I love this book. Really, it's among my top ten King novels. It might fall, considering there are novels of his I have yet to read, but I somehow doubt it.
This novel shows just how much King grew as a writer between Carrie and this one. It didn't hurt, I'm sure, that he had also written a shit-ton of short stories and four full novels that had yet to see publication. Carrie felt like King but was missing something hard to define. Whatever it was, it's very present in this book.
Known here and there as Stephen King Does Vampires, this book is, as all things King tend to be, more than it seems. Jeffrey Deaver called it "Dracula meets Peyton Place", and that's pretty on the nose. This story is about a small town and all the skeletons in its closet; skeletons that come out to play when a vampire moves in next door.
Ben Mears is a young writer (35 in the novel) who lived in the Lot for a few years as a child. While there, he had a traumatic, possibly supernatural, experience in the old Marsten House, an old, dilapidated building that sits on a hill overlooking the town and has quite the storied history. It was owned by a criminal named Hubert Marsten, who was hip-deep in all sorts of nasty shit, a sort of jack-of-all-evil-trades. He killed his wife and hung himself in the end, and ever since then, the Marsten House has stood empty. Ben's goal is to put his past demons to rest and perhaps get a novel out of it in the process. What he finds is far more than he bargained for.
The Marsten House isn't empty any longer, you see. A mysterious man named Straker and his forever-unseen partner Barlow have bought it, and while they seem to be in town for the mundane reason of opening up a fine furniture store, there's something definitely off about Straker. Soon after his (and Ben's) arrival, two little boys go missing, and one dies shortly after being found. Then others start to mysteriously ail and die...
'Salem's Lot is not just the first full-length novel I'm blogging about, it's also the first on this blog to have already been adapted. Twice, in fact. So, why do I feel that it needs a third adaptation? I'm glad you asked.
First, this novel isn't all that long (439 pages in hardcover), and yet both adaptations were TV mini-series. I don't get it. The first mini-series, which aired in 1979, is three hours long while the second, from 2004, is a bit shorter, but I don't see why no one's tried to turn this into a big-screen production yet. It's far shorter than The Shining, Christine, Needful Things and Dreamcatcher, each of which were adapted as feature films. You wouldn't need to prune much to make it fit a feature running time. Heck, both mini-series seemed to add subplots (or expand existing ones) that weren't really necessary. This isn't to say they were bad (almost needless to say, the first one was better) but both were longer than strictly necessary and both made alterations to the story that would make them impossible to fit into a shared cinematic universe like the kind I'm trying to build.
By the way, before we continue, I've got to share this cover with you. It was the cover used on the edition I bought the first time I read it, years ago. I paid two dollars at a thrift store for it. The cover photo was raised, but otherwise colorless, having been worn black from years of handling. It was suitably creepy and I loved it.
Now, when I started reading this time around, I thought about directors who had made movies about small towns where bad things happened. That's a long list but for some reason I seized on Ben Affleck. I told you there would be some controversy to this post!
Hardly any name out there dredges up more nerdrage than Ben Affleck. I sorta understand why (Daredevil, Pearl Harbor, Gigli) but I think a lot of it is undeserved. The man's a good actor and a fucking amazing director. He has yet to make a bad film, and they're not even hurt by him taking the lead role. Watch The Town and Argo if you don't believe me. I'm also excited about his upcoming drama Live By Night. Fitting title considering what we're talking about here.
His first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, is what inspired me to choose him to direct, and yes, to star, in the film version of 'Salem's Lot. Now, he's mostly done crime dramas up until now, but I am sure he'd be amenable to this, considering he was for a while signed to write and direct a version of The Stand. That didn't happen, but this work is smaller in scope and a very tight script, so it's more up his alley.
Yes, he's older than Ben is supposed to be, but Ben comes off as having more life experience than most at age 35, and I just couldn't think of an actor that young who could pull off the role. When David Soul played this role he was 36, but that was the 70's, when actors looked older in their twenties than actors today look in their fifties. Rob Lowe was 41 when he played Ben in the 2004 series. Affleck is 43 but could pass for five years younger. This is one of those times when I agree the character should be aged up.
The character is described as being about 61 in the novel, but in the 1979 series he was played by Lew Ayers, who was a decade older than that, and by Andre Braugher in the 2004 series, who was a whole 42 at the time. I'm always happy to see Andre Braugher in anything, so I can forgive it, but I'm going older still than either of them.
This is the role I'm giving to Morgan Freeman. I said I'd be saving him for something better, and something better has arrived. Now, I almost didn't cast him, because Freeman is nearly 80, and unless someone decides to film this thing in the next couple of years, he'll be over 80. That said, I'm sticking with him because for a man that age, he's in excellent health, still very active, and this isn't a very taxing role, physically. Plus, it makes what happens to the character a bit more believable.
Matt is wise, scholarly, fatherly and the man everyone instantly defers to the minute he's in the room. That's Freeman all over the place, and we all know it.
|Does he look 80 to you?|
The first two adaptations really upped his role and made him the central antagonist, including (SPOILER ALERT) having him live much longer. In both cases they changed him pretty dramatically from the character in the book. The '79 series cast James Mason, who pretty much played him as James Mason, while Donald Sutherland played him in the '04 series as a bearded, obviously insane man.
Straker is tall, thin, completely bald and speaks with an inflectionless accent that might come from a number of places. He's charming to ladies, creepy to men, and moves lithely, like a dancer. Now, never accuse me of being afraid to type-cast, where I think it will work, and here, I'm sure it will. I chose John Malkovich.
The series versions were no help because both decided to play with the character; in the '79 version put Reggie Nalder in blue Count Orlock make-up and decided to portray him as non-verbal, communicating entirely through Straker while the only thing Nalder needed to do was hiss and scream. I'm guessing they were trying to get away from the Dracula stereotype, but in the age of the sparkly sexy vampire, an erudite, gentlemanly vampire who is still every inch the monster would be a nice shake-up. The '04 version had him played by Rutger Hauer who played him as Rutger Hauer. But then it hit me; a Germanic expatriate who spent most of his recent years in England, having a very Baltic appearance with high cheekbones but a mixed accent from living all over...
...Michael Fassbender. A German-born actor raised in Ireland? Perfect. Simply put him in a Lucius Malfoy wig and add a few lines to his face to start off with, then remove them until he looks young, handsome and virile. Perfect.
See, Susan isn't written like a fluttery high-schooler in most of her scenes. She's actually pretty smart, artsy (she likes to paint), well-read and the only main character to reject out of hand that vampires could be real because hey, she's an adult. She's 24 years old, and pretty mature, except she doesn't have a job and still lives with her parents (both TV series change this), but she's ready to leave the Lot and find her way in the world even before she meets Ben. But then, all her interactions with Ben are all on the level of a high school kid who meets a handsome guy at summer camp. Suddenly she's in love with him, and he with her. Suddenly she's willing to be his, and this is all before she even mentions to her boyfriend that they're over.
Obviously the role is going to need to be written a bit different. Maybe imply that Ben's been around town for several months, instead of one, and write in many more scenes of them simply talking and getting to know each other before they sleep together and he meets her parents. This does happen in the book, but later, well after she's fallen hard for him and done things with him she can't just take back. This approach won't fix all the problems, but the rest can be helped by casting a woman of appropriate age (a tad older than 24) who conducts herself like an adult and is a very good actress. I chose Emma Stone.
Thomas Barbusca, a young actor with an impressive range, but in all likelihood to have aged out of the role by the time anyone gets around to filming it.
The other roles are fairly minor, but I'm casting them anyway because without them this story loses its flavor. We want to feel like we know Jerusalem's Lot, as if we live there. And that will be greatly helped by putting names to faces. There are too many to do them all, so I'm sticking with the larger and/or most memorable characters.
First, there's Dr. Jimmy Cody, a boyish young physician who was once Matt's student. Jimmy is kinda nondescript, but ends up playing a pretty large role in the story, which I won't spoil. In the '79 series they merge his character with Susan's dad (which oddly worked), and hired a random actor to play him in 2004. I was just thinking about boyish-faced actors and for some reason Donald Glover popped into my head. He's mostly known for comedy, but I think he could play Jimmy interestingly. He certainly worked in my head as I read the character.
Father Donald Callahan is a pretty major character when it comes to his impact on King's universe as well as his contributions here. He's a priest who's losing his faith, not in God, necessarily, but definitely in the church. He's taken to drinking too much and doesn't think of himself as much of a priest. But he knows evil when he sees it. The '79 series all but wrote him out, while the '04 series dramatically changed the way his character is handled. James Cromwell played him, and was a bit older than the character is described (mid to late 50's) but honestly, he could be played anywhere between the ages of 55 and 70. I picked 68-year-old Alan Dale.
Town Constable, Parkins Gillespie, isn't a huge role, but he does have some significant impact on the earlier parts of the story, plus I love his confrontation with Ben. This sad-eyed, laconic old cop would be a perfect role for Ben Affleck's regular collaborator, Titus Welliver.
Gillespie's colleague and polar opposite, Deputy Nolly Gardner, would be a nice comic-relief character in a movie that could use some levity. I cast James Ransone as this small-town peace officer who thinks he's Dirty Harry.
Ed "Weasel" Craig doesn't have much more character than "town drunk" but he adds a lot of local flavor. Elisha Cook, Jr. certainly made him memorable in 1979, and I think Cooper Huckabee could as well.
Mike Ryerson is a young man who works for the local undertaker, driving the hearse, digging graves and becoming the first adult victim of the vampire's kiss. It's not a large role but it's quite memorable. I wanted a man who looked like a somewhat handsome, but lower-class working man who looks believable in a set of coveralls, but would also look bloody terrifying as a vampire. I went with Sons of Anarchy's Niko Nicoterra.
Eva Miller, owner of the boarding house where Ben and Weasel live, is also a small but memorable role. I chose CCH Pounder but really any older woman could play this part.
I've also noticed that in King's early works, nearly everyone smokes. That can be easily gotten around, I just thought I'd mention it.
Anyway, the long wait is over; 'Salem's Lot has been cast. In the next little while I'll be holed up with The Shining. I did read The Ledge and I Know What You Need, two short stories that were published between 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, but I'm not sure if I'll be blogging about them. The Ledge was adapted as a segment of the anthology film Cat's Eye, and honestly, that's probably the only way it should have been adapted. I don't think it needs another. But the second one might, maybe, work as a dark romantic drama. I'll think harder on that and update later.