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
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.
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.