Sunday, January 25, 2015

Stephen King From Book to Screen: The Dead Zone

Thought I'd try something a little different and compare some Stephen King novels to their cinematic adaptations.  To start off, let's go back and see what happens when a bold Canadian director and a certain writer from Maine with an impressively active imagination team up with Dino DeLaurentiis.

With The Dead Zone in 1979, Stephen King proved he could do more than just scare the crap out of readers with ghosts, ghouls and other horrible things.  He could also get inside your head with more or less a straightforward dramatic piece with some supernatural elements thrown in for good measure.

The film and book tell the same tale: A young man named Johnny Smith is involved in a horrible car accident and after being in a coma for several years, he wakes up to find he can now see the future of any person he touches.  King gives us a pretty nice slow build to the accident, going into intricate detail on the subject of Johnny's date with Sarah, the love of his life before literally throwing a truck at us as it smashes into the cab Johnny is taking after getting Sarah home.

After being in a coma for nearly five years, Johnny awakens to find that he has the aforementioned ability and the rest of the story moves along in episodic fashion as he helps catch a serial killer in Castle Rock who turns out to be a local deputy; helps a rich kid graduate high school and finally, meeting a shady politician who he becomes obsessed with to the point where he decides he must kill the man before he starts World War 3.

The Dead Zone is probably the strongest of King's 70's output (though in terms of sheer scares, The Shining still tops them all as well as most of his subsequent output over the ensuing decades) with an intriguing story (Who the hell else has made a failed assassin into a sympathetic character?), sharply written characters (the good guys are interesting, in other words) and one of his better human villains in Greg Stillson.

Old Greg isn't a subtle man (Then again, King has never been the most subtle of writers); possessing a nasty temper, creepily effective charisma and a bunch of bikers acting as a personal goon squad, he leaps off the page whenever he appears and is very easy to hate.  The one real flaw the book has (that the movie corrects) is that Greg doesn't get his comeuppance 'onscreen' as it were.  Rather we are left to assume that his career is screwed after he uses a kid as a human shield while escaping Johnny's attempt on his life.

The slight cop-out at the end aside, The Dead Zone is a damn fine read that still resonates nicely today as it did in 1979 when it was released.

Now for the movie.

Released in 1983, the film version of the novel is a handsomely mounted, well acted and directed thriller.  The script by Jeffrey Boam distills things quite nicely, making Sarah more of a presence once Johnny wakes up (she appears sporadically in the book) by having her work on Stillson's campaign.  Not the first choice I would have made to keep her and Johnny in the same general area but it works well enough, especially having her kid be the one Stillson uses as a shield at the end.

Performances are solid across the board but the two highlights are Christopher Walken as Johnny and Martin Sheen as Stillson.  Walken has become something of a joke as an actor but this film does well in reminding us that he's not just a bizarre voice and mannerisms, he's also an immensely talented performer and here, he turns in a terrific, somewhat low key performance.  We get what we expect now from the man but it has context and focus and makes the overall effect of his work quite strong.

Martin Sheen is equally strong as he tends to channel something a little different whenever he plays a bad guy.  Not to say he hams it up (though he just a little) but he definitely goes to a much different place as an actor than when he's the President on The West Wing.  I also enjoy Tom Skerrit as the sheriff, Brooke Adams as Sarah and Herbert Lom as Johnny's doctor though they have relatively little to do.  Really, the only bit of odd casting is Anthony Zerbe as the father of the kid Johnny tutors towards the end but really, that's just because I sort of envisioned somebody a little more slick when reading the book.

The film has a nice, wintry atmosphere to it and Cronenberg handles things with a subtle, effective touch though it does get a little slow in places and the third act feels rushed (while Sheen is very good, he really isn't onscreen all that much).  It has none of the over the top visuals he's known for (even the one really gory bit where the killer deputy kills himself with a pair of scissors is taken from the book) but keeps the solid character work and funnily enough, predicts the way his career would go in more recent years with slightly more sedate fare... For him, at least.  This isn't one of my favorite King flicks (honestly, it's a film I like but don't love) but it is a solid thriller nonetheless.

The Dead Zone is fine as both a book and a movie.  Neither one is on the top of my favorites list when it comes to Stephen King but there are tons that are worse.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.