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Thursday, April 15, 2021

“The Long Rain” • Review by Peter Wood

There have been very few good visual adaptions of Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Bradbury adapted his own novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, in 1983; “The Elevator” (1985) in the reboot of the Twilight Zone; several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Almost all other adaptions are cringe-worthy. Most episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater are hard to endure, thanks largely to wooden acting and poor production values.

My favorite Ray Bradbury adaption is “The Long Rain” segment of the otherwise forgettable 1969 film, The Illustrated Man. Skip the rest of the movie, as well as the version of “The Long Rain” that ran on The Ray Bradbury Theater and starred Marc Singer.

“The Long Rain,” first published in 1950 and republished in several anthologies including the Illustrated Man, tells the story of four astronauts who have crashed on Venus where it is always raining. They stumble about in the downpour seeking shelter. It’s the rare story that is more about setting than plot.  The astronauts are pretty forgettable and could have been lifted from any of a million cookie-cutter war movies.

That’s fine, because the deluge becomes more or less a character. Just take a look at the first paragraph, where Bradbury describes the rain before introducing any of the characters.

THE rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Bradbury highlights how little the humans matter by following this with a half-page of dialogue without tags. Nobody is identified. Make no mistake about it. This story is about the rain.

Don’t believe me? Check out the passage after the dialogue.

The two men sat together in the rain. Behind them sat two other men who were wet and tired and slumped like clay that was melting. The lieutenant looked up. He had a face that once had been brown and now the rain had washed it pale, and the rain had washed the color from his eyes and they were white, as were his teeth, and as was his hair. He was all white. Even his uniform was beginning to turn white, and perhaps a little green with fungus.

Holy crap. The rain is literally destroying the humanity of the four men who still aren’t identified.

This is a rare feat, to make the setting the center of a story. Frank Herbert pulls this off, I think, in Dune where the desert planet, Arrakis is so vividly described that the characters almost become secondary.  The planet in Hyperion by Dan Simmons dwarfs the characters and is never out of mind. The frozen landscape of Jupiter in Desertion by Arthur C. Clarke eclipses the puny humans who dare to colonize the planet.

Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind. David Lean’s masterpiece is as much about the desert as the characters and should be seen on the big screen.

The film of The Illustrated Man misses the mark completely on two of its stories, “The Last Night of the World” and “The Veldt.” Director Jack Smight only succeeds with “The Long Rain.” To be fair, he was a bit out of his league with a theatrical release. Most of his career, Smight only directed television. One of his  best TV credits is the Twilight Zone episode, “The Lonely,” where Jack Warden is imprisoned alone on a desert asteroid. Smight in that episode also emphasizes setting over character at times for good effect. He filmed the episode in Death Valley.

Speaking of The Twilight Zone, the original only adapted one Bradbury story, “ I Sing the Body Electric.” Marc Scott Zicree ponders in The Twilight Zone Companion why Rod  Serling didn’t use more Bradbury. He notes that there were budget constraints for some adaptions.

To be fair to Smight, Bradbury doesn’t translate well to film or television.  If Serling couldn’t pull it off, why should we expect Smight to succeed? Bradbury had much greater success with radio plays where his words have more effect. X Minus One adapted “The Veldt,” “Marionettes, Inc.,” “Mars is Heaven!,”  “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “To the Future,” “Dwellers in Silence,” “And The Moon Be Still as Bright,” and “Zero Hour” for radio in the early 1950s, and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. Those versions rely on Bradbury’s prose and the listener’s imagination, not hokey special effects or scenery chewing.


“The Long Rain” stars Oscar-winner Rod Steiger as the leader of the stranded astronauts. Soaked to the skin, he shouts over the rain, as his men slog through the mud. Like the story, the characters are secondary. No backstories. Just men fighting a losing battle against the elements. Why it works so well is that it’s not hard to do some serious world building with minimal sets and special effects. The men are beaten down and frankly don’t have a whole lot to say. The rain is front and center, just like in the short story.

It occurs to me that the other short story adaption that succeeds is also about people losing their humanity to a degree and being overwhelmed by nature. In the second version of the Twilight Zone “The Elevator” runs a little long, but it’s worth checking out for the genuinely shocking ending that comes out of nowhere, yet makes perfect sense after a moment’s reflection.

If you want a Bradbury story on Venus that is character-driven, check out “All Summer in a Day.” The rains on Venus only stop once ever seven years for two hours and young school children anxiously await the sun, which most have never seen. And, if you’ve read Bradbury stories like “The Playground,” you know what he thinks of children.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a tour de force the writing is in “The Long Rain.” Bradbury ruminates about rain for over five thousand words without ever getting stale. I have had over sixty short stories published and I can’t imagine writing about rain for a paragraph.

The only work that might surpass “The Long Rain” for ingenuity of prose is The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard. Part of his end-of-the-world trilogy that included the Drowned World and the Burning World, Ballard imagines Armageddon where the world is turning to crystal. Try to write a paragraph about crystal. Ballard wrote a novel and, I swear, he never uses the same description twice.

So, next time the weatherman predicts rain, click on the television and watch the only decent part of The Illustrated Man. Then cozy up with your print copy of “The Long Rain” and imagine what it would be like if you were outside…and if the rain never stopped.

—Peter Wood




Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them


Arisia said...

My sister and I listened every week to Sherlock Holmes and X Minus 1 on the radio. Sometimes we would tune in early and have to listen to music. I remember the song "The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House" and some weird band thing created for Eisenhower's birthday. The song began with the words "Dwight D. Eisenhower" on the notes D D E D D D. The last D was an octave higher. We liked Sherlock Holmes best. X Minus 1 brought us new and strange stories. The TV version later was very poor in comparison.

Pete Wood said...

Great memories!
I used to buy cassette tapes of old radio shows when I was a kid. I always had at least one X minus one in every order.