In Southern California back in the early 1950s, a group of burgeoning writers started gathering together to critique, encourage, challenge and support each other. In turn, their friendship became the nucleus of one of the most amazing and influential collections of fantasy writers in history, and came to be known as “The Southern California Writing School,” or simply “The Group.”
Along with the more established authors Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, who acted as mentors, the core of Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), Charles Beaumont (The Intruder), William F. Nolan (Helltracks), George Clayton Johnson (Ocean’s 11), John Tomerlin (Challenge the Wind), Chad Oliver (The Winds of Time), as well as fringe members Jerry Sohl, Charles E. Fritch, and Harlan Ellison, helped to shape modern fantasy in literature, television, and film. Much has been written on their contributions to fiction, and I focused on their Television efforts previously in Dark Discoveries magazine—so I am looking at their work in cinema in the context of this article.
Of course, Bradbury and Bloch’s contributions to cinema with regard to both adaptations and scripting is part of cinema history. Bradbury wrote scripts for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and his own Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) starring Jason Robards, Pam Grier, and Jonathan Pryce. His novel, Fahrenheit 451, was made into an excellent film in 1966 by François Truffaut starring Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, and Anton Diffring. Some of the stories from his collection The Illustrated Man were also made into a weaker film of the same name by Jack Smight in 1968, featuring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. In the 1980s, Richard Matheson even scripted a TV miniseries version of Bradbury’s classic The Martian Chronicles to mixed reactions (mainly due to Michael Anderson’s lackluster direction), and George Clayton Johnson scripted a short animated film of Bradbury’s story “Icarus Montgolfier Wright.”
Robert Bloch is mostly known for his iconic horror novel, Psycho, adapted for the big screen by Joseph Stefano (The Outer Limits) for Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 (as well as his large body of television work including Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Star Trek, and so on). Starring Anthony Perkins in a career–making role as Norman Bates, it also starred Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, and is still considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. He also adapted his own novel, The Couch, for the screen in 1962 and did scripts for director William Castle, such as The Nightwalker (1964) and Strait-Jacket (1964) starring Joan Crawford—as well as a version of his own story, “The Skull of the Marquis De Sade,” for a 1965 film (The Skull) starring Peter Cushing.
Hands down the largest contributor to the movies of a core “Group” member is Richard Matheson. With scripts done for over eighteen films (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Fall of the House of Usher, Burn Witch Burn, The Legend of Hell House, and others) and a number of adaptations of Matheson’s stories and novels in addition to that (The Omega Man, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend and so on), a focus on Matheson would likely take up an entire book. Much has already been written on Matheson’s contributions in that area (including a non-fiction book on his life and work, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson [2009, Citadel Press]); I will instead focus on the other members of the group.
The second most prolific member of “The Group” would likely be William F. Nolan. Having worked for over thirty years in Hollywood (until age 65—a fitting year for retirement and an anomaly in the industry), Nolan wrote screenplays for numerous television series (Darkroom, One Step Beyond, Wanted Dead or Alive, and Norman Corwin Presents—as well as unproduced scripts for The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, and others) and also a large number of studio and made-for TV films. Working quite a bit for Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) in the seventies and eighties primarily, he wrote screenplays for The Norliss Tapes (1973) starring Roy Thinnes and Angie Dickinson; an excellent adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (1974) starring Lynn Redgrave and Kathryn Leigh Scott; Trilogy of Terror (1975) co-written with Richard Matheson and featuring Karen Black in a tour-de-force multi-performance; Burnt Offerings (1976) with Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis; The Legend of Machine Gun Kelly (1975) starring Dale Robertson and Dick Sargent; The Kansas City Massacre (1975); Melvin Purvis: G-Man (1974) and others. Nolan did co-script an adaptation of his Logan’s Run novel with co-author George Clayton Johnson for MGM but it, unfortunately, was not used. An interesting side note: Nolan also wrote scripts for a Mummy remake for Universal, Clive Barker’s “The Inhuman Condition,” and Peter Straub’s novel Floating Dragon. These were all purchased, but unfilmed due to studio changes. Nolan continued to do work for films as recently as Trilogy of Terror 2 in 1996 (with adaptations of stories by Henry Kuttner and Matheson).
Although he died of a debilitating disease in 1967 at the youthful age of 38, Charles Beaumont racked up an impressive number of credits in just a little over ten years. His twenty-two scripts for the original Twilight Zone series still rank among the best and he also wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, One Step Beyond, and a number of other TV shows. After breaking into film work with his script for the silly Queen of Outer Space (1958) starring Zsa Zsa Gabor (it was meant as a parody but the director tried to play it straight), his adaptation of his own novel, The Intruder, in 1962 ranks as not only one of his best film scripts, but also as one of producer/director Roger Corman’s best cinematic efforts. This led to other films for Corman: Premature Burial (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964)—all featuring Vincent Price. Beaumont also did scripts for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) for George Pal, and for Pal’s The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). His script, co-written by Richard Matheson, for Fritz Lieber’s Burn, Witch Burn (filmed as Night of the Eagle in 1962) stands as a high point as well. Even after his death, films were still being done of his stories such as “The New People” (Journey Into Darkness, 1968), Miss Gentibelle (2000—first adapted as Ursula in 1961) and Brain Dead (2000—from an unused Beaumont script of the late 1950s).
Jerry Sohl was fairly prolific as well for television (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Invaders, Man From Atlantis) and also wrote scripts for films, including Twelve Hours To Kill (1960) starring Barbara Eden, Grant Richards, and Gavin MacLeod; Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965); Monster of Terror (aka Die, Monster Die—1965), and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)—both featuring Boris Karloff (along with Patrick Magee in the former and Barbara Steele in the latter), and both loose adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories. His novel Night Slaves was also adapted for an interesting TV movie in 1970 starring Lee Grant, James Franciscus, and Andrew Prine.
George Clayton Johnson contributed to a number of television series such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Honey West, and Kung Fu, but only had one film script produced. It was for the original Ocean’s 11 (1960) and was co-written by Jack Golden Russell. It nevertheless helped kick-start Johnson’s career and led to his iconic television and fiction work. He also co-wrote the aforementioned script (and novel) for Logan’s Run with William F. Nolan that was not used for the 1976 MGM film.
John Tomerlin wrote an excellent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray for Dan Curtis. Produced in 1973, it featured Charles Aidman, Hammer’s Shane Briant, and John Karlen (Dark Shadows). Prior to that, Tomerlin scripted the comedy Operation Bikini (1963) for AIP studios, starring Tab Hunter, Frankie Avalon, Scott Brady, and Jim Backus (Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island).
The notoriously combative and oftentimes brilliant Harlan Ellison wrote mainly for television (The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Logan’s Run, The Twilight Zone [1980s series], Babylon 5), but he did have his novella A Boy and His Dog adapted by L. Q. Jones (who also directed it) for a pretty good 1975 film, starring Don Johnson, Susanna Benton, and Jason Robards. His scripts for Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and his own Harlan Ellison’s Movie were never produced. Then there is the dreadful The Oscar, which he co-wrote in 1966. Best left forgotten, I think.
Charles E. Fritch only wrote a handful of stories (with just two story collections published in his lifetime), and was also the editor of Gamma and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, but never had anything adapted for film or write for the movies or television. He did however have one story adapted for the eighties revival of The Twilight Zone, “The Misfortune Cookie.”
Chad Oliver was quite prolific with stories and novels and continued to have a number of them published on up into the early 1990s before he passed away in 1993. As far as I know, none of his fiction has ever been adapted for films or television, nor did he do any himself that were produced. Oliver became a professor at the University of Texas and focused more on the academic world.
And lastly, Frank M. Robinson was something of a mentor to a couple members of “The Group”—Harlan Ellison and Charles Beaumont—during his days in Chicago as editor of the men’s magazine, Rogue. He was also a friend to a few of the other members, such as William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Frank’s novel The Power was made into an underrated 1966 film by George Pal starring a young George Hamilton. His excellent novel co-written by Thomas M. Scortia, The Glass Inferno, was also adapted into the early 1970s disaster epic The Towering Inferno.
Therefore, one can see how the writers of “The Group” made an impact on the world of film, television, and literature. They shaped the direction of modern fantasy in all three fields and in many cases brought horror out of the dungeons and into the suburbs, brought intelligence and passion into science fiction, and brought seemingly limitless talent to the whole fantasy genre in general.
Moreover, they continue to influence the movies, TV, and world of fiction today, as well as tomorrow.