Ray Bradbury Theater: The Playground

Episode 2 (Series 1, Episode 2)

First aired 4 June 1985

Production Credits Synopsis Review

"The Playground"

The short story first appeared in Esquire, October 1953.

Its first book appearance was in Dark Carnival (1947).

It can also be found in The Illustrated Man (UK editions).

Production Credits

Directed by William Fruet

Cast:

Charles Underhill - William Shatner
Steve - Keith Dutson
Carol - Kate Trotter

With Mirko Malish, Steven Andrade, Barry Flatman

Synopsis

We begin in the past, with a sepia-tinged sequence in a playground. One boy is being bullied by all the others in the playground. The boy's face dissolves into the adult face of Charles Underhill as we come into the present.

Underhill is playing with his young son Steve. The two live with Steve's Aunt Carol (who we later deduce is Underhill's sister).

There is tension between Underhill and Carol over whether he is too protective of his son. Carol proposes taking Steve to a local playground, but Underhill is against it. He takes a walk to the playground in question, and finds the children's play to be too aggressive - he sees the children turn to feral creatures and has to back away.

A child in the playground calls out "Charlie!", which naturally makes underhill curious and anxious. Through sepia flashback, we see the young Underhill being bullied in the same playground (but many years earlier).

Eventually, Underhill yields and takes Steve to the playground, but with a solid determination that he will protect Steve.

When they arrive, Steve begins chanting that he is the daddy, and that Underhill is Steve. Underhill seems to become transformed by this as they enter the playground together.

Steve, chanting, climbs a spiral slide, followed by Underhill. We follow them in their descent. When Steve reaches the bottom, he looks at his hands and body, as if he is not in his correct body...

Steve and Underhill have exchanged bodies.Underhill-as-Steve is beaten and bullied by the other children, while Steve-as-Underhill innocently plays on a swing, and casually saunters away form the playground. Leaving Underhill-as-Steve in tears...

Trivial Differences

  • in the short story, Underhill lives with his wife, Susan
  • in the short story, Underhill's child is called Jim
  • in the short story, the playground gang leader is identified as Thomas Marshall, a childhood friend of Underhill's
  • in the short story, Marshall draws magical images in the dirt, and suggests that the strange happenings in the playground are something to do with the manager, who has an office on site
  • the short story ends with Underhill descending a slide, getting younger, and feeling that this next twelve years is going to be hell…

 

Publicity still: William Shatner

Review

William Shatner is quite effective in this episode, although he is a bit old for the part. His Underhill seems to connect well with Steve. The slide descent montage, however, features some appalling mugging.

Again, Bradbury has filled in some background in fleshing this story out to 25-minute length. Underhill here is a widower, which gives an added dimension to what in the short story is simply a husband-wife dispute over whether or not the child should be allowed to play with other kids.

It is also clear here that Underhill was bullied as a child, which makes his motivation much more direct.

However, the magical, frightening playground of the short story is somehow rendered less powerful by these attempts to motivate the characters in a believable way. The short story shows us glimpses of what might really be happening, as we get some small insight into one of the inhabitants of the playground, some magical symbolism, a mysterious playground manager whose presence is felt but not seen. On screen, all we get are some tame werewolves, almost out of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

The emphasis in the short story is generally that neurotic Underhill gets the hell he has been afraid of, a kind of cosmic comeuppance. In this version, however, it feels more of a heroic act, as we see Underhill voluntary subjecting himself to a repeat of his own childhood bullying, plus we see the child liberated into the man's body - something that is subtly implied in the original story, but made blatantly obvious here: through a child's chant. This is an invention for the screen which is not in the original story, and is slightly laughable. (Given Shatner's effective child play at the end of the episode, it is at least arguable that the transformation could have been staged in a more subtle manner.).

What is lost is the playground itself as an evil character, rather than just a place occupied by evil children.

home books film&tv audio links about this site

(c) Phil Nichols 2004

Page updated 7 April, 2004