From Book to Screen: Trucks
Last time in the Stephen King book-to-screen series, we covered the maligned commercial bomb The Mangler. In this entry we continue covering short stories from King’s first collection, Night Shift, skipping forward through a few entires to find the next full length feature adaptation. As noted previously, short films may be covered in the distant future.
The first of the stories skipped this time around is The Boogeyman. It received two separate short films, one from the early 80s and another in 2010. It has also been adapted into a full length theatrical play, but since this isn’t Theaterchart it will remain outside our purview. At present, there are no plans to make a full length feature of The Boogeyman. Based on the other feature-length adaptations from Night Shift that’s probably for the best.
The next story yet to be adapted is Gray Matter. It, too, has been adapted twice into shorts, with no known plans for a feature. Battleground is the next entry in the collection, and it has not even received a short film adaption. At least, not technically; it has been adapted into an hour-long episode of the TV series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, a short-lived anthology show on TNT where each episode was taken from a different short story by Stephen King. While our Book to Screen series has covered several TV miniseries adaptions, this episode will be skipped as it is not feature length.
This leaves us with some mechanical horror that has been adapted twice into film. Trucks!
As with the majority of the stories published in Night Shift, Trucks was published in an issue of Cavalier magazine. It debuted in the June 1973 issue — two years after the Steven Spielberg movie Duel about a murderous big rig driver. Trucks was a forerunner of things to come for King: he would return to the self-driving motor vehicle well in his much more well-known novel Christine. That book deals with very different themes than this story, however, and apart from the idea of possessed motor vehicles they have little in common.
Assuming that the titular trucks of this story are indeed even possessed. One of the greater strengths of this short story is King’s lack of explanation for why the vehicles come to life and start terrorizing their human prey. This apparently was not satisfactory to the creators of either adaptation (ironically the director of one was King himself) who felt the need to develop silly explanations for the vehicles coming to life. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Trucks is ultimately a very simple story. A group of people are stranded at a truck stop and trapped by a group of semis. They are unable to figure out a way to escape or to thwart the vehicles, and all attempts at gathering supplies to survive go awry. Eventually the trucks use their horns to communicate in Morse to the humans, who luckily have one among them who knows Morse due to having been a Boy Scout. Contrived perhaps, but maybe more Americans knew Morse in the 70s. In any case, the trucks signal demands for the humans to refuel them or else dire consequences will occur. The narrator of the story wants to comply, but others try to mount a resistance and many of them wind up dead. The story ends on a dismal note, with the humans becoming slave labor to fill up endless lines of trucks working until exhaustion. Our narrator looks to the sky and sees a plane, hoping that humans are steering it.
Trucks won’t win any literary awards, but it is a decent little story. It raises some ideas about human dependency on oil and the downsides of urbanization. The narrator of the story speculates about the trucks paving the world in blacktop to shape it in their vision and create an eternal vehicular regime. Not very subtle, but still an interesting message and thematically different from the later Christine. All of this richer meaning is completely abandoned for the films, though.
The first adaption came out in 1986 and was Stephen King‘s directorial debut and sole directing credit. For good reason: King has described it as a “moron movie” and the result of being coked up during the entirety of production. Upon release, the film was nominated for two Golden Raspberries including one to Stephen King for Worst Director and one to Emilio Estevez for Worst Actor. Leonard Maltin among many other critics tore it apart and it was a commercial bomb as well. Despite all of the negative coverage, some degree of modern reevaluation has led to Maximum Overdrive being praised for some creative shots, indicating a modicum of directorial talent within King despite the overall awfulness of the film.
My own evaluation must largely agree with the original critical reception. Maximum Overdrive is a hour and a half of pure silliness. As previously noted, Stephen King took his own short story and made it far worse by removing some of the ambiguities of the short story. The reason for the trucks coming to life was explained in this movie by… aliens! Or rather, a combination of aliens and some weird notion of a comet passing by Earth and its green tail having some effect on the trucks. Furthermore, the film expands the simple setup of the story by including not only trucks coming to life but all manner of mechanical devices. A soda machine spits out soda cans at a group of children playing baseball and murders their coach, leaving a giant circular patch of meat missing on his forehead. One of the children decides to walk up to his motionless, bleeding body to ask if he’s still alive. “Luckily” the soda can machine keeps missing the child.
This is just one of many horrible expansions on the story. Entire characters are added along with other manners of automated horror. Gambling machines in a truck stop start attacking patrons and shooting coins at people. Gasoline hoses spit out… gunk? A reference is made to the final sentences of the short story where the narrator indulges in the vain hope that an aircraft might save them. This adaptation ditches that restrained ending in favor of automated evil helicopters.
The invented characters talk like alien creatures who have never been human. One stunning example of this is when we’re introduced to a couple in which the female wants to pull over to use the restroom. The male asks if he can come in and watch. Yes, this is an actual scene in this film. Later, another female character shouts at the trucks repeatedly about the fact that humans made the trucks. I suppose the implication here is that they shouldn’t be rebelling against humans, but this is done in several scenes by the same character and is just weird.
The cast is a hot mess full of horrendous performances. Certainly some of the goofy dialogue and script choices don’t help, but these actors try to play the hammy material seriously, to ill effect. Emilio Estevez is a dry, dull lead with little personality and dialogue delivery that leaves much to be desired. Pat Hingle is also in this film for reasons I can’t really fathom. He’s a decent actor, but he sullies himself with this effortless performance. King cameos himself as a man who is called an asshole by an ATM machine in the beginning of the film. His delivery of the line telling his offscreen wife of this development leaves much to be desired, to say in the least.
To some degree, King’s direction seems to be trying to aim for intentional campiness. The soundtrack to this film consists entirely of songs by AC/DC, King’s favorite band. These play during scenes of death and scenes of triumph, creating an uneven, tone-deaf film where the campiness is hard to enjoy despite the hilariously awful line delivery. To be fair to King, a shot of rolls of toilet paper strung around beside a truck like graves is certainly an interesting image. Its poignancy is immediately destroyed by more AC/DC music, though.
Not much else can be said for Maximum Overdrive. It has its funny parts where some of the line delivery is bad enough for chuckles. But largely it’s a boring affair and all of the choices made to expand this into a feature-length film were poor ones. The additional characters are either just stupid and silly or dry and uninteresting. Randomly, the “lead” truck has a giant Green Goblin face on it. Whomever decided to make a truck with Spider-Man’s greatest foe on the front had to be doing more cocaine than King was in making this movie.
- Ranked #3516 globally
- 2128 users have ranked it
- Wins 34% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 22/80 on the Stephen
The second version of this story was made in 1997 as a TV film (though it is listed on our site as a 2000 film due to when it was broadcast.) Perhaps the filmmakers thought that securing the directorial skills of Chris Thomson (who?) would help them succeed where King himself had failed. Thomson’s entire career, though, consists of directing television episodes of shows I’ve never heard of. Upon its debut, TV Guide gave Trucks a mediocre review, calling it a plotless gore-fest.
That’s an apt description. Obviously, the short story didn’t have much of a plot to it. Maximum Overdrive didn’t either, really, aside from throwing in a silly alien angle and adding some more characters to defeat the trucks. This film adds a different explanation for the automobiles coming to life: toxic chemicals. To be fair, they never directly state this, and try to leave it more open to interpretation. But the allusion is just as pointless and unnecessary an addition to the more haunting idea that suddenly someday trucks might come alive.
Unlike the goofy and silly Maximum Overdrive, Trucks is a long slog of BLAAAAND! People sometimes complain that major Hollywood tentpoles lack any directorial touch and have no character. I respectfully disagree with that notion, and point to this picture as an example of what true lack of character looks like. This movie is boring to look at, boring to hear, and boring to think about. The actors look bored too. Sure, there is some goofy line delivery in this version too, but largely they just seem to want to get this over with.
While the film doesn’t go as machine-crazy as the first adaptation, this one does have a toy dump truck attack a character by hitting him in the ankles. It seems to really hurt him, because he falls over from it. That definitely would happen in real life. The only notable actor in this affair is Timothy Busfield of West Wing fame, and I’m embarrassed for Busfield that this film is among his acting credits.
This movie’s script is even more boring and incoherent than the first one. It does feature a few unintentionally hilarious enough bits that I wonder if the screenwriter for this one wasn’t on cocaine as well. Trucks features scenes in which a truck uses its side mirrors to spy on someone and then, when caught, tries to act casual and pretend it wasn’t spying. One character also decides — in a world where all of the machines are turning against you — to steal a motorbike to rob a helicopter. That makes sense.
- Ranked #37517 globally
- 56 users have ranked it
- Wins 28% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 65/80 on the Stephen
The Best and The Most Faithful
Deciding which of these films is more faithful to the short story is nearly a fool’s errand. The reality is that Trucks‘s premise is very simple, and it puts the “short” in “short story.” Both of these adaptations add details and characters in order to fill a film-length runtime. Still, if a distinction has to be made, then the TV movie version is ever so slightly more faithful to the original story. It sticks a little closer to the truck stop setting and doesn’t add quite as much superfluous material.
Maximum Overdrive is the better adaptation though. King’s film is a mess, with cheesy dark humor and a soundtrack that clashes with everything on screen, but it’s definitely the more entertaining of the pair. Trucks might not be as outwardly stupid, but it’s unbelievably boring. The occasional hilariously bad moment can’t rival the utter silliness of Maximum Overdrive.
Trucks was never a complicated short story. It took a simple idea and ran with it for the story’s short length. It is by no means all that brilliant or compelling and has a fairly obvious message. Still, at least there was some message, and the ending is fairly haunting. Neither of these adaptations do the story justice. One is utterly silly and corny, and the other is a drab, unartistic mess. Unless you are a mega King fan, neither of these is worth the time to watch. King fans will probably get some kick out of watching the only film he ever directed, and that makes Maximum Overdrive the only one worth watching. Trucks is best left well in the past and forgotten.
These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste comports with the global census.
- Carrie (1976)
- The Stand
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- The Shining (1980)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Carrie (2013)
- The Mangler
- Graveyard Shift
- Maximum Overdrive
- Carrie (2002)