Ray Bradbury goes to the movies

Jack Arnold's adaptation of It Came From Outer Space is a classic.

A decade prior to his close encounter with Steven Spielberg, veteran new waver François Truffaut flirted with science-fictional celluloid by adapting the late Ray Bradbury’s magnum opus Fahrenheit 451 for the big screen. Along with Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and an adaptation of Melville’s Moby-Dick directed by John Huston, Truffaut’s film is numbered among the most successful collision the late Bradbury had with the galaxy of moving images.

Lost in the cosmic debris of planet Hollywood is another story Ray Bradbury wrote which Universal turned into its first 3-D creature ever, It Came From Outer Space (1953). Made at the hysterical heights of McCarthyism when the “Red Scare” had found in science fiction the perfect emissary for its paranoia-fuelled struggle for homologation, this tiny b-movie directed by Jack Arnold boasts Bradbury’s trademark humanism and unprejudiced curiosity towards the vast possibilities of imagination.

Set in the familiar suburbs of 1950s America with both material wealth and irrational fears enjoying mass popularity, the film begins with astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his wife Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) having aliens crashing in their backyard. Rejecting the titular assumption, John, a man of science not so much of fiction, blames the newly landed on some unspecified foreign threat. Not even their peculiar appearances, monocular 3-D squids with a soft spot for screaming women, seem to insinuate the slightest doubt into the astronomer’s mind. Audiences don’t have to wait long before the whole town is swept by a high-pitched wave of panic with supremacist undertones. Law-abiding citizens are turned into host bodies by the aliens, which leaves the townsfolk with no other choice but to drive them back to wherever they're from.

By closely following the moral coordinates of Fifties scaremongering science fiction, only to undermine its reactionary morale at the end, Bradbury and his accomplice Arnold managed to smuggle into this candidly crafted flick their progressive views on “The Other”. When measured against its times and similar products of the era (Invasion of the Body Snatchers for instance), the film stands out for its thoughtful and dissenting take on aliens as well as that very human tendency to destroy what is not understood. In fact, once the cleansing is completed one of the characters muses over whether perhaps it was their own inability to befriend the slimy creatures that precluded a peaceful coexistence.

Despite its limited budget and venerable age, It Came From Outer Space retained its magic. Its homemade wonder and gently subversive spirit have inspired the likes of Joe Dante, Tim Burton and John Carpenter as well as a very young Steven Spielberg who later in his life would end up thanking Ray Bradbury for it.

In 2003,  Bradbury confessed that: “Close Encounters is the best film of its kind ever made. It takes too long, but the transfiguration at the end, with the splendid arrival of the mother ship — that makes up for everything. I was so amazed and changed when I saw it that I went over to the studio to tell Spielberg what a genius he was. And he said, ‘You know, I never would have done this film if I hadn’t seen [your] It Came From Outer Space when I was a kid.” All far-out science fiction tales seem to come down to earth in the end- even as their creators part from it.

Ray Bradbury's star on the Hollywood walk of fame (Photo: Getty Images)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis