, two parents must decide the fates of their children on “The Last Night of the World.” Steiger is embittered, cursed and haunted by the stories he literally carries on her back, and wants nothing more, nothing less, than to find this woman and kill her.

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN doesn’t have an easy audience. It’s far more pessimistic than Bradbury fans might expect from his adaptations, especially if they’ve seen SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES or THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT. Even FAHRENHEIT 451 had a hopeful ending that THE ILLUSTRATED MAN doesn’t. And the horror of this film is much more quiet and subtle than horror fans usually expect. It relies more on style than your typical blockbuster, but is so deeply entrenched in genre that Art Film fans could shy away.

However, if you’re willing to eschew labels or expectations, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN is well worth watching. Despite the dated sets and costumes, the stories themselves are completely relatable. Steiger and Claire Bloom are wonderful in the multiple roles they play throughout the stories. And the quiet tone never seems excessive or meandering. I will warn you, though, that by the end the filmmakers have achieved such a level of melancholia that you might want to have someone you love nearby so you can hold them tightly and remind yourself that there is still good in the world.



THE ILLUSTRATED MAN by Ray Bradbury (1951)

This book is a collection of eighteen Ray Bradbury stories originally published between the 1940s and 1951. The selections are all tales of the future, ranging from what would be the near future on Earth to stories of other planets during Earth's spacefaring days.

While some of the stories are outdated by the traditional definition of science fiction, they remain exemplary works of science fantasy. The elements of the fantastic are always present, but they complement rather than undermine the characters. Readers are treated to overly permissive parents trying to deal with spoiled children, the discovery of a religious savior on another planet, insanity sparked by endless rains, isolated men dying in space and far more. Through all of them it is the characters that matter.

In the more traditional stories like The Veldt, the protagonist's attitudes and flaws are revealed through interaction with others, particularly his conversations. In his character studies like Kaleidoscope, the reader is treated to an analysis of the thoughts of the main character as we watch mental changes take effect.... whether the descent into insanity or simple acceptance of fate.

Bracketing all of the stories is a framing tale, which involves a man with shifting tattoos. It is revealed that the tattoos come to life if examined for any length of time, and the reader is treated to the titular character's introduction early in the book. As the stories progress, less and less attention is given to the tattoos until finally at the end the reader is tossed back into the "real world" alongside the book's narrator and the ultimate fate of the narrator as regards the Illustrated Man is revealed.

Some stories age poorly, but generally the collection is thoughtful and engaging. Even the questionable stories are fun to read, and reflect poorly only because they have the others to shine against.

Five stars out of five.

-- Bill