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.

Wait, what?

To Serve Man1

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 adaptedGalaxy_195011 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.

To Serve Man2

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.

To Serve Man3

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).

To Serve Man4

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?

To Serve Man5

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.

To Serve Man6

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!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 02/26/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. tommy8675309

    Wow, what a difference in description. Can’t even imagine watching this ep and seeing little green, hairy aliens going around. Cool info!

  2. Great analysis of Serling’s choices as a writer, Paul. (I wonder, though, if most people still think of the episode as ending with the cookbook line?)

    • Thanks, Mike! Yeah, there probably are plenty of viewers who think that’s the end of the episode. Time to rewatch, I say!

  3. This is what I love about this site Paul. 50+ years after the episode aired, we are still learning new information. And, (sorry Mr editor about starting with and) we are learning in a fun and interesting manner. Kudos to you for that.

    I love TZ. I can watch over and over but the next time I watch this episode, it will be new again. Thanks!

    • Really glad to hear that, Dan. I enjoy delving into the background of the show and seeing how it all came together, so I figure why not share the info with other fans?

      And ha, I actually start sentences with conjunctions fairly often. No harm, no foul! Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  4. Great insight here on Rod’s adaptations from stories. The bookends at the top and bottom are a classic example of Serling genius. Mr. Chamber’s dialogue directly to the camera, and his narration throughout the episode keep you hooked in suspense the whole episode. I love the “soon we’ll all be on the menu, all if us” said dirctly to the camera and Mr. Chambers who first refused the food, then suddenly tears into the food wildly – showing he realizes resistance is futile. And of course, Rod’s opening and closing monologues are unfailingly superb.

    • Thanks! You’re right — TSM is so well-produced from beginning to end. It took some work, too; Serling made a number of changes to it after it was in production, but it obviously paid off. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. robert balboni

    Great analysis of this episode and how the changes were made from magazine story to TV. Had not been aware of this before. A great classic episode from TZ, that’s for sure!

    • Thanks, Rob. Doing these posts makes me appreciate Serling’s talents all the more, along with those of the writers he adapted. Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Tara (box5angel)

    When you described what the Kanamits were supposed to look like, the Gremlin from Nightmare at 20,000 Feet came to mind. That’s what it looks like to me. I’m glad Rod Serling decided to change them. Great article!

    • Hmm, interesting thought! The gremlin strikes me as more furry than hairy, but on the whole, that’s a pretty good comparison. I’m certainly glad he changed them, too. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Paul, the artistic, science fiction genius who came up with the gremlin on the wing and some of the other creative ideas was someone who also wrote the Somewhere in Time movie with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeves.
    I wrote only one article or blog essay on him. I think Twilight Zone runs in my list of tags on my blog. I will see and tell you his name. He came from Cleveland. . . I am Robin, one of Dan Antion’s commenters. :)

  8. Paul, I wrote in 2013 a post, but re-blogged it including Dan Antion as the “instigator” (or inspiration for the post) about Richard Matheson. It is found either under “The Twilight Zone”, (should include “I Am Legend” or “Somewhere in Time”, but I like that he also wrote special, unique episodes of TZS.
    Have a great week! Smiles, Robin

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