I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury’s work by ‘Nobby’ Jones, my English teacher, when I was thirteen years old. Up until that point, no literature had moved me. We read the classic short story A Sound of Thunder, which opened up a fissure in my philosophically barren mind. A couple of years later, I watched the movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man, and once I found out it was based on a Bradbury novel, I vowed to read it. Thirty-odd years later...
The Illustrated Man is essentially sixteen science fiction short stories of varying tone, from the morality tale of The Other Foot, to the light-hearted The Rocket, to the creepy Zero Hour, and the rather pointless The Last Night of the World. The stories are top ‘n’ tailed by the brief encounter between the narrator and the illustrated man of the title. The short stories are ‘seen’ by the narrator in the weirdly hypnotic tattoos – skin illustrations – that cover the man’s entire body.
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The premise of seeing stories unfold in the skin illustrations is fabulous, but unlike the movie, the two characters have no interaction between viewings - we just get the sixteen stories, one after another. This makes the unevenness of the stories seem odd; they don’t feel like they’re from the same collection. This could be explained away if the narrator describes the unevenness of each illustration he sees before they begin to move. A missed opportunity, in my view.
Nevertheless, there are some stand-out stories. The Veldt, which features in the movie, tells the story of the misuse of technology and children out of control; The Long Rain (also filmed) gives the reader the drowning claustrophobia that visiting astronauts suffer on a rainy planet; The Rocket is a heart-warming tale of a man who buys a full-size rocket at the expense of his business, modifying it to make his children believe they go on the journey of a lifetime; The Visitor shows man’s selfishness and greed in action when a group fight over a mysterious man who can give them their dreams.
|'I can feel 'em squirmin', movin' on my back' (image: imdb.com)|
Bradbury uses a simple, easy-to-read style of narrative that allows the reader to engage quickly with each story. There are times when you have to make allowances for the outmoded ‘future’ technologies and scientific ideas – the book was written in 1952, after all. There are some excellent dialogue exchanges, and a fair turn of phrase; including ‘back to the future’. Bradbury comes up with a few truly great concepts – some of the stories would have made brilliant Star Trek episodes a decade-and-a-half later. I'm sure Kaleidoscope inspired the ending to John Carpenter's Dark Star.
For me though, this is a rare case when the movie trumps the novel – just. The movie has two things in its favour: one is the increased storyline of the illustrated man and the narrator (Willie in the movie), and the other is Rod Steiger, who brings the character of the illustrated man to life like no other actor could have. However, the book does have more stories (sixteen, against three in the film). If I were to adapt The Illustrated Man, it would have to be a six-hour miniseries at the very least.
The Illustrated Man is a recommended read. It was written during the golden age of science fiction, but is far more literary than the ‘pulp’ novels at that time. I also recommend the movie. Steiger was awarded an Oscar two years before making The Illustrated Man, and you can see why.