Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stephen King: From Page to Celluloid (Part 5)

Well, here we are, what I think may be the halfway point in this look at Stephen King's works-turned-to-films, and there's been so many good ones.

In this part, there are two TV movies made from two of my favorite novels King has written.  One was a so-so adaptation, the other was pretty decent.  So, without further a do, let's get back into it!

The Tommyknockers
In 1987, Stephen King wrote a nice mystery/sci-fi/horror tale called “The Tommyknockers,” about an object found buried beneath the ground of a forest that begins influencing the people of the small community in strange ways.

As I was reading this novel, I was very intrigued and thought it was an interesting outing from King’s normal horror or supernatural stories to something of science fiction.  When reading the book, I did what most people do—and I still do as well—and imagined a movie in my head with certain celebrities playing the parts.  Sometimes, if the main male lead of the story is around my age, I imagine myself going through what the character is experiencing in the story, which makes the book that much more interesting.  So when The Tommyknockers showed up as a television mini-series in 1993, I was surprised to see Jimmy Smits in the lead role.

Just like the novel, Jim “Gard” Gardner (Smits) and his girlfriend, Bobbi Anderson (Marg Helgenberger) live in the country outskirts of Maine when they stumble upon a metallic object sticking out from beneath the floor of the woods.  Not being able to pull it out of the ground, they begin excavating it to see what it is.  Right away, the object has influence over Bobbi as soon as she touches it, making her obsessed with uncovering the underground entity.  Gard, however, is unaffected by the object, which is probably due to the fact he has a metal plate in his head from an accident years before.  But he becomes worried about how Bobbi’s become affected by the object in the ground.  And the more it’s unearthed, the more the townspeople are affected as well.

Now, the book was hard for me to put down after I started reading it.  It was a definite page-turner and I found myself reading it hours at a time.  The telefilm, however, was interesting, but the time constraints and censorship of television really took a lot of that away.  See, one thing about King’s novels is that they’re usually epic in scope and usually span a great amount of time.  Typically, that’s to help the story and character development along and not a detriment to the story.  With the TV two-parter, things get taken away and you really can’t feel for the characters as much as you do when you’re reading the book.
That said, the TV movie is decent enough, but I really believe the casting of Smits was all wrong.  He’s a very good actor, but this part wasn’t for him.  Maybe it’s because I read the book and became invested in the character…I don’t know.  Maybe someone going into this will accept him and be happy with his performance.

All character critiques aside, the film was fine and a good adaptation of the book.  It keeps you interested as it goes along and does have some spooky moments here and there.  I think the multi subplots of the side characters is what kind of slows it down a little, but as a whole, it’s an interesting film.  I actually have this in my Stephen King collection and think any casual King fan should give it a watch.

Needful Things
The second theatrical film adaptation from a Stephen King book was 1993’s Needful Things.  Based on the novel, published in 1990, the story is about a little shop opening in Castle Rock, Maine, which sells any items the people of the small town want with deathly consequences.

The shop windows start advertising the upcoming opening without anyone seeing the store owner or anyone putting up the signs.  The windows are soaped over, so no one can see what’s inside.  But little by little, the people of town are able to visit the shop and find special items they’ve always wanted, whether it’s a rare baseball card or a pair of Elvis Presley’s glasses, the store seems to have anything people’s hearts desire.  Most of the folks who visit, however, can’t afford the asking price.  But the store owner, Leland Gaunt, has the customer pay in a different way.  Instead, he says if they play a little prank on someone, they may have the item.  The pranked think others are doing the tricks and soon, the whole town is at each other’s throats, ready to pay back the shenanigans…ready to kill.

The book was touted as “the last Castle Rock story,” because a lot of King’s novels and short stories took place in the fictional town.  It’s quite a big blowout at the end, giving us Stephen King readers the final goodbye to a pretend-town we’ve all grown to love.

The film plays out almost like the book.  Of course, there were many more citizens involved in paying with pranks for items in the store, but I guess trying to stick this story in a two-hour amount of time would be impossible.  But the message is there on how a small town can turn to shit just by misunderstandings.

Max von Sydow is perfectly cast as Mr. Gaunt.  I don’t know if I’m remembering this right, but I believe I had him in mind when reading the novel.  He adds the little bit of charm the character needed and you find yourself thinking you’d be snookered into doing whatever he’d ask of you.  Throughout the film, it seems as if he’s having a good time, and that’s part of what makes this King outing enjoyable.

Ed Harris plays Sheriff Alan Pangborn, which is another character we see and read in other Stephen King tales.  Again, another good casting call as Harris seems comfortable playing an authority figure.  The chemistry between Harris and Bonnie Bedelia (playing Polly Chalmers) is felt and gives it a believable quality through this unrealistic, yet entertaining, story.

You’ll recognize quite a few other actors in the film who round out the cast nicely, making this a very engaging adaptation.

The Stand
In 1990, when Stephen King re-released “The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition, “going into it was my biggest reading venture.  At a little over 800 pages, the book—to me—looked like a dictionary and I didn’t think I’d ever finish it.  But, as most of King’s books from that time—and without too much to distract me during that era—I went into it and emerged myself into another world.

The novel is a big undertaking for King, where the story takes place in multiple cities and states, with various characters, each with their own subplot.  But the book is written well and took me into this story, so much so, that I started having dreams about the end of the world.

The main plot of the story is that a containment breach has happened at a military base where the government tests chemical and viral weapons.  A fatal super-flu has gotten out and the base goes on a lockdown.  However, a soldier and his family are able to flee the base to get away, but have unknowingly taken the virus with them, as he and his family are contaminated.  Soon, the virus is everywhere, as it is airborne and highly contagious, killing everyone who comes in contact.  Soon, the whole population is infected and is killed off, leaving a number of people who are immune to the disease.  They each have dreams, either leading them to the good figure of Mother Abigail or the evil Randall Flagg, breaking the remaining population into two groups, where they will have to make their final stand.

Being such a fan of this book, I was relatively happy in 1994 when the film was adapted from it.  I say relatively because the movie was going to be released on television.  As a fan of King’s novels, you’ll notice that the subject matter is almost always adult oriented and would do better if adapted into a theatrical film.  Especially with this story, for King really described some terrible visuals regarding the after effects of what the virus does to a person.

So this would be number two of Mick Garris’s directorial films and he does a fine job what with the number of characters and subplots involved in the story.  After watching all of the Stephen King movies, I started to see a certain style in the ones directed by Mick Garris.  He sort of puts a lighthearted theme with a sense of dread along all of them and I think that’s why he was allowed to do one after the other.  Perhaps King likes what he does or the studios that hire him for the job, but one thing Garris does is make the characters believable in their actions.

Without getting into who’s who in the telefilm, it contains quite a bit of star power: Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer, Ray Walston, Rob Lowe, and so on.  But the standout in the film, for me, is Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; M-O-O-N, that spells “Tom.”  You’ll see what I mean when you watch this film.

The only problem I have with the film is the ending, which most likely should’ve been bigger than it was.  It was probably because of TV constraints and maybe the lack of special effects (what it does contain is very dated if you watch it today), but after reading the book and seeing what the characters went through, it should’ve had a better climax than it did.

Overall, The Stand is fun and enthusiastically well done.

The Shawshank Redemption
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” 1994’s film version captures this tale eloquently and may have given it more emotion and expression than the book itself.

When reading the short story from the “Different Seasons” collection, I noticed that the story wasn’t supernatural nor did it have any horror themes to it (besides what happened to some of the inmates at the hands of the sadistic warden and head guard).  Just like the film it was turned into, it’s a story of a man wrongly accused of murder, sent to prison for life, and how he deals with it as he meets a great friend while imprisoned.

The film was directed by Frank Darabont, who previously adapted one of Stephen King’s short stories, “The Woman in the Room,” and he’s probably the one director who understands King’s works and knows how to adequately transliterate them to film.  That, or he just knows the right ones to make into a movie.  I’ll be mentioning him a couple of more times down the road, with great regard.

As I synopsized, the film is about a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who is sentenced to life at the Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.  While imprisoned, he meets and becomes good friends with a fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who is the prison’s go-to man who knows how to get things for the other inmates.  The film spans a few decades, showing how the other inmates, as well as the warden and guards, begin to appreciate Andy for his accountant skills and how he uses it to make things better for the prison.  When the time comes, everyone finds out Andy had something he’d kept hidden for all the years locked up.

I don’t want to say anymore and give away the climax and twists this film contains.  The Shawshank Redemption is so well done and truly exemplifies the story of how the human mind and spirit can endure such a wrongful condemnation that Andy receives, but still go on, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel that may or may not be there.

Everyone does such a wonderful job in this film, bringing the short story to life like no other King adaptation has done.  Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman have such great chemistry together and I really enjoyed—and still do—watching them act in this one.

The Mangler
1995’s The Mangler is based on a short story written by King in 1972 and included on his “Night Shift” collection in 1978.  The story is a strange one and one that, in my opinion, couldn’t be translated to film.  It was an interesting read and had some eerily described scenes within, but never did I think the story would adapt well to the big screen.  But I had enjoyed it nonetheless.

The film version, however…um…well…let’s talk about it.

The film’s stars are Robert Englund as a laundry service owner named Bill Gartley and Ted Levine as an investigating police officer named John Hunton.

The story is about a demonically possessed laundry press that begins to kill after the owner’s niece cuts herself on a lever and bleeds onto it.  Officer Hunton shows up to investigate the deaths and quickly believes the machine is possessed.  With the aid of his brother-in-law and the owner’s niece, they attempt to exorcise the machine.  Thinking they have succeeded, they rapidly find out things have gotten worse.

The Mangler is so unwatchable.  I have to admit, I saw it a while back and probably had it on as background noise while I was doing something else.

Englund, as always, goes way over the top and seems to do these types of films as a way to have fun and not give a shit if it’s any good; it seems like he doesn’t even read the script.  It also amazes me that Ted Levine took this part and acted so bad as well.  Above all else, how is it that Tobe Hooper is responsible for all this crap?  You’d think the man who played Freddy Krueger, the villain Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb, and the man who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, would create nothing but gold on the screen.  But it’s just one big turd.  Skip it.

Dolores Claiborne
Stephen King’s 1993 novel, “Dolores Claiborne,” was one of those rare books I picked up but never was able to get into completely.  I started reading it, kind of liked it and spent some time with it, but just put it down after a while and never picked it up again.  When 1995 came around and the adaptation was released, my intention was to continue on with the story before going to see it in the theater.  But, as luck would have it, a friend of mine wanted to see it with a couple of girls…well…who am I to refuse?

The story is about Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), née St. George, and flashes back to her life dealing with a domineering and abusive husband, Joe St. George, as well as raising her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the adult and Ellen Muth as the younger version).  The film also takes place in the present, as Dolores is facing murder charges for allegedly killing her employer of many years, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt).  The local detective, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), obviously has it in for Dolores, as he believes she was responsible for a murder committed long ago in which she was acquitted.

As the film flashes back to her early married life, showing how she takes a job as a housekeeper for Vera Donovan’s vacation home, we see the trials and tribulations of her life with her belligerent husband and the dark secret she finds out about her daughter.  When it flashes forward, her daughter comes back home to stand by her mother, but there’s obviously some animosity between them.  Secrets between both women come out and we see how they both deal with it.

After the critical acclaim Kathy Bates had received for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Misery a few years prior, I thought she would fare well in this adaptation too, and I was right.  She embodied both the younger version of Dolores and killed it as the old, haggard and tough one we see in the present day part of the film.

The story is not your typical Stephen King outing with supernatural themes or other worldly creatures.  Instead, King’s story brings us a great drama that showcases what a great writer he truly is.  In that, it allows such a great translation to film of a fine melancholy tale where the main character goes through quite a lot of shit throughout, until she gets some vindication at the end.  Highly recommended.

Gee…I don’t know…this may be a ten-parter, just seeing what I have left on my list.  But I am having fun, going back and revisiting these classics…well…some of them are classics.  The next few are not going to be any better, as I see a terrible TV film and a couple of yawners as well.  But we may end the next part on a high note…

…or maybe not.

Stay tuned for the sixth part of my Stephen King retrospective and, as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any comments, I welcome them any time.

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