Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

The Dead Zone

August 22, 2011

I'm a Stephen King fan and I've always found it interesting that film adaptations of his books will often fall on lists of the best and worst films ever made. I've held off from seeing Cronenberg's adaptation of The Dead Zone (1983) for some time, out of fear of it being rubbish. But I needn't have.

It's one of my favourite King novels, as the subject matter is close to my heart, in that it involves branching timelines. Time-travel is pretty much my favourite subject for storytelling, the next being romance, and they're the top two themes of The Dead Zone. It's the story of Johnny Smith who, on the night he proposes to his girlfriend, suffers a horrific accident, causing him to fall into a coma for a good five years. When he wakes up, his girlfriend has married another guy, and when he touches people, he catches a glimpse of the future, through an event that relates to the person he's touched. This is taken to an ultimate conclusion in a gradual, yet very final way in the book.

The 2002 (and onward) TV series of the same name, starring Anthony Michael Hall, is not altogether bad, but Hall (while charming) had some pretty big shoes to fill in Christopher Walken. And the TV series takes what is a story with very specific purpose, and opens it out in such a way that it doesn't move with anywhere near the same drive. I dropped off in much the same way I did with the X-Files, but I'm sure I'll return eventually. In Cronenberg's 1983 version, Walken embodies the senses of loss, grief and urgency that plague Johnny Smith, and lead to him taking heroic and potentially insane action for what he believes in. What Walken brings to the role adds depth not only to the script of the 1983 film, but he creates a more interesting character than even the one featured in the book.

One of the great difficulties of adapting a Stephen King book to the screen is that so much of what makes King's writing great is what happens internally within the characters of his story, and within the minds and imagination of his readers. The Cronenberg film takes the story of the book and gives it a beautiful structure with an engaging second act that so gradually, yet so forcefully brings you to the book's conclusion, while taking its own path. The dramatised relationships between Johnny and his doctor, and Johnny and his father help to bridge what might otherwise have been an internal logic in the books. I'm not sure how accessible the film is if you haven't read the book or seen the more recent TV series, but if you have, it's a breath of fresh air. Perhaps one of the exciting things about this story is the idea of a man who is apart from the world. He has knowledge which separates him, plagues him, yet gives him purpose. He is alone, and yet we all, I think, crave the sense of self that 'gift' gives him. And I can think of few actors who better bring a defined sense of self to the screen than Christopher Walken. This was 1983, he was great back then, and he's still great now.

The 2002 TV series has a neat atmosphere, Jeff Buckley posthumous theme song, and Matrix-inspired bullet-time flashforwards to the future, but the Cronenberg-Walken 1983 film tells a damn fine story. This might just be one of my new favourite horror movies - or maybe it's a fantasy thriller - at any rate, it's tender storytelling when it needs to be, pared back, and yet pulls no punches. Well worth a look.

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