Film critic explains why he was inspired by sci-fi giant

Before the movie bug bit, I owed nearly all my fantasies to Ray Bradbury. A magician of words, the science-fiction author took me to Venus and Mars, to the bottom of the sea and to dinosaur-infested jungles. He wove tales that began in a backyard just like my own and bloomed into possibilities never before dreamed, where robot grandmothers watch over lonely kids and a crushed butterfly might alter the path of time.

As a child, I was bewitched by Bradbury, not just his imagination, but his grasp of the language required to convey it, to make the pages disappear and put in their place pictures spun from words. It was Bradbury who taught me that metaphor — not stereoscopic 3D glasses — make a story come to life, that only sentiment, sincere and undiluted by irony, truly has the power to move. It was Bradbury’s writing that made me want to write.

I am hardly the only wordsmith inspired by the master. Everyone from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King credits Bradbury with catalyzing his desire to tell stories. An imprint called Gauntlet Press recently assembled a volume in which authors as diverse as Margaret Atwood and Dave Eggers pay tribute with stories channeling the spirit that gave us “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” — books whose memories I will forever associate with the apple-sweet smell of old pulp fiction.

The movies came later, intoxicating me with a world grounded in our own but free to be twisted in a million different ways, much as Bradbury had on the page. And yet, the most special of effects, the most realistic of virtual realities has never managed to achieve what Bradbury could with a mere sentence, painting not for the eyes but for the mind.

By its very nature, cinema is literal, not literary, relying on concrete images in place of the viewer’s imagination. The magic of moviemaking occurs not onscreen but in the cut, in that space between two adjacent shots, as audiences fill in what the film leaves out.

To watch Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Bradbury’s bibliophilic opus “Fahrenheit 451″ is to crystallize the story according to a specific set of choices: to put exact faces to the characters, to visualize the world according to someone else’s specific sci-fi design, already retro by the time I saw it. The achievement of filmmaking, then, is the way it allows masses to share in the same fantasy. Thanks to the movies, we all have the same image of Oz, the same notion of what Wonderland looks like.

Bradbury moved back and forth between both worlds. Over the years, he adapted many of his stories for television (“The Ray Bradbury Theater”) and L.A.’s Pandemonium Theatre Company, miraculously preserving the poetry of his original prose in the process. In recent years, Pasadena’s Fremont Center Theater produced a number of his one-acts, along with his ambitious “Moby Dick”-inspired “Leviathan 99,” giving me the opportunity to visit with Bradbury on several occasions, as the author delighted in seeing his work brought to stage.

My favorite of his novels, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” was actually first written as a screenplay. As Bradbury tells it, inspiration struck after watching a film called “Invitation to the Dance,” featuring Gene Kelly. Drawing from his own childhood memories of traveling carnivals and their strange dark allure, he wrote a script for Kelly to direct. When no one in town wanted to make it, Bradbury adapted the idea into a novel, published in 1962, which sparked interest in a film version, eventually made by Disney in 1983.

“Something Wicked This Way Comes” is one of the rare dark Disney movies, along with that magnificently creepy Bette Davis-starring ghost yarn “Watcher in the Woods,” more likely to terrify than delight young audiences. Seeing it an impressionable age, I was indeed impressed: The film had the same power over me that so many Lon Chaney pics had had over Bradbury, putting faces to fears that had previously lurked undefined in our subconscious.

Among the incidents that inspired the book was a memory of a circus figure named Mr. Electrico, who had commanded the young Bradbury, then only 4, “Live forever!” For more than seven decades, Bradbury wrote every day, never losing touch with a youthful, wide-eyed vision of the world. Ninety-one ain’t bad, as far as the flesh allows, but thanks to his fiction, Bradbury’s spirit will never die.

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Author Ray Bradbury dies at 91

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