Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Needful Things

Needful Things was subtitled The Last Castle Rock Story, but of course in time that has proven to not be the case.  King has in fact revisited the town since then.  But there is still a finality to the story, and the town is certainly a disaster area by the end of the book.  Perhaps the biggest thing is that it does feature characters that have appeared in previous Castle Rock set stories, and I'd personally recommend reading at least The Body, Cujo, and The Dark Half before you get to this one.  It's not required, but I think you'll appreciate it a little more having built a history with some of these people, particularly Alan Pangborn, our hero.

King always excels when taking a look at the secrets which hide inside small town America, and that is essentially what this book is all about.  A demon comes to town posing as shop keeper Leland Gaunt who sells antiques.  His items are extremely unique and most seem like useless junk to everyone else but the person who covets it the most.  The price is surprisingly affordable, monetarily, but also requires you to perform a prank on someone else.  Gaunt slowly but surely pits the entire town against one another until the whole thing reaches an explosive and violent end.

The book is one of King's longer tomes, clocking in at 731 pages.  While not as long as some of his epics like The Stand or Under the Dome, there's still a lot going on here, and a very large cast of characters.  Trying to cram them all into a two hour movie would be impossible.  It's logical that some of characters would be eliminated or minimized, and that some of the storylines would have to be condensed.  This adaptation made some pretty good choices as far as who to keep and who to throw away, with the exception of Ace Merrill.  But adaptations being what they are, Ace was probably still owned by Columbia Pictures, just as The Dark Half film was being produced by Orion and therefore movie Alan makes no mention of the things that happened in that story.  But that's not the worst part of Alan's past that they tossed aside.

A major part of the book is related to how Alan lost his wife and son in a car accident and how difficult a time he had getting over that.  In the film, his past is changed to a throw away mention that he once got in trouble for losing his temper and beating someone up.  That completely changes his character and makes him less sympathetic.  It also makes no real sense and has no real bearing on the story, so they could have just left it out.  His storyline with Polly is there to give him a character arc, and that's really all he needs.

Though of course, Polly's back story is also eliminated.  Polly's guilt over the death of her own child, and her refusal to tell her nosy small town neighbors what happened, was the main source of her pride.  The pain in her hands thanks to arthritis was just a weakness.  So when Gaunt says in this movie "I've always loved a woman with pride" it doesn't really make sense without that history.

There are also lots of other bizarre nonsensical changes littered throughout the film.  Some changes suggest they either had a very limited budget, or just got lazy. Polly and Nettie work at the diner instead of a sewing shop, and a lot of the items that people purchase are changed.  Then there are stupid changes, like having Gaunt essentially stalk Polly in a way that any normal woman would know he's trouble and avoid him (well, unless her name was Bella Swan, I guess), or the fact that Danforth confides in Alan about his embezzling when Alan is one of the people he dislikes the most.  Or the fact that instead of Gaunt being a general demon, he has to be the devil, responsible for Hitler and the bombings of Japan and all other major disasters of our time.  Multiple lines of the film are torn directly from the book, but outside of their proper context they don't mean the same thing anymore.

There is one reason to watch this movie, and that reason is J. T. Walsh's performance as Danforth Keaton.  He handles the slide from paranoia to full on psychosis perfectly, and seeing him attempt to bring down Gaunt at the end was a great idea, even if it is a different fate from the one he suffered in the book.

Needful Things is a great book with a wonderful slow build to it.  As such, this should have at least been a mini-series, if not a full blown television show.  I've seen strong parallels between things that happen here and events on Under the Dome season one, and it just proves to me all the more that's the kind of adaptation this book deserved.  Picture it, if you will:  A now appropriately aged Keifer Sutherland reprises his role as a washed up Ace Merrill.  His father, Donald, plays Leland Gaunt.  Polly is portrayed by Mary McDonnell and Michael Rooker returns to the role of Alan Pangborn.  Unlikely, I know, but I can dream.


  1. +JMJ+

    I haven't seen the movie, but the novel freaked me out so much that I refused to go shopping for weeks after reading it! =P

    The story of Alan's wife and son is such a huge part of the book that I'm really unimpressed that the screenwriter took it out. In my opinion, Alan's realising and accepting that some things will always be in the dark, no matter what he does, is not just essential to his growth and his eventual heroism, but also a darn powerful moral.

    1. It really is the core of the book and certainly Alan's story. This is one of those adaptations that makes you sit back and wonder if any of the people involved in making the film read the same book, and if they actually liked any of it all. :)

  2. I find the notion of characters from different novels coming together for one plot to be pretty intriguing. Especially with the dream adaptation you laid out at the end. I've already commented in length about my love of shared universes, so I'll just add that, outside superhero crossovers, it doesn't seem to happen that often, which is a shame.

    Perhaps the biggest thing is that it does feature characters that have appeared in previous Castle Rock set stories, and I'd personally recommend reading at least The Body, Cujo, and The Dark Half before you get to this one. It's not required, but I think you'll appreciate it a little more having built a history with some of these people, particularly Alan Pangborn, our hero.

    See, that does make me think about how, in shared universe novels, reading other novels the characters appeared in can affect your perception. In "Beetle in an Anthill" by Strugatsky brothers, if you don't read any other Noon Universe novels, you probably won't feel too sorry for the main character, but if you've read the "Inhabited Island," where the character is young and idealistic, it's hard not to feel sorry for him as you see glimpses of youthful idealism buried under years of cynicism earned from working for this world's equivalent of the KGB. Or how another character, who originally appeared in the "Little One," showed up in the novel as the antagonist's love interest... I read "Bettle in the Anthill" first, but when I read the "Little One," I felt disappointed that the strong-willed, principled, likable character was reduced to a stock role.

    Anyways...I know you said reading the other novels isn't required, but I wonder how much of a difference that would make.

    1. I think King does a good job of filling you in on the important details in case you've never read those books before. I hadn't read Cujo the first time I read Needful Things and that didn't hurt at all, it just gave a deeper feeling for me when I read it this time. With Ace, King has to give us a catch up of where he's been since The Body, and in that time he also explains to us who he was in that story. It's probably not entirely essential in Alan's case either, but I do think there's something to seeing a character go through one ordeal and then another. It's a similar feeling to what happens when Father Callahan shows up in the Dark Tower series after we already saw him in Salem's Lot.


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