Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “The Hitch-Hiker”
“Do as much — or as little — as necessary.”
A boss of mine told me that once. My job as an editor entailed taking articles written by technical experts and rendering them into layman-friendly English. Some of these experts were terrible writers. Others were quite good. Many were in between.
The trick was not to do less than you had to, but also not to do more. If it was a solid piece, don’t do a rewrite job simply to justify your existence. Leave the good stuff intact.
I don’t know if anyone expressly taught that lesson to Rod Serling, but he clearly understood it. In my series of posts exploring his Twilight Zone scripts adapted from other writers’ work, I’ve seen stories where he did a lot, ones where he did a little, and others that fall somewhere in the middle.
This time I’m taking a closer look at a real fan favorite from Season 1: “The Hitch-Hiker.” It provides an excellent example of Serling knowing when to stay out of the way.
Oh, he made some changes, as we’ll see — some rather key ones. But the story that unfolds before our eyes is very close to what unfolded before people’s ears when this tale first aired on radio almost 20 years earlier. (Spoilers ahead, so, if you need to, go here for ways you can see the episode first.)
“The Hitch-Hiker,” written by Lucille Fletcher, debuted on November 17, 1941 on CBS Radio. It was staged by the legendary Orson Welles, who both narrated the play and served as the lead character. Wait, you may say, he played a female character? Nope. In its original form, “The Hitch-Hiker” was the story of a man on a coast-to-coast drive, not a woman.
That was Serling’s most notable change. “Ronald Adams” became “Nan Adams.” (Nan, incidentally, is a nickname for his youngest daughter, Ann.) Fletcher didn’t like it, but it’s hard to fault Serling’s choice here. He surely realized that the dramatic potential of placing a lone young woman in peril — particularly on TV versus radio — was higher than if he depicted a man feeling threatened by another man.
The casting of Inger Stevens proves Serling was right. Her performance is perfect. She’s clearly a capable individual, undertaking a trip that would challenge anyone, male or female. She banters easily with the mechanic who changes her tire at the outset of the episode. And yet she’s entirely credible as she gradually slides into a desperate panic as the hitch-hiker appears again and again no matter how far she drives.
Nan isn’t the only character Serling gender-swapped. In the radio play, Ronald picks up a hitch-hiker, but it’s a woman, not the sailor we see in the episode. She even takes off her shoes after getting in the car. Though she says, “My dogs are killing me,” not “My feet feel like two hot bricks,” which always makes me think poor Nan probably wished she had a strong air-freshener handy.
Another Serling touch: the scene with Nan’s tire being changed in Pennsylvania. There’s no scene like this in the radio version. It’s a great addition, though, as it provides a natural explanation for what really happened to her once we get to the big reveal. Nan wasn’t fleeing a man who wanted to harm her. She was dodging the horrible truth: She didn’t survive the tire blow-out.
In the radio play, there’s no hint of an roadside mishap until the end, when Ronald learns that he was in an accident on the Brooklyn Bridge, where he first spots the “thin, nondescript” hitch-hiker. There are no foreshadowing lines like when Nan pays the mechanic and quips that the bill ($29.70 in 1959; $274.75 today) is “cheaper than a funeral.”
And the conversation about whether there are many hitch-hikers along the interstate takes place with a gas-station attendant, not the diner owner that Nan talks to.
The voice-over narration that we get in the episode, however, is a device that Serling carried over from the radio. Ronald talks to us throughout the play, just as Nan does throughout the episode. In describing the hitch-hiker, he says: “There was nothing sinister about him. He was as drab as a mud fence, nor was his attitude menacing. He merely stood there waiting, almost drooping a little, the cheap overnight bag in his hand.”
Subtract the bag, and that’s exactly the vibe we get from actor Leonard Strong. Nan even uses similar language to describe him: “not menacing … drab, a little mousey.” He doesn’t look the least bit scary, but the way he keeps popping up or disappearing is unnerving — as he does before and after Nan’s terrifying few minutes in a stalled car on some train tracks.
Here’s a good example of a scene that plays better on TV. I’m a big fan of old radio shows, and I greatly admire their ability to paint a vivid picture with good voice actors and the right music and sound effects.
But it’s one thing to hear Ronald tell us: “Then, something went wrong with the car. It stalled right on the tracks. The train was coming closer. I could hear its bell, its cry, its whistle crying! Still he stood there. Now I knew that he was beckoning, beckoning me to my death.” It’s another to see Nan frantically trying to restart the car while we see the train bearing down on her.
Both Fletcher and Serling, though, were such good writers. I don’t mean merely in the sense of coming up with interesting characters and compelling scenes; I mean in the words they chose. Consider how both the radio play and the TV show end with the main character calling home. Ronald says:
“I went inside and asked if there was a telephone. I had the feeling that if I could speak to somebody familiar, somebody that I loved, I could pull myself together … I’d read somewhere that love could banish demons. It was in the middle of the morning. I knew mother’d be home. I pictured her tall, white-haired in her crisp house-dress, going about her tasks. It’d be enough, I thought, just to hear the even calmness of her voice.”
While Nan relates:
“There’s a pay phone outside, and I’m going to call home. Back to New York. Put in a call to my mother so I can speak to someone familiar. Someone I love. Someone to bring back reality to me. Just a voice. A warm, familiar voice so I won’t lose my mind.” And as we watch Stevens apprehensively dialing the phone and waiting for an answer, we hope this poor woman we’ve been watching for the last 20 minutes will get the reassurance she’s seeking.
Both of them get the answer, all right, and while it’s not the one they expected, it seems to bring them a measure of peace. Ronald’s call ends, then:
“And so I’m sitting here in this deserted auto camp in Gallup, New Mexico. … I’m trying to get a hold of myself. Otherwise … I’ll go crazy. Outside it is night. The vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa and mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me — somewhere. Somewhere I shall know who he is and who I am.”
That’s where the radio version ends. On The Twilight Zone, it plays out like this:
“The fear has left me now. I’m numb. I have no feeling. It’s as if someone had pulled out some kind of a plug in me and everything — emotion, feeling, fear — has drained out. And now I’m a cold shell.
“I’m conscious of things around me now. The vast night of Arizona. The stars that look down from the darkness. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them, he’s waiting for me. Somewhere I’ll find who he is … I’ll find out what he wants. But just now … for the first time, looking out at the night, I think I know.”
And then Serling puts the perfect bow on the package: Nan gets back in the car, adjusts the mirror, and sees the hitch-hiker in her back seat. And he utters that immortal line: “I believe you’re going … my way?”
And that, for my money, is Serling’s most lasting contribution to this story. Not once in the radio play does the hitch-hiker say the line that is forever associated with the TZ episode: “Going my way?” He speaks a couple of times, yes, but he never utters that signature phrase — a three-word sentence that I have had tweet-replied to me every time I quote this episode on my Twitter page.
It’s like “It’s a cookbook!” Or “My name is Talky Tina.” Or “It’s not fair!” So many legendary Twilight Zones have their own catchphrase, and “The Hitch-Hiker” is no exception.
Here’s another fun fact: Both the radio play and the TZ episode feature a peerless music score by Bernard Herrmann, who was married to Lucille Fletcher at the time she wrote the play.
You can read the original version of “The Hitch-Hitcher” (which was performed more than once, with small wording changes here and there) at this link. Or, better yet, you can listen to Welles perform it when it aired on a very popular show called “Suspense” at this link.
And of course you can enjoy it on The Twilight Zone. However you experience it, I’m sure you’ll be glad you went along for the ride.
To read about other stories Serling adapted for The Twilight Zone, click here.
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!