The Dead Zone (reviewed by Lisa Marie Bowman)

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So, it seems like every time that I write a review of any film based on a novel by Stephen King, I always have to start out by explaining that I think, while King’s success is undeniable, the fact that he’s overrated is also undeniable.  It’s a comment that I always make and then I have to deal with people going, “But, Lisa, everyone loves Stephen King!  He’s the most commercially successful author ever!  He’s a modern-day Charles Dickens!”

Bleh.

Make no mistake, I think that Stephen King is a talented writer.  However, I don’t think that he’s the greatest writer that has ever lived and that’s where I often come into conflict with King’s fans.  (Stephen King fans tend to be like religious fanatics when it comes to defending their belief.)  Having read both King’s earlier work and his more recent books, it’s hard for me not to feel that Stephen King has been growing steadily complacent.  There’s a certain self-importance to his prose and his plotting that, for me, is the literary equivalent of nails on chalk board.  If anyone is guilty of believing the most fawning praise of his biggest fans, it would appears to be Stephen King who, to judge from his twitter feed, appears to also believe that he’s our most important cultural critic as well.

(To be honest, I’d probably have more tolerance for King’s attempts at cultural and political criticism if he wasn’t so  predictable about it all.  Stephen King may write best sellers but that doesn’t mean he has anything interesting or unique to say about current events.)

Anyway, since I don’t feel like having to deal with all of that shit all over again, I’m not going to start this review by saying that I think Stephen King is overrated.  In fact … whoops.

Okay, so much for that plan.

Even I have to admit that The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King’s better books.  First off, it’s less than a 1,000 pages long.  Secondly, the hero isn’t a writer who spends all of his time whining about the political preferences of his neighbors.  Third, it deals with all of the “big” issues of faith, destiny, and morality but it does so in a far less heavy-handed manner than most of King’s books.

The Dead Zone is also the basis for one of the better films to be adapted from a Stephen King novel.  Directed by David Cronenberg and starring Christopher Walken, the film’s plot closely follows the novel.  Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a high school teacher who, after a horrific car crash, spends five years in a coma.  When he finally wakes up, he discovers that his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has married another man.  His mother has become a religious fanatic.  And, perhaps most importantly, whenever Johnny touches anyone, there’s a good chance that he’ll see either the person’s past or a possible future.

Needless to say, Johnny struggles with how to deal with his new powers.  After he helps to catch a local serial killer, Johnny goes into seclusion.  However, when he discovers that Sarah is now volunteering for ambitious politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny goes to a Stillson rally, shakes the man’s hand, and has a vision.  Johnny discovers that, if Stillson is elected to the senate, he’ll eventually become President and then he’ll destroy the world.

Much like The Shining, The Dead Zone benefits from being directed by a filmmaker who was both confident and strong enough to bring his own individual style to the material.  (Usually, when a King adaptation fails, it’s because it followed the source material too closely, as if the film’s producers were scared of upsetting any of King’s constant readers.)  Though the film’s plot may closely follow the novel, the movie itself is still definitely more of a product of David Cronenberg than Stephen King.  Whereas King’s novel devoted a good deal of time to Johnny and Sarah’s relationship, it’s treated as almost an afterthought in Cronenberg’s film.  Whereas King’s novel presented Johnny Smith as being an everyman sort of character, Cronenberg’s film gives us a Johnny who, from the start of the film, is a bit of an outsider even before he starts to see the future.  Whereas King put the reader straight into Johnny’s head, Cronenberg approach is a bit more detached and clinical.  Cronenberg’s Johnny is a bit more of an enigma than King’s version.

Fortunately, Cronenberg was fortunate enough to be able to cast Christopher Walken in the role of Johnny Smith.  King’s preference for the role was Bill Murray.  As odd as it may sound, you can actually imagine Bill Murray in the role when you read King’s book.  But, for Cronenberg’s more detached vision, Walken was the perfect choice.  People tend to spend so much time focusing on Christopher Walken’s quirky screen presence that there’s a tendency to forget that he’s actually a very talented actor as well.  He’s very likable and sympathetic as Johnny and brings a humanity and a sense of humor to the role, which provides a good balance to Cronenberg’s sense of detachment.

The Dead Zone is a good book and it was later turned into an occasionally good (and, just as often, not-so-good) television series.  However, the film is still the best.

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