“There’s nothing more of a pariah in this business than the writer after the script is written…”
-Richard Matheson, in Richard Matheson on Screen, by Matthew R. Bradley, McFarland, 2010, page 221.
For the last sixty or so years, there has been no more important an author in genre film and television than Richard Matheson.
His novel, I am Legend has been adapted to film no less than three times, and the landmark text also inspired George Romero’s living dead cycle.
Similarly, it was Matheson’s script for Duel (1972) that launched the film career of director Steven Spielberg.
The accomplishments hardly end there. Matheson was responsible for adapting to television what soon became the highest-rated TV movie of the 1970s, The Night Stalker (1972). He also penned the Kolchak sequel, Night Strangler (1973).
Additionally, Matheson has left his indelible, individual stamp on episodic televison. A primary contributor to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, he authored the teleplays for such Zone classics as “Nick of Time,” “The Invaders,” “Death Ship” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Later, Matheson wrote for Thriller (“The Return of Andrew Bentley”), Star Trek (“The Enemy Within”), Night Gallery (“The Funeral”) and countless other programs that we recognize today as classics of the medium. This assessment exists, in no small part, because of Matheson’s efforts.
Ponder, for instance, just how deeply “The Enemy Within” impacted Star Trek history, and how elements of that particular tale (about a transporter malfunction) were repeated in the franchise right up into the 1990s. Voyager’s “Tuvix” is one notable example of this pattern.
Considering the truly impressive breadth of Matheson’s career and its impact on genre programming and movies, a new book by author Matthew R. Bradley — Richard Matheson on Screen — really has its work cut out for it. Matheson’s career is vast; his subject matter varied, and his creative contributions…virtually ubiquitous.
Fortunately, Bradley is resolutely the right man for this task. Without relying on hyperbole, without resorting to blind praise, Bradley carefully and patiently charts the multi-decade film and television contributions of this remarkable talent, a man who has achieved more in Hollywood than virtually any other writer you can name. Yes, even more than Stephen King.
Because of Bradley’s attention to detail and straight-forward, informative writing style, Richard Matheson on Screen is a work of solid scholarship, and more than that, a compelling window on a one-in-a-million career. I particularly enjoyed the book’s commentary regarding authorship in film and television; what it means and how it is seen within the industry.
On page 157, for instance, Matheson is quoted discussing how Hitchcock, not Robert Bloch, gets the lion’s share of the credit for Psycho, and how probably the same fact is true of Spielberg regarding Duel. That’s just the nature of how we all “talk” film in the culture, and Matheson isn’t being strident in pointing it out…merely truthful.
He’s also admirably consistent in his discussion. After cogently discussing the primacy of a good script, Matheson then proves totally fair-minded when the tables are turned. For instance, Matheson adapted The Night Stalker from Jeff Rice’s novel, The Kolchak Papers, and he is quick to credit Rice with writing a crackling good yarn in the first place; something that he, as the adapting author, could then move to the milieu of television. The entire Kolchak section of the book is quite fascinating, in fact, particularly Matheson’s impressions of legendary producer/director Dan Curtis.
Richard Matheson on Screen is organized by chronological order, beginning with The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and going right up through Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007) and a brief section on “Other Unproduced Projects.” Bradley devotes considerable space to each production, with over fifty of them highlighted and discussed in exhaustive detail.
Within each section, Bradley provides a clear, concise introduction and background information. Then generally, he gets out of the way. He lets interview material with Matheson — from a wide variety of sources, including those the author conducted himself for the great magazine Filmfax — recount the interesting details of the story. I think this is a very clever, very thoughtful, very respectful way of approaching the book. Bradley is excellent with words and with organizing his material, but he never makes the book about him; or how he turns a sentence. He willfully keeps out of the limelight and at the same time weaves an extremely thorough, extremely involving narrative. His writing is crisp and clear. He’s a good guide.
There’s an abundance of interesting anecdotes in the book as well. I enjoyed reading about the manner in which Universal cannibalized footage from Duel for an episode of The Incredible Hulk, and also appreciated the discussion of Somewhere in Time, a film that outlived its box office performance to become a beloved cult movie There’s talk here of an unmade sequel, as well as a discussion of a third, never-produced Kolchak tele-film, The Night Killers, apparently scuttled by no less a personality than Darren McGavin.
Ultimately the words of Richard Matheson in the foreword provide the best review of this carefully-crafted chronology. It is a “meticulously thought-out history” of the author’s script work of “50 plus years,” presented with “care and good taste.” I’ll get out of the way of Matheson’s words too, and just say I concur with that assessment.
Finally, I would also recommend as a companion piece to this book an August 16th, 2002 live telephone interview with Mr Matheson conducted by Dr. Howard Margolin at Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction.
Matthew Bradley’s Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works is available for purchase at McFarland or at Amazon.com.