Sunday, October 18, 2009

"The gonna break!"

I can't believe it's taken me this long to post about this movie. And, by the way, SPOILERS AHEAD. This is fairly long and self-indulgent so feel free to skip it.

I've mentioned that Johnny Smith, the hero of Stephen King's excellent novel THE DEAD ZONE, is my favorite literary character. Back in 1983, I was well into my burgeoning love affair with ol' Uncle Stevie's novels. It started with CUJO (which featured a strange reference to a "monster" named Dodd), moved on to SALEM'S LOT and then THE STAND. I didn't think it could get any better. Then, one day during a visit to the flea market at the Fort Twin Drive-in, I stumbled across a dog-eared copy of THE DEAD ZONE and my fate was sealed.

It was summer and I blazed through the book in a couple of days. It was, and still is, the only novel to ever make me cry. (I'm such a big softie.) I've always loved tragic love stories. (Except maybe the ultimate one: ROMEO & JULIET. The lovers behave so stupidly I find that one too frustrating.) And THE DEAD ZONE is perhaps King's most tragic story. He's almost sadistic in how he sets up Johnny's perfect young life and creates a character so likable you'd have to be a total prick to not root for him. (It's not an accident that our everyman protagonist is named John Smith.) And then he pulls out the rug, sending Johnny into a 4-and-a-half year coma. While he's out, his gal marries someone else and his world turns to shit. Worst of all, when he wakes up, he's been "gifted" with the ability to see the future, which ends up costing him everything he had left. The climactic scene in the novel features Johnny pointing a hunting rifle at the future POTUS in an attempt to head off nuclear armageddon.

I was heading into my sophomore year of high school and we lived out in the boonies. With no friends living nearby, I was a fairly lonely, introverted kid. Besides, I think most kids that age tend to feel a little misunderstood. So I really identified with Johnny, outcast that he was by the end. The last scene in the novel, with Sarah visiting Johnny's gravesite, just set me off. I finished the novel right around dinner time and, as I was headed to the dining room, hoping Dad wouldn't notice I'd been crying like a big sissy, I noticed an on-the-set report on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. Some strange-looking dude I'd never seen before was up on a balcony, pointing a hunting rifle at a politician behind a podium...waitaminnit...!

Turns out they'd made a movie of THE DEAD ZONE, starring some guy I'd never heard of named Christopher Walken. Mike knew who he was, apparently, and though he hadn't read the novel, he thought I'd be happy with him. I didn't think so. I immediately went out and scrounged for any info I could find on the movie and its goonie-looking star. This was in the days before the Internet, obviously, so I really had to dig. I found an article in FANGORIA (I think) or maybe CINEFANTASTIQUE. There was an interview with Stephen King and he apparently shared my doubts.

When the movie came out in October, I asked Dad to drop me off at the theater while he was in town running errands. By then, he was aware of my love for the book and my apprehension at the thought of Walken as Smith. "Good luck", he chuckled before driving off. I went in and watched the film. And absolutely hated it.

I thought Walken and Brooke Adams were horribly miscast as Johnny and Sarah. I hated that they'd completely cut out the time Johnny was in the coma. I was infuriated that they'd changed the fire at the school party into a hockey accident on a pond. And don't get me started on the bizarre scissors-to-the-epiglottis suicide of the Castle Rock Killer. But the icing on the cake was when Sarah, Walt and Denny show up at the rally in the end with Denny filling in for the anonymous little kid in the book. All the symbolism (like the Wheel of Fortune and the yellow piping on the kid's coat — tiger stripes) found in the book was eliminated. This was my first real exposure to the shortcomings of Hollywood in adapting novels to movie form. I was completely disappointed.

Boy did that ever change.

As much as I thought Walken was miscast, I had to admit, there was something about him. I started renting movies (remember VHS!?) like THE MIND SNATCHERS, DOGS OF WAR and, finally, THE DEER HUNTER. I had to admit there was more to this guy than I was giving him credit for. So, when a friend loaned me a recording of THE DEAD ZONE he'd made off of a cable broadcast, I jumped at the chance to give the movie another shot. And did a complete about-face.

For some reason, this time around, I was able to better appreciate Walken's haunting performance as Smith. I even fell in love (literally) with Adams as Sarah Bracknell, especially when she sports that cute shorter hair cut during her first visit when Johnny wakes up. I remember thinking how incredibly romantic (points off the guy card!) it was when Sarah showed up at Johnny's house and they wound up in bed together while Denny slept in the next room. Later, they all have dinner with Johnny's widower father and it's like he's spending the evening with the family that should have been his and my heart just broke. (Later, I started thinking it was actually kind of sadistic of her. "Here's summa what you coulda had, sucka!") Something about the film really clicked with me this time. I was hooked. I got in the habit of watching it every day when I got home from school. Later, doing the math, I was shocked to realize that I'd probably watched the thing some sixty times. My friend was not very happy with me when he got his tape back, I'll tell you.

Not only had the film won me over but it really became a part of my self image. Walken looked so iconic in that pea coat that I spent years trying to find one that fit. (I finally found one but the damn collar won't stay up! I can't say I exactly saw myself as a tragic figure but identifying with Walken's Smith gave me something to cling to when trying to form my sense of self worth. I know that sounds strange but it's no different that what my classmates were doing with Arthur Fonzarelli or Ken Hutchinson. (Google it.) Kind of like "What Would Johnny Do?", if you will.

It's been years since I watched the film. It wasn't until a conversation with Todd about the movie in Baltimore and subsequently finding the Special Edition DVD in the delete bin at Best Buy that I really thought about all this again, prompting the sketch above and this post. I scratched it out pretty quickly today while I was trapped at work (On a Sunday! What would Johnny have done!??) so the likeness is a little wonky. But I enjoyed it. I hope you do too.


(P.S. Oh, imagine how shocking it was for me to find out this morning that I'm currently one year older than Walken was when he made this film. That smarts...!)


Warren said...

Great drawing! Looks just like him.

I remember reading the Dead Zone. I had read Salem's Lot, the Shining, Night Shift, the Stand, and had eagerly awaited the Dead Zone.

I remember feeling disappointed upon reading it.

I think that maybe it was like you were with the movie version. It had less to do with the quality of the work, and more to do with my own expectations: I was expecting frights and shocks and what I got was a more cerebral character study. Maybe I should read it again now that I'm older.

Have you read Hearts in Atlantis? The movie was decent, but the book was excellent.

Craig Zablo said...

Excellent post. Makes me want to pull down the movie and watch it again... and then re-read the book. Oh, and you nailed Walken!

todd said...

i am so behind in my blog reading...
though the intimidating length of this one made me have to make time for it...heh.
: )

oh, now I need to get out my copy of the dvd again and give it a look. as i said in b'more, i think of it as three great movies in one! like the book, the movie is broken up into those three sections; the accident that changes johnny's life, his premonitions and the tutoring job, and finally, how he is stirred to act on his crazy gift of precognition.
yeah, the most unsettling scene is the one in frank dodd's bathroom, but the one that sticks with me even more is the amazing shot--johnny's vision--of that gray, cloudy day at the bandstand as dodd beckons to that girl to come and talk.

great post, matt!
and awesome picture of johnny smith/christopher walken.

Brian said...

The Dead Zone is my favorite King book, period.

I have not watched the movie more than once, but my recollection is that I liked it.

Matt, did you every watch the TV series with former geek turned hunk Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny and Nicole deBoer, the cutie who replaced Terry Farrell as Dax on Deep Space Nine, as Sarah.

I watched a few, but, as they say, you can't go home again.

Matt Wieringo said...

Hey, Brian. No, I never watched it. I remember being pretty angry over the show being made. As far as I was concerned, the book and movie were sacrosanct. They mixed up too much stuff (Bannerman married Sarah!?? WTF??? In the book, he was a much older man!) and by giving Johnny and Sarah such a close relationship and giving Johnny other love interests, they took away the key tragic element of the novel that interested me in the first place. I've lightened up, though, and since the show was so well-received, I'm thinking about checking out the DVDs.

Gordon said...

Wow I remember your "hooked" on this. Matter of fact its the only reason I watched the movie or read the book. The drawing is sweet