A few years ago, Lost in Translation looked at the movie, Real Steel, which was loosely based on the 1956 Richard Matheson short story, “Steel”. Real Steel used some of the ideas from the original, but took on its own direction as the story became one of a father and son bonding. The movie wasn’t the first adaptation of “Steel”. Matheson was a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone, writing both original screenplays and adapting from his own work. “Steel” was one of the stories he adapted; the episode, the same name as the short story, was the second aired in the show’s fifth season in 1963.
The episode starts in the distant future of August 1974* as two men wheel a large human form covered by a glossy blanket and hood. A piece falls off the form’s boot, but is quickly reattached. The two men, “Steel” Kelly (played by Lee Marvin) and Pole (Joe Mantell), find a restaurant to sit down and have a beer in. The two are the owners of Battling Maxo (Tipp McClure), a worn out B2 boxing robot that is the figure being hauled around. The B2-series is an older model; parts are hard to find as a result. Unfortunately for Steel and Pole, the part to have Maxo in the night’s fight isn’t available in town.
However, before regular boxing was outlawed, Steel was a boxer himself. The prize money for appearing would be enough to get Maxo repaired, so Steel suggests that he takes the robot’s place. He figures that, since there aren’t any parts for a B2 in town, no one really knows what one should look like. The night of the fight, instead of Maxo under the hood, it’s Steel. He faces the Maynard Flash (Chuck Hicks), a modern B7 model robot. The ruse works, though Steel’s absense is questioned. Pole just says that Steel is in the seats, watching the bout.
The fight between man and machine begins. Steel gets a few good hits in, but the expression on the B7’s face never changes. The Maynard Flash doesn’t even slow down, not even after a cheap shot Steel gets in on the back of the B7’s head. Steel, however, does after taking a beating. He drops after not even two and a half minutes into the first round. Pole wheels him out on Maxo’s carrier, out of the arena and to the locker room. Steel collapses once Pole closes the door. Barely conscious, Steel tells Pole to get the fight money owed to them. The promoter only provides half, claiming that he wanted the fight to last more than one round.
The episode follows the original story closely, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Matheson adapted his own work to the screenplay, so there wasn’t a layer of separation, unlike Real Steel. As seen with “Casting the Runes” Part 1 and Part 2, the format of the adaptation can play a part in its success. With the exception of the fourth season**, each episode of The Twilight Zone ran thirty minutes, including breaks for advertising and station identification. Matheson, having written episodes for the series already, was well aware of the time available to him.
Scriptwriters, though, aren’t the only members of the crew of a television series. There are directors, producers, camera operators, casting agents, network executives, and advertisers, among others, who affect the final result shown. The Twilight Zone had directors who understood what Rod Serling laid out for the series. Network executives and advertisers are a far more nervous lot, risk adverse, and more concerned about the bottom line than creativity. A popular show can push the limits. An anthology series, such as The Twilight Zone, can tailor an episode to deal with concerns from above to mollify them long enough to get another episode past the radar. The original story was about a man desperate to keep his robot working to the point where he’d willingly step into a boxing ring against a machine. The episode showed that same desperation, with only Serling’s closing monologue adding a new dimension, the human spirit. The monologue, though, is a valid interpretation of the story. Steel knew what would happen in the ring and still went in to fight.
The adaptation is faithful. Having the original writer adapt his own work into a format he’s familiar with on a series that was known for the type of work being adapted helped immensely, preventing the adaptation from wandering away from its roots.
* Again, the air date was 1963, placing the episode ten years into the future. Matheson was only off by 13 years; Critter Crunch debuted at the MileHiCon in Denver in 1987, with Robot Wars airing on the BBC in 1998.
** The fourth season saw The Twilight Zone expand to fill an hour slot, filling in for a series that had been there prior.