Adapted From: The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerrit, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen
Written By: Jeffrey Boam
Directed By: David Cronenberg
The ideas of choice and control are something that often run across King's work and they have been seen particularly over the course of this week in the other adaptations I've looked at. In The Dead Zone, choice plays a key role, both the ability to make decisions and the horror that results from having those decisions taken away from you.
This is the case for the novel's protagonist, Johnny Smith, a man who is in a car crash that reactivates psychic abilities that have lain largely dormant within him since he was a child. After a five year coma, his abilities have intensified to full-on visions whenever he touches someone and he must decide whether to run from this abilities or use them for good. Ultimately, he must decide whether it is worth killing someone, politician Greg Stillson, who would go on to begin a nuclear war in the future.
Cronenberg's adaptation of The Dead Zone is, with the aid of Jeffrey Boam's screenplay, one of the most successful translations of King's work from page to screen that I have seen so far. The development of the screenplay is an interesting one, a script that went through various hands and revisions during the pre-production process. Several writers were attached, including King himself, but ultimately it was Jeffrey Boam, the screenwriter initially approached, who got the gig. Boam commented that he took advantage of the novel's episodic quality and instead envisioned Johnny's story as a "triptych", over the course of which he comes to accept his responsibilities as a man with psychic powers who can change the future.
In doing so, he condenses Johnny's story and makes it much more cohesive, something which the audience can latch on to; Johnny begins only being able to see what is happening presently and things that have happened in the past, but as his powers develop, he realises with the ice skating vision that he can actually change the future. By making the film solely about Johnny, Boam also manages to trim the novel's episodic nature, as well as its tendency to hop across genres. Though always focused through the prism of the supernatural, King's book at times feels like a romance or a crime novel or a political thriller. It means that the narrative can feel a little disjointed, but that tendency is curbed here by Boam's treatment of the story.
As with other adaptations seen this week, the narrative largely remains faithful with any additions or subtractions from the novel used to enhance the already present themes held within. This is particularly effective with the late introduction of Greg Stillson. In the book, we have several moments with him in which to understand how dangerous he is. The film manages to do this in just a few scenes, largely thanks to the incendiary performance of Martin Sheen, whose bluster and animation make for a sharp but effective contrast with the subdued tone of the film.
That tone is probably the film's greatest success, a melancholic sense of impending tragedy that runs throughout, even before Johnny's car crash. There aren't any moments of real outright horror either. Rather, the film relies on its atmosphere to create something quietly unsettling. The closest we get to any real shock is in Dodd's house, witnessing him lowering himself on to a pair of scissors before he is caught as the Castle Rock Killer. That uneasiness is instead wrought from the clash between Johnny's ordinary, largely domestic life and the power that the visions unleashes upon him. Scenes of children's bedrooms going up in flames or a boy falling through the ice into the freezing waters below aren't the stuff of jump scares, but of nightmares, the quiet ones that sneak up on you in your sleep.
It is clear from the start that there is no happy ending here and, like the novel, the film makes this obvious in several ways. First of all is the way in which Johnny's life falls apart so swiftly whilst he is in a coma; the loss of Sarah is the one immediately felt with his mother's death shortly after. Though the narrative rattles along at a fair pace, Cronenberg devotes each of these scenes with the gravitas needed to convey Johnny's loss. It also helps that the film is set in winter, no matter which part of Johnny's life we happen to be in. The cold, decaying world around him acts as a constant memento mori.
That sense of inevitability plays well into Johnny's ultimate decision and those ideas of choice and control. Should he kill Stillson knowing that he will prevent a nuclear holocaust if he does so? It's a reworking of the moral question that Johnny himself vocalises; if you can travel back in time, do you go back and kill Hitler before he has a chance to commit his atrocities? It's something that King would play with more fully in 11/22/63 where uncertainty reigns supreme, but here, Johnny's abilities allow him to know for sure what Stillson would go on to do. Whether Johnny really has a choice here is up for debate, but the film presents it as a moment of triumph, a moment in which he is allowed to take control of his abilities and sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Johnny fails to assassinate Stillson but in his failure manages to change the future anyway and it is one of King's best, an author not known for being able to stick his landings when it comes to finishing his novels. The quiet tragedy of Johnny's death mingled with the joy of knowing he succeeded leads to an emotional moment of what is ultimately clarity. Johnny realises that he has achieved something not many people can say; he has saved the world. That he does so in such a quiet and smalltown fashion is a testament to the restraint shown by King in his novel and Boam and Cronenberg in the film and the lack of a big, all-action ending is extremely fitting.