Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Castle Rock Companion - The Langoliers
The concept of The Langoliers hinges on a very different kind of time travel story than we normally see. It establishes that trying to change the past is a pointless exercise (even mentioning the JFK assassination, which makes me think the seeds for 11/22/63 have been there in his mind for some time), because the past is in fact deserted. Not only that, but after a short period of time, round creatures with very sharp teeth come along and eat the whole thing up. It's an interesting enough idea, but in and of itself doesn't really make a good story. The characters stuck in the situation are far more important.
King makes the survivors primarily a group of ordinary people you might expect to see on a red eye flight across the country, adding in a pilot because how else would they land and take off the plane, a mystery writer to help do a little deductive reasoning about their situation, and a blind girl because in King fiction young and/or disabled also means psychic. But the real wild card, the one who makes everything interesting and is a far more compelling villain than the strange little creatures eating up the past, is Craig Toomy. On the surface he's a belligerent white collar business man who wants things his way now now now, but beneath that he's also insane. Years of verbal and physical abuse from both his parents have completely broken him, and after recently sabotaging his career, he's ready to go off the deep end. He also has a peculiar habit of ripping up pieces of paper in long thin strips while entering a meditative trance.
Toomy is, without a doubt, the reason to read this novella. While the concept is interesting, the way the characters get out of it is fairly logical, and the mystery writer Bob Jenkins is like that annoying teacher who took far too long to get to the point and demanded class participation - he can't just come out with what's wrong, he asks his fellow passengers to look around them and tell him what they see. The secret service man on board often goes violent with Craig Toomy, but why he never slapped Bob to make him just spit out what he's getting at is beyond me. King adds lots of obstacles to their journey, but none of them are anywhere near as interesting as Toomy's madness. As such, once Toomy exits stage left, the story becomes far less interesting.
The mini-series version was adapted and directed by Tom Holland, and it is what I would call a "by the numbers" adaptation. Holland cuts one or two short scenes, simplifies it so that only Toomy's father was abusive, and eliminates the drunken passenger who sleeps throughout most of the story, but otherwise adapts the story whole cloth, even down to King's dialogue. While there are a couple nice touches of direction, it's largely plainly shot and the score is generic and boring, so all we're left with is the actors' performances to help bring this to life.
They made two really great choices in that regard. Bob Jenkins gets an upgrade from his story persona because he is played by Dean Stockwell. I may be a little biased seeing as how I loved his performance as Al in Quantum Leap, but Bob and Al have very little in common, and while there are still a few "tell me what you see" moments there, Stockwell has the right amount of charm to pull them off. The other genius choice is Bronson Pinchot as Craig Toomy. Pinchot was of course already known for the over the top character of Balki on Perfect Strangers, and while once again there's a lot of difference in the characters, Pinchot shows he's clearly willing to go for it. He truly acts mad here, and yet also is able to tap into the more pathetic side of Toomy, the one who clearly wants to move on from the abuse he faced as a child but can't. His performance is great.
The rest of the cast is really just average. There's nothing bad about any of their performances, but they are a little bland. It may be that the characters from the original story are already fairly bland to begin with, but considering how Stockwell managed to change Jenkins from the most annoying character in the story for me to one of the better ones in the mini-series, I think stronger performances could have helped them. Kate Maberly gives a pretty good performance for a child actor, but I don't think she ever really does a good job of convincing us that Dinah is blind. It's a minor complaint though, as it's not an easy thing to pull off.
Unfortunately, this mini-series is really dated now, and it's all because of the CGI. I guess getting footage of an actual plane flying in the clouds was too expensive, because they chose to digitally create the plane in the air. The technology was clearly not up to par yet, having that distinctive look of "this is a digital image laid on top of video footage." But the worst of it is the langoliers themselves. I'll admit, I'm not sure you can truly make these creatures scary. Even as I read the story, I pictured these guys:
Definitely not scary, and in fact even kind of cute.
The langoliers are really far more scary for what they can do, not what they look like. However, what we get is these:
What that gif doesn't quite portray perfectly is the way those teeth are constantly rotating, and how badly placed they are in the video. They are super duper shiny and so obviously not really there. I think they did the best they could with the technology of the time. I certainly wouldn't call those cute like Mr. Chain Chomp above, but it's hard to not giggle a bit when you see them wreaking havoc.
That said, I'm still making a tentative recommendation for the mini-series. It has its flaws, but I think Pinchot and Stockwell help to keep it entertaining. I would however, also really like to see this one done again in the future, perhaps as a feature film rather than a mini-series to help keep the non-Toomy scenes from feeling so dry.