When Ray Bradbury passed yesterday, I know I’m not the only one who felt that the world lost one of its greatest treasures. Bradbury was one of the rare artists whose books could all but force you to love life. Though he primarily wrote novels and short stories, his prose was saturated with a poet’s love of language. Read any given passage from one of his stories, and it’s clear that each word has been chosen for its own distinct flavor, each phrase meticulously crafted to trigger the reader’s tenderest memories. Fahrenheit 451 will probably always be his most famous work, and it’s an undeniable masterpiece. But somebody who only knows Bradbury through that book might have a skewered perception of the author. Though he frequently wrote of rocket ships, Martian colonies, and future societies, Bradbury was not a typical science fiction author. And though Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles both warn of future disasters for human society, Bradbury was not typically a dystopic writer. He was a fantasist, one capable of finding magic and wonder in the far reaches of space, but one just as capable of finding it the small towns of his youth. While he had great reservations about mankind’s worst impulses, his biggest fear seemed to be of mankind somehow losing its boundless childlike imagination. My favorite Bradbury books find the fantastic in the author’s personal memories, whether as a young boy savoring the supernatural rituals of summer (Dandelion Wine) or as a young screenwriter absorbing the mythic culture of an impoverished Irish town (Green Shadows, White Whale). He was rarely one for big narratives – apart from Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, most of his “novels” are actually collections of short stories and smaller fragments. But his ability to bind short stories into a larger whole, to create something personal and vividly felt through fragments, was exceptional. Upon reading Dandelion Wine, even the most cynical and heard-hearted bastard is going to feel compelled to strap on a new pair of sneakers and run into the forest, grinning like a maniac. He knew both the value of youth and the pain of its loss, and his best writing walked that fine line between exuberance and melancholy beautifully.
Many people were deeply affected by this author’s passing, and I’m sure that in the next few weeks you’ll see many retrospective pieces and lists of reading recommendations. Rather than add more suggestions to that list, I thought I’d take some time to look at several significant works of art that Bradbury’s books inspired. That’s perhaps an obscure way of saying that I’ve found yet another way to make a blog post about film music. But Bradbury – perhaps more than any other 20th century author – managed to inspire some of the most colorful and evocative pieces of orchestral music of the past 100 years. Some of these pieces indeed originate from films, but the best are worthy of concert halls.
Because Bradbury’s stories are generally more focused on vivid sensations and affects than they are on linear narratives, film adaptations have rarely been successful. Francois Truffaut directed one of his few misfires with his awkward adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, while Disney’s big budget attempt at Something Wicked This Way Comes went through such a troubled post-production process that the end result was a mess (albeit, a mess that featured a handful of truly great scenes and performances). But while the adaptations themselves rarely fare very well, they’ve also been responsible for some of filmdom’s most inspired film scores. The same qualities that don’t translate well into concrete images translate beautifully when rendered as expressive music. About a decade ago, I started compiling what I called my Bradbury Compilation – a collection of music suites from films, television series, and other media that the author’s work inspired. Divorced from their films, these scores form tone poems that capture different aspects of Bradbury’s spirit. Below, I’ve included some of the highlights, along with my thoughts and links to score suites on YouTube. I encourage anybody interested in remembering Bradbury to give these score suites a listen – if you, like millions of others, plan on taking some time in the next few days to re-read your favorite Bradbury stories, this music might make the ideal background accompaniment.
Farenheit 451 – Bernard Herrmann. Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film was a disaster in nearly every respect except for its score. As the composer of films like Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver, Herrmann is frequently lauded as the greatest film composer of all time. With that in mind, saying that Fahrenheit 451 ranks as one of the composer’s absolute best works is no small praise. For Fahrenheit, Truffaut wisely hired Herrmann to create music for Bradbury’s dystopic future. Herrmann did so, not by imitating the 12-tone serial music that was popular with his contemporaries, but by developing a musical language that might feasibly emerge from a society that outlaws reading. The end result comes somewhere between impressionism and modernism, a score that alternates beautiful and mysterious passages with long stretches of cold dissonance. Herrmann builds a unique ensemble – consisting primarily of strings, harps, xylophone, and glockenspiel – that can by turns sound passionate, mysterious, or clinical. The score closes with one of Herrmann’s most achingly beautiful pieces, a coda for Bradbury’s underground “book people.” A rare instance of Herrmann evoking hope rather than dread, the piece embodies Bradbury’s message about the value of literary heritage. The finale cue begins at 6:41 of this suite, though I’d highly recommend listening to the entire thing:
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Georges Delerue/James Horner. Production troubles plagued this 1983 adaptation of Bradbury’s novel. The story centers on the travails of two young boys as they take on an evil traveling carnival that ensnares its customers by catering to their most vulnerable desires. Disney apparently balked at the darkness of the film’s initial cut, and spent considerable time in post-production attempting to re-edit and re-score the film for a more family-friendly audience. As a result there are actually two scores for this one, both of which have much to offer. Georges Delerue (who, to bring this full circle, was Francois Truffaut’s composer of choice in the ’60s and ’70s) wrote one of his greatest masterpieces for the film, a score that captures both the bombastic menace of Mr. Dark’s carnival with the painfully bittersweet sentiment of the boys’ waning childhood. Perhaps the score’s most ingenious device is the flute that leads the score’s lyrical sections and speaks to the boys’ threatened innocence. The instrument is especially mesmerizing at the 7:12 mark of the suite below – with the simplest gestures, the music simultaneously captures the dangerous alure of the carnival and the tragedy of innocence about to be lost. But even more incredible is the finale (starting at 8:53) – this, for me, is the closest that anybody has come to capturing Bradbury’s spirit in music. Abandoning all restraint, Delerue lets loose a sentimental powerhouse that seems to capture everything beautiful and heartbreaking about childhood and its memories.
The studio (inexplicably) rejected the score late in production, however, and hired a then-young James Horner to write a replacement. While nowhere near the perfection of Delerue’s, Horner’s score has much to recommend it in its own right. Horner restrains himself where Delerue went for broke, but his melody for the boys has its own wistful summery appeal. Horner does even better with the darker aspects of the story, and his atonal choral work for the malicious Mr. Dark is a chilling evocation of pure despair.
The Martian Chronicles – Stanely Meyers. Stanley Meyers’ score for this 1980 miniseries honestly isn’t quite up to the caliber of the above-mentioned scores. Meyers was primarily famous for his pioneering electronic work, but synthesizers in The Martian Chronicles tend to come in the form of comically cheesy disco beats. These moments are fun in their way, but the (now severely dated) pop music compromises the grandeur of Bradbury’s world severely. That said, the score also features a handful of sensitively expressive cues. The gentle woodwinds for the Martian world itself are particularly evocative, a delicate musical portrait of a culture that seems both alluring and unknowable. You can hear this quality in the main title, arguably the best piece of the score:
The Illustrated Man – Jerry Goldsmith. I’ve focused so far on the more sentimental and personal aspects of Bradbury, but it should be said that he was just as adept at macabre horror stories as he was at wistful nostalgia. Perhaps the best musical evocation of this side of Bradbury is Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the Bradbury anthology film, The Illustrated Man. The film is comprised of four short films, each based on one of Bradbury’s short science fiction/horror stories. Goldsmith responded with that might be the most challenging of all the Bradbury scores. Discordant serialism screeches through the most abrasive synthesizers that 1969 had to offer – the result is very effective, but it makes for extremely difficult listening. However, Goldsmith also gave the film an eerily lyrical vocalise to serve as a bookending piece, which is much more affecting. You can hear it at the 1:54 mark, and I actually recommend skipping straight to it if the prospect of atonal synth textures doesn’t sound particularly appealing:
Christus Apollo – Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s greatest work for Bradbury, however, was not a film score. In 1969, the same year that he scored The Illustrated Man, Goldsmith composed one of his very rare forays into concert music, a cantata set to Bradbury’s poem, “Christus Apollo.” Bradbury’s sonnet imagines a universe in which Christ’s mission extends past our planet, expanding infinitely throughout the universe. The poem merges the author’s passions for both science fiction and spirituality, and it inspires some of Goldsmith’s most outlandish music. Following up on the poem’s darkest suggestions, Goldsmith seems to carry Bradbury’s verse through the most sublime and apocalyptic regions of the cosmos. But while the music’s violent 12-tone passages and oppressive choral cacophony can be overwhelming, Goldsmith also finds a clear beauty in author’s vision. The cantata is rich with mesmerizing moments of choral harmony that fluctuate between terror and grace, and the music ultimately carries the emotional impulses of Bradbury’s poem to their natural conclusion.
I’m ending the post here, with the second movement from this concert piece. Listen when you have a chance, both for the beauty of Bradbury’s language and the music that it inspires. Christus Apollo serves as a testament both to the raw power of Bradbury’s words and the rare ability that those words had to inspire other artists’ wildest visions. Because ultimately, this is was the effect that Bradbury had on his readers. He sent our imaginations hurtling into the most fantastical regions of the universe – from the farthest reaches of the cosmos, to the dandelion patches in our parents’ backyards. In the process, he reminded us that living is its own sensory experience, one that always merits taking the time to savor.