Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “What You Need”
It’s another rain-soaked night in town, and the usual clientele is hanging out at the Del Rio bar. The unlucky and the lovelorn are in their spots, chain-smoking and drowning their sorrows, when in walks an old man carrying a peddler’s tray.
But he’s not here to sell you just anything. This stranger claims to know what you need, not what you think you want. And whatever it happens to be, he’s offering it free of charge.
Pedott wasn’t the only one with this ability. His creator, Rod Serling, could look at a short story and know exactly what he had to do to turn it into a compelling TV story. And in the case of Lewis Padgett’s “What You Need”, he understood what was required to make it work for The Twilight Zone.
If you’ve read the entry for this episode in Marc Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, you may recall that the original story “concerned a scientist who invented a machine that read people’s probable futures and who then gave them what they needed to be guided in a certain direction.”
True enough, but — as I’ve discovered in looking more closely at several other episodes that Serling adapted from the work of other writers — it’s interesting to look at what he kept and what he discarded. He retained a bit more than just the basic idea, as we’ll see. Overall, though, his changes were fairly substantial.
The story by Padgett (a pen name for writers Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore) first appeared in the October 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Yet it was first dramatized not on The Twilight Zone, but on an earlier anthology series, Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. Serling was no stranger to the series; he “not only submitted plot ideas,” writes Martin Grams Jr., “but was a frequent viewer as well.”
So Serling was surely in the audience when Tales aired its version of “What You Need” on February 8, 1952. You can watch it on YouTube. If you do, you’ll see a face that may look familiar to many TZ fans: Edgar Stehli, who played Sam Kittridge, the old professor in “Long Live Walter Jameson” — the one who figured out the secret behind Walter’s eternal youth.
The Tales version took some liberties, but they’re pretty cosmetic. For the most part, we get a faithful rendition of the Padgett story. But when TZ producer Buck Houghton pitched the idea of doing it for The Twilight Zone, Serling decided to retool it completely.
In the story, the scientist runs an exclusive shop on Park Avenue, catering to a wealthy clientele that comes in periodically to get mysterious items. A reporter named Tim Carmichael has been staking it out, drawn by the prospect of a juicy scoop. Why are rich, famous people slipping into an unassuming shop and paying thousands of dollars for seemingly ordinary items, such as an egg or a revolver?
Carmichael confronts the shop owner, a man named Peter Talley. Talley insists that there’s no scoop here. Nothing nefarious is going on. He simply supplies his clientele with what they need. How he knows is his own business.
But the reporter isn’t put off so easily. He continues probing until Talley agrees to help him with what he needs — and for a nominal fee: $5 (payable when he’s satisfied it was the right item) and a promise that he won’t come back again.
And what’s the item? A pair of scissors. Hmm, sound familiar, Twilight Zone fans?
A pair of scissors is what Pedott, the kindly old man of Serling’s tale, gives to Renard. That’s who Carmichael has become in the TZ version: a dangerous thug who makes it plain to Pedott that the only way to avoid bodily harm is to keep supplying these uniquely helpful items.
In the Tales of Tomorrow version, the scissors come in handy when Carmichael is at his newspaper, arguing with his editor, and gets his scarf caught in a linotype machine. Pulling out the blades that he got from Talley, he’s able to snip the scarf before he’s strangled to death.
The same thing happens to Renard on Twilight Zone, except his scarf is caught in an elevator. Like Carmichael, he pulls the life-saving shears out just in time and cuts himself free.
Carmichael, now convinced, goes back to the shop, and Talley finally explains:
“There are innumerable possible variants to the future. Different lines of probability. All depending on the outcome of various crises as they arise. I happen to be skilled in certain branches of electronics. Some years ago, almost by accident, I stumbled on the principle of seeing the future.”
“Chiefly it involves a personal focus on the individual. The moment you enter this place” — he gestured — “you’re in the beam of my scanner. In my back room I have the machine itself. By turning a calibrated dial, I check the possible futures. Sometimes there are many. Sometimes only a few. As though at times certain stations weren’t broadcasting. I look into my scanner and see what you need — and supply it.”
I have to admit, that’s a pretty cool description. The science-fiction fan in me enjoys it. But Twilight Zone really wasn’t a sci-fi show, despite its reputation as such. It was more of a fantasy series that relied on sci-fi elements, but in a relatively bare-bones way, and for a simple reason: Serling preferred to focus on the human side.
He wasn’t going to waste one second more than he had to on hardware. He wanted to get to the heart.
So in his version of “What You Need”, Pedott simply knows the future. It washes over him, unbidden, like a psychic wave. There’s no gadgetry involved.
When a young woman asks for matches, he brushes her money aside. You don’t need matches, miss. You need spot cleaner. The reason will become apparent a few minutes later, when the young man to whom Pedott has given a bus ticket realizes that his only suit jacket — the one he’ll be going to a key job interview in — has a spot on it. (Since Pedott could have given the man some spot cleaner as well, it seems he’s trying to arrange a little romance.)
And when it becomes apparent that the rapacious Renard isn’t going anywhere, Pedott gives him the infamous “slippery shoes” … moments before a car comes roaring down the street, running him down on the wet pavement that Renard slips on in his new footwear.
For a moment, it looks as if Pedott has turned to homicide to rid himself of a pest, but Serling makes it immediately clear that it was preemptive self-defense. “Mr. Renard, what I saw in your eyes at that bar was death — my death,” Pedott says over Renard’s body. “You were going to kill me.”
It’s a bit more complicated in the Padgett story. We see Talley use his machine to look far into the future — a decade, in fact, before he sees his demise at Carmichael’s hands. “The lapse of ten years can cover a multitude of changes,” we read. “A man with the possibility of tremendous power almost within his grasp can alter, in time, from a man who will not reach for it to a man who will — moral values be damned.”
In the beginning, Talley notices “little evil” in Carmichael. But eventually, Talley sees, the reporter will change. And the day will come when he enters the shop and observes Talley peering through the machine’s eyepiece:
“Carmichael looked covetously at the eyepiece. It was the window and doorway to a power beyond any man’s dreams. Wealth beyond imagining lay just within that tiny opening. The rights over the life and death of every man alive. And nothing between that fabulous future and himself except the man who sat looking at the machine.”
In this far-off day, Carmichael raises a gun and shoots Talley dead. So what does present-day Talley decide the reporter needs? Slippery shoes. Though even then, he wrestles with his conscience. He buys two pairs: one with slippery soles and one with rough soles.
He finally opts for the one with slippery soles and watches the future unfold:
“Carmichael, standing on a crowded subway platform, glittering with oily wetness from some overflow. Carmichael, in the slick-soled shoes Talley had chosen for him. A commotion in the crowd, a surge toward the platform edge. Carmichael’s feet slipping frantically as the train roared by.”
The story ends with Talley pondering the ramifications of the power that, for reasons unknown, had been placed in his hands. He was giving the world what it needed. That meant helping those who were good and thwarting those who were evil.
Serling simplified the tale considerably. And yet in making it smaller and more human, he also enlarged it — and turned it into a memorable TZ episode. It’s just, yes, what we need.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!