Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “It’s a Good Life”
“It’s an adaptation of what has been called one of the most terrifying modern fantasies ever written.” — Rod Serling on “It’s a Good Life”
One key to being a good editor is knowing what to change — and what to leave alone. Change for the sake of change is a rookie mistake.
Rod Serling knew that well. When he bought the rights to a story for use on The Twilight Zone, he did exactly what was necessary to make it work for television. No more, no less.
Sometimes — as with “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” — that meant making some pretty drastic changes. Other times — with, say, “To Serve Man” — he presented the written story a bit more faithfully.
In the case of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, it was more than a bit. Bixby had already provided a very visual story, so Serling transferred much of what we find on the page to the screen.
But he did make a few interesting changes.
Both versions begin with Bill Soames delivering groceries to the Fremont household. Aunt Amy is on the porch, her mind “snapped” for a previous transgression. And there’s Anthony with an animal. Serling, however, has him playing with a three-headed gopher that he simply wishes dead. In Bixby’s story, it’s more gruesome: Anthony has a rat that he forces to eat itself until it expires.
Everyone in both versions is looking forward to Dan Hollis’s birthday party, and each gathering ends just as lethally for the guest of honor. Anthony makes television in both, and everyone seems — of course! — overly delighted. Bixby, though, provides no description of what they’re seeing. For some reason, the TZ version gives us claymation dinosaurs. (Well, he IS a little boy, so I guess that’s logical.)
Each version has one wholly unique scene. Serling gives us a conversation between father and son that provides a horrifying glimpse of how unpredictably homicidal Anthony can be. The bit where he looks out the window and mentally kills Bill Soames’s dog? All Serling. That didn’t happen in Bixby’s version.
What did happen was a sort of “Anthony out in nature” scene that Serling wisely omitted. We follow the boy out into a shady grove that he created for the local wildlife:
Here Anthony liked to rest and watch the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. He liked to lie on the cool ground and look up through the moving greenness overhead, and watch the insects flit in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops.
Somehow, he liked the thoughts of the little creatures in this place better than the thoughts outside; and while the thoughts he picked up here weren’t very strong or very clear, he could get enough out of them to know what the little creatures liked and wanted, and he spent a lot of time making the grove more like what they wanted it to be.
That last part points to another interesting difference between Bixby’s story and Serling’s script. Bixby emphasizes how Anthony tries to help everyone, but winds up doing it ineptly in many instances. He somehow seems a bit more innocent in the original story. He’s just as destructive, but you get the impression that he actually means well, at least most of the time.
Indeed, he can even be something of an imp. For example, in the episode, Bill Soames delivers the groceries, then simply leaves. His exit in Bixby’s story, however, is a bit more comical:
As Bill Soames pumped the pedals, he was wishing deep down that he could pump twice as fast, to get away from Anthony all the faster, and away from Aunt Amy, who sometimes just forgot how careful you had to be. And he shouldn’t have thought that. Because Anthony caught it. He caught the desire to get away from the Fremont house as if it was something bad, and his purple gaze blinked and he snapped a small, sulky thought after Bill Soames — just a small one, because he was in a good mood today, and besides, he liked Bill Soames, or at least didn’t dislike him, at least today. Bill Soames wanted to go away–so, petulantly, Anthony helped him.
Pedaling with superhuman speed–or rather, appearing to, because in reality the bicycle was pedaling him–Bill Soames vanished down the road in a cloud of dust, his thin, terrified wail drifting back across the heat.
Bixby also emphasizes how people take care to mumble when they’re around Anthony. Why? As we learn early on during Bill’s delivery:
He always mumbled when he came to the Fremont house, or passed by it, or even thought of it. Everybody did. They thought about silly things, things that didn’t mean very much, like two-and-two-is-four-and-twice-is-eight and so on; they tried to jumble up their thoughts to keep them skipping back and forth, so Anthony couldn’t read their minds. The mumbling helped. Because if Anthony got anything strong out of your thoughts, he might take a notion to do something about it.
As for Dan’s demise, well, there’s nothing about a jack-in-the-box. And no taunting from him either, or pleas for someone to kill Anthony while he’s occupied. He’s drunk, sure, and slamming around, and he does mutter accusingly at Anthony’s parents. (“You had to go and have him”.) But other than that, he’s just singing “You Are My Sunshine”, and then:
“Bad man,” Anthony said, and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield.
That was a fine story you wrote, Mr. Bixby. Real fine. And Mr. Serling, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a more perfect adaptation! It was good. Real good.
To read Bixby’s short story, click here. And don’t miss the other “Re-Zoning” posts: https://thenightgallery.wordpress.com/serlings-re-zoning-efforts/
For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!