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How "Something Wicked" went from being a best seller to the big screen

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How "Something Wicked" went from being a best seller to the big screen

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You know, it's kind of appropriate that D23 and ArcLight Cinemas are kicking off their classic Disney movie series tonight with a screening of "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Especially since this 1983 Walt Disney Productions release is being shown at the ArcLight Hollywood.

"And what's so appropriate about that?," you ask. Well, this dark fantasy really owes everything to Hollywood. I mean, I seriously doubt that Ray Bradbury would have even written the 1962 best seller that this Disney film was based on if Ray hadn't first been friends with screen song-and-dance man Gene Kelly.

Bradbury flat-out thought that Kelly was a genius and praised Gene's work in "Singin' in the Rain" to the skies. A few years later, Kelly invited Bradbury to come see a work-in-progress version of his latest film, "Invitation to the Dance." And as Ray and his wife walked home from the screening that night, Bradbury confessed how badly he wanted to work with Kelly on something for the cinema.

Copyright 1956 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
All rights reserved

Bradbury's wife then suggested that Ray go back through his files. See if he could dig up an old story that might lend itself to becoming a screenplay. So Bradbury went digging through his filing cabinets and eventually found "The Black Ferris." Which was this 10 page story that dealt with two young boys and a mysterious carnival that had come to town and had originally been published in "Weird Tales" back in 1948.

Ray took this 10 page story and fleshed it out into a 80-page-long script treatment which he called "Dark Carnival." Bradbury then handed off "Dark Carnival" to Kelly and asked for his opinion. Gene called Ray the very next day and said that he thought the script was terrific. More importantly, that Kelly wanted to make "Dark Carnival" his very next film. Which is why Gene asked Ray's permission to take the treatment along with him to Europe during the Summer of 1955 as Kelly sought out financial backing for the film.

Bradbury gave Kelly his blessing and eagerly awaited his return. Gene returned two months later with some disheartening news. Though everyone he showed the material to agreed that "Dark Carnival" would make one heck of a film, none of these financial backers were interested in underwriting production of a new Gene Kelly movie where this legendary song-and-dance man didn't sing or dance. So Gene reluctantly handed the treatment back to Ray, and back into the files "Dark Carnival" went.

Copyright 1962 Simon & Shuster.
All rights reserved

Okay. Now jump ahead to 1961. Bradbury is casting about for an idea for a new novel when he realizes that he's got "Dark Carnival" still sitting in his files. So Bradbury takes this 80-page-script treatment and turns it into a full-blown book, "Something Wicked This Way Comes." And to honor Gene Kelly for the vital role that he played in the development of this project, Bradbury dedicates this book to the screen legend.

And - of course - once "Something Wicked" becomes a best seller, Hollywood comes calling. But Ray ... he has some very specific ideas about which filmmakers - more importantly, which studio - he'd like to have the movie version of his latest book produced by. So Bradbury sent a copy of "Something Wicked" to Walt Disney. Only to then get a note back from Walt saying that - while he personally enjoyed the book - Disney doesn't feel that this dark fantasy would be a good fit for his studio.

No matter. There are lots of other great movie makers out there. Which is why Ray reached out to David Lean. Who also seemed intrigued but ultimately passed on the project. Bradbury also had some definitive thoughts about who he wanted to see play Mr. Dark, the ringmaster of the sinister carnival that comes one Fall to Green Town, Illinois. Ray wanted Peter O'Toole or Christopher Lee to play this role.

(L to R) Irwin Winkler, Sylvester Stallone and Robert Chartoff at the
1976 Academy Awards. Copyright The Academy of Motion Pictures
Arts and Sciences. All rights reserved

But given the way Hollywood works, Bradbury didn't really have a whole lot of say about who was going to direct and/or star in the movie version of "Something Wicked This Way Comes." So as the film rights for this book bounced around Hollywood in the 1960s & 1970s it eventually wound up in the hands of Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (i.e. the producers of "Rocky"). Ray approached Robert and Irwin with a wish list. As in: Bradbury wanted Sam Peckinpah (of "The Wild Bunch" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" fame) to direct "Something Wicked." What's more, Ray suggested Academy Award-winner Jason Robards (who would eventually play kindly Charles Halloway in the Disney version of this book) for the role of sinister Mr. Dark.

Chartoff and Winkler ignored Bradbury's suggestions. As did Kirk Douglas when he acquired the rights to the book in the mid-1970s for $200,000. Feeling that he needed to break out of the virile leading man roles that Kirk was typically cast in, Douglas bought "Something Wicked" with the hope that he'd then be able to play against type. He wanted to play meek Charles Halloway, who works at Green Town public library and is afraid that he's grown too old to play with his son.

As you might expect, given Kirk  Douglas' demeanor and physique, no one in Hollywood thought that the movie-going public would ever buy a movie where this action star appeared in a milquetoast role. So "Something Wicked" languished yet again. Until Thomas Wilhite, an aggressive young man who had moved up from Disney's publicity & marketing  office to become Hollywood's youngest production chief at that time, came calling. He insisted that Disney was now ready to tackle Bradbury's dark fantasy.

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved

Mind you, this came at a time when Ron Miller (i.e. Walt's son-in-law and - as of 1980 - the president of Walt Disney Productions) felt that the Studio needed to get out of the rut that it was in at that time. Stop making stupid sequels like "Herbie Goes Bananas" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again." Which is why Miller put Whilhite in charge of the movie side of the Mouse House and then ordered Tom to put some more ambitious motion pictures in Disney's development and production pipeline.

And Whilhite - to his credit - did just that. Greenlighting projects like "Never Cry Wolf" and "TRON." Not to mention acquiring the film rights to promising literary projects like Gary Wolf's "Who Censored R. Rabbit?" And among the movies that were put into production at this time were "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

And when it came to the production of this dark fantasy, Disney really spared no expense. They actually pulled down the urban downtown section of the Studio's backlot (where family comedies like "The Ugly Dachshund" and "The Shaggy D.A.") so that they'd then have room to build a full-blown version of Green Town. It took 200 men, three months and $2 million. But eventually Disney's backlot resembled this small Illinois town.

Copyright 1976 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

And Bradbury ... he was thrilled with the look of this Walt Disney Production. In a Disney News interview from that time, Ray talked about how happy tears ran down his face whenever he wandered through this film's set which were so reminiscent of his own hometown.

Mind you, another reason that Bradbury may have been crying was that - while he had hoped to convince Steven Spielberg to come direct "Something Wicked" (Spielberg opted to make "Raiders of the Lost Ark" instead) - Disney hired Jack Clayton, the director of "The Great Gatsby." Who then turned around and hired John Mortimer, the English screenwriter of the "Brideshead Revisited" TV miniseries, to come rewrite Ray's screenplay for this film.

This was particularly galling for Bradbury because ... Well, he and Clayton had worked on a previous version of "Something Wicked This Way Comes." The one that Michael Eisner had almost greenlit while he was in charge at Paramount. And Ray had been so impressed with Jack's effort back then that - when Disney came calling - Bradbury said that he'd only sell the movie rights to the Mouse House if they'd sign Clayton to direct the movie.

Jack Clayton

Which (to be honest) was not something that Wilhite wanted to do. He had wanted to hire one of Spielberg's contemporaries to come direct "Something Wicked." But Ray wouldn't sell the film rights unless Jack was part of the package. So Thomas reluctantly agreed.

The end result was a film that Clayton nor Bradbury were very happy with. Jack felt that his initial pass on "Something Wicked" was flawed because he had never done a special effects movie before. What's more, Clayton said that he didn't get the support from Disney that he needed during production because -- while "Something Wicked" was shooting -- all of Disney's very best special effects guys were tied up working on "TRON." Whereas Ray ... He felt that the main problem with the movie version of "Something Wicked" was John Mortimer's screenplay. Which had eliminated much of the book's literary qualities and fantasy elements.

After a disastrous preview of this $17 million film in July 1982, Ron Miller called Ray Bradbury into his office and asked for the author's help in overhauling this troubled production. Bradbury agreed - and $5 million and several months of reshoots later - the movie version of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" was released to theaters in April of 1983.

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved

To its credit, "Something Wicked" did receive fairly decent reviews (Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it " ... a lively, entertaining tale combining boyishness and grown-up horror in equal measure." But the film performed poorly at the box office. Which is why Walt Disney Productions was forced to take a $21 million write-down on the movie in July of 1983.

And if you talk with film historians today about "Something Wicked This Way Comes," they'll either tell you about what's not in the movie anymore (i.e. George Delerue's original score for this film. Which was dropped at Ray Bradbury's insistence. Disney then tried to recruit Jerry Goldsmith to come write a brand-new score for "Something Wicked." But Jerry was busy working on "Twilight Zone - The Movie." Which is why the Studio hired James Horner instead) or about the elaborate CG sequence that got cut at the very last minute ( this sequence was to have shown the arrival of the Dark Carnival, with shadows & fogs forming the tents and trees bending to form the struts of the ferris wheel. But this was back in late 1982 / early 1983. Which was basically still the infancy of CG. And given that the rough CG featured here tended to take people out of the picture at test screenings, Disney felt that they had no choice but to drop this very-expensive-to-produce scene just weeks before "Something Wicked" was released to theaters).

Mind you, other folks may point out "Something Wicked" 's flaws. How - if you're really paying attention in both the spiders-in-the-bedroom and the lost-in-the-mirror-maze scenes - it's obvious that  these parts of the movie were shot long after filming had initially wrapped in December of 1981. That the two boys playing Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) were so much taller and the shapes of their faces had changed when they were called back to do those reshoots in the Summer of 1982.

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

But me ... What I like about "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is the sheer ambition of this film. That Walt Disney Productions made a sincere effort in the early 1980s to do something that wasn't a cookie cutter family comedy. That they wanted to make a motion picture that had some literary style and heft.

Okay. So "Something Wicked" isn't perfect. Ray Bradbury himself admits that. But at a screening of this film last year at the American Cinematheque, he also said that - in the end - he's very proud of this movie.

Which is why I'm hoping that a great number of Disneyana fans turn out for tonight's screening of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" at the ArcLight Hollywood. If only so they can then  see a truly rare piece of Mouse House history.

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

And - no - I'm not talking about the movie itself. But, rather, the carousel that plays such a huge role in "Something Wicked." The one that - depending on which direction it's running in - can either make you older or younger.

Now before the special effects team at Walt Disney Studios found this carousel and then lovingly restored it, it used to be one of the attractions that entertained visitors who came by that tiny amusement park that Dave Bradley used to operate at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega.

Now Bradley closed this park back in 1974. But back in the 1940s, Walt Disney used to take his daughters here. And as Diane and Sharon rode that carousel, Walt sat back on a park bench and wondered if there might be a better way to build & run an amusement park.

Newsreel image of the amusement park at Beverly and La Cienega

You can see this carousel for yourself if you drop by the ArcLight Hollywood tonight at the Cinerama Dome at 8 p.m. For further information on the rest of the Disney Movie Magic! film series (including the movies that will be screening at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks and the ArcLight Pasadena), I suggest you swing on by the D23 website.

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  • Great article Jim!  Stories like this remind me how much I'd love an in-depth book on the Miller years at Disney.  There was too much ambition in the films greenlit under his watch to dismiss him as a lame duck.  At the very least, someone needs to do an in-depth multi-part interview with the man, while it's still possible!

  • When I showed this movie to my friend Alan, I joked that the tagline for it should have been, "It's dark. It's creepy. It's DISNEY."

    And this was the first thing I saw Jonathan Pryce in, and of course he's magnificent, but...sigh. Christopher Lee. What might have been!

  • I agree with the comments on Miller.  I think an in-depth interview/retrospective article needs to be done on him just to show that he was a good guy.  But he was just spread way too thin in running a huge corporation.

    And thanks for doing an article on this film.  I saw it on the shelf at a video rental place and liked it a lot.  My favorite fx in the film is when Mr. Dark was ripping the pages out and the light that emanated from each rip.  I know it must have been a really simple rotoscoping effect, but in the moment it's so incredibly effective in conveying the emotion of the moment.  I was surprised to see that the DVD I rented of it was put out by Anchor Bay, as opposed to Disney itself.  Any particular reason why?  It confused me that a non-Disney DVD company got the rights to release a Disney film under its banner.

  • Thank you for bringing up the carousel at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly. I used to visit that amusement park almost weekly when I was in elementary school and loved that carousel. I want to see the film again just for that very reason.

  • Balderdash.  As the unit publicist on "Something Wicked," I was an enthusiastic supporter of the film and a great friend and admirer of director Jack Clayton.  I was never barred from the set, and in fact, was probably one of the few folks at the Studio that Jack confided in and respected.  To this day, Ray Bradbury considers me his honorary son, and values my support on "Wicked."  Jack was an amazing filmmaker and a fine choice to direct a psychological tale such as this.  Although the film ended up being a compromise, it is still a brilliant adaptation of a Bradbury story, with great performances by an inspired cast.  

    Best, Howard

  • I agree that this is a really fine article, Jim. I had no idea of the history behind this film, especially the Ray Bradbury / Gene Kelly connection. I well remember when I first saw the film, as it premiered in LA when I happened to be there at the time visiting with Dave Smith at the Studio. I also got to see the movie set on the Disney backlot as a bonus.

    My opinion of the film was admittedly mixed. I wasn't crazy about it, but it was certainly admirable in so many ways. I remember thinking it sure was a dark and stylish film and that the atmospheric cinematography was impressive. I also loved James Horner's haunting score and the title sequence with the train. It was also my first introduction to Jonathan Pryce and I thought he was terrific as Mr. Dark. But as a whole, for some reason the film didn't quite click with me. I'd really like to see it again to figure out why not.

    As others have noted, Ron Miller should be commended for trying to expand the live-action scope of Walt Disney Productions beyond the realm of the pot-boiler comedies that were so prevalent at the time. I remember a film called "Amy" starring Jenny Agutter that I thought was very good as well. Miller has gotten a bad rap over the years that I maintain was largely undeserved. He and Card Walker steered the Studio through a difficult time after Walt's death, and many of the films of that era I absolutely love. Even their solution for building EPCOT Center, though not the working community that Walt had envisioned, ended up as a beautiful permanent World's Fair that they should be justifiably proud of. I too wish that somebody would interview Ron Miller to get some of his thoughts on that important era in the Company's history.

  • Fantastic article, Jim!

  • That's what they should build in that little nook behind Frontierland in Disneyland... Mr. Dark's Carnival... classic 1930's era carnival rides operated by costumed members of Dark's menagerie, complete with haunted carousel and spooky fun house.

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