Monday, June 22, 2015

"You Must Conform!" - From "The Beautiful People" to "Number 12 Looks Just Like You"

"Once dispirited, the individual can be molded by the state with endless social experiments and lifestyle calibrations." — Mark Levin
The theme of "man against society" is an ancient one. Countless works of fiction, many of them in the science fiction genre, have explored it (e.g., A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World).

A woman or a man finds himself at odds with his society. She doesn't "fit in." Or perhaps society wants to "mold" him into its image. The sources of conflict are as varied as life itself, but one common problem in these stories is when the State threatens to become "god"—essentially, man has come to exist for the sake of society rather than the opposite.

Such an inversion of the natural order inevitably leads to conflict—and conflict is the beating heart of any story.

(Note: It's best if you read the story first and then view the video.)

FROM THE PAGE . . .

"The Beautiful People."
By Charles Beaumont (1929-67).
First appearance: Worlds of If Science Fiction, September 1952.
Online HERE.

Major characters:
Mary Cuberle — Reluctant
Mrs. Zena Cuberle — Perfect
Doctor Hortel — Baffled
Daddy and Grandpa — Wise
Mr. Willmes — Sympathetic

The story's opening plants us firmly in the future (or what was assumed to be the future in the early '50s):
MARY sat quietly and watched the handsome man's legs blown off; watched further as the great ship began to crumple and break into small pieces in the middle of the blazing night. She fidgeted slightly as the men and the parts of the men came floating dreamily through the wreckage out into the awful silence. And when the meteorite shower came upon the men, gouging holes through everything, tearing flesh and ripping bones, Mary closed her eyes.
"Mother."
Mrs. Cuberle glanced up from her magazine.
"Hmm?"
"Do we have to wait much longer?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
Mary said nothing but looked at the moving wall.
"Oh, that." Mrs. Cuberle laughed and shook her head. "That tired old thing. Read a magazine, Mary, like I'm doing. We've all seen that a million times."
"Does it have to be on, Mother?"
"Well, nobody seems to be watching. I don't think the doctor would mind if I switched it off."
Mrs. Cuberle rose from the couch and walked to the wall. She depressed a little button and the life went from the wall, flickering and glowing.
Mrs. Cuberle is very worried about her daughter and has brought her to a psychiatrist.
Mary has started doing things her society has long since "outgrown": reading books instead of tapes; sleeping, which has been abolished by this time; eating and chewing food; and most worrisome of all, refusing to undergo the Transformation.  . . .

The Transformation promises perfection and contentment:
A picture of Mother sat upon the dresser and Mary considered this now. Looked for a long time at the slender, feminine neck. The golden skin, smooth and without blemish, without wrinkles and without age. The dark brown eyes and the thin tapers of eyebrows, the long black lashes, set evenly, so that each half of the face corresponded precisely. The half-parted-mouth, a violet tint against the gold, the white, white teeth, even, sparkling.
Mother. Beautiful. Transformed Mother.
And then un-Transformed Mary regards herself in a mirror:
The image of a rather chubby girl, without lines of rhythm or grace, without perfection. Splotchy skin full of little holes, puffs in the cheeks, red eruptions on the forehead. Perspiration, shapeless hair flowing onto shapeless shoulders down a shapeless body. Like all of them, before the Transformation.
Mrs. Cuberle, in a revealing outburst that confirms her essential narcissism, is horrified that everyone might think she's "the mother of an idiot." It's clear she doesn't really love her daughter.
For Mary, refusing to go along will prove costly and disruptive. Since no one else has ever refused the Transformation, the rigid society into which Mary has been born is unprepared for her individuality, precipitating a social crisis. Without intending to, she has become a threat to the status quo.

And there seems to be no hope of finding anyone who will help her.

. . . TO THE SCREEN

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You."
The Twilight Zone (156 episodes, 1959-64).
Season 5, Episode 17. First broadcast: 24 January 1964.
IMDb listing HERE.
Video: 25 minutes 7 seconds.
Online (we hope) HERE.

Director — Abner Biberman.
Writers — Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin.
Rod Serling — Series creator.

Episode cast:
Collin Wilcox Paxton — Marilyn Cuberle (as Collin Wilcox).
Richard Long — Uncle Rick / Dr. Rex / Professor Sigmund Friend.
Pamela Austin — Valerie / Marilyn (as Pam Austin).
Suzy Parker — Lana Cuberle / Simmons / Grace / Doe / Jane / #12.
Rod Serling — Narrator / Himself - Host.

The Twilight Zone adaptation of "The Beautiful People" keeps the basic theme of the non-conformist individual striving against an all-powerful, hive-mind society but makes substantial changes in characterization and, especially, the serious tone of the short story.
Into the plotline a satirical tone has insinuated itself, one that threatens to undermine the theme. (A glance at the expanded character list by itself should give you an inkling.) You can decide if it does.
As a result of these changes, you might be reminded more of Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Consequently, there's a danger in this version that the viewer might lose sight of how monstrous the Transformation is, since it's used to secure the smothering grip the State exerts on its subjects (not "citizens"); but the producers seem to be hoping that percipient viewers would nevertheless "get it."
Rod Serling's opening narration—slyly sidestepping the story's actual theme—sets it up:
Given the chance, what young girl wouldn't happily exchange a plain face for a lovely one? What girl could refuse the opportunity to be beautiful? For want of a better estimate, let's call it the year 2000. At any rate, imagine a time in the future where science has developed a means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of. It may not happen tomorrow, but it happens now in the Twilight Zone.
Only for Marilyn, it's not something she dreams of—it's a nightmare.

Category: Science fiction (sociological variety)

2 comments:

  1. The Beautiful People is a great story, although I've been quite disappointed by other Charles Beaumont short stories I've read. Which surprised me since I liked most of his Twilight Zone episodes.

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    1. We agree. Beaumont seems better on film than in print. It's curious - quite a few authors have that knack.

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