Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ray Bradbury: A Sound of Thunder--story and film

A number of Ray Bradbury's stories and novels have been made into films, with varying degrees of success. Few really have been able to capture the atmosphere that Bradbury imbues in his works. Frequently, it is obvious that the director doesn't even try. Bradbury's short story "The Fog Horn," which I mentioned in an earlier post, is an example of this. It was turned into a creature feature which focused on the destructive creature who destroyed everything it could for no explicable reason. I guess it was just born that way, in distinction to Bradbury's creature who acted out a very recognizable impulse of frustration and loneliness and then went home, somewhere under the sea.

Another more recent example of this is the film version of Bradbury's time travel story, "A Sound of Thunder." The film A Sound of Thunder came out in 2005 and was directed by Peter Hyams. I recognized no one in the cast except for Ben Kingsley.

The story's plot is quite straightforward. Time travel has been invented, and safaris are now organized for those who wish to hunt for dinosaurs. Fearing to change the future in some way, the organizers are very careful to select as prey only those animals who will die in a few minutes or less. Killing them a few minutes earlier reduces the risk of a major effect on the future to a minimum. Moreover, the hunters are warned to stay on a path that will not affect any of the living creatures there.

However, on the trip featured in the story, a hunter becomes frightened, steps off the path, and crushes a butterfly. On their return back to their present, they find that the spelling of English words has changed and the results of an election have been reversed. Instead of Keith, the humane liberal-minded candidate who will work for peace, Deutscher, a hard-liner fascist, "an iron man," has been elected. "Deutsch" is the German word for "German"; "Deutschland" is their name for Germany. Interestingly, "Stalin" means "man of steel" in Russian.

What's left of the story in the film? Well, there's time travel and the hunting safari and the dead butterfly. In one way, this story has also been turned into a creature feature. In the film, the effect of the dead butterfly has not yet happened when they returned. Instead there are time waves that come forward changing everything around them. The simplest living beings change first--plants and insects. This is followed by larger, more complex animals--the mammals. The last wave will come and change the humans into something else.

SPOILER WARNING: Information about the resolution of the film follows.

However, unlike the characters in the story, the film's characters are able to change everything back to the way it was at the end. Unfortunately, this comes about through an apparent contradiction in the plot. In the short story, Bradbury is careful to have his hunt organizers study the prey very carefully, and they have selected a number of them whose death will make no difference.

In the film, the hunt organizers have selected only one T. Rex as the prey for all of the hunts. During the last hunt, the chief guide stands there and predicts each movement by the T. Rex. He has "hunted" this animal so many times before that he knows each step it is going to take and each bodily movement it will make before it makes it. Yet, even though this is the same animal, and it is the same few instants before its death, we see no other hunting parties led by this same guide. Where or perhaps when are they?

The film, however, ignores this problem for the solution is to send the guide back just before the T. Rex appears and to warn them about the death of the butterfly. He is successful: the hunter is prevented from stepping off the path, and we see the butterfly flutter safely off. Everything now returns to the way it was, except that the characters remember what happened. The problem is simple: why was he able to make contact with the last safari and yet see none of the others that traveled back to this exact time. Or, as I asked earlier, why weren't the other safaris able to see each other?

Hyams, the director, turned the story into a decent fast-paced action film with various nasty critters and even a few large carnivorous plants. The special effects were good, and frankly the pacing was so fast that the actors didn't have much opportunity to emote, aside from fear, surprise, and whatever would be expected here.

Sadly, the special effects and the fast-paced plot bury Bradbury's point: that even the smallest action we take has unexpected consequences which we are unable to predict and frequently we are not even aware of them. I guess Hyams, the director, did attempt to make this point at the end when the members of the safari team decided to do what they could to call off the hunts. However, the point made in the film seems to apply solely to the fantasy world of time travel and not to our own actions.

Overall: good short story and a decent action film with special effects, none of which are the effects produced by Bradbury in the story though. It's not Bradbury, but it is a decent late night film that goes well with popcorn and your favorite beverage.


  1. I'm on the way to the library tomorrow in hopes of finding the Bradbury stories. Thanks for adding (once again) to my "must read" list. Blogs, by the way, are vast improvements over the media of the past (newspapers and magazines) when readers had limited access to reliable information about the really good books that deserved to be read; now, with blogs like yours, readers like me can make up for lost time by reading unjustifiably overlooked books.

  2. I think one reason Bradbury's stories are hard to film is because he focuses alot on the internal - thoughts, feelings, mood. His stories go beyond the "great idea" that is present in the story. I remember watching "The Ray Bradbury Theater" ( I think that's the name) back in the 80's. From what I remember, not all of those episodes did justice to the stories they were based upon. I'm not sure, but I think Bradbury himself had alot of control over those episodes. If that's true, even he couldn't successfully film some of his stories.

  3. Thanks for the kind words.

    I too get information about books and films from other blogs, including yours. This helps me discover previously unknown works. It also helps me to decide whether to spend time reading or watching works I have heard of but didn't know enough about them.

  4. Cheryl,

    Yes, much of what makes a Bradbury story so good are those elements which are difficult if not impossible to film. The paragraph about creating a fog horn in the short story "The Fog Horn" would be a good example of that. That paragraph, for me anyway, stands out and makes the story.

    The cliche is that a picture is worth a thousand words--well I don't think a thousand pictures could create the mood that that paragraph does.

    Interesting idea: even Bradbury himself couldn't do it on film. Perhaps that's an indication of film's weaknesses in some respects when comparing it to printed stories.