Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “To Serve Man”
Remember how the Kanamits in “To Serve Man” looked? Short, fat and hairy, with pig-like faces. Three fingers on each hand. Walking around in green shorts. Hard to forget that image.
If you’re confused, it’s because you’re picturing the way the Kanamits looked in one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone. The description I just gave was how they looked in the short story that Rod Serling based his script on.
My first two “Re-Zoning” posts showed how freely Serling would adapt his scripts from the source material. He wasn’t one to simply take the story as is and put it in script form. Oh, no. Turning an intriguing story into a true Twilight Zone often required quite a few changes.
Now, when Serling adapted Damon Knight’s story of the same name (which first appeared in the November 1950 issue of Galaxy magazine), he did retain the story fairly well. In the case of “And When The Sky Was Opened“, we saw him use little more than the basic idea to create a whole new tale. But here, the overall story is largely similar: the Kanamits bring peace and plenty to a suspicious Earth, win everybody over, then just before the main character is set to board a Kanamit vessel, a translator friend gives him the shocking news that the book titled “To Serve Man” is a You Know What.
However, Serling did make a number of crucial changes.
Some were cosmetic. The main character in Knight’s story is Peter; Serling renamed him Michael. The aliens are Kanama (singular) and Kanamit (plural) in the story; Serling makes it Kanamit (singular) and Kanamits (plural). Serling also changed the gender and identity of Michael’s translating friend. In the story, it’s a man named Gregori; in Serling’s script, it’s a woman named Susan.
But other changes were more substantial. Perhaps the most striking is the one I opened this post with: the Kanamits went from the Orc-like creatures of Knight’s story to the tall, regal, robe-clad beings in the TZ episode. Serling even added the touch about them speaking telepathically; in the story, they apparently speak like anyone else.
Perhaps Serling altered their appearance for budgetary reasons. CBS frequently pressured Serling to economize on TZ, and creating the aliens of Knight’s story sounds like it would’ve been expensive. But I think he realized that recasting the Kanamits as he did would make it easier for people to finally trust them. Sure, they’re tall and intimidating, but they’re not repulsive.
Even more importantly, he changed the structure. It’s Serling who came up with the scenes of Michael aboard the Kanamit vessel. They bookend the episode, turning the main story into a flashback. In Knight’s story, the Kanamits have already arrived, and within a few paragraphs we’re at the famous lie-detector scene (which, interestingly, is carried over to Serling’s script almost word for word).
But it’s what he does with the Big Reveal that shows Serling’s innate understanding of the TV medium.
In Knight’s telling, Gregori takes Peter aside to tell him how he cracked the code of “To Serve Man”, and the story ends with the legendary “cookbook” line. It’s literally the last sentence. In the TZ episode, Serling has Susan rush up as Michael is boarding the Kanamit ship. She blurts out the line, he looks shocked and tries vainly to escape. The vessel departs, followed by another scene of Michael aboard the ship, arguing with a Kanamit — and then addressing the audience directly (hardly the norm on TZ).
This change greatly amplifies the drama of the Big Reveal. And let’s face it — the whole episode hinges on that line. Serling (a former boxer) knew how to make a punch land. Knight draws blood in the original story, but Serling turns it into a knockout blow.
Some TZ experts, like “The Twilight Zone Companion” writer Marc Scott Zicree, have noted how deciphering the Kanamit book would have been impossible by any conventional decoding methods. Lacking a Rosetta Stone of sorts, how could they ever figure out an alien language?
Knight, to his credit, at least has Gregori work at the Kanamit embassy, where he begins learning their language, so his deciphering abilities seem more plausible. Serling simply has Susan keep powering away, and lo and behold, she does it. I think, though, that he realized everyone would be too gobsmacked by the Big Reveal to care. And he was right.
Serling wraps things up with one of his most darkly humorous narrations:
The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare … from The Twilight Zone.
Our compliments to Chefs Serling and Knight. “To Serve Man” is quite a dish.
Don’t miss: “How the Kanamits Passed the Lie-Detector Test“
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!