Reading the Twilight Zone: Time Enough At Last

In this series, I’ll be comparing the (non-Serling) short stories that inspired episodes of The Twilight Zone to their teleplays. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Often they are not. The topic of this post is Time Enough At Last, the eighth episode of season one.

Details:

Title: Time Enough At Last
Original air date: November 20, 1959
Starring: Burgess Meredith (his first of four Twilight Zone appearances)
Directed by: John Brahm
Based on: “Time Enough at Last” by Marilyn “Lyn” Venable
Teleplay by: Rod Serling

Ask anyone to name their favorite episode of The Twilight Zone and many will say, “Time Enough At Last.” It’s a near perfect little story. In act I we meet the everyman hero. In act II he’s put into an impossible situation and finally, in act III, he is redeemed. Or is he? Serling has us rooting for Mr. Henry Beamis and just as he’s about to get ahead, life’s cruelty smacks him in the face. Well, in the glasses at least. It’s a vicious twist ending that shocked viewers long before shows like Law and Order trained audiences to expect a final jolt.

After reading Lyn Venable’s short story, I’ve got a new understanding of Henry, his wife Helen, the episode’s themes and the cruel moment that reduces Mr. Bemis to tears. Here’s my look at Time Enough At Last.

Lyn Venable’s Story

Lyn’s story “Time Enough At Last” was first published in a 1953 edition of the science fiction magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction (that’s the issue’s cover at right). It’s a short piece at only 3,431 words and begins with the following snippet:

“The atomic bomb meant, to most people, the end. To Henry Bemis it meant something far different—a thing to appreciate and enjoy.”

What a compelling tease! How could anyone enjoy nuclear devastation?

Lyn’s story is told through a flashback, unlike Serling’s teleplay. As it begins, Lyn describes Henry as frustrated and misunderstood:

“For a long time, Henry Bemis had an ambition. To read a book…Henry had no time of his own. There was his wife, Agnes 1 who owned the part of it that his employer, Mr. Carsville, did not buy. Henry was allowed to get to and from work — that in itself being quite a concession on Agnes’ part.”

Venable’s Agnes is unlike Serling’s Helen, but I’ll get to that later. The story goes on to describe another injustice that Henry has suffered:

“Nature had conspired against Henry by handing him a pair of hopelessly myopic eyes…For a while, when he was very young, his parents had thought him an idiot. When they realized it was his eyes, they got glasses for him. He was never quite able to catch up.”

Venable presents Henry as a sympathetic character whose domineering wife, heartless boss, dysfunctional eyes and uninformed parents elicit sympathy from the reader. Most of us have encountered  trouble in our own lives (though hopefully less significant), and those experiences allow us to empathize with Henry and wish for him to get ahead.

As in the teleplay, Venable’s Bemis works as a bank teller. One day he sneaks down to the vault to enjoy some leisure reading in solitude. Suddenly, a huge commotion is heard, shaking the building and knocking Henry unconscious. He awakes some time later to a terrible realization:

“He suddenly realized…that something momentous had happened, something worse than the boiler blowing up, something worse than a gas main exploding, something worse than had ever happened before.”

Here’s the first point at which Lyn’s story is quite different than Serling’s: it’s very gory. As Henry explores the remains of the bank, he finds several ghastly scenes:

“…he made his way to the elevator…there was something inside it that Henry could not look at, something that had once been a person, or perhaps several people, it was impossible to tell now.”

In the lobby, Henry finds “huddled lumps of unpleasantness” and steps onto “something that crunched and squashed beneath his feet and he set his teeth on edge to keep from wretching.” Compare that with the only hint of death depicted in The Twilight Zone. As Henry exits the bank, he sees his boss’s hand protruding, bloodlessly, from beneath a pile of rubble. Of course, the network would never air scenes like those Lyn described  in 1959.

As he wanders about, Henry briefly thinks of Agnes. She’s either all right, he thinks, or she’s not. He does not search for her. Instead, he considers the public library, and quickly sets out for it. Of course, it’s also a pile of rubble, just like everything else. Many books are intact, however, which Henry arranges into piles. Content with the prospect of years of uninterrupted reading, he sits down to begin. You know what happens next:

“The shelf moved; threw [Henry] off balance. The glasses slipped from his nose and fell with a tinkle. He bent down, crawling blindly and found, finally, their smashed remains…he stared down at the blurred page before  him. He began to cry.”

Thus ends Lyn Venable’s story. While the general plot is identical to Serling’s teleplay, there are several minor differences and one significant change. Let’s look at those differences.

Compare and Contrast – Agnes/Helen

Agnes Bemis, as described by Lyn Venable, is a controlling and vindictive woman. As Henry sits down to read a newspaper, she rips it from his hands and tosses it into the fireplace, where it burns into ash. She then tells Henry to ready himself for a visit with friends and leaves the room as abruptly as she entered it.

By contrast, Serling’s Helen presents a weariness, a frustration and a resignation that Agnes lacks. In the same living room scene, her dialog suggests that Henry’s behavior has left her exasperated and resentful. As Henry sits reading his newspaper, she walks into the room and snatches it away from him, saying:

“Do you want more coffee or don’t you?”

“No thank you, dear,” Henry says.

“Well then why don’t you tell me that?” she says. “Rather than sneaking off to bury yourself in newsprint. I think we’ve been over this quite enough, Henry. I won’t tolerate a husband of mine sacrificing the art of conversation.”

Listen: Helen’s frustration with Henry

We’re seeing the latter half of a conversation that Henry previously abandoned. Helen’s dialog suggests that she asked Henry if he’d like a cup of coffee only to find that he had quietly wandered off. Also, Helen implies that they’ve argued over Henry’s unwillingness to pay attention to her many times. Henry habitually ignores Helen, and she’s lost patience with him. In this way, we become less empathetic towards Henry. More on that later.

Helen then prompts Henry to get ready to visit friends for a game of cards. I suspect that if Helen didn’t force Henry to attend these outings he’d stay home and never converse with anyone. In fact, only years of neglect and anger would drive Helen to her vindictive act of vandalism: she defaces and destroys a book of poetry before Henry’s eyes.

There’s a bit of foreshadowing as the living room scene ends. As Helen tears pages from the book and tosses them into the air, Henry drops to his knees. Amid the mess, his glasses fall off of his face and onto the floor.

Compare and Contrast – Henry Bemis

At first glance, Venable’s Bemis and Serling’s Bemis seem identical. However, I’ll argue that they are complete opposites. Here’s why.

Stories presented in anthologies like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery and so on typically adhere to the same tacit rule: the pure-hearted are rewarded while the villains are punished. That’s not always the case, of course, but it’s often a good bet. The real twist in Serling’s version of Time Enough At Last isn’t the heartbreaking tinkle of glass on concrete, it’s that the character who deserves a cruel end is presented as a sympathetic character. That character is Henry Bemis.

Venable’s Bemis is a victim of circumstance. Unyielding personal and professional demands devour his free time. Serling’s Bemis, by contrast, has a pathological obsession with reading which negatively affects everyone around him. In the opening scene, he’s working as a bank clerk while covertly reading a book beneath his desk. This causes him to short-change a customer, and not for the first time.

Note, too, that he nearly calls the customer “Murdstone,” which is the name of a character of the book he’s secretly reading during her transaction.

Listen: Henry short-changes a customer

His boss goes on to describe how his need to read customers’ lapel pins resulted in what would be considered sexual harassment today. Even after being berated for reading on the job, Henry still bends over to scan a magazine, in full sight of his angry supervisor.

Later, we see that he’s got books hidden throughout his home, and I’ve already described how his actions are likely responsible for his crumbling marriage. Lyn presents Henry as a man who longs for time to retreat into his books. Serling’s Bemis exists only in that fantasy world and must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into reality.

In a promotional piece for the episode, Serling described it as “…the story of a man who seeks salvation in the rubble of a ruined world.” One could interpret that literally and consider Henry’s post-apocalyptic existence, or think about it figuratively. Henry’s marriage and job are in jeopardy, as is humanity at large (more on this later). Rather than face the problems of those “ruined worlds,” Henry “seeks salvations” in fiction.

My only complaint about Serling’s teleplay is that Henry doesn’t think to find the library right away. In fact, he accidentally stumbles upon it just as he’s about to kill himself. How would a man with a pathological and all-consuming need to read not know where his own city’s library is? In Lyn’s story, Henry makes his way to the library almost immediately.

Themes

The major themes of Time Enough At Last are the same in both versions of the story: solitude vs. loneliness and man’s tendency towards violence against himself.

Solitude vs. Loneliness

Both Venable and Serling present Bemis as a man seeking time alone. He even retreats to a bank vault so that he can read in peace. After the explosion, Henry panics at the prospect of being the only human being on Earth. “A sudden panic gripped Henry Bemis,” Venable writes. “What if they were all ruined, destroyed, every one of them? What if there wasn’t a single one left? Tears of helplessness welled up in his eyes as he painfully fought his way over and through the twisted fragments of the city.” In The Twilight Zone, Bemis panics when he can’t start an abandoned car and runs blindly through the ruined city, shouting “Help! Please! Someone!” even though he knows he’s alone.

Other episodes that explore this theme include Where Is Everybody? and The Mind And The Matter.

Man’s Tendency Towards Violence Against Himself

You’ll find several references to this theme, including the newspaper headline (“H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction”), Henry’s near suicide attempt, Helen’s hurtful act of vandalism and of course, the explosion itself.

Another theme that’s less overt is humankind’s dependence on technology. I bring it up because an eerie parallel can be drawn between Henry’s ultimate situation and our own. Author Weston Ochse explored the idea on Storytellers Unplugged, a collaborative project of writers who are keen to share insights on their craft. In the article The End Of Books: The Bemis Condition, Ochse notes that the modern popularity of electronic books keeps many of us on the edge of a Bemis-like fate:

“This episode of Twilight Zone is analogous to ePublishing. It could be a metaphor for the computer. It’s more than a morality tale, it’s a technology tale and a horror story of the first degree. Remember, that the only thing that limited Henry Bemis from reading was technology; the medium by which he read books which were his glasses. We’d all be Henry Bemis if books were only available online, our medium, the computer. We’re only a lightning strike, a faulty switch, a sleepy workman or a natural disaster away from becoming Henry Bemis at the end of the world.”

It’s easy to see (pardon the pun) why this is such a beloved episode. The story is plainly told, it features a knife-in-your-heart ending as well as a tremendous performance by Burgess Meredith. Serling did a great job of extending Lyn’s short story into a 25-minute episode of television. His best trick, though, was flipping Henry from the victim to the heel without the audience even knowing it.

References in pop culture

The episode has been parodied and referenced time and again in popular culture. Here are some of my favorites.

Several episodes of Futurama featured a parody of The Twilight Zone called The Scary Door. The second episode of The Scary Door depicted a man whose predicament was similar to that of Henry Bemis…to a comedic extreme:

In an episode of Family Guy (“Wasted Talent”), Peter Griffin’s only remaining brain cell sits down to finally enjoy some books when its glasses break. “It’s not fair!” the brain cell cries.

The Walt Disney World attraction The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror features a pair of broken glasses atop a pile of books among its many props.

  1. Changed to “Helen” in the screenplay

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