It’s probably impossible to overstate Ray Bradbury’s influence on cinema. The many feature-length adaptations of his work, from pulp ‘50s B-movies to Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 make that pretty self-evident. Then there is the intangible, the way his work has shaped the way science fiction is articulated on screen. Quoted on an LA Times blog, Steven Spielberg today called the writer "my muse for the better part of my sci-fi career.... On the world of science fiction and fantasy and imagination he is immortal." It’s hard to imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind or any other major sci-fi film of the last 60 years without the context of Bradbury’s work.
Yet while the feature films are marvelous, sometimes a creative giant’s influence can be better seen on the smaller scale. Great writers of short stories inevitably inspire an abundance of short films and, like Edgar Allen Poe, Bradbury is one of the richest sources of that sort of inspiration. His influence reaches across international boundaries (in the height of the cold war, no less), between cinematic forms and into different media. Just a cursory YouTube search reveals everything from Soviet animation to a multitude of student work. Bradbury’s stories aren’t simply some of the best in a single genre. They have created a dialogue between artists that has flourished since the 1950s, a conversation that has colored our way of seeing both science and fiction in cinema.
Icarus Montgolfier Wright, by Osmand Evans
1962 seems like a good place to start. Bradbury co-wrote the screenplay of this short with George Clayton Johnson, based his own story of that same year. It is set on the eve of the first manned flight to the moon, an imagined future with the surprisingly accurate date of August 22nd, 1970 (off by just over a year). It plays like a metaphysical history of man’s flight, moving from Icarus and his wings to the hot air balloons of the Montgolfier Brothers and the Wright Brothers on Kitty Hawk. Joe Mugniani’s illustrations look burnt, echoing the film’s mention of “oven-baked air.” The prose is striking, taking us on a journey up the “endless river of wings” into a “combustible dream.” It’s a triumph of animation that certainly deserved its Academy Award nomination.
There Will Come Soft Rains¸ by Nazim Tulyakhodzayev
Twenty-two years later, another animated adaptation of Bradbury’s work would find critical acclaim, this time at an East German film festival. The story in question, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” is an eerie evocation of a world after nuclear war. A servant robot goes about its chores, making breakfast and getting its human masters ready for work. Yet the family is gone, painted by Tulyakhodzayev as piles of ash in their beds. The story was published in 1950, but the fear of such mass destruction remained just as potent in 1984, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This film is a testament to the universal nature of Bradbury’s ideas, and a reminder that art need not be bound by the politics of international conflict.
Quest, by Saul and Elaine Bass
This short plays like a more fatalistic version of The NeverEnding Story, if such a thing were possible. It also shares that film’s odd style, the live action rendering of a world that might otherwise be best as animation. Quest is based on Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire,” a dystopian tale of a planet where life only lasts eight days due to radiation – the inhabitants rapidly age accordingly. The heat of day and the chill of night are also deadly, forcing them to stay in their caves. Saul and Elaine Bass manage all of this marvelously, editing around the story’s constantly maturing protagonist so the whole thing seems a bit less ridiculous. The images move from the darkly mundane to the surreal, leading to an M.C. Escher-inspired finale that absolutely drips of ‘80s sci-fi.
The Pedestrian, by Drake Buurstra
I love watching student films. I know most of them are terrible, all of them are rough, and many directors look back on them with pretty deep embarrassment. Yet there’s something really endearing about a short that has absolutely nothing going for it beyond the sheer passion of its young filmmakers. Bradbury, moreover, has inspired a TON of these. His short stories are so accessible, and their often simple narrative core means you can try an adaptation without any of the high tech frills of most sci-fi. This particular short, made by a few teenagers in Michigan for their local high school film festival, is kind of an awesome example. It may be a mess, but you can totally tell that these kids have read the story about 30 times and entirely taken it to heart. Frankly, I can’t think of a more warm and fitting tribute for such a widely beloved storyteller.