An audio version of this essay is available here.
From the late 1970s the Walt Disney Studios went through a particularly bleak period. Their family films were not finding the success in cinemas that they used to enjoy. Their animated films were in a creative doldrums as the studio’s aging animators started to retire, and shrinking box office led to reduced and restrictive production budgets. With the release of Star Wars in 1977 it became clear that the simple, clean-cut family adventure that had been the studio’s staple output no longer had a market, and that American youths were looking for more complex, or at least aesthetically striking, fare.
With this realisation Walt Disney Studios entered one of their most unusual periods, eschewing their standard family films for darker and more risky projects. It is easiest to demonstrate the difference by comparing the live-action films Disney made from 1979 to 1985 with the films they made ten years earlier – from 1969 to 1975. The earlier period saw the company produce such hits as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Million-Dollar Duck, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Herbie Rides Again and The Apple Dumpling Gang. The latter period saw the company experiment with science fiction in The Black Hole and Tron, dark fantasy in Dragonslayer and Return to Oz, and even light horror with The Watcher in the Woods. Generally speaking, these films were not commercially successful – although many of them have developed strong cult audiences over the following decades. It should be noted that these were all generally high quality, entertaining films. It simply seems that for the movie-going audience the dissonance between the wholesome Walt Disney brand and the strange, dark content was too great with which to cope. The company’s live-action fortunes did not recover until the release of Ron Howard’s Splash in 1984.
Of the 17 live-action features released by Disney between The Black Hole in 1979 and Return to Oz in 1985, far and away the best film is Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is not a lightly creepy supernatural story for children, like the company’s earlier film The Watcher in the Woods (1980). It is a genuine horror movie; the first such film produced by Disney and the last until the walking corpses boarded the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).
Something Wicked This Way Comes is written by noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury, and is based on his own novel. It follows two boys in Greentown, Illinois, named Jim Nightshade and William Holloway. They visit a strange travelling carnival that has set up just outside of town, and meet its ringmaster Mr Dark (Jonathan Pryce). The carnival’s rides, however, are not what they seem. Pretty soon both boys are on the run from a malevolent supernatural force, and William’s librarian father Charles (Jason Robards) struggles to save them.
Of the countless film and television adaptations of his work, Bradbury always cited Something Wicked This Way Comes as his favourite. ‘It has flaws,’ he remarked, ‘but it’s darn good.’
The first version of Something Wicked This Way Comes was a short story titled “Black Ferris”, which was published in Weird Tales in 1948.
In 1957 Bradbury received a call from actor/director Gene Kelly, who wanted Bradbury to watch his new experimental feature Invitation to the Dance and offer his opinion. The two eventually turned to discussing other projects, and the idea developed of adapting “Black Ferris” into a feature film script. A 70-page treatment titled Dark Carnival was developed – basically an expanded storyline – and Kelly took it to each of Hollywood’s studios in the hope of finding a backer. Each studio in turn rejected him: it seemed too strange a combination for Hollywood’s premier song-and-dance performer to direct a dark fantasy picture that bordered on out-and-out horror.
Bradbury eventually adapted the film treatment into a full-length novel. Once published in 1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes was a critical and commercial success, ultimately selling more than 18 million copies.
In 1968 director Sam Peckinpah expressed an interesting in adapting Something Wicked for the screen, promising Bradbury that he would ‘rip the pages out of the book and stuff them in the camera.’ Once again, however, and despite the novel’s enormous commercial success, Hollywood’s major studios were not interested. Another director who expressed an interest in adapting Something Wicked was Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) but again the attempt ended in the same ignominious failure.
In the end it was a proposal formed not by a director but by an actor’s son that would see Something Wicked finally make it to the screen. In late 1975 Bradbury met Peter Douglas, the son of actor Kirk Douglas, who – like his father and brother Michael – was keen to get into producing motion pictures.
‘I really had no credits,’ admitted Douglas. ‘I had no money and no idea of how to put it together. But I knew I liked it so much and I idolised Ray from reading his novels and stories. So I started talking to him. He’s very accessible.’
Peter Douglas contacted Bradbury at the perfect time, since the screen rights to Something Wicked had only just lapsed after being held for several years by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (Rocky). Douglas borrowed $150,000 dollars from his father to purchase the rights from Bradbury and start shipping the project around the studios.
Bradbury and Douglas’ choice of director, Jack Clayton, was already both well regarded in Hollywood for his high quality films and also widely derided for being notoriously difficult to work with. A self-avowed ‘choosy’ director, he only signed on to direct films in which he had a strong personal interest. ‘It’s true I seldom make films,’ said Clayton, ‘I don’t seem to find material that I like all that often and I won’t work unless I do.’
At the time Clayton had recently completed work on a high profile adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and was open to new projects. He met with both Bradbury and Douglas and agreed to come on-board as director.
Initially Kirk Douglas had loaned his son the option money because he had an eye on playing the role of Charles Holloway. Clayton opposed this, finding the star’s robust and iconic screen persona a poor fit for the mild-mannered librarian. Noting the director’s displeasure, Kirk Douglas gracefully stepped aside.
The first draft of Something Wicked took Bradbury five months to complete, and needed to be pared down considerably. Bradbury said: ‘The first script I handed to Jack was 220 pages. He made me cut it and cut it and cut it.’ After several rounds of rewrites Bradbury managed to reduce the script down to 120 pages, telling the director ‘I can’t cut any more.’
By 1977 Peter Douglas managed to get the interest of Paramount Pictures’ new President of Motion Pictures David Picker. Picker brought with him a long record in supporting both quality films and box office hits during his earlier tenure at United Artists, and it seemed as if Something Wicked would be in good hands. Sadly the film soon became collateral damage in an internal studio dogfight. Studio CEO Barry Diller started rejecting most of the projects Picker had brought in; Something Wicked suddenly found itself back out on the street.
When Jack Clayton was told by Diller than Something Wicked had been rejected he was so angry that he broke three of the windows in Diller’s office. ‘I had worked on the screenplay for six months,’ he explained. ‘I gave it to Barry Diller, who returned it to me within three hours saying he was afraid he couldn’t make the film. Now it was impossible for him to have read the script in three hours. I wouldn’t have objected to his response if the script had been rejected a few days later. I became acutely aware that his reaction had nothing to do with the script, but was due to his feud with David Picker. I was completely frustrated.’
Shortly after the film’s collapse at Paramount Jack Clayton suffered a serious stroke which temporarily robbed him of the ability to speak.
With Clayton seemingly unable to direct, Steven Spielberg expressed some interest in directing the film. At the time his third feature film Close Encounters of the Third Kind was about to be released, and anticipation within the industry was high. Given his previous success directing Jaws, Spielberg represented a virtual guarantee that Something Wicked would be produced. Every studio in Hollywood seemed keen to work with the young director, and he had free reign to select his next project.
Sadly Spielberg’s initial interest in Something Wicked was eclipsed by his sudden interest in making the World War II comedy 1941. ‘He sort of went off over the horizon somewhere,’ said Bradbury of Spielberg in 1981, ‘after promising to do it. Never came back, never wrote, never called, which is very sad. We recontacted him countless times and he doesn’t answer. It’s just bad manners.’
In 1980 Walt Disney Pictures was well into its contentious upheaval. The Black Hole had been and gone, leaving a sizeable financial loss in its wake. Current productions included The Watcher in the Woods, which was pulled from cinemas in mid-release to have its ending reshot, the unsuccessful comedy Midnight Madness, another sequel for the increasingly tired Herbie franchise (Herbie Goes Bananas), and the adventure film The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark. The company seemed desperate for new ideas and quality projects, and Something Wicked This Way Comes appeared to fit the bill.
Thomas Wilhite, then a vice-president of production, recalled: ‘David Irman, director of creative affairs, had come to Disney in 1980 from Fox and said that one of his favourite books was Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was not familiar with it, so I read the book. Then I discovered that Ray and Peter had written a screenplay and Kirk Douglas had purchased it. I called Kirk Douglas and expressed interest in it. Ron Miller, David Irman and I all like it. That was in the fall of 1980, and we began pre-production in September 1981.’
Due to the three year delay between the film being dropped by Paramount and picked up by Disney, Jack Clayton’s health had recovered sufficiently to return as director. The film was budgeted at US$18 million dollars, comparatively high for Disney but still lower than recent productions like The Black Hole.
As the shoot approached Clayton become concerned that Bradbury’s screenplay was too dark and unsettling for what was supposed to be a family-friendly movie. He hired English writer John Mortimer, with whom he had worked on other films, to give the screenplay a rewrite and generally lighten its tone. When Ray Bradbury learned of Mortimer’s appointment he was furious, taking Clayton’s decision as a personal betrayal. ‘End of the friendship,’ he later said. ‘And I got him the job! Could you imagine? I was stabbed right in the heart.’
Despite his loathing for Clayton’s new screenplay, Bradbury remained involved in the production and was a regular presence both on location and in Disney’s soundstages.
To effectively create the 1920 American town of Green Town, Illinois, an array of buildings were adapted and constructed at the Walt Disney Golden Oak Ranch. Construction cost US$2 million, and was supervised by production designer Richard MacDonald (Altered States). An authentic carousel from 1918 was purchased for the film and fully restored to working order.
Jason Robards was cast in the role of Charles Holloway. It was not his first encounter with Something Wicked. In the early 1970s he had been considered for the role of Mr Dark in one of the earlier proposed adaptations.
As the sinister Mr Dark, Clayton cast English actor Jonathan Pryce, whose acting had impressed him in a theatre production of Hamlet, although both Christopher Lee and Peter O’Toole had also been considered. Jonathan Pryce relished the character’s unearthly, lyrical style. ‘He’s the one character,’ he said, ‘that was able to retain the narrative style of the book, whereas all of the others had to be written colloquially, to be real. I can play it as real or unreal as I choose to.’ From Something Wicked Pryce launched a highly successful career in American film, later starring in Brazil, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Glengarry Glen Ross, Evita and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
For the role of the Dust Witch Clayton cast Pam Grier, largely based on her performance in Fort Apache the Bronx. ‘I wanted someone exotic and beautiful,’ he said, ‘someone who could convey the idea of a witch, without resorting to the Disney concept of a hooked nose with a wart.’
To play the young protagonists Jim and William, Clayton hired two newcomers: Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson. Carson was originally hired to play Will, but after feedback from Ray Bradbury he was re-cast as Jim Nightshade, with Peterson taking on the part of Will.
Something Wicked This Way Comes commenced shooting in September 1981. Tensions were high between Clayton and the Walt Disney company; Clayton preferred to be left alone to direct his picture, and attempted to block the studio publicists and marketing staff from visiting the set. While this issue was temporarily resolved, the relationship between director and studio continued to degrade as the shoot progressed.
‘I said to them when I started,’ said Clayton, ‘I’ve never done a special effects film before so please give me the very best people you’ve got. That turned out to be three old men and some very antique machinery. I think it turned out well enough in the end, but it took a long time getting there.’
Despite Clayton’s doubts and above statement, Something Wicked ultimately benefitted from several ground-breaking visual effects. One of the most expensive sequences of the entire film was the arrival of the carnival at Green Town. Upon the train’s arrival, the entire carnival unfolded magically into place. The scene was created using state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics, based on skills and technology that Disney effects workers had developed making Tron a year earlier. It was the first scene of its kind ever produced.
The film’s musical score was composed by George Delerue, who had collaborated on the earlier Clayton films The Pumpkin Eater and Our Mother’s House.
Once Clayton had completed a rough cut of the film Disney arranged for a test screening in July 1982, inviting a sample audience in off the street to watch the film and give the studio feedback. The screening results were profoundly negative. Thomas Wilhite recalled that ‘the preview cards were just average, or below. There was no magic to the picture. Things that worked fine on paper just didn’t work on film.’
Disney president Ron Miller did not believe the film as shot could be successfully released into cinemas. He met immediately with Ray Bradbury to discuss what could be salvaged, and the two agreed that extensive reshoots would be required. Sets that had been torn down were rebuilt. Actors that had moved on to other projects were summoned back to the Disney lot. While Clayton remained present throughout the reshoot and post-production, Something Wicked was no longer in his hands. ‘In the end we spent five million dollars redoing everything that Jack Clayton did wrong,’ said Bradbury. ‘Unofficially, I became the director of the film. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t the director, but I was.’
As part of the reshoot process the Delerue score was abandoned and replaced with one by up-and-coming composer James Horner. The entire third act of the film was reshot and replaced, with an entirely new climax written by Bradbury. The film’s opening scenes were also changed completely. A new opening narration was inserted. The magical unfolding of the carnival, which had been created at enormous expense, was left on the cutting room floor.
The film’s original release date in late 1982 was rescheduled for April 1983, leaving Walt Disney Pictures with no new film to release for the 1982 holidays.
Disney’s marketing department ran through eight possible campaigns to launch Something Wicked. Of the two that tested most strongly, one was simply to promote the film as ‘a Ray Bradbury story’. ‘Even people who hadn’t read him,’ explained Tom Wilhite, ‘thought of Ray Bradbury as the symbol of fantasy.’
Something Wicked This Way Comes opened in American cinemas on 29 April 1983, opposite Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Martha Coolidge’s comedy Valley Girl. Despite Disney’s best marketing efforts, it failed to find an audience. The studio was ultimately forced to accept a US$21 million dollar loss on the film. Combined with earlier under-performers like The Black Hole and Tron, Something Wicked made studio president Ron Miller’s position untenable. The following year he was forced out of his position and replaced with Paramount executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.
‘The studio advertised it as too much of a horror film,’ said Bradbury. ‘You lose the people who don’t want to see a horror film, while others coming to see a horror film are disappointed that it doesn’t terrify them enough.’
Despite their earlier falling-out, Clayton agreed with Bradbury. ‘Probably the major problem concerning the disappointing reception for Something Wicked,’ he wrote, in a letter to Walt Disney Pictures, ‘was due to advertising describing it as a horror film. I think Something Wicked should be advertised as a very classy fantasy picture.’
Despite its commercial failure, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a remarkably effective dark fantasy. Bradbury’s novel emerges fully intact, and it stands as one of the most faithful literary adaptations of its time. The period small-town setting works brilliantly, while Mr Dark’s carnival is wonderfully creepy.
One of the film’s greatest assets is the strength of its two leads. Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce are wonderfully contrasted: one a quiet, humble, somehow small local librarian, the other a magnetic, seductive and powerful magician. It’s easy to focus on Pryce’s performance, since it’s the more flamboyant and theatrical of the two, but a closer inspection of Robard’s acting reveals something incredibly strong and subtle. The two share the film’s best scene as Dark confronts Holloway in the library, tearing one page out of another from a book – each page representing another lost, wasted year of Holloway’s life.
The screenplay, even with Clayton and Mortimer’s rewrites, showcases Bradbury’s dialogue. It has a wonderful literary quality to it that in places borders on the lyrical. It all adds to the gently creepy tone of the film. It’s easy to see why test audiences responded so ambivalently: when one hears Disney one has a certain image in their mind. While it’s true Disney films have never shied away from death or darker themes, they rarely seemed quite as unsettling as they are here.
The first half of the 1980s was a difficult period for Disney, with a string of failed experiments costing the company tens of millions of dollars. It would take several years, and a string of smash hits, to reverse Disney’s fortunes, but if there was any consolation for such a taxing few years it’s this. Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of the finest films the studio has ever produced.
 Michael McCarty, Giants of the Genre, Wildside Press, Holicong, 2003.
 Aljean Harmetz, “Filming a Ray Bradbury fantasy”, New York Times, 24 April 1983.
 Jeff Szalay, “Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Starlog 70, May 1983.
 Stephen Rebello, “Something wicked this way comes”, Cinemafantastique Vol 12 No 5/6, Jul-Aug 1982.
 Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, HarperCollins, New York, 2013.
 Stephen Rebello, 1982.
 Jeff Szalay, 1981.
 Gene Beley, Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorised Biography, iUniverse, Lincoln, 2006.
 Sam Weller, 2013.
 Stephen Rebello, 1982.
 Stephen Rebello, 1982.
 Neil Sinyard, Jack Clayton. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000.
 Neil Sinyard, 2000.
 Sam Weller, 2013.
 Aljean Harmetz, 1983.
 Gene Beley, Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorised Biography, iUniverse, Lincoln, 2006.
 Neil Sinyard, 2000.