Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Castle Rock Companion - Salem's Lot (2004)


In 2004 TNT produced another mini-series version of Salem's Lot, and this time they did make a lot of changes.  While it does help the pacing of the story, I'm a bit bothered by the changes they made.  I can't have my cake and eat it too, it seems.

First off, instead of having it where Ben and Mark are down in Central America as our wraparound story, we instead get Ben attacking Father Callahan, and then telling the whole story to a hospital orderly via narration.  The main problem I have with this narration is that Ben shouldn't really know all the details about these small townspeople's lives because he wasn't there in Salem's Lot long enough to learn it.  But I guess we're supposed to just ignore that and go with it.

Characters are once again condensed to save time, but this time their choice to do so smears the name of an otherwise good character.  Jim Cody is one of the few good people in the town, a doctor just trying to help his patients.  But here he's a guy who helps a woman cheat on her husband, and we eventually find out all that was lies in an attempt for the couple to make some money off him.  While this does ramp up the drama in the beginning of the series, it adds this goofy plot thread of Cody continually asking to borrow money from people for the rest of it, and it's just kind of silly.  Though it does mean the baby gets to be saved rather than being turned into a vampire, so I guess there's that.

This version of Matt Burke is African American and gay, and on the surface I want to cheer about them at least attempting to make a more diverse cast, but the events and how they play out make me pause.  I feel like the only reason they made Matt gay is to have an uncomfortable scene when Mike Ryerson returns as a vampire, and it's not really necessary.  Can't a man just be a teacher who cares about his former students without the answer being that he did so because he was attracted to him?

But the largest change is all related to Ben Mears.  Because this is 2004, he can't be a fictional writer anymore.  No, he's a guy who got famous by writing a tell-all book about the naughty things the soldiers who saved him in Afghanistan were doing.  So now he's come to Salem's Lot to write about the nasty things that exist in a small town.  But then later he tells Susan that he is in fact there for the reason given in the novel, to excise the demons that have been plaguing him since he went into the Marsten house at a young age. So why was that change even necessary?  Especially since they also changed what happened to him in the house.

In the book Ben enters the house after it has long since been deserted, and he sees the former owner's ghost.  Here, he goes in to see the day the owner actually murdered his wife and a young boy before killing himself.  Ben finds the bodies and then is frozen in horror, unable to leave.  It's all great imagery and works as a good horrifying moment, but would kids in a neighborhood really dare you to break into a house where people were still living?  That seems unlikely to me.

In this version Barlow remains closer to Count Dracula and is played by the wonderful Rutger Hauer.  I think he manages to make Barlow charismatic without also being a straight Dracula rip-off, and he deserves praise for that.  But I can't say I feel the same about the rest of the vampires here.  Their attempts to make them scary come off as far too clich√© for the time period.  Bending in strange ways, climbing on ceilings, these are all devices we've seen time and time again and look far more silly than scary at this point.

This mini-series is definitely better than the 1979 version, and if you're going to watch one version this is definitely your choice.  While I don't like some of the choices they made with the characters, if you haven't read the book you would never know the difference and you would probably enjoy this one a lot.  My problem is that not only have I read the book, I've also read the Dark Tower series, and so for me, I cannot watch this mini-series without being enraged.

I first read Salem's Lot back in my teens, and I read through the Dark Tower series in my 20s. So this time around I was surprised at how small a role Father Callahan plays in the novel.  He's a fully formed character and his conflict of faith is an interesting one, but then he exits the story rather abruptly.  It makes me wonder if King intended to add him to that series from the start or if he simply had a strong desire to return to the character later on.

Father Callahan makes his return in book 5 of the Dark Tower series, Wolves of the Calla.  I don't want to spoil those of you who have never read it, but he is one of the good guys and he plays a part that made me really fond of him.  In the 1979 mini-series, his role is pretty minor, and we basically just assume he dies after encountering Barlow.  But in the 2004 mini-series, he essentially takes Straker's place, and continues to lead the group of vampires even after Barlow is killed.  Wolves of the Calla was published November 2003, and this mini-series premiered in June 2004.  I realize that probably means this was already in production when the book came out, and was very likely too late for them to change anything if they had wanted to.  But that doesn't mean I have to like how they treat him here.

2 comments:

  1. While I don't like some of the choices they made with the characters, if you haven't read the book you would never know the difference and you would probably enjoy this one a lot.

    As a matter of fact, I did quite like this mini series when I caught it during its initial airing, as I hadn't yet read the book at the time. When I finally did, I was surprised at just how much they changed. I think much of it still works within the context of its own story, but as an adaptation, yeah, not sure why they felt the need to revise it to such a degree. That said, I do still like it, think it's quite well directed, and that style of supernatural being imagery is still something that works for me.

    Oy, not looking forward to my post next week. :)

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  2. Some of the acting is good, but otherwise I don't care for this version at all. I definitely feel your Dark Tower-inspired rage.

    The big problem for me is that the thing just feels cheap. It's filmed very poorly; in some scenes, I want to shout at the screen "WOULD YOU PLEASE MOVE THE CAMERA BACK A FEW FEET?!?" because it's as if they are literally trying to show as little of the set(s) as they can possibly get away with.

    And the silly vampire-power stuff -- the Flash-style superspeed, for example -- is just awful. It isn't scary; it isn't cool; it just (ahem) sucks.

    Personally, I'll stick with the Tobe Hooper version, which at least has atmosphere and mood working for it. And I'll continue to hope that somebody will actually do the novel justice someday.

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