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”?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Don’t miss “There Was Time Now …” and “Time Enough at Last: The One That Haunts People

***

To read Lynn Venable’s story, click here. For more comparisons of how Serling adapted previous works as Twilight Zone episodes, click here.

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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 07/19/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I still say there’s a special place in Sci-Fi hell for Helen (and Janie, and the mother who forced her daughter to have the transformation and…I better stop).

    Great post, Paul. I didn’t know anything about the story this was adapted from. I read this like Henry would have. :)

    • You mean while looking out for Mrs. Antion? xD Glad you enjoyed it, Dan. This series is one of my favorites, because I’ve always been curious about what Serling had to work with when he did these adaptations. They’ve made me even more impressed with his talent, if you can believe it!

  2. “Oh, that’s not fair…” Great summary of a great episode!

  3. I didn’t know that “Time Enough at Last” came from a short story. Thanks for supplying the link.

    IMO, Serling’s words and visuals enhanced an already great idea. Allowing the viewer to really see through Henry’s eyes and experience his joy, frustration, and ultimately, his terrible fate.

    As usual another great post! :-)

  4. This has always been my favourite episode. Great characters, great acting – Henry was adorably ignorant and obsessed with reading, how could you not love him, cheer for his strange good luck and feel terrible for the awful turn of events? A very humorous tale with the simple but effective trademark TZ trick ending. Its one failing might be one that my wife recently pointed out to me: its logic. Although there is significant damage everywhere, it’s possible that he could find another pair of glasses intact somewhere, perhaps in the rubble of a store.

    • Very true, CJ. Henry is hard to dislike. As for the logic end, I see what you mean. I’ve kidded for years that surely he walked on and located an optometrist’s office or something like that, and found a pair he could use. Though I imagine Henry’s was a rather special prescription …

  5. I totally agree with Mr. Bemis; this was NOT fair.
    But don’t you just love the way he tries to impress the bank customer with his commentary on the name “Murdstone?”
    That part tickles me pink!
    Of course, our dear lady wasn’t impressed!

  6. Interesting comments and points of view!

    Whether or not Serling and Venable intended any of this, I look at BOTH Bemis and Helen as bringing on their own private hells. Sure, the wife, that’s “obvious”…but I believe Bemis himself brings on his own hell because he’s ignoring life and others! I never saw it as he never has enough time to read…I always saw it as he’s ignoring everyone and life TO read. Everyone can find time to read…but he’s (IMHO) being stupid and rude about it. I’ve never liked this episode because I’ve never liked Bemis! If I were his wife…constantly ignored over the course of their relationship because he wants to have his nose in a book?!…I would have left him…or created a scenario where the wife takes him out or destroys his precious glasses/books/sight or forever his ability to be self absorbed. She’s a “shrew” because she’s had to live with Bemis and his self-absorbed behavior! The sixties or not, Helen should have left Bemis–or made him pay. They both brought on their end results. To me he’s not a cute little nerd who wants to “complete a book”–I never get that no matter how many times I see that episode–but a self-absorbed fool who wants to escape reality and all personal interaction…and in the end…he couldn’t.

  7. Well, okay, he finally escaped PEOPLE…but not reality. :-P

    • Talk about interesting — I always enjoy getting another angle on TZ, Frank. I mean, this is a series designed not simply to entertain, but to get people to think. It makes sense that a huge fan favorite like “Time Enough at Last” would provoke some good discussion.

      I know I sound pretty sympathetic to Henry here, and for the most part, I am. That doesn’t mean I think he’s above reproach. In fact, in the discussion that ensued on my first “Time Enough” post (https://thenightgallery.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/there-was-time-now/) — where I said I never liked the ending because it didn’t seem just to punish Henry so harshly — and elsewhere, I’ve had people say that, viewed a certain way, Henry DOES merit this ending. After all, once he finds the books and realizes he’s got “all the time” he needs, he seems all too ready to forget the carnage all around him. And you know, that view makes sense to me. We can’t really let him off the hook, at least not totally.

      But I don’t think we should swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Henry’s a little odd, a bit dense, and too self-absorbed. He’s a little like a child. He’s clueless, not villainous. His social sins flow not from any malice, but from the fact that he’s so wrapped up in his own little world. (I’m sure that some of the sympathy that I and many other fans feel for him flows from Burgess Meredith’s appealing performance, but I think it’s also there in the script.) He deserves some comeuppance for his social myopia, but to smash his glasses (thereby putting him back into a state where he may well consider suicide again; it’s only the sight of the books that keeps him from pulling the trigger, as you may recall)? To quote what you said on the previous post, it’s “a very unsatisfying ending … [t]he punishment did NOT fit the crime.”

      As for his wife, I don’t doubt she’s in her own “private hell”, and that’s unfortunate. But let’s not forget that she’s not someone who’s simply pining for Henry’s attention — she seems to value him primarily as a prop to help herself look good in front of the neighbors. I think if we were supposed to pity her in even a small way, Serling wouldn’t have her sadistically defacing his book and getting a big kick out of tearing it up in front of him. He could easily have portrayed her like Walter Bedeker’s wife in “Escape Clause,” who we DO pity. But he didn’t.

      One thing’s for sure: As long as The Twilight Zone endures, people are going to be arguing about this remarkable episode. Thanks for contributing to this latest thread, Frank!

      • Wow—my own words used against me! Man, I feel like a Democratic Presidential Candidate! :-P Well, let me just say that when I spoke with the FBI they felt that I was trustworthy and that my response IS consistent with all I’ve said publicly!

        Perhaps I’ve “grown” since my last reply to that post! Or I was “in a mood.” Or I was being PC and just playing off the purely superficial aspects of the story. Or I just changed my mind, or…. :-]

        Sure, on the face of it, I don’t feel that the punishment fit the crime…just purely going off of the superficial values and presentation of the *script*…but the more I’d thought about it…really peeled away at the ol’ onion and examined the STORY…the more I was honest about how I really FELT about the story—then factored in how everyone seemed to be lamenting “poor, old bookworm,” swatting at Evil Helen—well, guess it just got to me and totally short-circuited my “PC” circuitry! :-] I really found nothing “adorable” about Bemis from the get-go. Not one thing. Helen’s no jewel, either (two wrongs…), but I’m extrapolating backward. For one thing how could these two individuals have possibly had anything in common to fall in love/get married?! His position at the bank certainly hadn’t exactly been a “stepping stone” for Helen. So, why would she marry the freak? Stay with him? How had anything in this bookwormish bank teller’s life attracted a “woman of her stature”? There had to be something? So I assumed, okay…maybe they really had been in love…been redeeming qualities…but then Bemis really went “sideways” and got all complacent (like many spouses can become) and took her for granted and focused more and more on his BOOKS, since he already had the companionship part down (but why would he ever even need this if all he ever wanted to do was read, if he was this way from the beginning?), etc.

        *BOOM*

        That’s where my mind went. If she’d been such a bitch at the onset, would he have married her? Doubt it (would have been far too much to manage with all his reading he needed to get done)…but possible. But she must have had recessive “bitch-like qualities” that surfaced after years and years of being ignored by said bookworm (and many of us know how viciously vitriolic seemingly nice people can be once sensed they have been wronged). That’s all…that’s where my more updated thinking went. Sure, it’s cool to see the end results of stories like this, but I always reverse engineer such “logical conclusions” to see if the stories really could be “real” or make a serious “make sense of life” life of the characters involved! That’s why I take issues with some of the TZ stories, because that don’t all make “logical” sense, in a verisimilitude-like way. Why would someone just do something that is SO out-of-character for them? Just to present a story? That’s the easy way out—I’m not saying Mr. Serling ever did that, and I realize he had studio execs to answer to that ate into his creativity (and do we really know what Mr. Serling was thinking when he wrote this episode and how execs might have changed it? Was he under some constraint where he couldn’t flesh the story out more?)—but that is where MY thinking goes. Backstory. Logical conclusions. Verisimilitude. Making sense. Tying up loose ends.

        And, yes, even in the Twilight Zone, there is a definite “sense” that is made! I’m not saying I’m right…it’s just MY opinion based on what I know as a writer goes into stories. Each of us are totally entitled to not only our opinions, but our points of view! As you say, it makes all this blog stuff fun and interesting! Thanks for presenting such thought provoking posts! :-]

        DANG that was long.

      • Long, yes, but I get it! Opinions can change over time, and even if they don’t do a 180, they can still shift quite a bit.

        I doubt Serling put a lot of thought into Helen’s backstory, to be honest. When it gets right down to it, this episode is about getting to the punch line, so to speak, and having a harpy wife who will make viewers feel sorry for Henry (regardless of her motivation) is one of the ways for him to get from Point A to Point B.

        I don’t mean that backstory and believability were unimportant to him — not at all. I just think they took a back seat here to making that final scene hit us square in the solar plexus.

  8. Hi. Thank you for registering to participate in the Cherished Blogfest 2016. I look forward to reading your post.

  9. I remember this episode and followed Burgess Meredith in many movies. He was a great character actor. Lynn Venables tale was enhanced by Serling’s developing conversation and highlighting the evil ways of the wife, “Helen.”
    I am so glad you let us know how Rod Serling changed the stories written by those famous authors. When Richard Matheson passed away, I featured his ability to come up with unique gimmicks like the gremlin in the plane wing. I didn’t realize the dialogue would have come from R. Serling. This makes sense, Paul. :)

  10. I love “Time Enough at Last” with Meredith, but I also love “The Seventh Millimeter Shrine” with Lupino,”What You Need” is really good,”Walking Distance” is brilliant,”Where is Everybody?” Is phenomenal,and there is another one I like but I don’t remember it’s name…it’s in Season 1 and it has the guy who can change his face into anything,if you have the answer please tell me.

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