From Book to Screen: The Lawnmower Man
We’re back after a multi-month hiatus for more of the Stephen King Book to Screen blog series! We are, slowly but surely, making our way through the many films adapted from the Night Shift short story collection. This time we will be covering a story whose film adaptation is infamously, completely unrelated to the source material. It’s almost pointless to write this as a Book to Screen article, but for the sake of being a completionist, we attempt the near-impossible. (A short film was created that is more accurate to the source material, but for now we’re just doing features.) There is also a sequel to the film (mind-boggling as that is to consider) that will not be covered due to not being based directly on a King text.
Now, it’s time to take a ride with The Lawnmower Man.
Originally published in the May 1975 issue of Cavalier, the publication most of Night Shift‘s stories come from, The Lawnmower Man was well-received enough to land a spot in the short story collection. Original reviews of the story are non-existent, but Night Shift is pretty well liked on the whole.
The Lawnmower Man may not be a big part of its success, though. It’s not that the story is bad, but it’s hard to even call it a story. It’s more an interesting diversion or thought experiment. It follows a man who hires a lawn-mowing service and gets more than he bargained for. Its truly bare-bones nature allows King to be particularly up-front with the horror. But one of King’s strengths as a writer is his ability to craft a good character and keep you hooked. He doesn’t really create any characters in this one, but instead focuses on the revelation that the titular character is in fact a horrific satyr, a figure of Greek mythology. The satyr’s consumption of the grass involves chomping down on it himself, as well as his possession of a self-propelling lawnmower. Our protagonist’s (in a very loose sense of the word) attempts to interfere with the satyr’s work don’t go well.
One could try to find a moral to this story. That would be a fool’s task, though. There’s nothing deep or meaningful here, and it’s only readable due to King’s storytelling charms. The grim descriptions of the satyr chomping down on grass are certainly perverse. It would be interesting for a director like David Lynch to tackle this as a short film. Otherwise, non-aficionados of King aren’t really missing anything by not reading this one.
The story of the making of The Lawnmower Man is more interesting than the film itself, so we’ll discuss that first. The original script was written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimel Everett. Titled Cyber God, it likely largely resembled what the film would end up being. In comes New Line Cinema, who had film rights to the King short story. Hollywood being Hollywood, the studio wanted to capitalize on Stephen King’s name and so ordered Cyber God to be combined with minor elements of King’s story so they could call the movie The Lawnmower Man.
So just how much of the short story makes it into the film? Essentially just a few fleeting references. Someone is killed by a lawnmower and a company is named Pastoral Greenery, the same name of the company in the short story. Otherwise, the story bears absolutely no resemblance to the film. Enough so that King sued New Line Cinema to remove his name from the film. Two court rulings later, and New Line still released the film on VHSs bearing King’s name. Luckily, King likes money, and New Line Cinema has continued to adapt his works (most recently 2017’s It).
The Lawnmower Man is firmly a product of its time. It is awash with terrible CGI that was likely considered fairly decent back in 1992. Looking at it through the lenses of 2018, however, is just embarrassing. The entire plot of Cyber God… er, The Lawnmower Man, reflects an obsession with VR. VR is finally making a comeback today, but back then the idea of it invading people’s personal lives was too remote. A laughable script involves a Dr. Angelo trying to increase the intelligence of humans with drugs and VR. It goes wrong when he uses a mentally disabled lawnmower man as his next test subject.
Pierce Brosnan stars as our mad scientist, acting as campy and goofy as possible. His attempts to try some real acting with this character are even more embarrassing. It would be two more years until he became Bond, so thankfully the film didn’t ruin his career. In fact, The Lawnmower Man did surprisingly well at the box office, grossing $32.1 million against a budget of $10 million — enough to justify a sequel. Thankfully, the sequel was awful enough to end the franchise.
Jeff Fahey plays the titular lawnmower man and thus gets plenty of screen time as we chronicle his rise in intelligence before he succumbs to madness. Fahey could have been worse, but his skills are lost in the wave of sub-mediocrity that this film is. A scene depicting cybersex between himself and the woman he pursues is particularly cringe-inducing. In fact, my face still hasn’t quite gotten back to normal since watching this film. Sadly, that isn’t the only awkward sex scene in the film, as another occurs between Brosnan and his wife. Or rather, terrible CGI figures humping each other.
There are likely some fans who enjoy the campiness of this film, but it’s a dull almost-two-hours. This is definitely not a Samurai Cop or Troll 2 gem. Stephen King fans have absolutely nothing to gain from watching this, so even his most diehard fans should stay away. Yet it barely avoids being the worst film I’ve watched for this project.
- Ranked #6,109 globally
- 3,601 users have ranked it
- Wins 25% of matchups
- 2 people have it at #1
- 36/85 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 Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Shining (1980)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Carrie (2013)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)