Adapted From: 'A Good Marriage' from Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Starring: Joan Allen, Anthony LaPaglia, Kristen Connolly, Stephen Lang
Written By: Stephen King
Directed By: Peter Askin
Throughout this week, I have selected adaptations of Stephen King's work that have generally been critically acclaimed and much loved by audiences. For A Good Marriage, that's not really the case. It was released to almost no fanfare last year and sunk pretty fast. Yet, I also had a certain amount of curiosity in how King and Askin adapted King's short story of the same name because it was the only story in Full Dark, No Stars that I really enjoyed, having found the collection to be a bit of a mixed bag.
It tells the story of Darcy, the middle-aged wife of Bob Anderson and mother of two kids, a daughter about to be married and a son on the verge of business success. Seemingly, the Andersons' little slice of domestic life is practically perfect and it is dubbed 'a good marriage' at several points throughout the narrative. However, on the hunt for batteries in the garage one night, Darcy discovers her husband's secret when she happens upon a woman's ID cards in a hiding place; a woman who has recently become the latest victim of notorious New England serial killer, Beadie. The dots are quickly connected and what follows is Darcy's waking nightmare as her husband promises to stop and she promises not to turn him in for the sake of their kids.
The story itself is quite slight. There are none of the weightier themes that have been tackled in the previous posts on The Mist and Stand By Me, whilst the clash of domesticity and violence is something that King has written about elsewhere and of a higher quality. Yet Story Darcy's story is a compelling one; she's a woman caught in a moral dilemma of huge proportions. She acts as she does, by not turning in her husband and killing him in what looks like a freak accident later, to protect her family and to continue playing the protective matriarch. Her scheme pays off, but the short story's power lies in following her through this process, understanding her long relationship with her husband and the decisions that she makes after her grim discovery.
It was therefore always going to be a difficult story to adapt, even with King adapting his own story. A vast part of the narrative is simply Darcy alone, interacting with her surroundings and making decisions that only we, the reader, are privy to. Naturally some of this is lost in the transition to the film, but King and Askin come up with some creative ways of showing Darcy's unfolding fears, chiefly through Darcy's visions of what may possibly happen. These range from the short, sharp shocks of her husband questioning her and smashing her head against the mirror, to the longer, more direct visions of news bulletins describing her story. In one particularly trippy sequence, Darcy progresses through her house as it transforms into the scene of one of her husband's victims, revealed to be her daughter.
It's in moments like these where the film stretches for something more; attempting to use the uncanny to destabilise the perfect domesticity of the 'good marriage' is a neat one, but it's never made enough of. Most of the film's clever moments are where that clash happens between a token of family life and Bob's extracurricular pursuits. Marjorie Duvall's ID cards, the latest victim, are hidden inside a box made for Bob by his daughter, Petra, for example, or agreeing that Bob not kill anymore over a takeaway pizza. Yet Darcy's white picket fenced home never warps enough for it to be truly frightening, nor does Bob ever feel like an adequate threat to her.
Widening the story out so that we see what Bob gets up to in his other life as a serial killer also renders his character as less effective. In the short story, he's seen only through the prism of Darcy's experience and remains largely unseen. The shift, then, from dull yet loveable husband to the misogynist serial killer feels more emotional and he looms large over the proceedings. There, King allows the reader to fill in the gaps from the information given, whilst the film offers a view of Bob stalking one of his victims right at the beginning before the title card. Any impact that the discovery should have later in the narrative is lost. If you've seen enough thrillers, you know exactly what Bob is about to do when he's in that car.
Anthony LaPaglia's performance doesn't help too much either. Bob's an accountant and should be doughy and corny, but LaPaglia's a bit too chiselled. In his confrontation with Darcy about his past, he also goes too sinister too fast as he tries to get her back on side. It becomes almost comical in contrast to Joan Allen's more grounded performance. Allen gets better as the film progresses, once the screenplay gives her more to do than simply play the ageing wife and mother. The scenes in which she discovers her husband's secret could have easily been overplayed into hysterics or too subtle to register, but the balance of horror and hysteria is just right. She's easily the best thing about the film and anchors it even when the premise starts to stretch.
And that is ultimately the problem with this film; the premise of the short story is just too thin to expand into a feature film. It leads to King expanding his own story with developments that hinder rather than help, such as the extended confrontation with Holt Ramsay, a voluntary detective on the Beadie case who follows them throughout the movie. He appears only once in the short story in a very effective coda to Darcy's experience. In the film, this is expanded to suggest Darcy might kill him for learning of her secret, a character shift too extreme for even Allen to pull off.
The sad thing is that there is a lot of potential in the original short story to produce something that subverts the traditional serial killer tales. Darcy is on the periphery of those thrillers, a character who often doesn't exist or get a look in when a man is going around stalking and murdering young women. A Good Marriage offers an alternative world, but not enough is made of that clash between the violence of Bob's activities and the shattering of the perfect domestic world that the Andersons have built for themselves. When the two do meet, it's the film's strongest aspect, but the rest of it falls short in providing the emotions necessary for the clash to have its maximum impact.