A LOOK AT ROBERT BLOCH’S NOVELIZATION OF THE 1983 FILM
Review by Brian Durant
In the years following the initial run of The Twilight Zone, there were numerous attempts to bring Rod Serling’s celebrated anthology series to the big screen. Serling himself attempted to get a feature-length project off the ground several times but was never successful. In 1982, Steven Spielberg, fresh off the massive success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. (1982), announced that he had secured the rights for a feature-length film adaptation of the series. Of all the names that had been associated with a possible Twilight Zone film or revival series over the years, Spielberg’s seemed the most appropriate. He appeared to have a great admiration for fantasy and science fiction and his first big break into the industry came in 1969 when he directed the “Eyes” segment of Serling’s Night Gallery pilot film. He also directed Serling’s “Make Me Laugh” for the first season of the show the following year. In 1971, he achieved another high point in his early career when he directed a feature-length version of Richard Matheson’s story Duel for NBC. The television special, which starred Twilight Zone alumni Dennis Weaver, was enormously successful and when asked about the film in interviews Matheson always said it was among his favorite film adaptations. Given his unprecedented popularity and the confidence of key figures from the original series like Serling and Matheson, Spielberg seemed the obvious choice to helm such a project.
He enlisted friend and filmmaker John Landis to co-produce the film with him. The film would be split into four half-hour segments. One of the segments would be an original story and the other three would be adaptations of episodes from the original series. Landis volunteered to write and direct the original segment and also an opening prologue. Spielberg chose George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can” for his segment. “It’s a Good Life,” adapted for the show by Serling from a story by Jerome Bixby, was given to director Joe Dante. And George Miller was given the task of directing Richard Matheson’s classic psychological thriller “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Matheson was the natural choice to pen the remainder of the screenplay, sharing screen credit for “Kick the Can” with friend and original writer George Clayton Johnson and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison (under the pseudonym “Josh Rogan”). The score would be arranged by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose music for the original series had been an enormous influence on the show. The film would also feature a handful of actors from the original series with the great Burgess Meredith stepping in as narrator, an obvious choice. With what felt like all of the right people for the job, Twilight Zone: The Movie was sure to be a commercial and creative success.
The resulting film is considered one of the most regretful chapters in the history of Hollywood. The accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6) during the shooting of Landis’s segment cast an ominous shadow over the entire production and caused Warner Brothers to severely limit promotion of the film. The film performed poorly at the box office and was generally not a success among critics. The special effects were too extravagant, as was the majority of Goldsmith’s score, and the sets were ridiculously over-the-top in every way, not at all like the modest sets of the original episodes. Many fans also did not care for the drastic changes to “Kick the Can” and “It’s a Good Life.” The silver lining of the film was a handful of great performances especially from Vic Morrow and John Lithgow. While there were good things to be said of the film, it was clear that the filmmakers didn’t understand Serling’s vision for the original series.
A lesser known but more enjoyable version of the film came in July of 1983 in the form of Robert Bloch’s novelization of the movie published by Warner Books. Unlike many film novelizations, which are often assigned to unknown or unsuccessful writers for much less than it would cost to hire an established name, Bloch was a prolific and highly-regarded writer of speculative fiction and a Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe Award winner as well as the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Convention. Among his many books are the novels Night World (1972), American Gothic (1974), and The Night of the Ripper (1984). His novel Psycho (1959) was the basis for the Hitchcock film and he wrote numerous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Star Trek, and Night Gallery. Bloch was a close friend of Matheson and of George Clayton Johnson.
The novelization is only available as a mass market paperback and would have cost American fans $2.95 when it was first released in 1983. It's not actually a novel-as the title page says it is-but a collection of four distinctly individual stories which have no overlapping characters or settings. It’s roughly 200 pages with each segment clocking in around 50 pages. It features a middle insert containing black and white photographs from the film. Other than that the book is relatively bare bones. There is no introduction or afterword and also no celebrity quotes anywhere on the book with the exception Serling’s opening narration from the second season of the show on the back cover. The book was also released in several international markets.
When first opening the book several changes are immediately noticeable. First, none of the stories contain opening or closing narrations, a trademark of the original series which is also featured in the movie and in both revival series. The stories are also given titles, where as in the film they are referred to only as “segments.” Each story bears the name of its main character. Readers will also notice that the order of the stories is different than it is in the films. The second and fourth segments are switched making the order:
1.) “BILL” (Segment I)
2.) “VALENTINE” (Segment IV)
3.) “HELEN” (Segment III)
4.) “BLOOM” (Segment II)
According to Bloch he was given an early draft of the screenplay and this was the order in which the segments appeared. This order actually shifts the tone of the book with each story slightly more hopeful than the one before it ending the book on a soft note with Bloch’s version of “Kick the Can.” He also said that the version he was given did not contain either the opening prologue—the driving sequence with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks—or the ending gag with Aykroyd in the ambulance.
As a result of the tragic accident that occurred while filming the opening segment, Landis was forced to rewrite his screenplay. Originally written, Vic Morrow’s character redeems himself by saving the lives of two Vietnamese children from an air strike. Since they did not have all of the footage they needed Landis re-wrote the story the way it appears in the film. Bloch was also asked to re-write part of the first story to reflect how it appears onscreen. “Bill” is pretty faithful to Landis’s screenplay with some minor scenes added to flesh out the story. For instance, the story opens with Bill Conner driving to the bar, agitated and swearing, swinging in and out of five o’clock traffic. We learn a bit more about his character as well, like, for instance, that he is a salesman—no surprise—and that he has a wife—slightly more surprising. The chase montage is also a little longer with Conner briefly returning to the other time periods after the Vietnam sequence before ending up in Nazi Germany as he does in the film. Other than that the story is much the same as its big screen counterpart.
Out of all of the stories this one is probably the most faithful to the screen version. Bloch’s version is almost identical to Matheson’s in terms of action, although he includes a lot of Valentine’s internal monologue at the beginning of the story, something hard to explore on the screen. As I mentioned, there is no ambulance scene. The story ends with the crew noticing the mangled engine. Bloch’s version is highly enjoyable. Valentine comes across as an outlandish but believable and sympathetic character. For fans of any of the previous versions of Matheson’s 1962 story I would recommend giving this one a read. This is probably the best story in the book.
This is probably the worst story in the book. Not terrible but definitely the weak spot of the novelization although this is not so much Bloch’s fault as it is Matheson and Dante's. Bloch opens with a scene not featured in the film. Helen Foley is attending her mother’s funeral in Homewood, her home town. She has a sister, Vivian, whom she is wildly resentful of because Vivian is ignorant and weak, but also because she is pretty, a trait that has gotten her through most of her life. Helen, a teacher, is disgruntled with her job and no longer feels connected to her home town. The scene is several pages long and ends with her talking to her sister while she waits for her mother’s funeral to end so she can skip town.
The next scene features Helen on her way to her new life in Willoughby, punk rock blasting from her car radio. Her internal dialogue races wildly here as she reflects on how despondent kids have become and their obsessions with loud music and video games. This is kind of an early reference to punk rock and to video games, both of which were still relatively clandestine forms of entertainment in 1983. The scene is written well and adds a depth to Helen’s character although the social commentary feels more like Bloch’s than Helen’s.
The rest of the story follows Matheson’s script pretty faithfully. The extra material is interesting and gives Helen, who comes off a bit dull onscreen, a complex personality. Its purpose is likely to explain the ludicrous ending in which Helen promises to teach Anthony how to stop being an omnipotent psychopath and in return he makes pretty flowers bloom for her on the side of the road. Helen no longer feels joy as a teacher. She doesn’t feel as if she is impacting the lives of her students the way she had hoped. She sees Anthony as a broken child who feels unloved and disconnected from everyone, someone just as lost as she is. In agreeing to be his mentor she hopes to also fix herself in the process. The screenplay has never been commercially released, although there are bits and pieces of it floating around the internet. It would be interesting to see if this material was included in Matheson’s screenplay or if it is Bloch’s invention.
On a side note, at one point Serling intended to adapt Bixby’s story into a feature-length film and even completed a full-length screenplay for it before the project stalled.
This is probably the story which varies the most from the film version. George Clayton Johnson felt that his original teleplay was a bit irresponsible in that it failed to portray the reality of the situation. Who was going to take care of these children now? Where would they live? Who would feed them? After being asked if he would be interested in selling the screen rights to Warner Brothers for a film adaptation of his Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can,” Johnson submitted a short, three-page outline to Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy of Amblin Entertainment. The outline contained an additional sequence which began where the original story ended, with the kids running off into the woods. It follows the kids on their adventure through the woods, running and laughing and soaking in the joy of youth. As the excitement fades they become hungry and tired and frightened. They begin to realize the consequences of their actions. They stumble upon the rest home, unfamiliar to them now, and climb into the warm beds where they are transformed back into their older selves. Matheson kept Johnson’s idea but condensed it for time, eliminating the scenes of the children in the woods. Unbeknownst to Matheson, after he submitted his final draft Spielberg gave it to screenwriter Melissa Mathison for revision. Spielberg had just worked with Mathison on E.T. and felt that she could give the story a softer, whimsical quality. She didn’t change the plot structure much but she did place heavy emphases on Mr. Bloom’s supernatural abilities. In Bloch’s version—and presumably Matheson and Johnson’s—the magic is still a bit ambiguous although it is assumed that Bloom does have something to do with it. She also rewrote the scene with the children, saturating it with syrupy-sweet dialogue and cheap visual gimmicks. This, in combination with Jerry Goldsmith’s overly-sentimental music, Scatman Crother’s very awkward performance, the archetypal supporting characters, and Spielberg’s unusually whimsical direction, makes this the worst segment of the film. Matheson and Johnson were both unhappy with it.
Bloch’s version also features a dream montage which occurs just before Bloom wakes everyone to go play outside. In it, Bloch goes inside the minds of nearly every character to give the reader a glimpse into their dreams. Mrs. Dempsey dreams of her late husband. Mr. Agee imagines himself as Douglas Fairbanks, fighting crime in Sherwood Forrest. Mr. Mute dreams of mole rats. Mr. Weinstein wonders whether Mr. Bloom is crazy or not but figures it doesn’t matter either way. The sequence is a nice touch and helps to segue into the “magic” scene which follows.
Bloch took an almost unwatchable segment of the film and turned it into a highly enjoyable story. His version feels fresh and full of energy. He keeps the pace lively with his signature brand of tongue-in-cheek humor but manages to hold on to the warm nostalgia of Johnson’s original story. It comes recommended.
It’s not a book that is going to change lives. It has flaws and its share of negative reviews. But after having it on my shelf for several years I finally decided to give it a read and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. So if you are a fan of either the show or the movie I would definitely recommend picking up a copy. It still sells for relatively cheap on Amazon and eBay and finding a copy at a used bookstore or library sale is still fairly common. If you don’t like it you will not have wasted much money and you will own a cool piece of pop culture that any diehard Twilight Zone fan would appreciate.
If you’ve read Bloch’s novelization feel free to comment and let us know what you thought!
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:
Internet Speculative Fiction Database.
Archive of American Television: