Why Hollywood Loved Richard Matheson

The late sci-fi author's flair for fascinating, futuristic concepts led to I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Real Steel, and Twilight Zone and Star Trek episodes.
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Editor's note: The Los Angeles Times reports that influential science-fiction author Richard Matheson has died at the age of 87. We originally published the below article about his impact on the film industry on October 6, 2011, and have adapted and reposted it in response to the news today.

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Warner Bros. / publicity photo / Dreamworks

It's difficult to watch the trailer for Real Steel--the Hugh Jackman movie that dares to ask "what if boxers were robots instead of people"--without thinking of that classic "two great tastes that taste great together" Reese's commercial. In recent years, audiences have flocked to movies about robots and to movies about boxing, and now, someone finally thought to combine the two.

But someone actually thought to combine the two long ago. Hollywood's penchant for turning board games into films lately may lead audiences to assume Real Steel comes from Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, but to find its actual genesis, you need to turn to another, unlikelier source that Hollywood has routinely mined for ideas: sci-fi writer Richard Matheson.

Matheson's writing is "high concept," which for screenwriters means "easy to pitch"

If Matheson's name doesn't immediately register, his pedigree might. Throughout his career, Matheson has seen his work translated into hits (I Am Legend, which has been remade for film no fewer than three times in the past 50 years) and misses (the syrupy Robin Williams adaptation of What Dreams May Come). Real Steel is very loosely based on a 1956 story by Richard Matheson called "Steel," a fantasy/science fiction story first published in the cleverly titled Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And Real Steel isn't even the first filmed version of Steel: Matheson himself adapted the short story into a script for an episode of The Twilight Zone.

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"Boxing was legally abolished in 1968," intones host Rod Serling in the 1963 episode. Fortunately for fight fans, robotics have leapt ahead to the point where humanoid robots can plausibly stand in humans in the ring. Lee Marvin plays "Steel Kelly," a human former boxer who pretends to be a robot after the robo-boxer he manages breaks down ahead of a bout with its robo-opponent. Needless to say, the fight goes poorly for Kelly, and Serling solemnly informs us that his loss is "proof positive that you can't outpunch machinery."

"Steel" may not hold up particularly well, but the extent of Matheson's contributions to The Twilight Zone is impressive: He wrote 14 scripts during the show's original run, including all-time classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which starred William Shatner at his hammy best. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the science fiction and horror genres were still in their television infancy, Matheson's contributions included episodes of Star Trek, Night Gallery, and the first two televised appearances of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Matheson generated a significant body of work in his six decades as a screenwriter, though many of his original short stories remain frustratingly difficult to find in print. But in the past few years, Matheson's greatest exposure by far has come has come with a trio of big-budget films: I Am Legend, The Box, and now Real Steel. These films, based on Matheson's original writing, were often adapted by screenwriters who weren't even born when their source material was first published.

Matheson's writing lends itself particularly well to contemporary Hollywood because it's "high concept"--which translates, in screenwriting parlance, to "easy to pitch." At the heart of Matheson's best tales you'll find a simple, compelling question, from I Am Legend ("what if a mass epidemic left a single man alive?") to "Button, Button," the short story that became The Box ("would a needy family sacrifice the life of a complete stranger for a massive financial windfall?"). Hollywood loves these kinds of stories because they're easy to understand and therefore easy to mass-market. At least, that's the idea, though it doesn't always work in practice: Where I Am Legend succeeded (at least financially) in drawing an audience to Matheson's brainchild, The Box was a bizarre, messy, box-office bomb.

When filmmakers do pull off Matheson's big ideas, the results can be thrilling. Test audience reactions for Real Steel were so positive that DreamWorks greenlit production on a sequel months before its release. If audiences turn out for robot boxing [Update: They did, to the tune of $210 million worldwide], we'll have plenty more robot boxing to look forward to. And we'll have Richard Matheson to thank.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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