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Monday, October 26, 2015

The Lawnmower Man

Since taking a break, I've read the short stories Sometimes They Come Back and The Lawnmower Man as well as Carrie, King's first published novel, which has already been adapted twice for film and once on television (as a pilot for a TV series that never materialized).

Before I get to today's casting, I want to talk a little bit about Carrie. It's a pretty good book, if marred by some hall-marks of a young writer still not entirely in control of his talent. It's funny to think that King's repertoire was already as large as it was; Thirty-seven short stories (some of them nearly long enough to almost be novellas) and five novels which would end up being published later; Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man and Sword in the Darkness, a novel that King himself has prevented from ever seeing publication. There's also Blaze, which he wrote after Carrie but wasn't published for several decades.

So, really, Carrie is not a freshman effort. It's the work of a man who'd been in the writing game for some time.

Now, granted, a majority of those forty-nine stories were written when he was still a teenager. Many, if not most, are not up to par, professionally speaking, and seventeen of them weren't even professionally published. Of those that were, most of them were in his university magazine. Twenty-eight of them remain uncollected and thus, commercially unavailable except in the odd periodical, to this day.

Of the six novels, on of them King considers so bad that he won't let anyone publish it. Of the five that were, most King fans will admit they're not very strong works, with the possible exceptions of The Long Walk and Roadwork. So, really, Carrie marks another mile on the road to becoming a truly exceptional author.

There are moments of brilliance that crop up in Carrie, but there's stuff that's kinda bothersome as well. To this day I cannot believe the character of Sue Snell, or her to-good-to-be-true boyfriend Tommy Ross. When I first read this book, many years ago, I had a huge problem with the character of Margaret White, but not Tommy or Sue. Today the opposite is true. Margaret White is clearly mentally ill. Sue and Tommy exist in a world of perfect teens.

I also remember feeling a bit like this book wasn't scary, mainly because I empathized a great deal with Carrie herself. I was bullied throughout my school years, and I understand that girls get it worse, as girls can be cruel on a level boys could only dream of. So, I was fully on Carrie's side when she finally snapped and went on her Roaring Rampage of Revenge.

This time, though, the true horror came from me realizing that Carrie just plain took things too far. I know that if I had her powers, I would have used them, but I would have been subtle and I only would have gone after people who had personally done something to me. And it wouldn't have been fatal. Carrie, however, starts slaughtering her entire school, then her entire town, and throughout, she feels nothing but joy, even finding it funny, and knowing unquestionably that it's all deserved. Yikes. I kept thinking at her, "Yeesh, Carrie, enough! Most of these kids didn't even do anything to you!" Or, if they did, we didn't see it.

I mainly bring up Carrie because it kinda sucks that I'm skipping it. Because the perfect Carrie has yet to play the role, and likely never will, at least on film. Her name is Bel Powley, she's 21 years old and she's the star of the film Diary of a Teenage Girl. She has the uncanny ability to go from plain-jane-verging-on-ugly to stunningly beautiful depending on make-up, hair and costuming. The chief complaint about both theatrical Carrie films is that the actress playing Carrie White (Sissy Spacek in the 1976 film in an Oscar-nominated performance and Chloe Grace Moretz in the 2013 film) the second time out are too beautiful from the start to be believable as someone who gets bullied mercilessly.

So what about a Carrie who goes from this:

 To this: the span of one film?

Too bad it will never happen.

Also, I'm going to say a few short words about Sometimes They Come Back. Simply put, this story isn't scary enough to work as a horror film, nor would it work as presented any other way. It's clearly a horror story, about gang members who return from the dead in physical form and terrorize a young teacher (whose brother they killed when he was a child), killing his wife and finally coming to kill him. How does he defeat them? Dark arts. He raises a demon to take them down, and the story concludes with his realization that he might have created a worse problem for himself.

This was already filmed once, as a TV movie starring Tim Matheson and Brooke Adams, and it wasn't all that great, but I think it's because this is one of King's stories that just won't work on film. The horror aspect is more about how the hero touches knowledge that man was not meant to tamper with in order to get rid of the gang members; sort of like setting fire to your house to kill a spider. The implications of the ending likely won't translate all that well to film, especially as the villains seem to have so little in the way of motivation, so this is one I think should stay in story format.

I was initially thinking that today's offering, The Lawnmower Man, would be the same.

As most of you know, this story was supposedly adapted to film already. The film in question, 1992's The Lawnmower Man, was directed by Brett Leonard and starred Jeff Fahey as Jobe Smith and Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo. If you've read the original story but haven't seen this film, you're probably scratching your head right now going "who?". That's because the film and the short story have nothing to do with each other. The film is a completely unrelated story about a man who can control machines with his mind. The only thing it has in common with King's story aside from the title is a scene where a lawnmower attacks a man by itself. In fact, King sued to have his name removed from the film (he won, but the damage had been done; there are still people who think The Lawnmower Man is a Stephen King film), and in fact, there are rumors that this film was an existing script which only became The Lawnmower Man after some suit realized they had the rights to the King story, resulting in some hasty re-writes. That sounds quite likely.

King's short story is far stranger. It may be one of the strangest stories I've ever read from King. It concerns a button-down conservative suburban dad, Harold Parkette, who just wants his dang lawn cut, but the kid who used to do it also used Harold's mower, which he got rid of after a dog chased a cat under the mower, causing his wife and daughter much grief. Now he's got to hire a boy and a mower, and finds a reasonable one in the Yellow Pages. Next Saturday, he's greeted by a grossly fat man at his door, ready to mow his grass. He leaves the fellow to it and settles down for an afternoon nap. Next thing he knows, a hideous-sounding mower has started up, and he goes outside, and is met with the sight of...of...I'll just let this illustration from the 1981 comic edition tell you:
Yeah. The really off-putting thing about this is how easy-going the lawnmower man remains even after Harold witnesses this. I should mention that the LM (as he'll be known from here on out) eats everything that comes out the back end of that mower. Everything. Including a mole that pokes its head out of its hole at the wrong moment. Gotta wonder if there were any dog turds on his lawn.

But the LM himself remains folksy, chipper and ready to start the front lawn. He even explains himself, behaving the whole time as though nothing is wrong. He's already made an offhand comment to Harold about the Greek goddess Circe, so it's less than surprising when he announces that his boss is the god Pan. This opens up a whole world of implications that I don't even want to get into.

The ending I won't describe except to say that things don't end well for Harold. Even knowing that doesn't really spoil the ending. It's one of those "you've got to read it to believe it" moments.

How do you film that? What do you do to expand that into a feature-length film? Well, I kept thinking about it, and decided that it might work very well as a black comedy.

Seriously, get a guy known for doing really dark comedies, Joe Dante would be my choice, and let him loose. Set it in the late 70's, mainly because that's the flavor of this story. Make it the story of a guy who just wants his life to be what he considers normal, but he's blocked at every turn by a wife who is embracing modern ideas, a daughter who's turning into a slut, neighbors who poke fun at him every chance they get and a yard that's getting more out of control because of how often he's stymied in finding someone to cut it. Basically, Harold can't figure out that his life isn't really all that bad, and if he'd just relax and not be so uptight about everything, he might even start feeling happy. But he can't let himself be happy because he obsesses over little things that don't matter.

This culminates in his growing obsession to have the perfect lawn, but without, you know, dirtying his own hands.

The first hour or so of the film would focus mostly on Harold's home life. We would have several uncomfortable but darkly humorous scenes where he and his wife argue over changing times and their respective roles in their marriage, his neighbors poke fun at him and he admonishes his daughter to cover herself up more and stop seeing so many boys. This would be punctuated by scenes where he tries hard to get his lawn taken care of, first hiring the boy, losing his mower, being unable to hire the boy and mower together, then finally finding Pastoral Lawn Care, the company the LM works for.

I also think there should be a few earlier scenes establishing Pastoral as a new, slightly sinister business in town, maybe having a prologue with someone else walking into the business and being creeped right out at what he or she finds there.

Rainn Wilson strikes me as a good Harold. Maybe it's that Harold has so much in common with Dwight Schrute; a need to have everything his way, arch conservatism, a prickly nature and apparently not widely liked.
Harold's wife Carla, who he married thinking she'd be his little '50's homemaker, but is turning into a bit of a modern feminist, annoying him to no end, will be played by Melissa McCarthy. She could practically do this without a script. In the story, she doesn't actually appear, but she apparently was so horrified by the cat incident that she had nightmares and wouldn't submit to her husband sexually, which is where I get the whole "modern woman" thing.
His daughter Alicia is another non-character in the story, mentioned only twice, but in both cases it seems that Harold doesn't approve of her slatternly behavior. He thinks she's turning into a little strumpet, evidently, considering how he doesn't like the way she dresses or the parade of boys who come to call on her. I'd like to script it so that Alicia isn't really a slut, just a bit of a free spirit, but Harold interprets this to mean she's sleeping with all these boys. I picked Natalie Alyn Lind for this role, because she balances cute and innocent with a sort of sultriness that will worry Harold.
Harold's neighbors on both sides of the fence are men who have sort of moved more on with the world, both of them apparently Democrats while Harold is a staunch Republican, and he hates them both. They don't appear to think much more kindly of him. In one funny scene, Jack Castonmeyer, who is implied to be close to the same age as Harold, even thinks the LM is Harold himself, naked and eating his grass. Don Smith, on the other side, is implied to be younger, as he has a young daughter. I see a few scenes similar to what goes on in The 'Burbs with the neighbors in that film as well. Nice opportunities for more comedy and more sense that Harold is out of sync with the rest of his neighborhood. I want them to be played by Jon Favreau and Dax Shepard.
Jon Favreau

Dax Shepard
Moving on, I'd like to get inside Pastoral itself, maybe imply that it's a branch of a weird operation that's got its fingers in all kinds of pies. In this case, Pan, in a Hawaiian suit, smoking a cigar and having numerous sexy ladies about, will be played by Lee Arenberg. Can't you just see him excessively hairy with a goat snout and horns?
And finally, the LM himself. He wouldn't appear until about halfway through, but damn, once he appears, how quickly things will go from uncomfortably funny to weird to horrifying. The LM is fat and relentlessly agreeable, talking in a matter-of-fact way about the wacko shit he's committing and never losing his folksy ways even as he prepares to commit murder. Despite being the title character, he's not the lead, and I think he should be billed third with an "and" credit.

With Hollywood actors obsessing about staying thin, it took me a bit to find a suitable LM. John Goodman is too old (and thinner now, plus I used him already), John Candy is too dead, but would also be too old if he wasn't. Chris Farley, who I pictured while reading the story, is also dead. I also considered lesser-known actors like Paul Vogt and Eric Stonestreet, but it came down to two names.

I initially considered Jack Black, but I think he would be too tempted to make the LM deliberately creepy. What makes the LM creepy is how nice he is, even when asking Harold where he keeps his "sharpest butcher knife", which he has already stated he plans to sacrifice Harold with. Black would turn him sinister in scenes like that.

Instead, I went with Kevin James. James tends to play unassuming nice guys, everyman types, and it would be a real twist to have him play someone so horrifying. Also, he's put back on the weight he lost.
So what do you think? Would a dark comedy-horror work for this? Is it better to leave it unfilmed? Let me know.

I just started 'Salem's Lot, one of my favorite King books, which, like Carrie, has been adapted before, twice in this case but in both cases as TV mini-series. I think it could work as a movie, and I think I've already chosen a director. Let us say my choice will be...controversial.

Next up (sometime in the next month or so): 'Salem's Lot!


  1. I think your count of pre-Carrie short stories is vastly too high. My count is 20 at the most, depending on whether you count things like "The Float" and "Slade."

    That Lee Arenberg suggestion for the Lawnmower Man in inspired. I kind of don't want to ever see it, though! ;)

    1. I will be amending that, but we're actually both wrong, according to Wikipedia. His short story count, also counting novellas, is 37 pre-Carrie. I'm counting the stuff he wrote as a young teenager and only published for friends and classmates.

      Also, Arenberg is Pan, not the LM himself. That's Kevin James. I purposefully wanted the LM to seem folksy, harmless, maybe even a little dim, so that when the ending comes, it leaves people even more unsettled.

    2. Derp!

      Not sure how I read that that wrong...! I still like it, though.

      As for the inventory of stories, I always balk at including anything that wasn't published professionally. In my mind, if it didn't appear in some sort of professional publication, it doesn't count. That's especially true if the stories aren't available to the general public, which most of those aren't. That's just me, though; there's certainly no uniform way of compiling lists like this.

    3. I tend to agree, which is why I'm not trying to track down those stories and read them as part of my read-or-reread-every-word-King-published project that started as a result of this blog. I included them in the number count for the purpose of completeness and to really make it plain just how much plowing of his lot he'd done prior to being published, even if it was just childhood efforts.

      For that matter, while I'm sure I'll read The Glass Floor someday, I'll wait until it gets collected. Right now, if I can't scour a used book store, or Amazon, and find a copy of a King story, I'm not bothering to hunt for it.

      Already my collection of King books went from about thirteen to forty-three in the space of a weekend (the weekend after I started this blog), and only a lack of available funds kept me from just buying it all up at once. The rest will be along in good order.

      I do not, however, plan on watching all previous adaptations. I have watched many of them, and while some I absolutely love, others were just plain awful. I have a growing hatred of the "It" mini-series. Others sound so bad I have no desire to see them; it might wreck my enjoyment of reading them. As for the fauxquels, I never was interested in seeing those, and I'm less interested now than I ever have been. King put out so much, why add to it with a bunch of hack screenplays?

      Anyway, back to business; what did you think of my actual LM choice? Do you have any opinions on my take of the story and characters? I love the short story reviews you've got on your site but there aren't many yet, and you haven't gotten to this one.

    4. I think that what you've put forward sounds like a perfectly valid take on this material. I wonder if the story isn't too slight to merit beefing it up, though. Not to say it's bad (it isn't) or that your expansion ideas aren't good (they are); I'm just not sure the story's payoff warrants expanding everything else to feature-length. Seems to me like it'd best be filmed as a short film, or not at all.

      That said, I do admit to having an inexplicable soft spot for the 1992 movie. It's awful, but I kind of enjoy it.

      As for Kevin James...

      I could see it working. I'm not a huge fan of his, but I've always suspected he's a better actor than he probably gets to show.

      I'm not sold on Rainn Wilson, though. I think his natural tendency would be to play it with a wink, and if that happened the story would not work.

      On a different topic, I do like the looks of Bel Powley for Carrie White. I wouldn't call her first photo ugly...but I know a lot of other people would. And yeah, that's an aspect of Carrie that NONE of the movies have gotten right. It'll be twenty years before anybody else tries remaking it, though.

    5. The story struck me as slight the first time I read it, too. But the second time there was so much under the surface to explore. It could be done in the right hands, and done well.

      I waffled a lot with casting Wilson. The thing is, I think he's a better actor than we often give him credit for. We seem to think he IS Dwight, but none of his other roles have been even close to Dwight. But could he play a tight-ass arch-conservative whose only "problems" include a wife that won't submit to him, a daughter that's too flirty for his liking, neighbors that vote the opposite of him and a lawn that he's too lazy to get off his ass and mow himself? Oh, I think so.

      As for Carrie...I strongly doubt we'll see any future adaptations for the screen. Other than old legends, Shakespeare and real life stories (and super-hero comic books as a media form, though this still doesn't apply to individual super-heroes), adaptations tend to get only so many kicks at the can. Carrie has had three. That's probably one more than it really warranted already. It's the only King adaptation to get three tries, and it's not even in King's top ten best books.

  2. I like where you're going with this. Seeing Kevin James in that role would be... something. I tend to agree with Bryant that this really isn't the type of short story that would lend itself easily to full-length movie. Some, like Strawberry Spring, could be just fine. But there's only so much you can do to embroider this one. It's unfortunate that there are no anthology-type series out there. Something like Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories or Jim Henson's The Storyteller would have worked perfectly for this (except obviously without the constraints of network television).

    I've always found the story of the nineties Lawnmower Man and King's efforts to renounce it fascinating. What ended up on the screen literally couldn't have been more different from the actual short story, so the claim that they just slapped King's name on an unrelated story is entirely possible. The funny thing is, the movie isn't all that bad. I wouldn't go so far to call it good, but by the standards of Hollywood's King adaptations, it probably wouldn't even be in the bottom 50 percent, and the visuals at the time were quite stunning (and the idea of a simpleton becoming a god-like entity is kinda cool). If you think about it, that shows some integrity on King's part; it's not that the movie's bad, it's just that this really, REALLY isn't my story.

    1. I think as a black comedy that isn't focused on fear but on weird, this could work as a 90-minute movie.

      But yeah, I'd like to see the anthology film return. We do have the VHS movies, but I'd like to see that expanded. That said, I'd prefer there be a theme and not just "let's stick these stories together".

      Like putting The Last Rung on the Ladder and The Woman in the Room together.