N.b.: I offer the below in the spirit of nipping what I believe to be a particularly noxious meme in the bud. I've tried to keep it as spoiler-free as I can, and believe I've succeeded, but those invested in going into Gravity as total virgins might want to skip this post for the nonce.
Now that Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is getting rapturous reviews from the Venice Film Festival, with more no doubt to follow, I believe it’s not un-okay for me to let the cat out of the bag and report that I was able to see the movie a few months back thanks to the kind consideration of some Warner people who wanted some advance feedback from myself and a few other Internet-centric movie journalists. I would have kept the cat in the bag longer were I not a little disturbed by the mewlings of various and sundry folks who travel the digital spaceways, claiming that the movie, co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is somehow an ignoble enterprise in that it does not acknowledge the Ray Bradbury short story “Kaleidoscope” as its story source.
There’s a really simple reason that Gravity doesn’t contain the credit “Based on the short story ‘Kaleidoscope’ by Ray Bradbury,” and the reason is because it isn’t. I say this with confidence, my Everyman’s Library edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury open before me to page 184, on which “Kaleidoscope” ends. As you may know, Cuarón’s film, which star George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, is about the adventures of two astronauts who find themselves stranded in outer space after debris from an exploding satellite makes return to their own spacecraft impossible. “Kaleidoscope” concerns the inner thoughts and verbal exchanges between the crew of a “rocket” (Bradbury’s word) that’s been shattered by a meteor storm, leaving the members of that crew drifting this way and that in their spacesuits, facing their worst fears and worst selves as they head to the death each of them knows is certain.
The specifics of the two stories are entirely different. In “Kaleidoscope,” almost half a dozen rocket crew members are named, but the main exchanges are between four: Hollis and Applegate, who had a kind of professional rivalry, and Lespere and Stone. It takes place in an unspecified future year, and is not merely science fiction but speculative science fiction; in the story Lespere alludes to having wives on several planets other than earth, which sets this story in a future when interplanatery travel is more routine and humanoid life on other planets has been shown to exist. Gravity, on the other hand, occurs in more or less the present time, so much so that one critic has opined that the movie isn’t even science fiction. I’d have to say that strictly speaking it is science fiction, not least because there are one or two technological advantages the characters have that aren’t fully-fledged practical realities for space workers at this point. That’s splitting hairs, perhaps, but it is useful to note that the realm in which Bradbury was working was necessarily much more fanciful than the one in which Gravity is set. (“Kaleidoscope” first appeared in book form as part of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man, published in 1951.)
Is the premise similar? Yes, but only insofar as Bradbury’s own premise was similar to that of a shipwreck story. As a science-fiction writer, a seer of rocketships and space travel and more, it was his innovation to set a shipwreck story in a non-terrestrial realm. Gravity, too, is a shipwreck story, but the fact that it has a smaller set of characters than “Kaleidoscope,” and the fact that one of the characters is a woman, already kind of sets it apart automatically, and throughout the movie’s brisk running time its emphases and circumstances differ from those of the Bradbury story substantially, and at nearly every turn. “Kaleidoscope” takes a premise that’s almost as old as storytelling itself and goes its own way with it; so does Gravity. And there’s more. The most finally significant difference between the two works is one of, well, theme. “Kaleidoscope” is about characters facing certain death, their anxiety over what their lives have ultimately been worth, their worries over whether their existences have ever meant anything at all. The story ends on a beautiful metaphorical/actual note that says, yes, there is a meaning, but you’re not necessarily going to be privy to it, and that is possibly the thing that makes the meaning beautiful. I haven’t given you too many specifics about the story line of Gravity but I will say that once the disaster strikes for the astronaut the crux of the matter is that their deaths are not a given. They are very likely, but not assured, and the story proceeds apace from that: these characters are going to do everything they can to get home. So it’s two completely different things at heart.
Every writer or filmmaker who endeavors in the realm of science fiction owes a debt to Ray Bradbury. I think we can all agree on that. But Ray Bradbury isn’t the secret writer of Gravity. I bet he totally would have dug the film, and I bet if had not passed away in June of last year he would have been invited to look at it well before I was.