For most of us, if a Great White Whale entered our life and changed it forever, the experience would be metaphorical.
Not so for Ray Bradbury.
In 1953, Bradbury was approached by the director John Huston with an offer to write the screenplay for his adaptation of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” He gave Bradbury 24 hours to decide. Bradbury, who several years earlier had expressed his admiration for Huston, couldn’t say no. (Huston had once suggested that he might one day bring “The Martian Chronicles” to the screen.) By this time, Bradbury had published almost 200 stories, including many now considered masterpieces. His acceptance of the “Moby Dick” project, Jonathan R. Eller writes in an engaging biography, marked the beginning of his transformation from science fiction writer into Hollywood personality and, later, cultural commentator.
This new kind of fame, Eller writes in “Ray Bradbury Unbound,” the second installment in a projected three-volume project — was “potentially [Bradbury’s] worst enemy.”
Whether you come to believe that by the book’s end depends on how you feel about paths not taken, stories never written and projects unrealized.
Bradbury’s metamorphosis would bring many rewards, including a close relationship with Charles Laughton, which encouraged Bradbury to adapt his work for the stage and to found a Los Angeles theater company. He would also become a well-known pundit who, among other roles, served as the creative consultant to the U.S. Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
But these ventures would also bring distractions, writes Eller, the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. For example, Bradbury’s work on “King of Kings,” the 1961 biblical epic for which he wrote Orson Welles’s uncredited narration, and his work on “Sweet Smell of Success,” kept him from writing short stories, which had been the core of his life.
Some Hollywood projects never came to fruition — such as movie versions of “The Martian Chronicles” with Gregory Peck and “The Illustrated Man” with Kirk Douglas (though film and TV versions were later made with other actors) — leading to heartbreak for Bradbury, Eller writes.
The effect of Bradbury’s Hollywood work — as well as, later, his poetry and theater projects — did not go unnoticed by his publishers and friends. In 1956, his book editor Walt Bradbury (no relation), struggling to get him to finish the novel “Dandelion Wine,” told Bradbury that he worried that the writer had “reached an indefinite plateau.” In 1968, Frederik Pohl, then the editor of Galaxy magazine, begged Bradbury to once more dedicate himself to short stories. But Bradbury’s literary output would never return to what it once was, and more than half the stories gathered in Bradbury’s final seven collections were mined from the period covered by the first volume of Eller’s biography, “Becoming Ray Bradbury” (2011).
Deeply based on Bradbury’s personal correspondence, “Ray Bradbury Unbound” is filled with tales of despair and disappointment and yet, even those Bradbury admirers who, like me, wish he had returned more forcefully to his fiction will come away from this book with an understanding of the complexity of his choices.
One of the many things Bradbury failed to do because of his many ventures was to write an introduction to a short story collection by his friend Charles Beaumont — both writers were responsible for memorable episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” In light of Bradbury’s career turn, Beaumont’s famous warning about the choices we make is eerily prescient: “Achieving success in Hollywood is like climbing an enormous mountain [of manure] so that you can pluck that one perfect rose from the top. . . . And you find, after you’ve made that hideous ascent, you’ve lost the sense of smell.”
While Bradbury never lost that metaphorical sense of smell — he maintained his love of literature until his death on June 5, 2012 — Eller’s second volume of Bradbury’s biography is ultimately a melancholy and cautionary tale.
Bernard Berenson, the Renaissance art historian who befriended Bradbury after the author sent him a copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” warned Bradbury of the consequences of his decisions, even as he was making them, Eller notes. In 1957, Berenson cautioned him “not to be affected by ‘gold or glory.’ ”
But Bradbury, who once said, “It is better to be wrong your own way than someone else’s way,” wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Edelman is a science fiction writer whose stories have appeared in numerous magazines and have been collected, most recently, in “What We Still Talk About.”
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
RAY BRADBURY UNBOUND
By Jonathan R. Eller
Univ. of Illinois. 336 pp. $34.95