Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “The Four of Us Are Dying”
Posted by Paul
Ever assume, when you first watched The Twilight Zone as a kid, that Rod Serling wrote every episode?
I’ve had a number of people tell me they thought that, and let’s face it: It is a logical assumption. He personally introduces each tale, and they all conclude with his distinctive voice wrapping up the proceedings with a memorably wry comment or two.
But no, other fine writers contributed some terrific stories. Still, Serling wrote a staggering 92 of the 156 episodes, or nearly two out of every three. No wonder he admitted to feeling burned out as the series entered its home stretch.
Not every Serling script was an original, however. Sometimes he adapted the works of other writers. He’d pay for the rights to a story, then turn it into a Twilight Zone.
This might sound like relatively easy work, but it wasn’t. In many cases, he took the basic idea and turned it into a script that barely resembled its ancestor.
Such was the case when Serling turned George Clayton Johnson’s story “All of Us Are Dying” into “The Four of Us Are Dying” for Twilight Zone‘s first season.
Johnson would go on to script some classic TZs himself, including “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “Kick the Can” and “A Game of Pool“. Many more TV and movie credits would follow. But for now, he was an unknown writer who’d penned the tale of a man with a miraculous ability to disguise himself.
His agent had renamed the story “Rubber Face”. And Serling thought it had potential.
It’s easy to see why. The idea of a man who could change his face instantly to resemble almost anyone, only to have it backfire on him in the end, is very intriguing. As an irony-laden fantasy, it fit right into the Serling-verse.
But it needed quite a bit of work before it could become a Twilight Zone. Commented Johnson:
I was enchanted with what Rod Serling did. I was amazed at the detail and richness he added. He used my little short story as an armature for his statue. I knew my story very, very well, and I watched the way that Rod Serling had sort of taken the windshield wiper off of my car and stuck a new car under it. I think he did an admirable job, and I know I learned a lot about adapting short stories for television by watching what he did with my story.
So what did Serling do? For starters, he gave the main character motivation. In Johnson’s story, he goes from person to person, each one recognizing him as someone else, but he seems to be doing it simply because he can. Serling has him check into a hotel with “some newspaper clippings, an odd talent, and a master plan to destroy some lives.”
In the story, he doesn’t appear to have much control over the changes, let alone a plan. It’s almost as if drawing close to a particular person causes him to magically morph into someone who has some importance to him or her. That’s interesting, but Serling’s take is more sinister. It also makes the ending seem more like a case of poetic justice than mere bad luck.
And in a touch that could only come in literature, we don’t know that he’s changing his face until more than halfway through the story. There’s a bit of a “huh?” factor for the reader as each person he meets addresses him by some other name. For TV, of course, this wouldn’t fly. In Serling’s adaptation, we know what he can do from the beginning.
Virgil Sterig, the hood who confronts the crime boss who had him killed? All Serling. The main character in the story does meet a woman who carries a torch for him, but their meeting isn’t nearly as touching as when the trumpet-playing Johnny Foster reunites with poor, lovestruck Maggie.
Perhaps the most telling change comes at the end. In each case, he’s killed. In the story, it’s because he pulls into a gas station and the attendant recognizes him as a man he vowed revenge on years earlier. Why, exactly, we don’t know, but he proceeds to bludgeon the man with the pump handle.
It’s a grisly little twist to be sure, and filled with Hitchcockian irony. But it lacks the pathos of Serling’s dénouement, as an outraged father guns down his son, a boxer named Andy Marshak, for what must be some incredibly bad family history.
As we watch his face change from identity to identity, Serling concludes:
He was Arch Hammer, a cheap little man who just checked in. He was Johnny Foster, who played a trumpet and was loved beyond words. He was Virgil Sterig, with money in his pocket. He was Andy Marshak, who got some of his agony back on a sidewalk in front of a cheap hotel. Hammer, Foster, Sterig, Marshak — and all four of them were dying.
But Johnson, now $500 richer, had seen his story brought to life. And a TZ classic was born.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!