Like Dickensians everywhere, I have enjoyed being caught up in the excitement of this bicentenary year. And while the focus has understandably been on Dickens’s birth and works, June 9th offered a sobering reminder that nearly 150 years have passed since his tragically premature death at the age of 58.
However, for me, and I suspect more than a few others, the recent anniversary of Dickens’s death was overshadowed by the fact that just days earlier, on June 5th, the great Ray Bradbury passed away at age 91.
Like a hero in one of his stories, I thought he would live forever. Which he will, of course, through his words. But, like Dickens, he will always be an intimate friend and the passing of his physical body was nevertheless a shock to my own personal cosmos as well as to that larger universe that we all share. That universe is now a little less bright; a little less hopeful. But, then again, there are his words and all those seeds that they planted over the past three quarters of a century.
However, it would be presumptuous of me to think that I can add anything substantial or meaningful to the tributes and accolades that have poured in this month, many from people who knew him personally and/or whose work was directly influenced by him. As such, I would simply like to put in a plug for my own personal favorite Bradbury story and for the excellent adaptation that it has inspired.
The story in question is Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s Is a Friend of Mine which was first collected in I Sing the Body Electric! in 1969 and is currently available in two collections: I Sing the Body Electric! And Other Stories and Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. It was originally published in the January 1966 issue of McCall’s magazine under the title The Best of Times.
It belongs to that fascinatingly autobiographical subcategory of Bradbury’s fiction that is set in his mythical yet delightfully real Green Town, Illinois and concerns a wannabe writer who reinvents himself one day as Charles Dickens.
I really don’t want to give too much away here. Other than to say that it is a poignant, charming, heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming tale that celebrates the benign lunatic in all of us.
Or maybe I can sum it up this way: Think Charles Dickens visits Mayberry as filtered through one of the more whimsical episodes of The Twilight Zone. And that is not an attempt to be clever. It is an accurate characterization that is offered up with love and respect for all involved.
The adaptation in question is Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine (note the slight modification of the title). It was produced by Neal Miller’s Rubicon Productions and premiered on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1982. Mr. Miller is one of America’s leading independent film makers and this production is a quiet little masterpiece that ranks right up there with the best of television’s fabled Golden Age. Click here to learn more about his important body of work.
This Dickensian gem features a wonderful performance by Fred Gwynne as the lovable eccentric who may or may not be Charles Dickens. And for a bit of delicious icing on an already tasty cake, Ray Bradbury himself serves as the story’s off-screen narrator!
Sadly, as often happens with great films (and great books), it has receded into the background in recent years. But what better time than now — the Dickens bicentenary — to give it a much deserved second wind! It is available on DVD from Monterey Media.
And if you’re in the Boston area, I will be introducing a public screening of Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine, sponsored by the North of Boston Dickens Fellowship, on July 21st. DVDs will be available for purchase and it will be a rare opportunity to see this great little film up on the big screen! Click here for details.
So as we enter the second half of this bicentenary year, stay focused on all things Dickensian. But spare a thought now and then for Ray Bradbury, a voracious reader and book lover who undoubtedly knew his Dickens as well as anyone.
And the best way to remember him is simple: Just get your hands on a copy of one of his wonderful books! But let me also recommend the next best thing.
While books were his first love, Ray Bradbury also loved movies and radio. And Boston based The Colonial Radio Theatre has produced some excellent radio dramatizations that were enthusiastically endorsed by Bradbury himself. Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree and The Martian Chronicles are all available on delightfully addictive and handsomely packaged CDs.
(Dickens is also represented in the impressive catalog of CDs available from Colonial. Along with A Christmas Carol, you’ll find The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth and The Seven Poor Travellers.)
So just think about it: Ray Bradbury on the radio. The ultimate theatre of the mind. And it’s surely not for nuthin that I Sing The Body Electric! is dedicated to Norman Corwin!