Tuesday, December 22, 2015
The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone, published in 1979, was turned into a movie in 1983 by horror-maestro extraordinaire David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken starred in the lead role of Johnny Smith, and it remains one of his most acclaimed performances. There was even an Oscar campaign for him (he wasn't nominated, ultimately).
The movie has become so popular that when I was searching for a picture to use for this post, I could not find one that wasn't related to the movie, or the television series (yes, there was a TV series, I'll get to that in a moment). I ended up going with a bit of fan art that I'm pretty sure is still based on Walken's performance.
And, like The Shining, the movie based on this novel is really good. Great, even. And, unlike The Shining, remains somewhat faithful (though not as much as some, like The Green Mile or The Mist) and gets the characters pitch-perfect. So, why adapt this one again?
I'll be honest; I'm mainly doing a cast for this one because Bryant Burnette of The Truth Inside The Lie told me he'd like to see it happen some day, and because he liked my casting choices (though I'm altering one of them) for a potential remake. However, the other reason I'm doing it is that we live in probably the most politically contentious climate the US has experienced since the whole Nixon/Ford debacle. The entire political plot of this book could be translated to 2000, 2008 or even this year without missing a beat, and honestly, it might even be more topical now.
Also, this one has been adapted a second time, in this case as a weekly television series, sorta like Under the Dome is now. It ran for six seasons and starred Anthony Michael Hall in the title role. I watched a couple of episodes here and there, but what I know of it suggests that not only was it not very faithful to the source material at all, but not even really all that good. Others have suggested to me that it was pretty good in its first season, but went downhill later. I have no trouble believing that. So, much like Carrie, which got a great adaptation, suck-ass attempt at a TV series and finally a second theatrical run, The Dead Zone deserves a bit of an update.
As a side note, this story also has a sub-plot set in Castle Rock, which was introduced in It Grows on You and mentioned in several other works, including The Stand, which I'd forgotten until my re-read. This is really the first novel to be set there. That's kinda important.
The story concerns Johnny Smith (and yes, the story mentions quite often how much like an alias this name sounds), a young school teacher who falls into a coma and wakes up four and a half years later. Much has changed; his parents have grown old beyond their years and his mother's oldschool Baptist convictions have morphed into a religious mania that has turned her borderline certifiable. Sarah Hazlett, the woman he was falling in love with has married another man and is now a mother. But moreover, Johnny has gained an ability (one that he has had in a smaller degree since childhood) to get impressions of things by touch. If he picks up a wallet, for example, he'll be able to tell who it belongs to (which, oddly, isn't one of the things that happens in the book). If he touches a person, he'll get glimpses of their past, and even potential futures.
At first, he does this instinctively and while it makes the papers it also freaks out nearly everyone who comes into contact with him, aside from his doctor, his parents and Sarah (okay, it freaks them out, too, but they don't start avoiding him). He comes to see his gift as a curse. This only intensifies the day he encounters a flesh-pressing politician...and the brief handshake leaves him convicted that this man should not be allowed to live much longer, because he will usher in a nightmarish era that could very well end the world as we know it.
By the way, that contentious political climate I mentioned is important to the story because Greg Stillson, the politician who serves as our villain, uses the political uncertainty and party shifting, among many other things, to his advantage. It's implied and even outright stated several times that a man like Stillson could never be elected outside of circumstances like the ones in existence then.
Speaking of, I think that's one area that could be improved upon, at least from the novel. I haven't seen the movie in years, and I don't really remember how Martin Sheen portrayed Stillson, but I've got a problem with his presentation in the novel.
See, the idea King had that led to this book was "Is it possible to make Lee Harvey Oswald the good guy?" That's not what the story does, though. It gives us a genuinely good guy vs. a truly horrible man. Greg Stillson is so evil he's almost a cartoon, and his campaign speeches remind one of guys like Lyndon H. LaRouche or any one of the hundreds of clearly certifiable people who have sought public office. I truly don't believe there's any political environment that would allow for such shenanigans to actually get someone elected.
(Please don't lob Donald Trump at me. Trump may have a "devil may care" attitude and say a lot of controversial things, but he's never run around on stage like a crazed bull or thrown hot dogs at the crowd.)
When I heard the quote from King about Lee Harvey Oswald, I assumed that Stillson was going to be presented as a good man who Johnny foresees making a deal or new law or something that seems to be a solid bet, but that ultimately has disastrous unforeseen consequences. Now, I'm not suggesting that he be changed this way in the movie, because the scenes where he goes off the rails are too juicy, but I will suggest that perhaps his craziness be limited to behind closed doors, where those who witness it are too afraid for their lives to repeat what they witnessed. In public, however, he's got to come off not just like a good politician but a great man, one who convinces 90% of the people that he encounters that he genuinely is a saint.
So let's begin:
For Johnny, I wanted someone the audience would instantly like. Johnny is a very likable guy in the book, in fact at times he almost seems too good, but he has his flaws, for sure. Johnny has to be a guy whose side we are immediately on, knowing that he's right about the visions he has, even when others disbelieve him, and he has to be someone we're still rooting for, even as he makes his...final decision. Initially I pictured Matt Smith in the role, but lately I've come to like Michael B. Jordan. Jordan, whom I've followed since his days on The Wire where he played an innocent kid caught up in the drug trade for no other reason than that he doesn't know what else to do, and I love that he's becoming a genuine movie star. He's more physically fit than Johnny is described as, but he definitely has that likability factor, as well as the acting skill to make this part come alive.
And with that, I leave the 70's behind and say hello to the neon-bright, pastel-colored 80's! Oh, wait, this is Stephen King. So we're leaving behind post-apocalyptic waste lands and freaky powers and welcoming Lovecraftian abominations masquerading as clowns, alternate universes and the most emotionally devastating of King's novels I've ever read.
Pray for me.
There will be another casting coming up soon. I will not be re-casting The Mist, which was done quite well by the Man Frank Darabont less than a decade ago. I actually had a much better time watching that movie than I did reading the novella (which I had not, up until now). There's no need to try and do it better. However, there is another story which was done as a TV episode that I feel could make a nice, tight, terrifying horror film, and I'll have a cast up for that one hopefully before Christmas.
But if I don't, I will say for now, Merry Christmas and I truly hope it is good for all of you. I'll be spending as much of my time off work as I can ripping through Firestarter (yes, that one's getting a post) as well as, hopefully, Roadwork, as well as several short stories.