Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Book Review: Richard Matheson on Screen

"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.


  1. Just brilliant! I will have to check this out. Any stand out mention of his screenplay work for Vincent Price's Poe film's?

  2. John,

    A fine review from a trusted source as always. Matthew Bradley clearly put this together as a labor of love. It's quite evident and it's good to hear you enjoyed the book.

    That Incredible Hulk episode, Never Give A Trucker An Even Break, is in Season One and Spielberg was none too happy about the use of that footage from Duel.

    It may have been reflected in the book. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for your insight and best of luck to Mr. Bradley on the publication.

    Best to you,

  3. Fine book review, John. This really looks like an excellent compendium of one of THE BEST writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. This sounds like an excellent resource, or starting point, for a reader of those genres. Thanks for this.

  4. Hello, my friends, thank you for writing comments on my review of this very fine reference book.

    Monster Scholar: Yes, indeed! Each of the Poe adaptations gets a full, highly detailed section in the Bradley book, replete with credits, background and quotations from those involved. House of Usher is discussed from page 78 - 85; for instance. Pit and the Pendulum is covered from page 89 - 94, and The Raven is covered from 107 -112. Lots of great stuff in those sections.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic -- Yes, Matthew Bradley clearly did consider this project a labor of love and he is a careful, thorough informative guide to the work on screen of this Master of Sci-Fi/Horror. I must admit, I had never read about the re-use of Duel footage on the Hulk, but I knew that Universal in the 1970s was notorious for this kind of thing. The footage they inserted into the syndicated version of Night Gallery was crazy.

    Le0pard13: I totally agree with you about Matheson. What a talent -- absolutely ONE OF THE BEST, as you say, precisely

    Thanks, everyone,


  5. John, I can't tell you how gratified I am by this extremely generous review---the first, I might add---and by the enthusiastic responses of your readers. It was indeed my goal to make the book as close as possible to an oral history, in which Richard and his friends and colleagues told the story in their own words. I should stress that although I did quote from a wide variety of sources, always trying to get the best Matheson anecdote, the vast majority of the FILMFAX quotes are from interviews I conducted myself. I'd hate for anyone to think the book was just a cut-and-paste job! :-) Seriously, you obviously appreciate Matheson as much as I do, and the reaction of readers such as yourself is the most important of all. Thanks again.

  6. Hi Matthew:

    I went back and tweaked that one passage for clarification. I agree with you wholeheartedly: I don't want to give the impression you hadn't conducted any interviews yourself! Hopefully that rectifies it a bit. I should have phrased that a little better to begin with!

    I loved your book! You did a great job, and I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

    Best wishes,

  7. Man, that's what I call service---and points up one of the advantages of Internet journalism, instant corrections. Thanks again for the review, and I think your tweak did the trick perfectly.

  8. Matthew:

    It's my pleasure. I should have been more careful with my original phrasing. And I agree with you about Internet journalism. It really is a blessing how quickly you can edit and fix a mistake or a poor word choice.

    I wish you all the best with this book, and know you'll be reading many more positive reviews in the days ahead.


  9. John, thank you for recommending my interview with Richard Matheson as a companion to what sounds like an excellent book. If anyone is interested, they can find the interview at http://captphilonline.com/EssentialDestinies_Authors.html.

    There are also interviews with you on the same page.

    Best of all possible Destinies,

  10. Howard,

    Thank you for posting that link; and it was my pleasure to recommend your interview with Mr. Matheson. You did a great job; and for years I've remembered listening to the conversation...


  11. Wow!

    Thanks for the heads up! I will need to read this book!!! Very excited about it!