From Book to Screen: ‘Salem’s Lot
Reggie Nalder as Barlow
After ironically taking the month of October off from our Stephen King Book to Screen series, we return to an entry that we skipped last time. The second novel published by the master of horror was ‘Salem’s Lot, a lesser-known entry by King but one of his best. Published in 1975, Stephen King now characterizes it as his favorite book that he’s written. While I don’t quite share that sentiment, it is probably in my top 5.
‘Salem’s Lot gave rise to two separate adaptations. Both were made-for-television adaptations that aired over multiple nights. I watched both of them on DVD, where each is cut together as a single three-hour piece. The first adaptation came out in 1979 a few years after the publication of the novel. It spawned a sequel film that had a limited theatrical release, but like all sequels not based on a King novel, I won’t be covering that film. The second adaptation debuted in 2004 on TNT. Both adaptations received award nominations at the time of their release, though both are likely a distant memory for most. As always we ask, which is better, and which is the best adaptation?
The first edition cover
King was first inspired to write this in the middle of teaching a high school creative fiction class in which they covered Dracula. Speaking to his wife one night over supper, he wondered what would happen if Dracula were to return in the modern day. Deciding that he would probably get run over by a cab in the middle of New York, King took the idea further, figuring that the infamous count would survive best in a small country town. Deciding to explore this thought experiment on paper, he eventually wrote Jerusalem’s Lot. The short story wouldn’t be published until years later in his short story collection Night Shift, but it gave him enough incentive to finish the concept and publish ‘Salem’s Lot.
Dominated by themes of paranoia as well as the dying of small towns in the late 20th century, the novel was a hit. It debuted to rave reviews and one reviewer described it as the moment when popular fiction grew up. With its rich characterization, deft and fluid combination of story elements and character arcs, as well as social commentary, the worn-out trope of vampires was given new life. Even with the campy idea of vampires taking over a town, King was able to create a serious work that features struggles with faith, depression, and second chances. ‘Salem’s Lot also started the trend of King making his main character a writer and serving as an author avatar.
The book’s first 50 pages stand out as perhaps King’s best writing. The description of a small town waking up one morning and all of the various doings of the characters is woven together with such craft and care that it’s easy to forget there’s little “excitement” happening. ‘Salem’s Lot received a nomination for World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, though it didn’t win. The book’s influence was to be felt further down the line, including in King’s other work. The setting was later revisited in a short story, also published in Night Shift, that took place after the events of the novel. Additionally, one of the characters from the novel appeared again in King’s magnum opus series, The Dark Tower. It is my hope that the coming adaptation of that series won’t forget all of the various threads that run through King’s work.
Rob Lowe as Ben Mears
The most recent adaptation debuted in two parts in June 2004. From the beginning, there are some notable changes from the novel. The setting is updated from the 70s to take place in the “modern” day, the early 00s. Instead of opening with Ben Mears and Mark Petrie in hiding outside of the country, they are hunting down somebody in a homeless shelter in Detroit. As a framing device, Mears tells the tale of the film on a gurney in a hospital.
Almost immediately, this adaptation hooked me. Director Mikael Saloman does an excellent job conveying the opening part of the novel. Rob Lowe’s voice-over narration conveys the tone and feel of the book and helps lay out events without tipping into cheesiness. Cinematic and artful shots create interesting and engrossing scenes. Saloman’s experience in television as a director and on films as a cinematographer is clearly on display here.
However, not everything about this adaptation is perfect. Many of the flashbacks to our protagonist’s past traumas are hokey. They are shot using a red camera filter and a slow frame rate, which results in a cheap feeling that undercuts the tragedy of some of the scenes. Furthermore, the film’s editing seems to bow under the mass of the novel’s events, resulting in some choppy transitions and multiple instances in which the pacing of the film feels off.
The cast in this adaptation is top-notch, though. Playing the tortured alcoholic Father Callahan is the talented James Cromwell. I’m a fan of his after his work on American Horror Story, and he proves effective here with the right mixture of bitterness and hope to bring the character to life. The two main villainous characters are portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer. Personally, I would have preferred to see their roles reversed; Sutherland as the ancient vampire Barlow would have been more suiting. Rob Lowe reports in his memoir that Hauer didn’t even bother to read the script. Regardless, Hauer’s final monologue is eerie enough.
Donald Sutherland as Staker
Lowe makes a compelling lead, effectively conveying the dry, ironic bitterness of Mears. The film opens with him returning to his hometown to write about the Marsten House, a place that filled him with guilt and trauma as a youth due to tragic events. He is joined by Andre Braugher who plays English teacher Matt Burke. Unlike the character in the novel, Burke is a homosexual in this adaptation, and is much harsher on Mears. These changes make for some interesting new dynamics between Mears and Burke. Braugher’s performance does justice to the character even though he is more sidelined in this production than in the novel. Indeed, several character arcs are disjointed or downscaled. While Mears’s arc is fairly complete, others are given short shrift and we’re left hanging in regards to some.
Rutger Hauer as Barlow
Despite these flaws, ‘Salem’s Lot proves to be an entertaining and well-crafted adaptation of the novel. For a TNT television special, the quality is largely up to par, and the production was recognized with an Emmy nomination for best primetime program. With a talented cast, solid pacing, and a compelling story courtesy of the screenwriters and King, this adaptation is well worth a watch.
The Glick brothers… reunite?
This adaptation came soon after the novel’s success. Warner Bros. hastened to acquire the film rights and create a faithful production while recognizing that the thick 400-page novel would be no easy task to condense. Scripts poured in from a variety of writers, but nobody could craft a screenplay suitable to the weighty material and short enough for a feature. Concluding that television would be the best option, Warner Bros. turned it over to their TV division, which approved an appropriate teleplay. After a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for producers, Tobe Hooper was selected to helm the production.
Hooper’s touch is certainly felt. While even Hooper realized that he had to make changes to his techniques to suit the broadcasting restrictions of TV at the time, the cinematography and closeness of the camera feels reminiscent of his famous breakthrough film. It looks and feels cheap, which I found distracting. Even so, Hooper’s version contains stronger overall scares, with several genuinely creepy and terrifying moments.
While generally faithful, this version does make some notable alterations. Barlow, the main vampire of the story, is no longer the cultured and wise gentlemen of the novel and the ’04 adaptation, but instead a green-skinned monster. He speaks no dialogue at all in this version, instead resembling a more pure incarnation of evil. Hooper felt this change was necessary because the idea of the cultured vampire had been overdone at this point. Other changes include combining characters and shifting the locations of some climatic events, such as the final confrontation with Barlow and the death of female protagonist, Susan Norton. Retained from the novel, however, are the bookend segments in which Ben Mears and Mark Petrie hide out in Guatemala.
An adulterer pays for his sins
The cast in this adaptation is blander. While it does feature the talents of David Soul as Ben Mears and James Mason as Barlow’s gentlemanly servant Richard Staker, their performances feel to some extent phoned in. The exception is of one the production’s best scenes, in which a laborer walks in on his wife cheating on him. The scene in which he confronts the adulterer is tense and unsettling.
While this version of Salem’s Lot features some creepy moments and does a good job condensing the novel to a manageable length, it is only a passable film overall. Like its more modern counterpart, this adaptation was nominated for Emmy awards, and it also won none of them. It received praise at the time of its release, and many of its tense moments still work well thanks to Hooper’s excellent direction. However, it does feel dated, and the acting isn’t stellar.
The Best and The Most Faithful
Uncovering the grave of the Glick boy
The question of which adaptation is more faithful to the source material is a curious one. On the one hand, the ’04 adaptation preserves more of the characters and events of the novel than the ’79 adaptation. It also maintains the pacing and flow of the novel more accurately. Yet it does alter the characterization of a few characters and updates the setting to the modern day, even including devices such as cell phones. The ’79 adaptation maintains the original time period of the novel and features the same bookends,but combines too many characters and changes too many locations, so I give the edge to the ’04 adaptation.
Likewise, the question of which adaptation is better is no easy task. Hooper’s version is the clear superior when it comes to conveying the thrills and chills of horror. Many moments in the ’79 adaptation are are genuinely well-crafted scares. For all the quality of the ’04 adaptation, it never really scared me. Even so, it does have the advantage of giving its characters more development, and it benefits from a more talented cast. It may eventually sink beneath the weight of what it tries to accomplish with the characters, but I was more engrossed by the story and the character arcs. For that reason, I will give a slight edge to the modern adaptation.
The Final Verdict
In what may feel like a reoccurring theme as we consider more Stephen King movies, neither of these films is a perfect adaptation of the novel. Still, both have their advantages, and I recommend both depending on what you’re looking for as a viewer. If you want a more straight-up horror film, go with the ’79 adaptation. If you are a fan of developed characters and a slightly more faithful approach to King’s work, watch the ’04 version. Both are necessary only for superfans like myself. ‘Salem’s Lot is a rich book, and perhaps in the future it could be adapted a third time as a good AMC or HBO miniseries.