Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Dead Zone" 1983

“Dead Zone”

Another excellent adaptation of a Stephen King novel. It stars Christopher Walken before he became an unfortunate parody of himself. He plays Johnny Smith, a high school English teacher who is madly in love with his girlfriend and generally happy with his life. Then one night he is driving home in a rain storm and loses five years in a coma.
I am always bugged a little about how fast people recover from comas in movies. My sister who is a nurse told me that you have to plan a week of recovery for every day you are unconscious. So a five year coma should take a while to get back. Other than his new “gift” and a limp, Johnny recovers pretty fast physically. Of course he has the issue that his mother has gone crazy and his girlfriend is married with a baby, but now he can predict the future.
He soon discovers the gift. He finds the mother his doctor thought he’d lost. He saves a kid from drowning while playing hockey. He wishes that he could just live a normal life.

Johnny Smith: It reminds me of a line from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" the last story I read to my class before... the accident. Ichabod Crane disappears... the line goes: "As he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled their head about him anymore."
Sarah Bracknell: Is that what you feel?
Johnny Smith: Is what I want... what I want.

His girlfriend, Sarah played by Brook Adams, drifts back into his life. She is committed to her marriage and her child, but needs closure from Johnny. They come together for an afternoon and she moves on.
He arrives home to discover there is a serial killer stalking Castle Rock. His gift/curse leads him to someone close to the police force, actually on the payroll.
To fill his hours, he starts going to political rallies to shake hands with future leaders. One of those politicians is Greg Stillson played by Martin Sheen. When he shakes his hand he sees a frightening future. It leads him to ask questions.

Johnny Smith: What about my question?
Dr. Sam Weizak: Huh? Huh? Oh, you mean the one about Hitler?
Johnny Smith: What would you do?
Dr. Sam Weizak: I don't like this, John. What are you getting at?
Johnny Smith: What would you do? Would you kill him?
Dr. Sam Weizak: All right. All right. I'll give you an answer. I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.
Johnny Smith: You'd never get away alive.
Dr. Sam Weizak: It doesn't matter. I would kill him.

So Johnny has a mission. He has to kill Stillson.

It is interesting seeing this from the potential assassins point of view. Martin Sheen plays Stillson as a little oily, which is in keeping with the character. He used to sell bibles door to door. It makes you really wonder why he wants to be president.
The final scene is a culmination of the whole movie. I don’t recall Sarah campaigning for Stillson in the book, but she seems to have a big part in the movie. She is standing on stage during Stillson’s last rally.

Johnny has deteriorated while working toward the goal of taking Stillson down. He makes his way onto the balcony overlooking the scene. Stillson takes the stage.
There is music and cheering. Stillson feels unstoppable. Johnny stands to take his shot and is spotted. In the mayhem of gunfire, Stillson grabs Sarah’s young son and uses him as a human shield. Photos flash. Johnny is shot and falls from the balcony. He struggles as he dies to reach out and touch Stillson. He sees the magazine cover showing Stillson with the baby and then sees Stillson’s suicide.

Moments later he dies in Sarah’s arms.

[last lines]
Johnny Smith: Goodbye.
Sarah Bracknell: I love you.

It is a good adaptation. It follow a lot of the main points of the book. There are some changes. The kid he saved from the thin ice was a teenager going to an ill-fated prom. Not Carrie’s prom!

King must have had a bad prom experience.
There was a television series a few years ago based on the same theme. It starred former geek, Anthony Michael Hall, all grown up as Johnny Smith. It made key changes to the story. In the original, part of the reason that Sarah comes to Johnny is that they hadn’t consummated the relationship. In the series, Johnny and Sarah are engaged and her son is Johnny’s.
It is updated in an interesting way. Johnny isn’t as driven to kill Stillson, although there is an episode in which they re-imagine his fate where the movie ending happens. He just keeps working toward stopping him from taking leadership. It was enjoyable if you watch as a different view of the same story. It ends ambiguously but in a satisfying way.

But no one is going to mix up Christopher Walken and Anthony Michael Hall.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could find it in me to not hate this movie, but as The Dead Zone is one of my very favorite King novels, the changes they made in adapting it really bother me. I know I should just accept the movie on its own merits, but I can't. Christopher Walken is a wonderful Johnny, and of course Martin Sheen is perfect as Stillson. The casting was really quite good in this one (compared to some other King adaptations, anyway), but the way they twisted things in the plot -- especially the Chuck storyline -- is just a deal breaker for me. Maybe if I didn't love the book so much, I'd like the movie more.