Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Castle Rock Companion - The Dead Zone
While I remembered the basic plot of the book from the last time I read it, I had no memories of how I had felt about The Dead Zone leading into this re-read. I was surprised to find that approximately half of the book is spent long before the action happens as we follow Johnny Smith on the night he is in a car accident that puts him in a coma, the way his parents and girlfriend react to the time he's lost to them, and Johnny's recovery once he emerges from it. His psychic abilities are there from the beginning, but beyond helping a few people he doesn't do much with them. It's only after a press conference in the hospital that things truly become interesting, and the book amps up considerably once Johnny realizes that an up and coming politician could eventually lead us all into mutually assured destruction.
That isn't to say it's a bad book as most of the characters are enjoyable, with the exception of Johnny's mother who is so over the top in her religious fanaticism that she becomes annoying. I liked the way King handled the idea of Johnny's abilities going public, getting him lots of attention from both people who believe and others who didn't, and the way most of his events simply blew over in time because the public had more important things to focus on. There are similarities to Carrie here, especially toward the end when he begins telling the story in letters and public hearings. I felt like he struck a better balance of that here than he did in Carrie. That said, I do have some reservations about recommending it. There are much better King books out there you could make a priority to read first.
The film version was directed by David Cronenberg, another famous horror director. I've only seen one of his other films, the remake of The Fly, and if you've followed this blog long enough you may remember that I didn't like that one at all. I'm afraid the same can be said for this film. The pacing is very similar to that of the book, but what equates to building history and relationships in a novel feels like a slag in a film. I also don't think Christopher Walken is really suited for the role of Johnny. He's doing his normal delivery here, and his stilted way of speaking really feels out of place. He also just doesn't bring very much emotion to the part either. I've seen Walken in other films and enjoyed him very much, but this was a bad choice in my opinion.
Martin Sheen does a much better job as the charismatic politician Stillson, bringing an enthusiasm to the role that would make you believe this guy could be elected, and also portraying the right amount of madness when needed. He doesn't get to toss hot dogs at the crowd like King describes in the book, but honestly, how would that even work? Were people eating hot dogs that landed on the ground? Would they somehow remain inside their buns as he threw them? I suppose King just wanted to pull up a bizarre image in your mind with that one. I'll give him that much, he succeeded.
The film follows the book pretty closely, simply combining some minor characters and making limited changes. The only one I don't care for is when they change the meaning of the title. In the book, the dead zone is the part of Johnny's brain he can't reach because it's been damaged after the accident. So he has his visions, but sometimes some of the details are obscured from him because of that damage. In the movie, the dead zone is referred to as the area of uncertainty in Johnny's visions, whether or not they will happen or if he can prevent them. To me that doesn't make sense. What's dead about that?
One change I did like was making it so that Johnny's ex-girlfriend Sarah ends up directly involved with Stillson's campaign. In the book Sarah makes frequent mentions of her husband running for office and wanting to eventually end up in Washington, but none of that truly interacts with the Stillson plot at all. Drawing it together makes logical sense.
Obviously, I don't recommend the film. With the exception of one bloody moment, I wouldn't even call it a horror film, and the whole thing moves too slowly to be a thriller. I suppose you could be left with "supernatural crime drama" as a description but even as that I'm afraid I don't find it to be a very good one.
The novel was also used as the basis for a television show that ran for six seasons. The two part pilot episode is a partial adaptation of the novel, starting with Johnny as a small boy and going up until he is able to aid the sheriff (of Castle Rock in the book, Bangor in the show) to catch a serial killer plaguing women in the town. Greg Stillson is mentioned in the beginning of the episode, but his story was used as a part of a continual story line for the series.
A fair amount of changes are made. Sarah and Johnny have known each other since childhood, which I think makes her decision to move on seem a little too cruel, especially when we find out that she became pregnant with Johnny's child on the same day as the accident in this version. Six years or not, it seems to me you'd wait for the guy. This time she's married to the sheriff, amping up the drama as Johnny tries to help him with the murders.
Johnny's father, who is alive in the book, has apparently been dead for some time, and his mother is in a relationship with a preacher. By the time Johnny wakes up, his mother has passed away and the preacher is now the closest thing Johnny has to a parent. He's also the one who has been paying Johnny's medical bills, and seems to have a connection to Stillson.
Overall the pilot is a decent enough adaptation of the first half or so of the book and works as a good way to set up the series, where Johnny will continue to come in physical contact with people, have a vision, and then try to help save them. It also almost counts as a remake of the film, as some of the changes there, like the vision of the nurse's daughter being trapped inside a burning house or the killer's mother attacking Johnny when they go to arrest him come directly from there and not the novel. Leaving Stillson as a looming problem to continue the series also is a good choice, as the novel does occur over several years.
I have not yet watched the remainder of the series, so I cannot comment on how they resolve it. However given the length of the show, it's logical that they may have changed things. Please don't hold your breath, but I may cover the complete show in some form in the future once I have completed all the other adaptations.