I adore Ray Bradbury. I grew up reading the author’s works, but without truly honing in on the emotion and sense of wonder that the author infused in his writing until I was much older. The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The October Country all rank as not just my favorite Bradbury works, but my favorite works ever. But as someone who leans more toward out and out horror rather than sci-fi and fantasy, there are some books and short story collections by the author I never felt compelled to read — an example being The Martian Chronicles, as well as The Illustrated Man.
By the studio’s own synopsis, one would think that the film adaption strayed away from the heavier sci-fi leanings of the anthology of the same name, but that’s not the case. Though the wraparound story (featuring the titular character played by an excellent Rod Steiger) exists in a mid-1900s, middle-America environment, every tale spun by the illustrated man exists in a science-fiction or futuristic environment. Source material aside (again, I haven’t read it, so I don’t want to tick off the purists), the wraparound story doesn’t mesh well with the stories that are told. (For once, the wraparound story is actually the best part of the anthology.) A single story existing in the sci-fi world would have been one thing, but by the second story, the theme is established and it feels at odds with the film’s opener (and closer).
Steiger and Claire Bloom (who plays the illustrator witch in the wraparound) play all the lead roles in each story, and though they do a great job, it also lends itself to confusion — especially with the very subtle inference that some of the stories may or may not overlap. Sci-fi aspect aside, there’s another thing that all the stories have in common, and it’s one very unexpected, and that’s a slight hint of sexuality. Steiger’s carnival drifter becoming attracted to Bloom’s witch and undergoing his body transformation in hopes to sleep with her is just one example, but each story includes something akin to this. I’m not sure what it all means, to be honest.
If there’s one reason to watch The Illustrated Man, it’s for Rod Steiger. He’s a blast to watch, and manages to play an intimidating, authoritative figure in every tale. His dominating performance anchors every segment, and there’s an interesting dichotomy in place in that, though every character is supposed to be different, Steiger’s approach seems purposely similar in each, suggesting that maybe all of them are him in some way. And if there was anyone with the audacity to attempt such a thing, it would be Bradbury.
Surprisingly, Bradbury hasn’t been adapted for film as much as you’d think (the most recent was HBO’s mind-bogglingly reckless and disrespectful Fahrenheit 451), given his large body of work and Hollywood’s tendency to adapt cult and horror authors. For reference, Stephen King is already starting to lap himself, racking up two adaptations, or more, per novel or novella. I can’t imagine that those Bradbury fans who enjoy or prefer his science-fiction writing won’t enjoy The Illustrated Man, but for me I was hoping for something a little more “supernatural” (as promised by the tagline).
The Illustrated Man is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archives.