Compared to writers of fiction, screenwriters practice an invisible craft. They are overshadowed by actors, writers and directors. Much of the writing itself – the concise description of what should happen in a scene – is never read by the public.
Compared to best-selling novelists, successful screenwriters are almost invisible.
I couldn’t help but note the passing of Richard Matheson, a prolific writer of science fiction and horror stories, who died Sunday. You may not have read his work, but you’ve probably seen it – he is best known for his screenplays for directors Jack Arnold, Rod Serling, Roger Corman, Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Dan Curtis.
I first encountered his work as a teenager when I read his short story Born of Man and Woman in an anthology of science fiction. This chilling story of a child kept chained in a basement by his parents is one of the finest examples of horror in science fiction. It was also Matheson’s first published work, appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. Matheson had a solid career as a writer of pulp fiction when he broke into the movie business with a screenplay based on one of his novels, director Jack Arnold’s classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Other writers of pulp fiction followed Matheson into the screenwriting business – most notably Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison – but Matheson was the most successful in making this transition. In many ways he was a precursor to Stephen King, another writer whose work has blurred the boundaries of fantasy, science fiction and horror. King has acknowledged his debt, calling Matheson as important in his way as (Edgar Allen) Poe or (H.P.) Lovecraft.
Matheson stories typically show isolated individuals struggling in the face of a threatening world. His own children nicknamed their dad Mr. Paranoia. In his novel The Shrinking Man (1956), familiar creatures like housecats and spiders become terrifying monsters to the tiny protagonist. In his most famous novel, I Am Legend (1954), Matheson probably invented the concept of the zombie apocalypse. American poet and critic Dan Schneider has called it perhaps the greatest novel written on human loneliness. There have been no fewer than three movie adaptations of that novel – The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007). Matheson was not particularly happy with any of these adaptations. He wrote the screenplay for the 1964 movie, which starred Vincent Price, but was so dissatisfied with the quality of the movie that he insisted the screenplay be credited to the fictitious Logan Swanson. His problem with the later versions were simply that they failed to follow his book. George Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead was probably closer to the spirit of Matheson’s novel than any of the actual adaptations.
My own favorite movie based on a Matheson story is the 1980 film Somewhere in Time starring the late Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, which is based on Matheson’s 1975 novel Bid Time Return. Matheson himself believed that this novel, where love transcends time, and the 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, where love transcends death, were his finest works. He also wrote the screenplay for the underrated movie of the same name, which featured a brilliant acting performance by Robin Williams.
Besides screenplays based on his own fiction, Matheson also had a successful career adapting others’ works for the screen. He wrote the screenplay for the TV miniseries based on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. He also adapted Edgar Allen Poe’s work for four of Roger Corman’s classic horror films House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). All four films starred Vincent Price. His adaptation of journalist Jeff Rice’s unpublished novel The Kolchak Papers into the 1972 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker was the highest-rated TV film in history at the time of its airing. He also wrote the sequel, The Night Strangler (1972), and co-authored a third screenplay for the series with William Nolan which became the basis for the short-lived TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. All of these starred Darren McGavin and were produced by Dan Curtis, best known for Dark Shadows. Chris Carter acknowledge the influence of this series on his own The X Files by naming the politician who helps Fox Mulder Sen. Richard Matheson.
His original screenplays included more than 14 scripts for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Probably the most famous is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963), starring a young William Shatner as a paranoid plane passenger who sees a gremlin dancing on the wing of a jet. He also wrote teleplays for Night Gallery, Combat, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Lawman, Star Trek and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Like Hitchcock, he occasionally took bit acting parts in some of the films he wrote. The IMDb lists more than 80 titles by Matheson.
MGM has announced that a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a screenplay co-written by Matheson and his son, Richard Jr., is in the works.