Monday, March 21, 2016
If you're a Constant Reader, you know (kinda) why Stephen King occasionally became Richard Bachman. He only had three novels to his name, and the first had been a major hit so of course the two follow-ups had been as well, and critics were eager to point out that King's popularity had nothing to do with his talent, which, as far as they were concerned, was negligible.
Instead, they insisted, as the author of a big hit, his next few novels will also be big hits until his name stops being a selling point all on its own. Then he will be seen as the flash in the pan he actually is. You know, kinda like how Stephenie Meyer is viewed today.
King wanted to know if this was true. What if he released something under a different name, with as little fanfare as possible, and just let people discover it? Would it garner the same sort of response his mainstream releases got?
Other reasons for inventing the Bachman persona (and at this point, I think "persona" is the right word. "Pseudonym" just doesn't do what King created here justice) was that it gave him a chance to release some of his earlier material, some of which was written prior to Carrie, and also because his publisher, at the time anyway, would not allow more than one book a year to be published by the same author.
Results were hard to nail down. On the one hand, Bachman's novels did not sell nearly as well, but the lack of promotion could have had a lot to do with that. Also, critics were much kinder to Bachman, even describing his first novel, Rage thusly: "It's like something Stephen King would write, if Stephen King could write." Joke's on them, I guess.
But Thinner is different. All the previous Bachman books were the works of a young King, still finding his voice and sampling various genres. In other words, they didn't really read like Stephen King novels. Thinner is a novel written by the man who had, at that point, given us The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Different Seasons and Pet Sematary. This was the master at work again.
But King thought the experiment had not yet yielded conclusive results, so, he began work on Thinner, planning from the get-go to make this one a Bachman book. This means this was the first Bachman book intended to be one, despite the fact that really, honestly, the disguise at this point was paper thin. It doesn't surprise me at all that King was unmasked shortly after this book was published. Heck, he even name-checks himself in this book, having a character describe what's happening to him as being "like something out of a Stephen King novel." He might as well have winked at the audience, and it doesn't help that Thinner, unlike pretty much anything Bachman wrote up until now, can safely be classified as a horror story. Not a very scary one, but a gripping one, where the fear is derived from what our protagonist's body goes through.
The story focuses on Billy Halleck, a lawyer who has been blessed with a comfortable marriage, a loving daughter and a successful career. He's also a good fifty pounds overweight, and getting bigger. His doctor warns him that he is verging into heart-attack territory.
Now, I'm just gonna break in here and state that this is one of the things I'd like to see changed for the film. Billy is described as being 37 years old, six foot two and 247 lbs. That's...not heart attack territory. At all. I figured Billy had to be pretty short and slight of frame until the line about him being 6'2" came up. I'm 6'2" myself and over 300 lbs. I don't want to say just how much over, but let's just say I'm bigger than Billy. I've had my heart and blood pressure checked numerous times. They're both completely normal, and for that matter, when I had gas pains in my chest recently I went to the doctor to make sure everything was okay with my heart. I was told that not only was my heart completely healthy, but the fact that I was only 38 meant that I was extremely unlikely to have a heart attack, despite my weight. Is this just another example of King's seeming issues with fat people rearing its head again?
Well, apparently not. Apparently they were based on King's actual experiences. He weighed a bit less than Billy but was a heavy smoker, and was told he was entering "heart-attack country". Of course, what he leaves out is that in addition to being a bit overweight and smoking heavily, he was also a big-time substance abuser and alcoholic. That just might have had something to do with his doctor's warning.
Billy is a very good lawyer, though, and at this point even has mob connections, having successfully defended a low-level mobster named Richard Ginelli, who apparently has done that thing where a mafia man decides his lawyer is "part of the family now" because he treats Billy like a brother. But recently Billy himself has had legal trouble that is kicked off by the arrival of a traveling caravan of gypsies.
Now, here's another sticky point: I simply don't know if traveling gypsies are still a thing. Most Romany peoples of this day and age have more or less modernized and joined society. The gypsies in this story might wear rock star t-shirts and travel in campers and cars rather than with horses and wagons, but still, they're practically like something out of some old story.
Because it's the 80's (though this would be easy to modernize, gypsies or no gypsies), local police chief Duncan Hopley tells them to get on out of town. But before they can, Billy ends up running one of them over with his car.
It's not entirely his fault. First, his wife Heidi had decided to give him a handjob while he drove, which she had never done before, and thus he was distracted, plus the old woman didn't use the crosswalk or look where she was going when she darted out in front of him. But Billy is respected by the law enforcement community, and so Hopley doesn't even check to see if he'd been drinking while the judge, a buddy of Billy's named Cary Rossington, finds the fault to be entirely the old woman's and lets Billy off without even a slap on the wrist.
But the old woman's father, a 108-year-old Romany shaman, gets his own revenge, touching Billy on the cheek outside the courthouse and whispering one word: thinner. Before too long, Billy notices he's losing weight despite no changes to his diet or lifestyle. Even worse, he can't gain weight no matter how much he eats, and he's losing it fast enough to scare his wife, daughter, doctor and himself. Quickly the smiles and congratulations turn into worried looks and admonitions to see a doctor. When Billy realizes that he actually has been cursed to evidently lose weight until he dies, his wife and doctor decide he's crazy and try to have him committed. Only his mob buddy, Ginelli, believes him enough to help.
At first, I wasn't sure I was gonna do a post on this one because there already is a film version of this story, and while I haven't seen it, what I know about it tells me that it's pretty faithful to the novel, adding in only some marital infidelity and changing the ending a bit. It bombed at the box-office and critics were not kind, saying that it was all high concept and no pay-off and that there wasn't a single likeable character in it. I'm not sure I agree with either assessment, at least of the book, as I found Billy pretty likeable, even as I understood his flaws, and I liked Ginelli, too, as a sort of anti-hero, plus the pay-off was pretty intense, at least I thought.
So sure, let's try again. David Fincher can take the reigns this time, and maybe Ehren Kruger can handle story duties. And now for a cast.
For Billy, I hunted around for emaciated actors, or at the very least actors thin enough they wouldn't have to do much to look deathly gaunt. I figure the best way to do it is film the fat-suit scenes first, let the actor sweat and lose muscle and start to look unhealthily thin, and then finally have him pull a Christian-Bale-in-The Machinist and go scary gaunt. Make-up can help with that too, making his eyes look sunken and his ribs and collar-bones stand out, etc. I even figured Bale himself would play the part well, but then I figured he likely wouldn't be in a hurry to get scary-thin again, so it would have to be someone who could do it but hadn't yet. Eventually I settled on Eddie Redmayne. Now, Eddie's about three years too young, and looks younger, but Billy isn't tied to his age. Even his daughter, written to be a teenager thanks to Billy and Heidi marrying early, can be re-written as nine or ten and not one thing would be lost (there's even a scene where she asks for an explanation of the gypsies as he's saying good-night to her, and she really seems quite young in this scene). For that matter, this just means that for the next decade or so, Redmayne can still be used as he won't have aged out of the role yet. Plus, the fat suit will add years.
For Taduz Lemke, the old man who curses Billy, I settled on Wes Studi, who I am now grateful I didn't use for Firestarter. Studi is a scary-looking man, and looks much older than his 69 years. This part will fit him like a glove.
Instead, I'm moving on to the next big novel, which I've been waiting a long time to get to, and I know I'll be doing a post on it. Yes. on it.
Next up: It!