Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “Time Enough at Last”
How could I not have started my series of posts reviewing Serling’s Twilight Zone adaptations with “Time Enough at Last”?
We’re talking about a huge fan favorite — one that is arguably the most well-known episode. It’s also the first non-Serling tale that aired, after seven originals opened the series in the fall of 1959.
I guess I was too intrigued to chronicle what Serling had done to stories by such legendary TZ scribes as Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson. His changes there amounted to a complete overhaul. And it was fun to examine the remarkable work he did to bring Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man” to the screen.
But before he turned to those scripts, he choose to adapt Lynn Venable’s short story about a poor man who … well, as she put it:
For a long time, Henry Bemis had had an ambition. To read a book. Not just the title or the preface, or a page somewhere in the middle. He wanted to read the whole thing, all the way through from beginning to end. A simple ambition perhaps, but in the cluttered life of Henry Bemis, an impossibility.
Readers of the January 1953 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction were probably accustomed to wilder openings than that, but they were (obviously) readers, so I’m sure they could immediately relate. Who couldn’t? In short order, we know this frustrated bibliophile has a wife and a boss who take up much of his time — and thick glasses that take up much of his face.
Venable is concise. By the fifth paragraph, Henry is happily reading in the bank vault, and the bomb has dropped. He spends the rest of the story making his way through the wreckage, horrified at the rampant destruction and shocked by the solitude he’s suddenly inherited.
Then he discovers the library, and you know the rest. Elation: “He had been conducting himself a little like a starving man in a delicatessen — grabbing a little of this and a little of that in a frenzy of enjoyment.” Devastation: “The shelf moved; threw him off balance. The glasses slipped from his nose and fell with a tinkle.”
So if the main story was there, what did Serling contribute? Quite a bit, actually.
Dialogue, for one thing. Except for a flashback scene in which we see Henry the Henpecked try to sneak in some reading before Agnes can catch him (Serling renamed her “Helen”), there isn’t one spoken word in the entire story, unless you count him calling for Mr. Carsville, his boss, after the bomb levels the bank.
In the process, of course, Serling greatly enhanced the characterizations. We see Henry trying to communicate his love of David Copperfield to an impatient customer, then endure a bit of lecturing from his boss. As we see his enthusiasm rebuffed, then listen to him tell of his travails at home (where he can’t even read the condiment bottles!), our heart goes out to this little dreamer.
Every word in those scenes, along with what Henry says to himself as he walks around after the blast, vainly trying to soothe himself, came from Serling.
Even the scene with Agnes/Helen is different — and tellingly so.
In the story, Agnes breezes in as he reads the newspaper, snatches it out of his hands, and tosses it into the fireplace before telling him to get ready for their bridge night:
“They’ll be here in thirty minutes and I’m not dressed yet, and here you are … reading.” She had emphasized the last word as though it were an unclean act.
Helen, however, isn’t just a rude nag. She’s cruel. She tricks Henry into thinking she wants to hear him read some poetry, all so she can see his face when he realizes she’s defaced his book. That’s a whole new level of villainy. Even someone who hates poetry would feel like slapping this shrew and telling her to leave the man alone.
By doing all of this, Serling is laying the groundwork for that final moment. It hits like a punch because of the enormous amount of sympathy he’s built up in the previous scenes. And Burgess Meredith plays the material to perfection, so we’re primed for quite a fall.
Television is a visual medium, of course, so Serling can also show what Venable has to describe. Throughout the episode, we see Henry’s eyes behind those huge glasses — a constant reminder of how much he depends on them. Directly after the blast, Venable writes:
Assured that nothing was broken, he tenderly raised a hand to his eyes. His precious glasses were intact, thank God! He would never have been able to find his way out of the shattered vault without them.
But in the filmed episode, we see the rubble coming into focus as Henry slips his glasses back into place.
So when those glasses smash at the end, it’s like an arrow to the chest. “He stared down at the blurred page before him,” Venable concludes her story. “He began to cry.”
Serling, ever one to make a larger point, wraps the episode up like this:
The best laid plans of mice and men … and Henry Bemis … the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis … in the Twilight Zone.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!