Ray Bradbury Theater: A Sound of Thunder

Episode 24

First aired 11 August 1989

Production Credits Synopsis Review

"A Sound of Thunder"

The short story first appeared in Collier's, June 28 1952.

Its first book appearance was in The Golden Apples
of the Sun
(1953).

 

Bradbury on "A Sound of Thunder"

"...one day...I said to myself, 'This is the day, I'm going to sit down and write myself a story about dinosaurs'...let's form a safari... I've always been interested in people like Frank Buck and Martin Johnson and his wife, when I was a child, and going to Africa. So let's make up a safari in time and send them back to hunt a dinosaur

...and three hours later the story was completed."

Ray Bradbury, introduction to "A Sound of Thunder", Fantastic Tales of Ray Bradbury (Listening Library, 1986).

 

Production Credits

Directed by Costa Botes

Cast:

Eckles - Kiel Martin
Travis - John Bach

Agent - Micheal McLeod
Hunters - Micheal Batley, John McDavitt

Synopsis

(Note: in Bradbury's story, the lead character is called Eckels. In the closing credits of this episode - the only time we see the name written down - the character's name is spelled Eckles.)

On the day that Deutscher, a fascist candidate, loses an election, Eckles arrives at Time Safari Inc. He is shown photos of dinosaurs, and promised that they are real - taken only yesterday. He is impressed by the picture of a T. Rex, "the biggest damned carnivore in history."

Eckles is taken to meet Travis, the safari guide. He will show Eckles what to shoot and when. There are penalities for shooting without permission. Travis demands Eckles's biographical computer card. Putting it in a scanner, he calls up images of zebra and rhino. Eckles is a hunter, and not just of legal game. Eckles claims to have shot everything in the world. He says he is bored, and that is why he has come to Time Safari Inc.

Travis makes Eckles choose a weapon. He picks the biggest. Travis asks if Eckles wrote a book about dinosaurs. "Mere fantasy", he replies. Travis gets Eckles to sign a waiver, absolving Time Safari Inc of all responsibility for what may happen on the forthcoming hunt.

Travis, Eckles and two other hunters head for the time machine which will take them back sixty million years. It is a sphere which begins to spin as they travel back.

They arrive in a jungle. A pathway extends outward from the sphere. Travis explains that they must not leave the path at any time: "If you fall off, there's a penalty". Travis explains that they must not harm so much as a roach, as even the smallest creature may be an important link in the species. "So?" asks Eckles.

As they step out on the path, Travis explains further. An impatient Eckles contemptuously sums up Travis' explanation as "Keep off the grass!"

Travis explains that they can only shoot animals with no future - in this case, a T.Rex that has been marked with white paint, one that is due to die naturally anyway. They step forward and spy their prey.

"My god, it could reach up and grab the moon," says Eckles nervously. "Nobody can kill that. That can't be killed. We were fools to come!"

Seeing Eckles' fear, Travis tells him to turn around and go back to the time machine. Travis backs away, his eyes fixed on the dinosaur. As we walks back, he steps off the path. Travis sees.

At this precise moment, the other hunters must shoot the T.Rex. Eckles, in panic, strafes the whole surroundings, hitting trees and the dinosaur itself. Seeing the dinosaur dead, Eckles looks pleased. Travis gives him a knife and tells him: "Dig 'em out". The bullets must not be left in the past.

Eckels gets on his knees and begins hacking away at the creature's dead flesh. One of the other hunters asks about the other bullets, and Travis offers a special bullet-removing magnet. "Why don't we use the magnet for these?" asks Eckles, hands covered in blood. Clearly, Travis is punishing Eckles.

Their work done, the party return to their time machine, and to the present day. They are greeted by a man who gives a Nazi salute. The Time Safari sign now reads "Tyme Safari". Travis goes to the reception desk and demands "Who won the election?" "What election?" asks the receptionist. "Deutscher is president".

Realising what must have happened, Travis drags Eckles onto a couch and lifts up his boot. Stuck to Eckles' boot is a dead butterfly. Travis lets it fall to the ground.

Travis pulls out a pistol, aims at Eckles' head, and fires.

Trivial Differences

  • the short story takes place in 2055; the date in the episode is never given

  • in the story, the hunters wear oxygen helmets when they travel to the past

  • in the story, there are five hunters in the party (Travis, Eckels, Lesperance, Billings, Kramer); in the episode there are only four

  • in the story, Travis says that no one knows for sure whether time can be altered, but it isn't worth taking a risk; in the episode, he presents it as unquestionable fact

  • in the story, the dinosaur is marked with red paint; in the episode it is white

  • in the story, it's not just Eckels who is upset by T.Rex: Billings and Kramer throw up after shooting it

  • in the story, the hunters are offered the chance to be photographed with their kill; they decline

  • in the story, Eckels alone is ordered to remove the bullets from T.Rex - Travis' way of punishing, challenging or humiliating him

  • in the story, there is only a subliminal feeling that history has changed when the hunters return: "there was a thing to the air. A chemical taint so subtle..." In the episode, the first thing the hunters see on their return is a Nazi!

  • in the story, it is Eckels himself who finds the butterfly, and who asks who won the election

Review

This is one of several episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater to be filmed in New Zealand. It is arguably one of the best episodes of the series, and certainly one of the most faithful adaptations of a Bradbury story.

Much of the credit of the episode must surely go to the director, Costa Botes, who also directed "The Dwarf" (one of Bradbury's least favourite episodes), "Tomorrow's Child" (one of my least favourite episodes) and "The Dead Man". Key moments of the story are rendered in purely visual terms, and the crucial closing scene with the butterfly is excellently staged and photographed.

This story has so many elements that could have turned sour in a low budget production. Look at what it needs: a futuristic USA; a tyrannosaurus rex; a Jurassic rain forest; a time machine. It doesn't quite convince with all of these, but it has a good shot at it.

Futuristic USA: it confines the action to two rooms, but makes artful use of a TV screen to convey the back story of a national election being won by the good guy.

T. Rex: look, this was before Jurassic Park, okay? Even if it had been made after Spielberg's blockbuster, there is no way that RBT could have afforded computer animation. Given that reality, a rubber monster is inevitable. But it's a pretty good rubber monster, made acceptable (for the most part) by keeping it mostly in the shadows. In fact, the most offensive special effect is not the dinosaur itself, but the incredibly crude split screen that is used to show hunters and prey in the same shot (see frame grabs, right).

Rain forest: New Zealand is known for its tree ferns, so we shoulnd't be too surprised to see a reasonably effective rain forest. It's only on second viewing that you realise that this is actually a pretty small soundstage. The dinosaur, of course, has to die when a tree falls on it. And here is a weakness in the visualisation: exactly how heavy is a tree fern?

Time Machine: simple, clean effective. No moving parts, because the whole thing moves, spinning like crazy. Good news - the inside doesn't spin, so our heroes don't get motion sickness.

There is, unfortunately, one flaw in the way the story is told. It doesn't affect the overall sense, but it dilutes the purity of the tale. It is absolutely clear that at no time should anyone leave the pathway that floats six inches above the jungle floor. It is by disobeying Travis' edict that Eckles come to change history.

And yet, when Eckles and the other hunters go to remove the bullets from the dinosaur they clearly step off the path. If it were only Eckles who did this, the story would still be pure; but Travis does it as well. How do we know that there isn't a butterfly, or roach, or worm on the bottom of Travis' boot when he returns home?

Apart from this goof, the story is told cleanly and efficiently. The pace of the episode is possibly to blame for the loss of some of the subtlety of the original story - there is no opportunity to discuss the nature of time or time paradoxes; no opportunity to get in close and see the T.Rex "folding its delicate watchmaker's claws" or that its legs are pistons, "a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior." Nor is their much sense of the contrast between the huge dinosaur an the tiny delicate butterfly.

The casting is strong, with John Bach playing the clichéd chief hunter with great restrained power, and Kiel Martin proving that "nervous tough guy" is the part he was born to play.

A shame there wasn't money in the budget to pay for a creative sound design. The episode title refers to a sound which should be, of course, both the sound of the T.Rex and the last sound Eckles hears after Travis has cocked his gun. In this dramatisation, neither the dinosaur nor Travis' gun sound like thunder.

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