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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Dead Zone

Now, here, we have another example similar to The Shining.

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 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.
For Greg Stillson, there was never another choice. I wanted an actor who could be described as handsome and charismatic, but could instantly turn on the crazy, and that man is Michael Shannon.
I struggled with Johnny's lost love, Sarah. Most of the popular black actresses of today are in their 30's and I wanted one that was closer to Jordan's age. I chose The Walking Dead actress Sonequa Martin-Green, because she's a very talented actress and the image of the beautiful "one that got away" for Johnny.
Then there's Dr. Sam Weizak, a neurologist who takes over with Johnny's care after he comes out of his coma. The two become friends, and Sam is one of the few who doesn't grow distant from Johnny after Johnny's abilities make themselves obvious. He's described as being Polish with a huge mound of hair, and in the book, the second World War is the reason he was sent to the US. He doesn't have to be Polish, necessarily. He could be a young refugee from almost any war that would have sent people to the US, but since he's described as Polish, I pictured Adrien Brody, who we know can handle the accent.
Johnny's parents play a pretty big role in the story. Johnny's dad, Herb, is described as a big, bulky contractor who is essentially the patient, loving dad and husband, but who is saddled with caring for his wife, whose sanity is definitely in question, as well as trying to pay his son's hospital bills. Does anyone else find Terry Crews as lovable as I do? The man makes me feel like if I met him, I'd want to give him a hug. He's just so nice. Could he bring the pathos to this role that is needed? Absolutely he could, and it would give him a chance to show his dramatic side.
Herb's wife, Vera, Johnny's mother, is a devout Baptist who slowly turns cuckoo, believing in one religious cult after another, initially believing that one of these cults will bring her son back, but eventually abandoning all good sense. Taraji P. Henson is capable of bringing the crazy, and still having us sympathize with her.
Probably the element that most non-readers are familiar with in this story is Johnny's aiding of Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman to catch a criminal known as the Castle Rock Strangler. Despite this being a relatively small side plot in the book, it has far-reaching echoes in other books, especially Cujo. Bannerman is described as being big and powerful-looking, yet bespectacled and quiet, so I chose Chris Bauer.
And of course, I had to case Frank Dodd, Bannerman's young deputy, and a key figure in cracking the case of the Strangler. For reasons that will be obvious if you're familiar with the story, I went with Tom Payne.
Toward the middle of the story, Johnny is hired to tutor a young all-American athlete who has trouble reading. His father, a rich man named Roger Chatsworth, hires Johnny and befriends him. There is no actor who can better communicate "upscale WASP" than Jack Coleman of Heroes.
His son, Chuck, a big football player and also friendly with Johnny, can be played by Leo Howard, who played young Conan in the Jason Momoa film, and who has grown to be a very fit young actor. He also looks like he really could be Jack Coleman's son.
Honestly I don't know who would direct it. It could be done by just about anybody, as long as that anybody's name isn't Mick Garris (or Tommy Lee Wallace, for that matter). As this film is not a horror story, someone known for their dramas should probably handle it, like Tate Taylor or someone.

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.


  1. Hmm...

    Jordan is great, and he could absolutely pull this off. Crews as his father is genius.

    You know what idea I had, though? What if you swapped the roles up and gave Smith to Shannon and Stillson to Jordan? It'd be really interesting for an inherently likeable guy like Jordan to play the villain while a conflicted and intense guy like Shannon played the protagonist.

    It'd be cool the way you've got it, too, though.

    For director, why not Ryan Coogler? He and Jordan are having quite a bit of success together, so might as keep it going.

    I second Chris Bauer if he plays the role exactly like he did on "True Blood."

    1. I don't know...the ages don't really work if you switch them. Jordan is pretty young to be playing a politician of any level.

      I like the Coogler idea.

  2. I decided to go ahead and risk spoilers on the last few, for the sake of getting caught up, and I'm not sorry I did. There are a few important plot points that I've become aware of, but I don't mind that so much, as long as I don't know the whole thing.

    Jordan is undeniably a great young actor, and this role is a good illustration of race being unimportant. I did wonder why you specified a black girl for his ex-girlfriend? Is that just since if you're changing one, you might as well change both?

    I'm generally in favor of casting Michael Shannon in anything, but funny thing, I just read an interview with him yesterday where he discussed why he gets cast as the troubled or unhinged guy all the time, and he says a friend of his once told him it looks like he has psychic baggage. Anyway, he came off as a pretty relatable dude in the article, and is another guy I think is in danger of getting typecast, but could probably do great in comedy or in any kind of role, probably including something in almost any King work.

    Bauer is another good one. For some reason, I never thought of him as physically big, but an average-sized guy who plays men with a little bravado, (sometimes with ulcers going on under the steely surface like in The Wire), but always with some cojones. However, he's listed at 6-2, so apparently he's just good at projecting a certain persona. I haven't watched much of True Blood and have no idea if that's how his character was in that, too?

    1. The black girlfriend came from a comment from Bryant's blog about how producers love to have a black actor for diversity's sake, but seem to stop there, as if to include two black characters makes the movie "too black". I decided that I didn't care if this movie was "too black"; the major characters were going to be played by black actors. It started with my realizing that race truly was incidental here, and then I thought of Jordan in the lead and Crews as his dad, and it went from there.

      If Shannon were to ask me, I'd tell him; it's the eyes. The dude has craaaaazy eyes. Sure, he can look totally normal when he wants, but widening those eyes and he looks completely unhinged.

      Bauer is somewhat tall (I'm 6'2" myself, so I've never thought of it as particularly tall) and quite bulky. Bannerman doesn't need to be as huge as King describes him, but I'd prefer he have a bit of bulk to him as opposed to Tom Skerrit, who played him in the first movie.

  3. I figured it was something like that. Although I think you could say Hollywood has, at times, been afraid of mixed-race couples, too.

    I forgot to mention, Terry Crews is an interesting choice. It seems like he's mostly played criminals and hardasses, other than Arrested Development. Does he have a reputation of being super nice? I haven't seen any interviews, so I haven't gotten the huggable impression.

  4. Actually, I find that they're really, really okay with mixed-race couples if they're trying to market the movie to general audiences. Put a "safe" black guy in the lead, like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, whomever, then pair him with someone who's at least several shades lighter, like Eva Mendes or Charlize Theron.

    Terry Crews is mainly a comedian. Check him out on Brooklyn 99, where he's both very funny and seems like a really nice guy. From what I understand, this is very close to his real personality.