A Christmas Carol (1843)

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Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

With Disney’s new 3-D computer-animated A CHRISTMAS CAROL leading the weekend box office, and with the holiday season rapidly approaching, now seems like a good time to take a look back on the previous screen incarnations of Ebeneze Scrooge. Rubber-faced comic star Jimy Carrey is far from the first actor to embody the cold-hearted old sinner conceived and created by author Charles Dickens in his 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol (sometimes known by the longer title A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas). Dozens of actors (and at least a few actresses, including Susan Lucci in the 1995 TV movie EBBIE) have played variations of the role on stage, screen, and radio. Everybody from Alistair Sim to Albert Finney, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart, has taken a turn as old Ebenezer, and such is the strength of the source material that almost all of them are interesting in their own way.
But what of that original material? Thanks to Hollywood, novels, stories, and fiction in general have come to seem almost like nothing more than fodder for adaptations; in fact, a book almost isn’t a success in its own right — it’s merely a rough draft for the filmic treatment, and if Hollywood doesn’t think it’s worth filming, then — hey, it must not have been worth reading in the first place. And sometimes it’s not worth reading even if there is a film version. There have been more than a few cases where the film has almost completely supplanted the novel in the public consciousness, and this is certainly true in the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. A brief list might include Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, and even The Exorcist. Let’s face it: a big part of the reason that Stephen King is so well known (besides the fact that he’s a bestseller) is that so many movies have been made from his books that you don’t have to read at all to hear and know his name.
All of which returns us to our point about A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens original literary version of the story is a genuine classic in its own right that deserves to be read. In fact, instead of running out to see the new Jim Carrey film, it would probably be a better investment of your time and money if you were to pick up a copy of the novel at your local library or bookstore, then read it, at least to yourself and preferably aloud to those you love, be it family, friends, spouses, or lovers. The novelette runs only five chapters (or “staves,” as they are called), so it is hardly an overwhelming investment of time; the returns will be greater than you can imagine.
Of course, being so short, it’s not as if the Dickens tale is filled with plot details that had to be excised for the movie and television adaptations. You’re not going to find all sorts of sophisticated ideas that had to be toned down to make a mass-appeal movie. The truth, of course, is that Dickens was writing a popular tale, so it’s not as if the filmmakers had to move it any further in that direction.
No, what you will derive from reading this story is the richness of the language, the magic of a prose style perfectly calculated to tell the tale at hand. The brief excerpt at the top of this page should give you some clue as the amusement that awaits you: the overemphatic stress on a point that could have been made in a single sentence, the attempt to convince the reader as if overcoming some sort of resistance to the idea being stated — this points to a joy at the use of words as tools of entertainment. By the time Dickens moves into the second paragraph of the story, featuring his doubts regarding what is particularly dead about a doornail (as opposed to a coffin nail), you will know beyond any doubt on your part that you are indeed in for a fine evening’s entertainment. (Oh, did I say this story is best read around an open fire in the quiet hours of the evening? Well, there now.)
Your tongue will occasionally stumble across a Victorian colloquialism, but you should be able to figure out the gist from the context. (I myself am still not sure what “good upon ‘Change” means, except that it seems to imply Scrooge’s name was the equivalent of legal tender [i.e., money]; therefore, it had some intrinsic value or validity for whatever it was applied to.) Whatever the stumbling blocks, they won’t be enough to impede you from enjoying a rich piece of fiction that will delight you, no matter how many times you’ve seen the story acted out.
Depending on which adaptation is most familiar, you will encounter a few surprises. For example:

  • In the various flashbacks depicting Scrooge’s younger self, Dickens does not chart his rise as a successful businessman – a fact given closer scrutiny in the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past, often portrayed by a woman on film, is described as a “strange figure – like a child; yet not so like a child as like an old man viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the apperance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions.”
  • Perhaps most interesting, despite the numerous dramatic depictions of Scrooge as a gray-haired old man, Dickens never specifies his age, beyond calling him a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” – which seems to be intended as more metaphorical than literal. From the details given in the story (Scrooge has a young nephew, married but without children), we would infer that Ebenezer is middle-aged.

It is also worth noting that, for an author not associated with the horror genre, Dickens well knew how to manipulate his literary elements to produce a shuddery effect. A Christmas Carol may be best remembered for its sweetness of spirit, embodied in The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, but Marley’s apparation – bound in chains, jaw dropping open when he unties the handerchief holding it in place – is an effectively ghoulish one. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – shrouded in a black robe, face unseen beneath a hood, voiceless – eerily evokes the figure of Death (imagery put to good grim use in film versions, even the comic spoofs). With these sublimely spooky moments – along with a ghostly carraige and the bizarre moment when Marley’s face replaces the knocker on Scrooge’s door – the novelette easily lives up to its subtitle A Ghost Story of Christmas
Dickens’ ultimate triumph is that he sells Scrooge’s transformation. As greedy and avaricious as the character is, somehow the seeds of redemption have been planted, so that we believe whole-heartedly his change of heart at the conclusion. Confronted by the ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve, anyone might proclaim themselves a changed man; Dickens convinces us that Scrooge will follow through in the days and years to come. And not merely out of self-interest (he wants to avoid the lonely death shown him by the Ghost of Christmas Future) but out of a new – or, more precisely, renewed – connection with humanity.
I won’t belabor my point any further, except to say that I try to revist this enchanting story every Christmas season. This is not meant to dissuade you from watching the many wonderful film and television adaptations; rather it is a suggestion that you visit the wonderful source material. Instead of watching a particular version of A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time, why not take those two hours and read it? You will be glad you did.
And then, after emmersing yourself in Dickens’ fanciful world of Yuletide spirits and ghostly visitations, you may find yourself with a whole new appreciation of the adaptations that followed.
[NOTE: This article is the first in a series. Subsequent installments will examine some of the more notable film and television adaptations of Dickens’ story.]

The Lost Worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the most important works in the history of cinefantastique is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Although not as widely read as it deserves to be, the novel has had a huge impact that lives on to this day, thanks to the many science fiction film and television adaptations, beginning with the 1925 silent version, which established the template for the many prehistoric monster movies that followed, including 1933’s KING KONG and 1997’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. If you have ever seen a movie about explorers discovering an extinct species in some newly discovered land and/or bringing it back to civilization, where it escapes and goes on a rampage, you have Doyle – and the 1925 THE LOST WORLD – to thank.
Published in 1912, Doyle’s The Lost World arrived too late to accurately be labeled “Victorian,” but it has much in common with the Victorian-era science fiction literature of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, not to mention the adventure stories of H. Rider Hagard. As with Verne, the story is a sort of travelogue adventure to a mysterious land (in this case a plateau in South America, cut off from the forces of evolution that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs throughout the rest of the world). As with Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle uses the story to raise the issue of human evolution (at one point, the physical appearance of the books’ protagonist is pointedly compared to that of the leader of a tribe of ape-men, implying that the gulf separating modern man from his primitive ancestors is not so great after all). As for Haggard, he has pioneered the “lost civilization” adventure story with King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, but but Doyle went him one better by populating his lost world with dinosaurs. (To be fair, Verne had previously used the idea of prehistoric animals surviving into modern times in Journey to the Center of the Earth).
The great thing about The Lost Word – besides dinosaurs, of course – is that the adventure story is told with wit and humor. Arthur Conan Doyle improves over the work of both Verne and Wells, whose vivid imaginations concocted some amazing adventures but sometimes fell flat in terms of style and/or characterization. Doyle, on the other hand, was the creator of Sherlock Holmes: he knew the value of eccentric, acerbic characters; and in the person of the book’s protagonist, Professor Challenger, the author almost outdoes the intellectual arrogance of the more famous detective, creating a personality at once temperamental, admirable, and even humorous. Equally clever is the handling of the book’s narrator, Edward Malone, an Irish journalist who is understandably terrified of each new danger that presents itself – but who refuses to reveal his fear to his English compatriots, forcing himself to swallow his fear and face each new threat with a brave face that belies his inner turmoil.
In fact, the characterizations and dialogue of the first few chapters are so delightful that a reader is immediately hooked, long before the expedition has set sail for the Amazon – a rare example when the opening expository section of a story is as entertaining as the exciting adventure that follows. An early highlight is Malone’s attempt to finagle an interview with the reclusive, abusive Challenger, whose wife warns the reporter about the dire consequences of rousing her husband’s temper (“Get quickly out of the room if he seems inclined to be violent… If you find him dangerous – really dangerous – ring the bell and hold him off until I come”). The scene turns into a hilarious brawl with Challenger and Malone rolling out the door and into the street, where a policeman offers to arrest the professor until Malone admits he was at fault, his honesty having the side effect of earning Challenger’s respect
Once on route, the story of The Lost World does somewhat bog down in a familiar pattern of Jules Verne-like descriptions of every inch of territory charted on the way to finding the dinosaurs that are the book’s real selling point. There is also an inexplicable plot twist, with Challenger first sending the expedition off without him, then suddenly showing up to take over after Malone and company have reached South America. Why the subterfuge was necessary, is never explained.
Fortunately, once the plateau has been reached, the adventure is fast-paced and exciting, with plenty of action and adventure at every turn, involving both dinosaurs and a tribe of primitive men (who are condescendingly described as being relatively high up the evolutionary ladder – though obviously not nearly so high as the British explorers). The presentation of the prehistoric reptiles is certainly eccentric enough to be memorable: one two-legged predator is described as hopping like a kangaroo, which might not be scientifically accurate but which at least suggests a dynamic active form of life in keeping with our modern conception of dinosaurs (as opposed to the lethargic beasts often depicted in scientific theory of the past).
The Lost Worldis dated and flawed in some ways but remains entertaining as a sort of boy’s adventure story that can be enjoyed by adults, too. Malone’s motivation for joining the dangerous expedition is to impress a woman, but by the time he gets back she has left him for someone else. Instead of a heart-breaking moment, this is portrayed as a revelation of the fickle nature of women, prompting Malone to realize that the truly lasting and important bonds are between men who risk their lives side by side. It’s the perfect ending for a pre-adolescent boy too young to have developed an interest in girls yet.

A split screen effect combines live human actors with stop-motion dinosaurs in ths publicity still.
A split screen effect combines live human actors with stop-motion dinosaurs in ths publicity still.

The first screen adaptation of Doyle’s novel is the 1925 silent film THE LOST WORLD, which is historically important as the first feature-length dinosaur movie. Although primitive by today’s standards, THE LOST WORLD is still entertaining as a showcase for Willis O’Brien’s old-fashioned stop-motion effects, and its story became the blue print for countless “lost world” films that would follow, including KING KONG (1933), which also featured O’Brien’s movie magic. The dinosaur action was greatly expanded for the film adaptation, with effects supervisor O’Brien filming scenes not in the novel or the screenplay. In effect the dinosaurs became the stars of the show, with the humans taking a back seat. This is especially true of the truncated version, the only one available for many decades, which deleted many of plot and character scenes that had originally been retained from the novel; restorations for laserdisc and DVD eventually revealed that the full-length film was reasonably faithful to its source, giving star Wallace Beery’s Professor Challenger at least a glimmer of the novel’s characterization.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s story had ended with Challenger bringing back a live specimen, a pterodactyl that escapes and flies home to its faraway land. One of the screenplay’s innovations was expanding this brief vignette into a third-act climax, replacing the relatively small flying reptile with an angry brontosaurs that breaks loose and runs amok in London. This sequence established what would become a cinematic tradition of unleashing  prehistoric monsters on modern cities; the plot device has been recycled in everything from the various versions of KING KONG to Steven Spielberg’s film THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. The JURASSIC PARK sequel was based on Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, which borrows not only its title but also an early scene from Doyle, in which a scientific lecture is interrupted by a renegade scientist who believes that dinosaurs have survived into the present day. One element that Crichton’s novel lacked was a T-Rex brought back to civilization; the addition of this sequence for the film underlines the lasting influence of the 1925 silent film.
Irwin Allens version of Doyles novel used lizards as dinosaurs.
Irwin Allen's version of Doyle's novel used lizards as dinosaurs.

Besides the homages and spin-offs, there have been several subsequent official adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The First of these wasthe disappointing 1960 Irwin Allen production, which not only substituted Claude Rains for Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger but also, unfortunately, substituted made-up lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. Michael Rennie (Klatuu in the 1951 DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is also on hand, and Jill St. John provides sex appeal, but not even the presence of Willis O’Brien on the effects team can compensate for the disappointment of the dinosaurs. (Ever the economical producer, producer Allen recycled this footage for the “Island of the Dinosaurs” episode of his television series, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.)
In 1992, disreputable producer Harry Allen Towers fashioned a surprisingly good version with John Rhys-Davies (LORD OF THE RINGS) as Professor Challenger. Despite phony-looking rubber-mechanical dinosaurs, the script and Rhys-Davies’ performance capture much of Challenger’s humor and temperament, which is often lost in other adaptations. David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is on hand in the thankless role of Challenger’s scientific colleague, but he brings his usual professionalism to the performance. The film and its follow up RETURN TO THE LOST WORLD received theatrical distribution in Europe but were sold as a two-part mini-series for American television and video. With a bigger budget for some really good special effects, this could have been a great movie.
After author Michael Crichton used the title The Lost World for his 1995 sequel to Jurassic Park, leading to the Steven Spielberg film two years later, it was perhaps inevitable that eager filmmakers would go back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original book, which would allow them to fashion productions with the same title as a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster with no fear of legal action; after all, the novel they were adapting had prior claim to the title. Thus, we saw Patrick Bergin as a serious Professor Challenger in a competent but unremarkable version, directed by makeup effects man Bob Keen, which made its debut on U.S. television in 1998.
Cast of the LOST WORLD TV series, which ran for three years
Cast of the LOST WORLD TV series, which ran for three years

Shortly thereafter came the 1999 TV pilot, with the once-promising Richard Franklin (PSYCHO II) directing a no-name cast in a version of the tale that followed much of Doyle’s plot, with one notable change: instead of returning the characters to London as in the novel, the pilot ends with the expedition forced to remain in the lost world for the remainder of the series.  As with the 1925 film, the television pilot upped the ante with the dinosaur footage; the script also added some romantic entanglements between the explorers and the natives (who are much more attractive than Doyle’s primitives), presumably so that the modern characters would not feel too badly about being trapped in the lost world for the three seasons that the series ran, until its demise in 2002. John Landis, one of the show’s executive producers, had previously hoped to mount a feature film version of THE LOST WORLD at Universal Pictures, with Richard Matheson scripting a faithful adaptation of Doyle’s novel, starring Sean Connery as Challenger, but Universal abandoned the project in favor of Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993).
Bob Hoskins stars as Professor Challenger in this BBC TV adaptation.
Bob Hoskins stars as Professor Challenger in this BBC TV adaptation.

More recently, the BBC presented a fairly faithful adaptation of THE LOST WORLD in 2001, which reached U.S. shores courtesy of A&E cable. In this version, Bob Hoskins takes over as Challenger, and JURASSIC PARK-style computer effects supply the dinosaurs. The premise behind this production seems to have been to do justice to Doyle, but the screenplay still tweaks many of the details, apparently in an attempt to render the production as a serious piece of science fiction, not merely a rousing adventure story. Hoskins is good (playing the professor as driven man whose personal life has been eclipsed by his work), and the film is decently entertaining, but it does overlook one excellent opportunity: Doyle’s book is dated by its Victorian view of dinosaurs (recollect that allosaurus-type predator chasing human prey by hopping like a kangaroo).
Today’s scientific view of dinosaurs is completely different, so it would have been interesting to portray Challenger and his colleagues starting off their old-fashioned paleontological theories and then radically revising after observing the living animals first-hand. Unfortunately, the script’s one nod in this direction is backwards: dialogue has the Victorian scientists expecting to see an Iguanodon walk upright; when they encounter one, it is on all fours. The truth is the complete reverse: scientists from Challenger’s era would have expected to see an Iguanodon on all fours, but later research revised the image of the creature as bi-pedal.
Of course, Conan Doyle will always be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes – a fact that would not have pleased him. If he is looking down on us from somewhere in literary heaven, he is probably grateful to see that at least one other of his literary efforts continues to inspire and influence filmmakers today. No doubt modern day dinosaur films will continue to flourish, thanks to the ever-improving innovations in the special effects field, but Doyle’s original novel really is a literary work worth reading for its own fine qualities, and as far as professor-scientist-explorer characters go, Professor Challenger stands head-and-shoulders above his competitors in the field.

Lair of the White Worm – From Novel to Film

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Victorian author Bram Stoker holds a prominent place in horror history, all of it due to the publication of a single novel, Dracula, which has remained continuously in print for more than a century, providing a bloody fountain of inspiration for an undying legion of film and television adaptations. When a writer’s work has achieved that kind of longevity, inevitably one wonders: What else did he write? In Stoker’s case, unfortunately, the answer is not a pretty one. As scholar Leonard Wolf (who considers Dracula a masterpiece) noted in Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide, Stoker’s other “novels are not distinguished in any literary sense”; they merely provide “intriguing glimpses into the nether reaches of Stoker’s mind.” Nowhere is this more true than in Stoker’s final novel, Lair of the White Worm – a work so bad that it come close to being the literary equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. It is no wonder that, when Ken Russell adapted the book to the screen in 1988, he treated the material with campy contempt, creating an off-the-wall parody of the horror genre.
It is hard to say exactly what Stoker was thinking when he conceived the story, which is loaded with superfluous characters who disappear and reappear, and with mis-matched plot threads that never tie together. What comes through the text loud and clear, however, is a fear of female sexuality that borders on loathsome disgust and renders the material absolutely fascinating – the book seems tailor made for psycho-analysis, but you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to get a pretty healthy whiff of what lies beneath the surface.
The story follows the non-descript Adam Salton, an orphaned Englishman living in Australia, who is called back to the ancestral estate by his childless Uncle Richard. Salton’s return coincides with another expatriate Englishman returning home, the villainous Edgar Caswall, who does just about everything but twirl his mustache. In the first sign that Stoker has not thought through his plot very carefully, the reader distinctly suspects that Uncle Richard has called Adam home at least partly because he anticipates needing an ally against Caswall, but nothing every comes of this; the near simultaneous return of the two expatriates is just a coincidence.
Caswall is accompanied by a sinister servant, an African named Oolanga, and he is soon being courted by the widowed Lady Arabella Marsh, who hopes a rich husband will help her hold onto her late husband’s expensive property. Lady Arabella turns out to be something much worse than a mere gold-digger; she is actually an ancient, antediluvian monster, a sort of giant snake or worm (the etymology of the word “worm” has its roots in a term meaning “dragon”). In human form she is sinuous and seductive, her charms described in snake-like terms that induce more laughter than fear: her flexible hands wave gently to and fro; the sibilation of her voice suggests a hissing serpent.
Since she is clearly the “White Worm” of the title, you would think Stoker would focus on her, but Stoker refuses to give up on Caswall as the lead villain. Whole chapters are devoted to Caswall’s attempts to open an old chest that his late ancestor brought from France, where it used to belong to Dr. Mesmer (he of mesmerism). Caswall seeks to use mesmeric influence upon Lilla, a young local lady. Why is never explained; we simply assume he is trying to seduce her – which makes it all the more strange when, after his first effort is thwarted by Lilla’s companion Mimi, Lady Arabella offers to help Caswall in his next endeavor (presumably to earn his good favor?). The book descends into complete incredulity when the two young ladies allow Caswall back into the house even though they more or less know what he is up to – a foolish move that results in the Lilla’s death, presumably from exhausting her willpower in the confrontation with Caswall and Arabella.
Fortunatly for the reader, Caswall’s failed effort drives him around the bend and he more or less retreats to the turret of his castle, from which he flies a huge kite, night and day, over the surrounding territory; shaped like a hawk, it scares the local fauna away. (One suspects some kind of metaphor is intended, but what?)
With Caswall out of the way, Lady Arabella moves more toward center stage. In the meantime, Adam’s uncle (who has no other plot function that to get Adam back to England) has moved off stage after introducing his nephew to Sir Nathaniel, the book’s equivalent of Van Helsing, who explains to the young man everything he needs to know to defeat the giant snake. You don’t have to be a trained story analyst to wonder why Stoker did not simply combine Richard and Nathaniel into a single character.
Somewhere along the way, Oolanga mistakenly believes he has information that will enable him to blackmail Lady Arabella into marrying him. Although Arabella is a villain, Oolanga’s proposal is not portrayed as two like-minded schemers joining forces; instead, it is viewed through the prism of class consciousness, in which the upstart negro (well, the book uses the word nigger), is roundly mocked for having aspirations above his station. Stoker even titles the chapter “Oolanga’s Hallucinations,” emphasizing how out of touch with reality his love for Arabella is, and he drives the point home in this passage:

Lady Arabella was not usually a humorous person, but no man or woman of the white race could have checked the laughter which rose spontaneously to her lips. The circumstances were too grotesque, the contrast too violent, for subdued mirth. The man a debased specimen of one of the most primitive races of the earth, and of an ugliness which was simply devilish; the woman of high degree, beautiful, accomplished.

Lady Arabella rebuffs Oolanga, and when he refuses to give up, she drags him to his death in a deep well, the open mouth of which is hidden in the basement of her property. Adam witnesses this event – in fact, he also sees her tear his pet mongoose in half (the second such creature she kills in the story) – and he is properly horrified, yet somehow he manages to maintain cordial public relations with Lady Arabella for the rest of the novel, a development that takes British stiff-upper-lip resolve to ridiculous extremes, with the two characters in some kind of complicit cone of silence regarding the matter. Needless to say, it never occurs to anyone to alert the authorities about Oolanga; after all, who cares about a missing…ahem, negro?
In another inexplicable turn of events, Lady Arabella decides to sell her property to Adam. We suspect she is setting him up for some trap, which never materializes. In an apparently unintended bit of sexual innuendo, she even asks Adam to plum the depths of her well-hole, and he seems happy to comply (an exchange of dialogue that Leonard Wolf found particularly ridiculous). The sale turns out to be merely a lazy plot device to give Adam access to the well so that he can load it with dynamite. (He and Sir Nathaniel have decided that the well is the path Lady Arabella uses to come and go when she is in her giant snake form.)
As if this were not enough, Lady Arabella gets fed up with Caswall’s kite-flying activities, which involve experiments in electricity inspired by Ben Franklyn, so she decides unravel the spool of wire leading to the kite and lay it out in a trail leading back to her old house. Her theory is that Caswall’s obsession with the kite will eventually lead him to follow the wire to her, but as luck would have it, the kite is conveniently struck by lightening, and the electricity follows the wire down to Lady Arabella’s hole, where it ignites the dynamite.
In a scene that predates the ridiculously overblown explosive climaxes of bad action movies by several decades, the ensuing destruction goes on for over two pages, loaded with emphatically gory details:

The whole place looked as if a sea of blood had been beating against it. Each of the explosions from below had thrown out from the well-hole, as if it had been the mouth of a cannon, a mass of fine sand mixed with blood, and a horrible repulsive slime in which were great red masses of rent and torn flesh and fat.

These and more unappetizing details suggest that this is the only passage in the entire text over which Stoker labored with any diligence. The rest of the prose reeks of haste, with description and dialogue that reads as if dictated on the fly – speed-writing, rather than speed-reading – with little concern for establishing atmosphere or developing characters. In fact, the writing is so unadorned that Lair almost reads like first draft that was meant to be further elaborated. The comic-book-like simplicity suggests one of those old “Big-Little Books,” written for kids, which contained an illustration on every page to provide vivid details missing from the text.
What gives the climax its kick is the underlying symbolism permeating the book. Lady Arabella’s well-hole, which emits a noxious stench, is the Sarlac Pit long before there was STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI – a blatantly obvious substitute for female genitalia. For Stoker, Lady Arabella’s “hole” reminds us that she is a nightmare embodiment of female sexuality – an aggressive seductress who appears beautiful but is revealed as an inhuman monster. In Dracula, Stoker had played a similar game with the vampire’s brides in an early chapter set in the Count’s castle, and he made a big deal out of portraying the transformation of an innocent English maiden into a lascivious vampire who is dispatched when her fiance drives a phallic stake through her body on what would have been their wedding night; Lair of the White Worm takes things a giant step forward, turning the fatal woman into a Godzilla-sized entity whose loathsome nature easily outweighs any seductive appeal, and the final destruction of her lair reads like a grotesque orgasm.
Like H. Rider Haggard’s She, Stoker’s Lair provides a vivid insight into the Victorian male mind’s conception of powerful women. The difference is that Haggard’s adventure tale mixes fear and fascination in regard to Ayesha, “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” Much more simplistic, Stoker simply piles on the disgusting details meant to convince us that Lady Arabella deserves to be blown into a million pieces of slimy worm-flesh.
Just in case you miss the symbolism, the ending reminds us that Adam has secretly married Mimi somewhere along the way, but his monster-fighting activities have prevented him from enjoying a honeymoon. Now that Lady Arabella has been reduced to harmless worm-mush, Adam’s uncle reappears and reminds the newlyweds that they are overdue. With the evil female defeated, her dark, dank hole plugged, nothing stands in the way of Alan’s consummating his relationship with his safe, “normal” bride.


Lair of the White Worm poster

When filmmaker Ken Russell saw his attempt to remake DRACULA come to nothing, he turned to Lair of the White Worm as an alternative but found the text markedly inferior. Rather wisely, Russell decided to present the film as a hoot; equally wisely, he removed Caswell and his kite, along with Oolanga, putting the focus on Lady Arabella (renamed Sylvia Marsh and embodied by the wonderful Amanda Donohoe, whose forked-tongue-in-cheek performance rivals Vincent Price at his campiest).
Russell’s sly joke is that, although he set the story in contemporary times, he retained the ridiculous Victorian attitudes, contrasting the innocent English maidens with the seductive Roman snake-goddess. Russell pushes a theme that Stoker suggested but never developed, that the lair of the white worm is nestled in territory once occupied by Roman invaders. Russell imagines Lady Sylvia less as a prehistoric beast and more as a pagan priestess, offering virgin sacrifices to her god. (Although in this case Lady Sylvia and the giant worm are two separate entities, she retains her snake-like characteristics, including viper-like fangs and spitting poison). The location where the skull of an ancient worm is uncovered was once a Roman place of worship, but the territory has changed hands over the centuries, at one point being a monastary (providing a chance for Russell to include a flashback of Roman warriors raping nuns).

The Christian-versus-Pagan subtext sets up a nice vibe in the film, but Russell does not take it seriously, playing his symbolism for laughs. In a scene that seems deliberately lifted from CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL), Lady Arabella’s melodramatic invocation of the snake god, while she prepares to sacrifice a young virgin, is interrupted by the door bell, prompting her to exclaim, “Shit!” Later, a dream sequence shows one of the two male leads raising his pen into an erect position when Lady Arabella walks by – do I really need to explain that one?

Russell also undermines the genre conventions and plot expectations, to hilarious effect. When the “heroic” male lead (played by a very young Hugh Grant) confronts and kills a snake woman by slicing her in half with a sword, his momentum swings him around into a nearby drum set, where he goes crashing down amidst the clanging cymbals, looking like a complete idiot. (Russell probably got the idea from destroying drum kits from Keith Moon, whom he directed in the film adaptation of The Who’s TOMMY).
Lacking the budget to visualize Stoker’s multiple-explosion finale, Russell has to rely on a single blast, but he keeps the sexual symbolism forefront: the Scottish archaeologist who finishes off the worm (Peter Capaldi) reaches under his kilt to retrieve a grenade as if he were removing a giant testicle and dropping it down the feminine “hole,” where the resulting explosion (orgasm?) finishes off the icky female monster.
The film version of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM has divided critical opinion (it ranks at 54% at Rotten Tomatoes). Those looking for a good horror film are inevitably disappointed – as indeed was I for the first half of my first screening. Once I realized I was watching a comedy, I laughed the rest of the way through and went back to see it again from the beginning so that I could enjoy the humor there, as well.
One can hardly blame audiences for missing the joke. It helps to be familiar with the original text – at least by reputation. Standing on its own, Russell’s LAIR is a typically delirious work from a director who specialized in excess. One might appreciate it as a generic genre parody, but the full effect comes through when you see the 20th century filmmaker deliberately undermining the 19th century author. In the case of Stoker’s Dracula, we can lament that no film has ever truly been faithful to the novel; in the case of Lair of the White Worm, we should be thankful that Russell gave the text the thorough de-construction job that it deserved.

Journey to the Center of the Earth – and the films it inspired

Hollywood’s continued preoccupation with Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earthis a bit of a puzzle. Yes, the book provides a certain potential for visual razzle-dazzle, and any excuse to travel to a lost world inhabited by dinosaurs is a good one, yet outside of the basic premise, the novel has little to offer in the way of plot or characterization. The story is almost as much a travelogue as an adventure, and a modern reader may frequently find himself wondering whether the many strange sights encountered on the journey are really enough to justify plowing through until the end. It is not a bad book exactly, but it lacks the charm and humor that make Conan Doyle’s The Lost World not only readable but fun all these decades later.

Having written his novels in the 19th century, Jules Verne is often called the “grandfather of science fiction” (or other similar terms), but some of his defenders prefer to call his work “scientific fiction” because of the author’s exhaustive research and dedication for writing books that stayed within the bounds of scientific probability. In his own time, Verne’s novels were called “Extraordinary Voyages” (a term coined by the author’s publisher), and he specialized in writing just what those two words seems to convey: descriptions of unusual and exotic journeys to distant lands, filled with descriptions of landscapes and wildlife, but not necessarily with much drama.

Part of the problem is no doubt due to poor English translation from the original French, and over the course of the past decade or so, there has been a movement to rehabilitate Verne’s reputation with English-speaking readers through new, more accurate and complete translations. Verne clearly represents the first full flowering of the “hard science” strain of science fiction, and he had an uncanny knack for imagining events that have since come to pass. Unfortuantely, his work, including Journey, can be slow going for today’s readers, who may be inclined to regard the inevitable changes made by Hollywood, when adapting his work, as improvements.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is indicative of many of Verne’s strengths and weakness. The author imagines a journey that truly is “extraordinary,” and he lays it out in vivid detail for the reader, replete with numerous memorable episodes featuring close calls, near escapes, brushes with death, not to mention encounters with various primeval and extinct animals that have managed to survive in subterranean caverns beneath the Earth’s surface. However, there is precious little story and almost no drama. The entire book simply follows Professor Lidenbrock as he and his nephew Alex and their local guide descend into the crater of an extinct volcano and follow various tunnels until they reach their destination. Character interaction is limited to the most basic sort. Alex, who narrates, is our eyes and ears, a sort of ordinary person who quite reasonably wants to turn back at the sight of each new threatening danger, while his uncle the scientist is eager to continue no matter what the peril, and the stalwart guide simply follows the orders of his “master” without question. Adding to the simplicity, Alex doesn’t speak the guide’s language, so the opportunities for dialogue exchanges and character interaction are mostly limited to him and his uncle. It is symptomatic of the lack of plot that many of the encounters with prehistoric monsters turn out to be dreams or hallucinations brought on by fatigue, and it doesn’t really matter much one way or the other; whether “real” or “imagined,” the incidents imply occur and then the story continues more or less as if nothing had happened.
The 1959 film adaptation, starring James MasonNot surprisingly, when 20th Century Fox filmed the tale in 1959 with James Mason and Pat Boone, they added some antagonists and a love interest (in the novel, Alex often thinks back on the fiancé he left behind; in the movie, she actually goes on the trip). This helps give some small sense of excitement to the story (it’s a race to see who will reach the destination first), but to a large extent the film recreates the strengths and weaknesses of the source material. Its biggest advantage is the combination of color photography, underground location shooting, and special effects, which make the adventure quite a treat for the eye (and the ear, too, thanks to the stereo sound). It also helps to have Mason and Thayer David on board as Lidenbrock and his rival Count Saknussem, but the presence of Boone (yes, he sings) is rather distracting—not that he’s bad in the role of Alec, but it is hard to forget that this is, after all, the one-time pop singer who turned into a shill for the milk industry and a conservative anti-porn crusader.
Still, whatever the weaknesses of the 1959 version (which is considered a classic by many, despite its measured pace), it stands far and away above the 1989 remake, a film so bad that it went unreleased upon its completion in 1988. This version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was all about some kids on vacation in Hawaii who stumble into a volcanic cave that leads them toward the Earth’s core, but the behind the scenes story turned out to be far more interesting. When the film’s production company (the now-defunct Canon pictures) saw the results turned in by first-time director Rusty Lemorande, they called in another director, Albert Pyun, to save the project. In exchange for this service, Pyun talked the company into bankrolling his own underground adventure, Alien From L.A., starring swimsuit model Kathy Ireland. During the reshooting of Journey, Pyun added a cameo from Ireland, turning the film into a sequel to Alien From L.A. Both films wound up going almost entirely unseen, although Alien did find its way onto Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Click to purchase the movie novelizationSince then there have been a few made-for-television adaptations, in 1993, 1996, and one in 1999 starring Treat Williams, but none of those  garnered much attention; there is also an obscure 1976 Philppino version. The latest adaptation, filmed in 3D, and with Brendan Fraser in the lead, alters the story so much that the screenplay was adapted into a merchandising tie-in novelization. This is an unfortunate tradition that extends at least back to the 1950 film adaptation of KING SOLOMON’S MINES, and includes BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which yielded novelizations that differed significantly from the source material. In the case of JOURNEY, however, one can hardly blame Hollywood for trying to goose the tale up a little bit.
Verne was a prolific writer, with dozens of titles to his credit. Those with the most interest for today’s science fiction fans are the ones that have served as source material for various movie adaptations that keep the titles in the public awareness. Besides Journey, there are 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Mysterious Island (1874). Of lesser interest are From the Earth to the Moon and its 1870 sequel Around the Moon (which were adapted into a competent but mostly forgotten 1958 film under the title From the Earth to the Moon) and Robur the Conqueror (1886) and its 1904 follow-up Master of the World (which were jointly adapted, under the later title, into a fairly well written but not very well produced Vincent Price movie in 1961).

Stuart Gordon finds a "Thing on the Doorstep"

Esplatter recycles some information gleaned from Fangoria: Stuart Gordon  is planning to film H. P. Lovecraft’s classic tale, “A Thing on the Doorstep,” which will be produced by Amicus, the company that financed his recent art-house release STUCK.

Gordon told Fangoria that he hopes to begin filming in the fall. “It follows the short story pretty closely, and what’s great about it is that, as far as I know, it’s the only Lovecraft tale that has a strong female character. Normally we have to invent one, but for the first time, we didn’t have to do that. We’re also working with Amicus again, because we had so much fun the first time around.”

Lovecraft’s story (which, running 27 pages and divided into seven chapters, might best be termed a novelette) takes the form of a first-person confession by a narrator named Dan Upton, who has just killed his best friend Edward Pickman Derby by putting six bullets in his brain. Dan’s justification is that he did not kill Edward but an evil intelligence that had possessed Edward’s body. Edward had been married to Asenath, who apparently had the power to transfer her consciousness from one body to another (the twist is that Asenath is not really Asenath; her body has previously been snatched by her evil father Ephraim, the story’s true culprit). Read More

Suspiria de Profundis – Book Review

 Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end.

– Thomas De Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis

Although it will never achieve the status of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis deserves a small place in horror history for having helped to inspire Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy: SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) – films that depict the evil caused by three ancient witches known as Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears). Although Argento takes great liberties with his source of inspiration, the resulting films do contain interesting echoes of De Quincey’s (literally) hallucinatory imagery. Read More

I Am Legend (1954) – A Retrospective Review of the Novel

Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend may not be as famous as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it is as least as influential on the development of modern vampire cinema. Not only have there been three official film adaptations; Matheson’s science-fiction approach to vampirism prefigures the majority of modern film treatments of the subject, and the novel’s story of a world overwhelmed by the living dead has served as the template for an apparently deathless parade of apocalyptic zombie movies, beginning most notably with George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That is quite an achievement for a rather short novel with only a single major character and very little dialogue. Still, the question is whether the book is any good in its own right, or is it just a well of inspiration for the cinema? To some extent, it depend on whom you ask: Leonard Wolf, in his pioneering work A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, dismisses I Am Legend as boring, but  in his undead encyclopedia V is for Vampire, David J. Skal (Wolf’s heir apparent as the premiere commentator on all things undead) calls the book a “masterful science-fiction/horror-thriller.” Matheson’s tale may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is an engrossing experience that deserves to be appreciated on its own literary terms, not just as a seminal piece of horror history.


Set in Los Angeles, 1976 (which at the time of publication was over two decades in the future), the novel tells the tale of Robert Neville, apparently the only survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of the world in vampires. The story begins by presenting the day-to-day monotony of Neville’s struggle for survival – growing garlic, repairing his generator, carving stakes – while he struggles with loneliness, despair, and sexual frustration. At first Neville spends his time feeling sorry for himself and mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter, drinking heavily and blasting out classical music to drown the sound of the vampires who swarm around his house every night, hungering for his blood. After a close call (he stays out too late one day, arriving home after dark, when the vampires are out), he gets his act together and begins to approach his problem analytically, searching for answers: Why do vampires fear the garlic? Do they have to avoid running water? Why is a stake through the heart effective? And after centuries in the darkness, how did this ancient plague manage to overrun the entire planet?
Working on the theory that vampirism is a disease, Neville systematically proves that garlic creates an allergic reaction in the infected, that the myth about running water is only a myth, and that piercing the heart is not necessary: any large enough wound will allow oxygen into the body, causing the bacillus to parasitize its host and sporulate, the spores spreading on the wind to find new victims. The plague managed to overwhelm the Earth because the spores were carried on the dust storms that swept the planet after a nuclear war (referenced only briefly in the dialogue, during one of the book’s flashbacks).
However, Neville runs up against an obvious roadblock: a bacillus in the blood would not explain why the undead fear the cross and avoid their reflection in a mirror. Eventually, he recalls that, as the world plunged into chaos, a wave of apocalyptic religious revivalism swept the world, implanting old superstitions into the minds of those who were killed and resurrected by the plague. Their brains no longer fully functional (which explains why they never thought to burn down the house where Neville hides out), they believed themselves to be damned creatures who must shun religious icons, and their self-loathing creates a hysterical blindness that prevents them from seeing their own reflection. (Matheson specifies that only Christian vampires fear the cross; for Jews, the Star of David does the trick.)
Neville befriends a dog that has somehow survived, but the creature turns out to be infected, and Neville is unable to cure it. The dog’s death is a turning point for Neville, after which he gives up even the illusion of hope for companionship. He resigns himself to facing life as it is, realizing that the vampires are not the formidable creatures of legend but a “highly perishable” race that can be defeated.
Two years later, Neville resembles a hermit who has stopped shaving and cutting his hair. He has neither hopes nor dreams, but his life is secure. His one diversion is hunting for Ben Cortman, a neighbor-turned-vampire who retains enough intelligence to avoid Neville’s efforts, realizing that he is being singled out for special attention.
Neville’s daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of Ruth, who runs away from him in fear (hardly surprising, considering his appearance). Neville catches and questions her, but her explanations for how she has managed to survive are not fully satisfying. When Neville tests her blood, he realizes that she is infected, and she knocks him out, leaving a note to explain that there are others like her – living vampires who have found a treatment that keeps them alive even though it does not cure the disease.
Ruth’s note warns Neville to leave before her comrades come back for him, but Neville stays. Six months later, the new society of living vampires shows up, wiping out the undead – including Cortman – and imprisoning Neville. The Last Man on Earth is to be executed for the murder of the many living vampries he killed (including Ruth’s husband), but Ruth slips him a poison so that he may escape the executioner’s noose. In his last moments, Neville realizes that the standard of normalcy is a majority concept: in the new world, he is the abnormal one, the lone monster who comes without warning to destroy loved ones without mercy. He is Legend.


Through experiments on the dead vampires he had discovered that the bacilli effected the creation of a powerful body glue that sealed bullet openings as soon as they were made. Bullets were enclosed almost immediately, and since the system was activated by germs, the bullet couldn’t hurt it. The system could, in fact, contain almost an indefinite amount of bullets, since the body glue prevented a penetration of more than a few fractiosn of an inch. Shooting vampires was like throwing pebbles into tar.

– from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

The strength of the novel lies chiefly in two areas: the characterization and the scientific approach to vampirism. Matheson takes a tired cliche, the stuff of old-fashioned Gothic tales, and morphs it into a modern, credible, science-fiction action-adventure story, loaded with thrills and horror. More than that, he gives us a memorable Everyman hero, a working class guy who rolls with the punches – and punches back. There is enough gun-play and other action so that one can easily imagine a young Clint Eastwood playing the part, but the character also has a thoughtful, introspective side – pretty much a necessity when you have no human companionship left.
Matheson does an impressive job of keeping the story going with only one character, who is called upon to act and think but seldom to discuss. Not only does he have no human comrades; the vampires are inarticulate. (The only words we hear from them are Cortman’s repeated refrain, “Come out, Neville!” – urging Robert to give himself up to the vampire throng surrounding his house.) A few flashbacks provide glimpses of how the world fell apart. Matheson captures Neville’s despair over having to throw his dead daughter into a pit where the dead are consigned to flames, in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. And the resurrection of Neville’s wife is a nice, traditional “horror” scene. Later, in the scenes with Ruth, the dialogue chews over some heavier material – regarding the relative merits of the emerging new society – without sounding too heavy-handed.
There are some mis-steps. Neville realizes early on that not all the vampires he hunts are dead, because some of the infected that he stakes are still breathing. Yet it never occurs to him to make any distinction between them, and the reader is left wondering why the novel makes the distinction at all – until the third act revelation regarding Ruth.
Decades before the AIDS epidemic, Matheson’s portrait of a group of people who are infected but able to live with the disease, thanks to some miraculous drug cocktail, seems prophetic. Yet for some reason, Matheson seems uncomfortable with the drug explanation for the new order of vampires and has Neville realize, after looking at Ruth’s blood under a microscope, that “bacteria can mutate” (into what is never explained – the idea is never developed further).
At times, the book reveals its age. Although Neville traverses large cross-sections of Los Angeles, his mind remains rooted in White Male Reality. There is not a hint of awareness about the ethnic nature of any of the neighborhoods he passes through. The one black character shows up for a two-paragraph flashback (providing a tiny piece of exposition) and promptly disappears: he isn’t even named; he is just “the Negro.” While discussing the question of whether a cross would frighten non-Christian vampires, the best word Matheson can muster for followers of Islam is Mohammedan, which sounds a bit awkward compared to Muslim.
No doubt unwittingly, Matheson also reveals the pitfalls of de-mystifying vampires: robbed of their satanic cache, they are not very frightening. The blood-suckers in I Am Legend are dangerous only because of their superior numbers, and even then Neville can often outmaneuver and outfight them. As individuals, the dead vampires are not particularly interesting. Only Cortman, who still has a glimmer of intelligence, stands out ever so slightly, but he is not likely to topple Count Dracula from the throne of Vampire King.
The real horror in the book is not the vampires per se; it is the existential dread of being alone, of realizing that one’s culture – the beliefs and assumptions that are an almost unconscious part of daily living – is ephemeral, a construct held in place by society, and if that society disappears, everything else disappears with it. Neville’s final revelation – that he is the monster in this new world order – strikes a knock-out blow to the reader with more impact than any philosophical treatise. The ending of the book opens wide your sense of wonder not to uplifting glories of a bountiful future but the unacknowledged emptiness lying beneath the veneer of civilization.


Despite the book’s cinematic potential, there has never been a great film adaptation of I Am Legend. The first, aborted attempt was for Hammer Films in England, but the British censor would not approve Matheson’s script. Fans can only shakes their heads in regret. The film was scheduled to be directed by Val Guest, and one suspects he would have delivered something along the lines of his two Quatermass movies, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS II – two black-and-white gems of science-fiction horror.
The first adaptation to make it all the way to the screen was 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Although relatively faithful to the novel, the film was hampered by an obviously low budget, and Vincent Price was seriously miscast in the lead, here named Robert Morgan. The film captures some of the gloom of the source material, particularly in scenes of Morgan disposing of his daughter’s body in the vast smoking pit where the dead plague victims are consigned.
The script, credited to Logan Swanson (Matheson’s pseudonym) and William F. Leicester, makes a couple interesting changes. Unlike Neville, Morgan is not a working class man but a scientist, presumably to make his study of the disease more believable. Also, Morgan makes frequent broadcasts on his ham radio, hoping to contact other survivors – something that the book’s Neville never considered. Most significantly, in the film, Neville is capable of effecting a cure by using his own blood – an unscientific piece of dramatic license that turns out to be rather pointless, since he is killed before his cure can do any good for the world at large.
Seven years later, Charlton Heston starred as THE OMEGA MAN (1971). Considering the action-thriller elements of the book, Heston was a better choice than Price to play the lead, here again named Neville, and the car chases, fisticuffs, and gunfire are handled well enough to make the film reasonably entertaining. The best sequence is probably the opening: instead of introducing us to Neville’s routine at home, we first seem him traveling the streets of empty downtown Los Angeles – a striking series of images – before realizing that the sun is low and he must return before dark.
Unfortunately, the script replaces the vampire element with mutants created by biological warfare, and the essential disturbing idea of the novel – that normality is changed and Neville is now the monster – is ignored in favor of a rather conservative approach, in which Neville (still a scientist as in LAST MAN ON EARTH but now also an officer in the army) remains the undisputed vestige of the old order, who will wipe out the new society and restore things to the way they once were.
As before, Neville is immune to the plague , but there is a difference: In the book and the previous film, the protagonist had been bitten by a bat with a weakened strain of the bacillus. In OMEGA MAN, Neville was the recipient of an experimental cure that arrived too late to save anyone else, but the potential cure remains in his blood. Taking the idea from LAST MAN ON EARTH one step further, OMEGA MAN has Neville’s blood provide the immunity that will save mankind and restore them to dominance of the planet.
In 2007, the most recent adaptation of the novel – and the first one to use its title – reached movie screens in the form of the big-budget I AM LEGEND, starring Will Smith. Despite the title, the film is as much a remake of THE OMEGA MAN as it is an adpatation of the novel. Again Neville is a doctor working in the military, who is first glimpsed on a lonely trek in a major city (this time New York). In a nod to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, he frequently broadcasts on the radio, hoping to contact other survivors, but many of the other elements are lifted from the Heston film. Again, we have mutants instead of vampires. (At least those in OMEGA MAN were articulate, mimicking the new society that emerged at the end of the novel; these mutants are merely videogame style rampaging monsters.) Also, in OMEGA MAN, Neville has a statue of Caesar to whom he speaks as if conversing with a friend; in LEGEND, Smith’s Neville has a small community of mannequins with whom he carries on conversations.
By far the best official version of the book, I AM LEGEND still falls short of its source material, thanks mostly to some unconvincing CGI mutants and a final act that borrows too much from OMEGA MAN, with Neville once again acting as the sacrificial martyr whose untainted blood will save the world. It’s too bad. The idea of a science-fiction vampire story is no longer new, but Matheson’s book still has the makings of a great movie, and with a few minor alterations to update the details, it could be translated to the screen virtually intact, without any Hollywood improvements. Instead of another UNDERWORLD or BLADE, the world could use another adaptation of Matheson’s novel – this time, one that stays true to the LEGEND.

Ray Bradbury on Adapting Melville's Allegorical Sea Monster, Moby Dick

Moby Dick is not an obvious choice of material for adaptation to the screen. Nor is Ray Bradbury the obvious choice to have collaborated with famed director John Huston on a sea-going adventure that had little appeal to Hollywood studio chiefs. The science fiction author’s prose work, filled with different combinations of nostalgia, atmosphere and a sense of wonder, has often defied adaptation to the screen; and more often than not, his subject has been the future rather than the past—unless that past involved dinosaurs. Nevertheless, Bradbury somehow found common ground with Herman Melville’s tale. For all the novel’s allegorical ambitions, the white whale Moby Dick evokes a terrifying sense of awe; he is a beast bigger than any dinosaur, a behemoth as powerful as any sea monster. And much more than that, he is an enigma, a symbol of the mystery of the universe, a literal embodiment (if Captain Ahab is correct) of evil.
How did Bradbury come, in the middle of the 20th century, to be scripting a 19-century story about a mad captain’s hunt for a white whale of almost mythical proportions?
“Years ago,” Bradbury recalls, “people said, ‘When are you going to write a screenplay?’ I said, ‘When John Huston asks me.’ I knew exactly who I wanted to work for, because I’d seen his films, and I loved The Maltese Falcon; I saw it fifteen times. I finally had the chance to meet him: I had dinner with him one night in 1951, and I gave him all my books. I said, ‘If you like these books half as much as I like your films, someday hire me.’ He wrote me from Africa, where he was filming African Queen, and said, ‘We’ll work together. I don’t know on what, but we’ll work on something someday.’ In August of 1953,I was down in Long Beach looking for dinosaur books with my friend Ray Harryhausen, and when I came home that night, my wife said, ‘John Huston called; he wants to see you.’ The next day I went to John Huston’s hotel; he put a drink in my hand; he sat me down, stood over me, and said, ‘Well, kid, what are you doing during the next year?’ I said, ‘Not much, Mr. Huston.’ He said, ‘How would you like to come to Ireland and write the screenplay for Moby Dick?’ I said, ‘Well gee, I’ve never been able to read that damn thing!’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go home tonight, read as much as you can; then come back tomorrow and tell me if you’ll help me kill the White Whale.’ I went home and said to my wife, ‘Pray for me.’ She asked why, and I said, ‘Because I have to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow!’ I read through the book, as much as I could, and saw the metaphors and discovered that I am essentially a 19th Century author, loving metaphors. I went the next day and took the job.”
What had Huston seen in Bradbury’s work that convinced him to hire the young writer? The author credits a single short story for getting him the job.
The 1954 film THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS was inspired by Bradbury's story 'The Foghorn,' which convinced John Huston to hire the author to adapt MOBY DICK.“I lived in Venice, California back in 1950,” Bradbury recalls, adding that he and his wife “walked along the shore one night and came upon the ruins of the old Venice peer, which had just been torn down; and the ruins of the roller-coaster were lying there in the sand, being covered by the wind and the water. I looked at the bones of the roller coaster and said to my wife, ‘I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here?’ My wife was very careful not to answer. The next night, I heard a sound and woke in the night. I looked out the window, and for ten miles down the coast there was nothing but wind and rain and sand. But a voice way out in the Santa Monica Bay called me; it was a foghorn, blowing over, and over, and over again. I said, ‘That’s it. The dinosaur is lying on the beach because it heard another dinosaur calling from a billion years, and it swam for an encounter with this other beast and discovered it was only a light house and a damn fog horn, and it tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart. So I sat down and wrote ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,’ which became ‘The Foghorn,’ which I gave to John Huston in a book. He read my description of the melancholy sound of the foghorn, and based on that one story, he gave me the job of writing MOBY DICK.” (NOTE: Bradbury’s short story is now usually anthologized under the title “The Foghorn,” to distinguish it from the feature film THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, which features a brief scene of the titular beast attacking a lighthouse—the only element the film and the story share in common.)
Bradbury moved his family to Ireland, where Huston lived at the time, and worked on the script for eight months. With 135 chapters, plus an Etymology, Epilogue and several pages of “Extracts,” Herman Melville’s novel was far from an ideal fit for a screenplay. Simply shoe-horning the narrative into a two-hour running time demanded the sacrifice of over three-quarters of the original text. Bradbury eliminated characters, combined elements of different chapters into single scenes, added new material, and changed many of the details. His first big decision was to eliminate Fedallah, Ahab’s Parsee confidant—a sort of Mephistophelean figure with no real characterization, whose function in the novel is almost totally symbolic.
“When we started, I said to John Huston two things: First, Can we throw Fedallah overboard? If you’ve read the book, you know Fedallah is a bore; he gets in the way. All the stuff that he does should be done by Ahab. John said, ‘Heave him overboard.’ So I threw him out. The second thing was, I said, ‘You must remember, during the screenplay and the film, to do the Shakespearean asides. This is the flesh of Melville; it’s very important. We’re doing a film of metaphor, so we have to have those moments of truth, which will speak to the audience, so they’ll know what’s going on from the soul’s midnight. I tried to find things in Melville to use constantly. We had to use the language as much as possible, to keep the Shakespearean flavor of Melville.”
Bradbury later wrote of his experiences in his episodic novel Green Shadows, White Whale (which is being republished this year). As Peter Viertel had previously done with White Hunter, Black Hear (written after working with Huston on The African Queen), Bradbury used his fictionalized version of reality to his relationship with director John Huston, who comes across as brilliant and talented, but sometimes cruel and abusive. Looking back on the experience today, Bradbury says that the relationship was not at all stormy or adversarial.
“We were both ignorant,” he says of grappling with the subject matter. “We were struggling against ourselves, not against each other, and when revelations came, it was wonderful. I must say, he was very patient with me. When I finished the first fifty-five pages, I gave them to John Huston and said, ‘Here’s the script so far. If you don’t like it, today is my last day of employment, because I don’t want to take money under false pretenses. If you don’t like it, fire me.’ He said, ‘Go upstairs and take a nap while I read it.’ So I went upstairs and took a nap—like hell I did! I lay in the bed sweating, waiting for some word from down stairs. At the end of an hour, I heard a voice calling up the stairs. I went and looked down at Huston, and he said, ‘Ray, come down and finished the screenplay.’ Well, I came down the stairs crying. I loved the project so much; it was such a relief to know that I was going to be able to finish.”
However, this was far from the last hurdle that the writer would have to leap. The film was something of a gamble for Huston, who had struggled for three years to get a Hollywood studio to back a film without a love interest or even a major female lead. “Eight weeks into writing the script, I was with Huston one afternoon when a telegram came from Warner Brothers in Hollywood,” Bradbury recalls. “It said, ‘Dear John, Insist that a woman’s part be written into the screenplay, or we cannot proceed with the productions. Jack Warner.’ I took this telegram, threw it on the ground; I jumped on it and called it all sorts of horrible names that I can’t repeat. In the middle of my jumping on the telegram, I looked up. Huston was rolling on the floor with laughter—he had sent the telegram himself!”

Jokes aside, there was plenty of hard work that went into the script. “It took seven months of reading and re-reading this book,” explains Bradbury. “You can’t intellectualize about adapting anything. You’ve got to really absorb it into your bloodstream. Then you begin to dream about it and think on a deeper level. After seven months of excruciating agony—there were times I wanted to kill myself, I didn’t know a damn thing about Melville when we started, and I discovered John Huston didn’t know anything, either—at the end of seven months, I got out of bed one morning and said, ‘I am Herman Melville.’ I ran to my typewriter and in eight hours of passionate typing, I finished the screenplay in one day—thirty-five pages, the whole ending of the film. I ran across Dublin with the screenplay and threw it in John Huston’s lap. I said, ‘There, I think it’s finished.’ He read it and said, ‘My god, I think it is; let’s roll the cameras. What happened?’ I said, ‘Behold, Herman Melville stands before you. But hurry up, because he’s leaving in five minutes.’ So that’s the way you write a screenplay of a book like this. I would like to think that if the ghost of Melville had seen this, he would find some of these [changes] okay. I don’t believe in running amok on people’s work; I try to find the essence.”
Inevitably, what emerged in 1956 was not a transcription but a condensation of Melville. And yet, despite the liberties taken with what many consider to be the closest thing to the proverbial “Great American Novel,” the film somehow manages to stand on its own feet (although, considering the subject matter, the metaphor should perhaps read “swim with its own flukes”). If there were any doubts that Huston and Bradbury made the right choices, these were put to rest by the 1998 television adaptation, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. With a running time of 180 minutes, writers Anton Diether and Franc Roddam (who also directed) could retain more of Melville, and yet what emerged was curiously lifeless—like the well-preserved subject of an embalming, it captured the appearance but not the soul of its subject. Seen from this perspective, Huston’s MOBY DICK stands alongside Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA as an example of a film that honors its source material with far greater artistic merit than the subsequent attempt at a “faithful” adaptation.

Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) grapples with his mortal enemy.

Just what is that mysterious essence of Moby Dick that Bradbury captured? What is the secret that lies behind “The Whiteness of the Whale” (as Melville titled one chapter)? “How many interpretations do you want?” Bradbury jokes. “We’re endowed with the gift of life. It’s a total mystery, and we try to make sense of it. We wake at night and say to ourselves, ‘This is incredible. We’re living on this world, and we don’t know how we got here.’ Scientists haven’t figured it out; they have theories, but they don’t know. The very existence of life is impossible. All the great religions have this mystery at their center, and Moby Dick is that mystery, and Ahab chooses to interpret that mystery in his way, and it’s not necessarily true. The mystery is not evil; it just is. And we are a mystery to ourselves. I feel this every day of my life. Moby Dick helped open this up to me.”
RELATED ARTICLES: Sons of Moby Dick – How the White Whale Spawned a School of Sea Monsters

Sons of Moby Dick: Melville's White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters

Moby Dick may seem an odd choice for inclusion in Cinefantastique. After all, if one were to categorize the novel, the obvious label would be Adventure – specifically, a high-seas adventure about whale hunting. However,  Herman Melville’s tale is awash with allegory and symbolism, much of it relevant to the horror genre. The book is too vast in its implications to be fully analyzed here; for our purposes it is enough to point out that its chief mystery is whether the White Whale is simply a dumb beast acting from instinct or, as Captain Ahab believes, an intelligent being acting from malevolence. In effect, Ahab’s quest for vengeance is propelled by the conviction that he is pursuing an evil monster, and one question raised by the book is: does evil actually exist, or do human beings mistakenly perceive evil when random events bring about misfortune? This question underlies many horror films, most notably THE EXORCIST. In that case, the debate is weighted in favor of the existence of evil because the phenomenon is preternatural; Moby-Dick, on the other hand, can be seen as the prototype for countless films wherein natural phenomena appear to act with deliberate malice (witness THE BIRDS or the opening of TWISTER, in which a tornado seems almost like an angry god plucking away a family’s helpless father for no good reason). More specifically, the White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters that have bedeviled ocean-going humans almost since the beginning of cinema.
Unfortunately, most of these descendants occupy a low rung on the pop-culture ladder, borrowing little of Melville’s metaphysics and reducing what is borrowed to the level of a simple plot device. To wit: no matter how fearsome and threatening a large animal may be to a lone victim, an organized group with the right weapons would have no problem exterminating the beast, unless it were somehow capable of avoiding their modern firepower; therefore, tales of monstrous sharks, orcas, and even snakes almost inevitably imbue the animals with at least a rudimentary intelligence that enables them to outwit their human opponents. The philosophical implications of this are seldom explored; it is enough that intelligence makes the beasts more threatening and therefore more in need of being destroyed.

The first two on-screen descendants of Moby-Dick were loose adaptations starring John Barrymore: both THE SEA BEAST (1926) and its sound remake MOBY DICK (1930) abandoned much of the novel in favor of adding a love story. Over two decades later, John Huston directed a more faithful, though still condensed, version. His MOBY DICK (1956) is notable for trying to use the visual medium, especially color, to convey the essence of Melville; but Gregory Pecks performance as Ahab has come under fire, even from the actor, who considered himself miscast (he thought Huston should have cast him as Starbuck and played Ahab himself).
Meanwhile, the science-fiction genre was getting into the act in the early ‘50s. Prior to Huston’s adaptation, two Ray Harryhausen films featured sea monsters dredged up from the depths by atomic bomb testing. In both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1954), complex considerations of the problem of evil are abandoned in favor of a simple metaphor: the monsters are living embodiments of the dangers of nuclear power. Still, BEAST gave credit for its inspiration to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” and something about the prehistoric reptile rising from the depths was evocative enough for John Huston to have Bradbury collaborate with him on the script for MOBY DICK.
One possible (albeit a simple) interpretation of Melville’s novel is that Moby Dick is not a monster at all but simply an innocent animal relentlessly pursued by a madman projecting his own mania onto a living tabula rasa. In fact, before the Pequod encounters the White Whale, previous accounts of Moby Dick have him swimming with others of his kind, implying that his previous “attacks” on whaling vessels may have actually been attempts to defend his species against human aggressors. This sympathetic interpretation of nature, versus the wickedness of humanity, is not pushed very far in the Harryhausen films: whatever set them off in the first place, the rhedosaur and the octopus are lone beasts that inspire little or no sympathy. That changed with GORGO (1960).

The materanl sea beast rises from the waves to seek her off-spring.

In this film, the sea beast comes to represent an archetypal force guaranteed to evoke human sympathy: mother love. The point is emphasized by the fact that there are no important female characters in the story (outside of the mammoth maternal monster that destroys half of London to save her offspring). The humans, like the crew of the Pequod, are men apparently cut off from the society of women. Interestingly, the lead character (played by Bill Travers) unofficially adopts an orphaned boy, much as Ahab took Pip under his wing. Assuming this feminine role of surrogate mother ultimately redeems the character when he abandons his greedy, masculine hopes of exploiting the beast for profit and instead risks his life to rescue the boy. (The maternal instinct of prehistoric monsters was later exploited by Steven Spielberg in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, but the effect was considerably diminished.)
The theme of the giant sea beast that represents nature’s revenge was developed further in the Godzilla films. The series started off fairly closely modeled after BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, before mutating into juvenile camp. However, when the franchise re-booted in 1985, the sequels re-imagined the conception, changing Godzilla from a malevolent monster (as in his 1954 debut) to something resembling an implacable natural disaster. There was a twist, however, because Godzilla, unlike Moby Dick, is not a force of nature per se; rather, he once was a natural animal, but now he has been mutated by human science. Therefore,  it makes little sense to adopt an Ahab-like vendetta against the creature, who is, ultimately, a living embodiment of man-made catastrophe, like the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl.
Beginning with GODZILLA 1985, several films delt with this theme, featuring revenge-crazed characters seeking retribution against the radioactive reptile in response to the death of a friend or a comrade in arms: GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRAS (2001), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (2002). Like Ahab, the humans tended to fail in their attempts to destroy the beast, but they sometimes learned the error of their ways, realizing that personal vengeance was pointless when mankind was ultimately to blame for Godzilla. As interesting as the concept is, it was seldom if ever developed to its full potential. Godzilla is certain awesome and mysterious enough to fill in for Moby Dick, but none of the human characters attained anything close to the stature of a Captain Ahab.
Sticking a little closer to Melville, Peter Benchley launched a whole subgenre with the publication of Jaws, which led to the blockbuster film and countless rip-offs (TENTACLES, CLAWS, GREAT WHITE, etc). Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) is clearly intended as a pop riff on Moby Dick (with a little of An Enemy of the People thrown in). The Melville connection is even clearer in the book, wherein shark hunter Quint is dragged to his death, like Ahab, by a harpoon line attached to the swimming menace, but in both book and film the shark’s predations defy the instinctive behavior expected from the species, leaving one to wonder if something more than an unconscious killing machine is at work.

The White Shark rises from the depths.

This idea is taken a step further (to amusing but ridiculous extremes) in JAWS IV: THE REVENGE (1987), in which a new Great White seems to be taking personal revenge against the family of the man who killed the sharks in the first two films. The revenge theme was also present in ORCA (1977), although here the implication is that the Richard Harris character may deserve to be persecuted by the mate of a killer whale he harpooned. It is interesting to note that both JAWS IV and ORCA reverse the MOBY DICK formula, casting the sea creature as the instrument of vengeance.

A rather silly but well-photographed TV movie emerged in 1978, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. The telefilm bares a passing resemblance to Moby Dick, in its tale of a humongous sea turtle responsible for the mysterious shipwrecks in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle.” The whole thing is boring as hell, but the Gamera-wannabe is a hoot, and Carl Weathers winds up dragged to his death, tangled in a harpoon line, just like Ahab and Quint before him. (This seems to be the only film to use the death described by Melville: Quint is swallowed by the shark in the JAWS film; and both Huston’s adaptation and the recent USA Cable mini-series of MOBY DICK have Ahab meeting his demise while lashed to the side of the whale.)
From turtles to snakes: SPASMS (1983) and ANACONDA (1997) may not seem related to Moby Dick, but there is a connection. Both feature serpents that are big, but neither one is so unnaturally large as to be a “monster.” So the question is: why cannot the characters just capture the damned thing and put it in a zoo? This is where the Moby-Dick syndrome comes in: to make them more threatening, the snakes are portrayed as if capable of strategizing, and there is a lot of supernatural hooey about their serpent gods. In the end both are dispatched by conventional means such as guns and explosives (although that was not enough to prevent a sequel title ANACONDAS, which seemed to overlook that the first film had already contained more than one anaconda).
Benchley returned to sea monsters with Beast and White Shark, which were adapted into mini-series entitled THE BEAST (1996) and CREATURE (1998). Interestingly, these works refute the apparent evil of the shark in JAWS, which is dismissed as an inaccurate piece of Hollywood nonsense. In THE BEAST, Will Dalton (William Petersen) argues that people have no right to hunt the giant squid, because it is the fishing industry’s depopulation of the seas that has driven the Beast from its usual hunting grounds and into contact with humans. White Shark, meanwhile, contains a Great White that is presented as a dangerous but endangered species that out to be preserved, not hunted to extinction.
This sub-genre came full circle with the 1998 TV version of MOBY DICK. What perhaps is most interesting about this mini-series is how easy it is to view the White Whale sympathetically today. Metaphysical implications take a backseat to the very real slaughter perpetrated against these animals; in this context, Moby Dick is less a symbol of a random universe that may only appear malevolent, than of poetic (perhaps even divine) vengeance against heartless harpooners pursuing a magnificent species nearly to extinction – an interpretation emphasized by Patrick Stewart’s public service announcements, at the end of each episode, on behalf of saving the whale. It’s less deeply disturbing than the ideas conjured up by the novel, but it does follow the course swum by many of Moby Dick’s descendants.
RELATED ARTICLES: Science-Fiction Author Ray Bradbury on Adapting “Moby Dick.”

Invasion of The Body Snatchers – Retrospective Book Review

Jack Finney’s nifty 1954 novel has four screen adaptations to its credit (including the acknowledged 1956 classic), but the original text still stands as a fine work in its own right, worthy of being read by fans of the films and by genre enthusiasts in general. Numerous incidents have never made the transition from page to screen; more important, Finney’s writing brings the story alive in a way that no screen adaptation can ever capture.
The story is set in the 1970s but feels more appropriates to the era in which the novel was actually published. Miles Bennell is a small town doctor who patients begin to believe their family and friends are impostors, even though they act – laugh, talk, and smile – exactly like the originals. Miles suspects they are suffering from some kind of delusion and refers them to the local psychiatrist, but gradually he learns that Mill Valley – a small town above San Francisco – has been invaded by pods from outer space. These pods grow into duplicates of any organic matter in close proximity; when the original falls asleep, the pod steals its memories and takes its place, destroying its predecessor. Miles and his girlfriend Becky fight to expose the menace, but the conspiracy is too big for them. Fortunately, the pods give up and leave anyway; Miles theorizes that he and Becky were not alone: other people in other places fought, too, and the pods eventually decided to abandon the inhospitable planet Earth in favor of easier pickings. Read More