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Don’t you ever call them tattoos!

The Illustrated Man

(SPOILERS) I’d been blissfully unaware The Illustrated Man didn’t have a great rep. And that Ray Bradbury – not that authors/originators necessarily ought to be looked to as arbiters of the quality of adaptations of their work – thought it stank. I was quite taken with it on the occasion I first saw it – which must be upwards of thirty years ago – and this revisit confirmed many of the qualities I recognised in it then. To a degree, it’s little more than a pretentious, SF twist on then popular portmanteau horrors, but its conceits, likely the same ones Bradbury didn’t like, lend The Illustrated Man an eerie resonance.

Carl: Don’t you look at these illustrations too long, cos they’ll come alive and they’ll tell you stories.

Inevitably, adherents of the book tend towards a unified front in denouncing the adaptation, but what did they expect? Eighteen stories couldn’t be done justice in a movie; you might argue for an over-priced Netflix anthology – Zack Snyder was attached to a new movie version at one point, and I’m sure aficionados breathed an audible sigh of relief when it fell silent – but I rather like the phantasmagorical, non-literal suggestions Howard B Keitsek’s screenplay makes.

One might claim they make a nonsense of it all – Rod Steiger’s Carl, Clair Bloom’s Felicia and Robert Drivas’ Willie appear variously in stories that come alive through Carl’s tattoos, I mean “skin illustrations” – but the picture appears to be struggling towards a theme of entwined destinies across the ages, not so very far from Cloud Atlas. The stories depicted may not be real – “Each person who tries to see beyond his own time must face the questions to which there cannot yet be absolute answers” warns Felicia – but mad Carl appears convinced his tattooist, I mean “skin illustrator”, comes from the future (“She went back into the future, beyond her own time”).

Jack Smight might not have been the most creative of directors, but he achieved a respectable run in the ’60s (Harper, Kaleidoscope) that gave way to fare more defining of his skillset (Airport 1975 and Midway, both big hits). He’d struck up a relationship with Steiger on the previous year’s No Way to Treat a Lady (adapted from a William Goldman novel), and the actor met with Bradbury’s approval. Some find Rod insufferable here, but I tend to appreciate a fine ham, and Steiger at his best (In the Heat of the Night, A Fistful of Dynamite, The Loved One) can make it a virtue.

He shows up glowering, ranting and raging, but his intimidating presence does a lot of the movie’s heavy lifting, offsetting the viewer, who naturally falls into identifying with Drivas’ itinerant novice. The framing material is the stuff of classic portmanteau; there has to be an “Oh!” twist to lead us out, so Willie sees himself being killed by Carl when stares at the uninked area on Carl’s shoulder blade. As a result, attempting to forestall the inevitable, Willie brains the sleeping artwork with a rock and pegs it, beside himself, but it’s quickly revealed he failed in his task; Carl sets off, T-600 like, in pursuit.

The three tales are all variant SF futures with a sting in the tail. Again, Smight’s imagination has been impugned here, but I’m more than happy to wallow in the very ’60s futurism of moulded white-plastic sets and jumpsuits, particularly when it’s refracted through a fantasy veneer. Tom Milne, in a positive Time Out take, suggested Smight was referencing the Garden of Eden and Cain & Abel in the recurrent fittings for the leads, while the trio of stories “all hinge obliquely on the betrayal of love, with sometimes one character, sometimes another, becoming the victim”. They are also, however, profoundly dystopian futures, regardless of the spiffy trappings.

Star Trek’s Federation is something to be dreaded, not demanded. In The Veldt, a couple’s children are equipped with a nursery allowing “free involvement” in an instantaneous atmosphere (manifested as an African veldt, complete with lions and vultures). However, the family’s counsellor warns the system is dangerous, that the children “aren’t releasing destructive thoughts… they’re embracing them”. This environment is one of inherent artifice; the house is a sealed bubble, and “Everything’s done for us”, be it food, sleep or sex.

Globalism is most definitely not a solution, such that there are “stupid labour laws” dictating one “can’t work for more than six months of the year, so you mustn’t upset the great planned global balance of economy”. Although they remain together, the essence of the family unit is fractured and dysfunctional. None of the individuals – children, wife, husband – are able to observe their designated roles. The room itself takes on the characteristic of a virtual-reality tulpa, thought forms enabled to act on the participant; “The room will hate you if you kill it” warn the kids. The counsellor discovers the lions have devoured their parents when he arrives, the children left entirely undisturbed by the massacre. One can’t help but read into this a very current anaesthetised, plugged-in VR mindset, although Bradbury doubtless had TV more exclusively on his mind.

The Long Rain offers a very verisimilitudinous, drenched studio alien planet in which crash-landed space travellers are subjected to endless torrents or rain, so merciless it drives them mad, deaf or suicidally drowns them. Carl’s captain is at loggerheads with Willie, who understandably resents having been led in a circle for seven days, back to their crashed (and contaminated) spaceship. They’re seeking respite from the downpour in one of the 130 sundomes – provided, naturally, by the Unified States of Earth – across the planet, but it’s only when he is alone at the end that Carl comes across one. Whether he does or not is perhaps questionable, since it’s occupied by a come-thither Felicia.

The Last Night of the World delivers an inversion of The Veldt’s parricide. Once again, it’s the unified globe that holds sway, as the Council of the World forum has decreed, following a vision of the end of the Earth to take place that night, that all children are to be euthanised, so sparing them potential trauma (“Will it be sudden? Will it be lingering?”) The events of the gas cloud of 4187, which decimated the population, are noted in support of the proposed action. When Felicia awakes, clearly not dead, she rushes to her distraught husband. She’s too late. He has gone ahead with the terrible deed. Doubtless Frank Darabont had this in mind when he conjured a “better” ending to Stephen King’s The Mist.

The ellipses and sense of fractured time here made me wonder at the feast Nicolas Roeg might have made of the same material. Bradbury complained of Smight’s film "There was no screenplay" and noted François Truffaut had been unable to secure the financing to adapt it prior to making Fahrenheit 451. When interviewer Chris Hicks suggested that would have been wonderful, Bradbury replied "Don't break my heart". But again, devotees were sure to have been disappointed. Chances are, when translating between mediums.

Willie: I’m sorry. I never saw a dog in a bag.

Ray did think Steiger was good in The Illustrated Man, underlining that any opinion is as subjective as they come. I’d suggest the star performance – all three leads are good (Bloom was Steiger’s wife at the time) – is undeniably Pogo the Pomeranian, whom Carl has been carrying around in a bag and refers to as a Pekinese. How this hound didn’t have a bright and shiny, coke-fuelled, glitterball-bedazzled career ahead of him, yet The Littlest Hobo ran for six seasons (eight if you include its earliest incarnation), is mystifying.

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