"Us Earthmen have a talent for ruining things. If there are any Martians alive in those hills, they’re going to grow to hate us."
With Elon Musk announcing plans to land humans on Mars by 2025, we would be remiss not to pause and consider such a quote. Taken out of the 1980 miniseries adaptation, the original thought stems from Ray Bradbury’s 1950 classic novel, and one of the best Ray Bradbury books, The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury is considered one of the world’s most celebrated sci-fi authors, although he isn’t quick to categorize his style of writing. Well known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury stimulated minds for decades with his mystical writing and exciting tales. Upon his death in 2012 at age 91, The New York Times described him as "the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction in the literary mainstream."
Bradbury helped spark the interest of the ever-growing sci-fi crowd in the latter part of the 20th century. Richard Matheson, one of Bradbury’s many loyal disciples, was given the intimidating yet honorable task of adapting one of his original novels, The Martian Chronicles, into a three-part TV mini-series.
Searching for the Foundation
To the ancients, Mars was a symbol of war, but in the late 19th century, Italian astronomer G.V. Schiaparelli discovered the "canals" of Mars and changed its meaning for humanity. Mars became the one chance for life elsewhere in our solar system. Later, that possibility of life inspired three masters of modern literature: H.G. Wells, who saw the Martians as alien conquerors (War of the Worlds), Edgar Rice Burroughs, who pictured "Barsoom" as the setting for swashbuckling adventure (the John Carter of Mars series) and Ray Bradbury, who saw in Mars a means to reflect all of the strengths and frailties of humankind.
On three consecutive evenings in the fall of 1980, NBC television presented a six-hour mini-series based on Bradbury's classic novel of life on Mars, The Martian Chronicles, adapted to the screen by Richard Matheson, a writer long associated with imaginative television (The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Duel). The Martian Chronicles miniseries, rich in the poetic language and imagery that is Bradbury's trademark, details a vision that is unique to its author—so unique that Matheson is slow to accept credit for the excellence of his Chronicles script.
"As I see it," said Matheson, "my job on the adaptation of The Martian Chronicles was to follow the original as closely as possible, which I did with few exceptions. I have seen what some people have done to ruin some otherwise marvelous projects, and I was not going to be guilty of that. The sole major change I made was to give it a sense of continuity by taking one of the characters from the third expedition and making him the main character throughout most of the stories."
The character Matheson refers to is Captain Wilder (played by Rock Hudson in the television adaptation), who arrives on Mars with the first successful expedition. In the novel he dies in an attempt to further explore the universe—Matheson's version allows him to live and establish his home in a colony of Mars.
The Story Begins
The story itself begins on Earth, with the departure of the first and second expeditions, both of which meet doom at the hands of the Martians (a third expedition, in which the visitors learn that they have landed in a town reserved for the insane of Mars, was deleted from the script). Wilder's mission succeeds, but only by default, as Wilder and his five-man crew discover that the original Martians have been wiped out by chicken pox, spread by the earlier explorers. Some few Martians still survive in the hills, but these are so few in number that the end of the old Martian race seems certain. It is at this point that the first of the three parts concludes.
The balance of the The Martian Chronicles miniseries details the conflicts of the Martian colonists as they enter their strange new home, still haunted by the ancient artifacts of the noble Martians, with the alien Martian setting producing a sharp outline to the human strengths and weaknesses brought by the colonists to their new home.
Bradbury first wrote the Chronicles in 1950, but Matheson does not feel that the intervening years of space exploration will make its story any harder to accept. "As is pointed out early in the script, our Mars probes have only seen a small part of the surface of Mars," commented Matheson. "No one knows what a real expedition will find."
Though some science-fiction purists might argue the point further, Matheson was quick to add that he is not a science-fiction writer. "If I categorize myself—though I prefer not to—it is as a fantasy writer—which covers a much broader field. Bradbury, too, I consider a fantasy writer—just because he set the story on Mars doesn’t make it science fiction."
Looking into the Unknown
Does he feel that his version retained the poetry of Bradbury's original?
"It can’t be approached as poetry," he replied. "You can’t translate poetry into the concrete visual terms of TV or film writing. The way in which the filmmakers deal with it will determine whether it will be poetic or not. I deal with it as a straightforward, realistic story."
Matheson is especially pleased that the six-hour format allowed him to gradually develop the Bradbury characters, and to include nearly all the sequences from the book. The only exceptions are the Martian insane asylum episode mentioned above, and Bradbury's updating of Poe's House of Usher, detailing the collapse of an automated house on an Earth devastated by nuclear war. Though both of these segments were scripted, the six-hour running time was not long enough to include them.
Otherwise, The Martian Chronicles miniseries was one of the most complete and faithful renditions of a science fiction classic ever to hit the home screen.
Thirty-five years after the original airing of the miniseries, The Martian Chronicles was met with mixed reviews. While some praised the series for its detailed depiction of Bradbury’s masterpiece, others criticized it for its seemingly simple visual effects and slow storyline. The first Star Wars film (1977) hit theaters three years before the miniseries aired, so many viewers were disappointed when it did not reach the same level of realistic quality as A New Hope. As for Ray Bradbury’s own opinion on the adaption of his classic novel, he quickly responded at a press conference: "boring."