The (New) Twilight Zone: The Burning Man
Series 1, story 19 (second story of eighth episode)
First aired 15 November 1985
"The Burning Man"
The short story first appeared as "El Hombre que Ardea", in Gente (Argentina) July 31 1975.
Its first book appearance was in Long After Midnight (1976).
Teleplay by J.D.Feigelson,
based on the Bradbury story
Doug - Andre Gower
Doug and Aunt Neva are driving out for a picnic at the lake on the hottest day of the year. Seemingly out of nowhere, a dried out, dusty old man appears. They give him a lift.
The man speaks of all manner of strange things, and speculates that there might be people who, like locusts, only emerge from the earth every seventeen years. He talks about "genetic evil"... and the car burst a tyre.
Aunt Neva becomes irritated by the man, and throws him out of the car.
Doug and Neva continue on to their picnic.
On the drive home, they come across a neatly dressed little boy, in a white suit. He claims to have been left behind, and asks for a lift back to town.
As night falls, the boy whispers something into Neva's ear. The car mysteriously dies, and Neva is unable to re-start it. Concerned, Neva and Doug turn to the back seat where the boy is sitting. He asks them if they had ever wondered whether there might be such a thing as "genetic evil"... and smiles.
The camera pulls back and up, as the car headlights fade out, and the sound of grasshoppers swells.
Publicity still: Roberts Blossom as the Burning Man..
Although short (about eleven minutes), this is one of the most successful adaptations in capturing the feel and flavour of Bradbury. There are some weaknesses in the realisation (although it's meant to be a burning hot day, some scenes are clearly shot in cloudy weather; the child in the white suit - the old man re-born - isn't in the least bit frightening, and from behind recalls Fantasy Island's Tattoo), but otherwise works well. The flexibility of the revived Twilight Zone, which allowed episodes of various lengths, undoubtedly helped this episode keep its punch; other Bradbury adaptations have failed by trying to stretch a short story out to unwise length.
Although Bradbury wasn't directly involved in this production, he most definitely approved of it. In 1986 he said:
It was very good. It was written and directed by a friend of mine... I got him the job. I fought for him. He did the script and I told the people at The Twilight Zone that I wanted him to direct it. And I was in New York, on my way to Europe, when he called me. "They don't want me to direct," he said, "I'll just back off."
I said, "I only sold them the story so you could do it, so get the hell off the phone and you go tell them you're going to direct it or else! That's the end. You've got to fight for yourself."
He called me back an hour later and said, "I got it!" I said, "Thank God I screamed at you. You've got to believe in yourself.!" He called me many times afterward to thank me for being firm. So he knows what friendship is."
Feigelson, speaking on the Twilight Zone DVD, confirms this version of events:
I got a call from the executive producer Phil DeGuerre saying did I have to direct it. They didn't know my credits, which I did have, but they were not aware of them.
I said, "Ray is insisting on it". He said, "Yes, I know."
I said, "He wants to protect the work. He's been burned many times by other directors completely changing things, and I'm afraid there's no way round it."
But by the same token I was scared to death because I had never directed anything in Hollywood. All my directing had been on independents, where you have a lot more freedom. I called Ray and said I was a little bit hesitant. He just got enraged. He said, "If you don't call them back right now and tell them you're going to direct that episode, I'll never speak to you again!" and slammed the phone down.
Later he laughed and told me he wasn't serious, but he wanted to scare me into directing it, which he did.
Feigelson has known Bradbury for nearly thirty years, and says that Bradbury taught him writing. "I had met him through a PBS film that I did, a Civil War movie by Ambrose Bierce [One of the Missing, 1979]. A mutual friend had suggested that I show it to Ray, and he offered to mentor me, and still does actually."
This episode came about through Feigelson's attempt to develop and sell a different anthology series of his own, entitled Strange Dimensions, for CBS. Bradbury offered him "The Burning Man" to adapt, and Feigelson included it in a package of four stories he put together to sell the series.
Strange Dimensions never came to be, but Feigelson sent his scripts to James Crocker, producer of the new Twilight Zone. Alan Brennert, story editor of TZ, says that the script has "theatrical dialogue" that no one ever speaks "outside of a Ray Bradbury story". This is, of course, one of those oft-repeated claims about Bradbury's stories, and is usually used to criticise an adaptation, or to justify the claim that Bradbury is not adaptable to film. However, in this case the dialogue works remarkably well, thanks to the performance of Roberts Blossom.
"What I did, with Ray's approval, was cut out dialogue that went on longer than it needed to establish whatever effect that it was supposed to do. It was more of an editing job as well as putting it into teleplay form.
The original story takes place almost entirely in the car, but with Ray's approval I chose to break it up. The blow out is an invention of mine to actually get them out of the car.[Ray] felt that that was the right thing to do visually, to give it a little more variety of look.
In the dialogue they talk about how hot it is, the hottest summer in so many years. And actually it was. In the days that we were shooting on that road it was at least 120 degrees, and we had to take a lot of precautions. I think one of the things that gives it its look is [that] we actually were in this tremendous heat.
The Burning Man's first appearance is beautifully achieved. Feigelson's camera rises up slowly from the earth, and Roberts Blossom rises up into the frame, with a glint in his eye, suggesting that, like the locusts, he has risen up after seventeen years. Later in the story, as he expounds his theory to Doug, the Man repeats this motion.
The Man (and the Boy, who is his reincarnation) wears a white suit. This, of course, is a very Bradbury way of dressing: Bradbury himself is known for his white suits when giving public addresses; and, of course, one of his best known stories is "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit". Note the marked contrast between the Man's dishevelled, dirty, dusty suit, and the impeccable tailoring of the clean white suit worn by the Boy.
Feigelson reports that Roberts Blossom was concerned that this episode might scare young children. Feigelson reassured him... but the episode is tautly directed and succeeds in generating a frisson. Bradbury and Feigelson have succeeded in the difficult task of producing a fright out of broad daylight although, of course, it takes nightfall at the end of the episode to produce the final scare. Feigelson says he resisted the temptation to place a scream over the final shot; instead, fittingly, the locusts fade up as the picture fades to black.
Feigelson proudly reports that Bradbury was happy with the end result, claiming that this is, with Stuart Gordon's film The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, one of Bradbury's favourite realisations of his work.