Reading the Screen: Richard Matheson
Posted by: David Pitt
Have you seen The Box, writer-director Richard Kelly’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button”? You should. It’s brilliant. It’s set in 1976 – the story was published in ’70 — and it’s so well done that it actually looks like it was made thirty-five years ago.
The colors are washed out, like they would be in a mid-seventies movie that hadn’t been restored and color-corrected. The costumes, props, set design: all perfect. Even the music: the movie sounds like a seventies horror/fantasy film. This is the sort of treatment Matheson deserves.
So is The Incredible Shrinking Man, the splendid 1957 movie derived from The Shrinking Man (’56). Using large-scale props and some clever visual effects, director Jack Arnold perfectly captures the terror of the book (which involves, in case you haven’t figure it out already, a man who shrinks). Here’s the trailer:
I Am Legend, the 1954 novel (you can find it in this collection, among other places), has been made into a handful of movies. I talked about them here, but the upshot is: they’re a mixed bunch, and none of them are especially faithful to the book.
Somewhere in Time (1980) is adapted from Matheson’s 1975 novel Bid Time Return, about a man who travels back in time a century to meet the woman of his dreams. The novel is well crafted and dramatic; the movie is insipid.
What Dreams May Come, the 1998 movie based on the 1978 novel, was directed by Vincent Ward, so at least it’s got a strong visual style. Unfortunately that’s about all it’s got. It’s bland, as though the filmmakers were afraid to explore Matheson’s challenging ideas about the afterlife.
In Stir of Echoes (1999), an atmospheric adaptation of Matheson’s 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon is appropriately spooky as a man who solves a girl’s murder with help from the dead girl herself. The movie touches on Matheson’s themes in a respectful, if superficial, way.
Matheson uses fantasy and horror to explore some pretty big ideas: life, death, the afterlife, morality, love. He doesn’t make it easy on a filmmaker. If you’ve seen any of the movies I mention here (there are others, too), even the good ones, you should definitely check out the stories they were based on.