Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Secret Window, Secret Garden

Secret Window is one of the Stephen King films I actually saw before reading the original written work, and I liked it so much that after a bit of a hiatus on reading King I found a copy of the novella to read.  I was actually pretty surprised to find that the ending had been changed, as its dark tone fell in line with a lot of great King short stories I had read.  Over the ten years since I had originally watched the film, I remembered that there were differences but not what they were, so it was a nice surprise to experience it all fresh once again.

The concept of the story is one that a lot of popular writers experience at one time or another - someone claiming that their work was stolen.  But while this usually involves the courts in real life, Mort Rainey deals with John Shooter showing up on his door step and saying he doesn't want anyone else involved.  Now that should be a huge red flag for anyone to call the cops, but there's actually a good reason why Mort doesn't.  King does a great job of revealing those reasons why in the right time, laying out the clues before hand and then exposing them at just the right point to up the suspense.  The ultimate ending though is a bit weak, in that everyone is saved quickly out of nowhere, and King has to spend the epilogue explaining just how that could have happened.  So the film's change isn't entirely unwarranted.

If you're going to have a film that largely revolves around the main character often alone in his cabin in the woods, you can't get much better than casting Johnny Depp.   While Depp occasionally seems to have a lack of judgment when collaborating with Tim Burton, most of his other roles show his range and strength, and this film is another strong example of his talent.  He takes Mort from his depression of the divorce into his descent to full on madness expertly, with all the twists and turns the movie requires.  John Turturro's role as Shooter has less range, but he makes an imposing figure and I enjoy watching him as much as I do Depp here.

Writer/director David Koepp is often better known for his screenwriting than his directing, but I like the touches he does here during Mort's nightmares as well as toward the end when everything goes insane.  The house cracking apart is a little too over the top, but beyond that I really like the choices he made with the film.

He did make a few changes that really change the nature of the story.  Shooter isn't here just because Mort supposedly copied his story, he's also complaining that Mort changed the ending.  In the original novella Shooter ultimately wants Mort to write a new story and give it to Shooter, I suppose the idea being that it will be good enough that Shooter could get famous over his success.  This all ties into the fact that long ago Mort stole a story from someone in his creative writing class, and that was actually his first ever published story.  In the film Mort's wife asks him if this is "like that last time" so the previous plagiarism is acknowledged, but it's not as important to the final endgame.

And she is his wife in the film, while she's his ex-wife in the novella.  The reason is largely to build suspense and suspicion, as she and her new man Ted want him to sign the divorce papers, and we're led to believe it could possibly be Ted hiring Shooter to scare him into doing so.  It's a decent enough misdirect for the first half of the film.  Mort also acts a little more logical here, going to the sheriff and then when finding him incompetent hiring a private investigator.  It may be different from the original but it still works well and leads us to the major revelation just as well.

Instead of Shooter being Mort driving himself crazy about his previous plagiarism, being triggered thanks to the pressure of his divorce, in the film Shooter is now Mort's creation as a way to get revenge on his wife and Ted for hurting him.  It gives him a proper motivation for killing his wife, and it ties it a little stronger into the story that Mort and Shooter have been fighting about all this time.  Shooter wants him to "fix the ending" of real life to match the story.

I can't help but think that Timothy Hutton was specifically cast as Ted thanks to his prior role in The Dark Half film.  He's once again dealing with the evil alter ego of a writer and has to go to their secluded cabin in order to save the woman he loves.  It's just that this time he doesn't win.

The ending is very dark, as I said, but I think it still fits the King aesthetic and also matches the tone of the film.  The only part that's not so well handled is the sheriff coming to face him directly and saying they know he did it but can't prove it yet.  While it matches what was in the story within the story, it's not executed well and the tone feels a little off.

This is one of those original story/adaptation combinations that I think works well both ways.  I recommend both versions.

As an aside, I had Fight Club on the brain when I was reading this, having listened to a podcast discussing it.  As such I found it interesting to see another story where the main protagonist falls asleep and is taken over by another personality, but also has occasional interactions with him, not realizing he's the same person.  I'm not accusing Palahniuk of ripping King off by any means, I just think it's fun to see the many ways one idea can be used for different stories.  The Dark Half is another way really, just with a bit more supernatural intervention.

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