Adaptations of Stephen King novels have always been a dicey proposition for horror fans. His often-cinematic premises seem tailor-made for silver screen success in theory but many of them lose something in the translation from page to moving image. Thus, for every class act like Carrie you get at least two duds like Firestarter. Even when King himself does the adapting, the viewer risks being subjected to something horribly misguided like Maximum Overdrive.
The reason for this erratic track record is simple: it’s very difficult to boil down King’s combination of genre-savvy concepts, well-observed regional details and his knack for finding the emotional heart in dark story concepts. However, the adaptations that succeed are not only worthwhile but also provide a great reminder why King is such a popular, culturally resonant writer. The Dead Zone may very well be the best of the bunch.
For one thing, it’s one of the most serious and least gimmicky of King’s horror efforts. The story focuses on Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a small-town schoolteacher who slips into a five-year coma after a car accident. When he awakens, he discovers that he is now a man out of time and place. The rest of the world has moved on, including Sarah (Brooke Adams), the woman he intended to marry.
Johnny’s situation becomes more complex when he discovers he has the ability to see events in someone’s past or future by touching them. He tries to use the ability for good – even managing to help Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) find the ‘Castle Rock Killer’ – but the ability takes a physical and psychological toll on him. He tries to go into seclusion but his gift won’t allow it… and the ultimate dilemma reveals itself when an accidental handshake with aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) prompts a highly disturbing vision of possible future events.
The Dead Zone earned much praise for King as a novel because it is one of his most understated efforts, a book subtle enough to allow the reader to concentrate on his gifts as a storyteller. Thankfully, the film takes a similar approach. Jeffrey Boam’s thoughtful adaptation of the novel succeeds in paring down its expansive narrative to the key events while managing to keep the regional flavor and rich characterizations. As a result, the script has a lot of substance but never becomes bogged down in its storyline.
Even better, director David Cronenberg handles the story with a delicacy and subtlety one wouldn’t expect from the man who gave us Rabid and Videodrome. He applies a visceral touch where needed – mainly during the inventive sequences that place Johnny ‘in’ his visions as he sees them occur in his mind – but he otherwise allows the story and characters to carry the day while creating a wintry, pensive mood that gives this thoughtful tale a perfect visual/emotional backdrop. His work is aided tremendously by lovely cinematography by Mark Irwin, precise editing from Ronald Sanders and a richly-hued orchestral score from Michael Kamen. Equally worthy of note is Carol Spier’s production design, which creates a convincing ‘Americana’ backdrop without overdoing any of the details.
However, the most important element of The Dead Zone is the quality of its performances: King-penned horror tales hinge upon their ability to emotionally invest the reader so strong, natural performances are a must to make an adaptation of one of his novels succeed. Luckily, The Dead Zone benefits from strong work across the board by a gifted ensemble of actors. Cronenberg wisely eschewed the use of big-name stars in favor of judiciously selected character actors and this strategy results in a gallery of memorable supporting turns: for instance, Herbert Lom is quietly moving as a doctor who tries to help Johnny and Brooke Adams is warm and believably conflicted as his true love. Elsewhere, Tom Skerritt does some sympathetic work as the sheriff who has to coerce Johnny into helping him find a killer and Anthony Zerbe is convincing as a rich, well-meaning employer of Johnny’s whose pushiness becomes his downfall.
That said, there are two performances that dominate and drive the film. First is Christopher Walken’s impressive turn as Johnny. Though he would later become famous for showy work in character parts, Walken makes an excellent dramatic lead here. His natural intensity and odd vocal intonations serve him well as he creates a decent, intelligent man struggling to deal with the unimaginable. He never overplays and also shows a surprising vulnerability that is likely to win many viewers over. Walken’s work is matched by a feverish performance from Martin Sheen as Stillson. It’s the one role in the film that demands a showy performance and Sheen gives it all he’s got, creating a character whose good ‘ol boy demeanor just barely conceals the sociopath inside.
In short, The Dead Zone has aged gracefully and remains one of the (if not the) benchmark examples of a great Stephen King adaptation.