From Book to Screen: “The Dead Zone”
The Stephen King Book to Screen Blog Series returns, and at long last the Night Shift short story collection, which inspired a largely mediocre bunch of movies, is put to bed! We’re back to covering films based on full-length King novels. The next book chronologically was written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman; The Long Walk has never received any film adaptations. A weird and existential work, it follows a group of young men who are selected by their military government to participate in a walking competition where they can never stop walking. If you stop walking, you are gunned down until there is only one contestant left. It was actually the first novel King wrote, but it didn’t get published for many years. George Romero was approached back in 1988 to film an adaptation, but it never came to fruition and eventually Frank Darabont secured the rights. Darabont has directed several other King adaptations and he planned to make The Long Walk into a low-budget existential film that would get weird. But Darabont eventually let his rights lapse, and in April 2018 New Line Cinema announced that an adaptation would be helmed by James Vanderbilt. If it happens, this blog series may track back to cover it.
For now we cover King’s next book, which has its own brand of odd existentialism. The book has been adapted twice into media: once into the film our article will cover today, and another into a TV series on the USA Network that lasted for six seasons. I have not seen any part of the TV series, but it likely diverges quite a bit from the novel given its six-year run. Join me as we take the highway into… The Dead Zone!
The Dead Zone was published in 1979 and was the fifth novel King published under his own name. It continues King’s trend of reducing the horror elements in his books, and is arguably the least horror-based of all the novels published under his name to that point. Wikipedia calls it a sci-fi thriller. The novel follows Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who gets into a truck accident and wakes up after a five-year coma with a psychic ability to predict the future of people he touches. If this sounds like the set-up for an X-Men story, then you don’t know King. Smith’s ability begins to slowly kill him. The title of the novel refers to a spot of dead tissue in his brain that likely gives him his power, yet is also a deadly tumor.
King’s book is episodic and covers a wide swath of Smith’s life after his accident. The span of the story conveys the sense of change throughout Smith’s life and his struggle with questions of purpose. These concepts were enough to garner The Dead Zone a nomination for the Locust Award in 1980. Though not really a horror novel, King does convey an atmosphere of dread throughout as Smith’s reputation goes from renown to fear due to his abilities. King perhaps realistically illustrates that people react in terror to the supernatural and want to avoid Johnny despite what he’s done to save people.
The Dead Zone isn’t King’s best work, but is still a slow-burn creepy ride. A sense of sorrow pervades the novel as King ponders ideas of fate, free will, and purpose. The conceit that Smith’s ability to save others is also what kills him is an effective way to explore how much life can mean. It’s no accident that King named the central character of the novel John Smith, one of the derivatives of John Doe. King also sets up The Dead Zone as a direct tie-in to another novel, Cujo, and introduces the town of Castle Rock, a setting that has become a core part of the Kingverse.
By the time The Dead Zone came along, turning King novels into films was a well-trod path. Lorimar Film Entertainment acquired the rights to turn The Dead Zone into a film, and had screenwriter Jeffery Boam draft a screenplay that was to be directed by Stanley Donen. Financial struggles resulted in the collapse of Lorimar, and Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights to what would be his first King film. De Laurentiis initially disliked the Boam screenplay and asked King to create a new one. There are competing accounts of why King’s screenplay was ultimately rejected. De Laurentiis claims it was too “involved and convoluted” while director David Cronenberg stated that it was “needlessly brutal.” Whoever finally said no, they ultimately returned to Boam’s screenplay.
The screenplay alterations didn’t end there, though, as Cronenberg worked with Boam and producer Debra Hill to go through the screenplay page by page and make changes. None of the filmmakers cared for the large, sprawling nature of King’s novel, and instead heightened the episodic nature of King’s story by reducing The Dead Zone into three main acts. They also excised large parts of the novel, including the entire subplot about Smith’s tumor. Despite the alterations, the film preserves the central theme of Smith’s struggle with his abilities and his sacrifice of himself for the greater good of all. King met all of the changes with approval, finding that the filmmakers had improved and intensified the narrative of his book. The Dead Zone met with critical praise at the time of its release and earned a box office of $20.8 million on a $10 million budget, making it a minor hit.
The film certainly pivots away from some of the story structure of the book, dropping a parallel exploration of the life of a Greg Stillson that added a sense of destiny to the third act occurrences of the book. Stillson is a minor figure in the film despite a decent performance by Martin Sheen. Recently, some King fans have compared Stillson’s character, a politician, to Donald Trump because of his appeal to blue-collar workers and some extremely narcissistic qualities. In the film, he’s more of a late obstacle than a parallel character, which allows Cronenberg to keep the focus on the creepiness of Smith’s abilities.
Cronenberg’s direction is strong, though not faultless. The film carries the cold edge present in many of Cronenberg’s films, and that benefits the existential emptiness of The Dead Zone. There is an atmosphere of eternal winter in the film as John Smith becomes increasingly isolated. Another strong directorial move from Cronenberg is the way he builds the tension when revealing how long Smith has been stuck in the coma. Many movies would have stuck in a “Five Years Later” title card, but Cronenberg at first leaves it unstated that any significant amount of time had passed. Still, Cronenberg can’t make up for some issues with the script; the film feels almost like a greatest hits version of the book, and something feels rushed about the way it jumps from scene to scene through Smith’s visions. More of the character scenes from the book would have helped the movie’s pace.
The excising of the brain tumor subplot feels like a mistake, as it degrades the double-edged sword theme of Smith’s gift. The film preserves the headaches the character gets, and Smith slowly dying, but not mentioning the brain tumor an odd choice. It also changes the meaning of the title; in the film, Smith sees blank spots in his visions, meaning that he change or influence those futures. There are some other unfortunate changes in the film, such as replacing a Wheel-of-Fortune-like game that Smith plays in the opening scene of book with a roller coaster ride that gives him a headache. I suppose the filmmakers thought a roller coaster was be more cinematic, but it’s less thematically relevant, and Cronenberg could have made the wheel game visually interesting and creepy. The religiosity of Smith’s mother’s character is greatly reduced as well, which cuts down on another aspect of the destiny and fate themes from the novel.
At first Christopher Walken‘s performance can be off-putting, but by the end it does capture Smith’s sadness and exasperation with his situation. You feel and believe his loss when he sees his former girlfriend married and with a child after his years of being in a coma. The former girlfriend is played by minor scream queen Brooke Adams. She barely earns the title, but she did star in several horror films throughout the late 70s and 80s. Adams’ acting in this film can be a tad uneven, but she does deliver several strong scenes with Walken. A late scene where Adams reappears with her husband at Johnny’s new home working on Stillson’s campaign creates a great sense of loss and what could have been. Walken and Adams’ performances really sell that scene.
Despite a sense of rushed pacing, Cronenberg does create some great visuals and tension. The visions that Smith gets are unnerving, and Cronenberg’s method of placing Smith within the visions is a smart move. Cronenberg doesn’t add any visual nonsense for the visions; there is no supernatural glowing or “flashback” border on the frames of the scenes. He simply uses hard cuts, making the visions seems visceral and real for Smith and the audience. There is also a great shot where Smith is accompanying the town sheriff (played by the great Tom Skerritt) to help investigate the Castle Rock killer. They walk down a bridge tunnel and cold light spews across the tunnel walls as Cronenberg’s camera watches from afar. It feels like the characters are walking into the pit of a hell demon, which suits their search for this serial killer. Walken dresses in lots of black throughout his investigation of the killer, and a scene where he gets called the devil while dressed in these thin black garments is off-putting and weird.
Cronenberg’s film tears out some substantial parts of the novel, including a fair bit of character development, and makes changes that don’t feel necessary. Yet it still largely follows the plot and atmosphere of the book. Stephen King fans should be quite pleased with how well Cronenberg did here, and the movie is a solid entry in the director’s filmography. The Dead Zone is certainly one of the better adaptations this series has covered so far. I would not be opposed to another filmmaker remaking the work and being more faithful to the book, but it’s also not necessary. Unlike The Shining or The Stand, where the more faithful adaptations have clear budgetary and acting issues, The Dead Zone had all the budget and cast talent it needs. I can solidly recommend this as a must-see for King fans, and it offers plenty for general audiences as well.
- Ranked #942 globally
- 3,329 users have ranked it
- Wins 44% of matchups
- 0 people have it at #1
- 7/86 on the Stephen King filter
This are my personal ranking for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Shining (1980)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)