With ‘The Dark Tower’ hitting theaters this weekend, we look at another Stephen King adaptation to see what does (and doesn’t) work in his movie adaptations.
I currently own two copies of Stephen King’s Needful Things. One, a paperback edition of King’s 1991 novel, holds no special meaning for me; given my proclivity for leaving copies of King’s books in airplane pouches and hotel rooms around the world, this is probably the third or fourth copy of Needful Things I’ve purchased in my lifetime. The second, however, is different. It’s a first-edition copy of King’s book, still in its original plastic wrap, and the first in an ongoing series of first-edition King novels given to me by my wife as birthday gifts. Not the most expensive of King’s first-edition novels – my wife was not asked to pull a ‘harmless prank’ as part of her online checkout process – but that doesn’t matter to me. I’m just happy to own a first printing of my favorite book by my favorite author.
Everything you need to know about Stephen King as an author is present in Needful Things. His desire to set each of his novels in a shared literary universe; his expansive cast of both sympathetic and unlikable characters; the underpinnings of faith and religion that quietly comprise some of his best works. Perhaps most important, though, is King’s clear preference for men over monsters. The one word that best describes King as an author is ‘rot,’ where characters backed into corners by guilt and fear are the last to recognize the poison inside them. Never has King taken more satisfaction in watching normal people unravel with just a few gentle nudges. Reading Needful Things is like watching King construct his own horrific Rube Goldberg machine.
That’s what makes the cinematic adaptation of Needful Things such a revealing point of comparison between King’s literary work and his films. Last week, I argued that King’s legacy within Hollywood would be considerably more conflicted than his legacy as an author; movies like Needful Things do a great job of demonstrating why the same elements that make King a joy to read so often cause his adaptations to collapse (and draw mediocre talents as writers and directors). On paper, Needful Things might be the strongest of King’s non-The Shining horror canon. Not only does the film star the legendary Max von Sydow as the sole proprietor of the title shop, it also brings together an impressive assortment of character actors, including Ed Harris, Ray McKinnon, Amanda Plummer, and the late, great J.T. Walsh. King’s horror adaptations are rarely given this much talent to work with; too often, his adaptations are forced to make due with second-tier talents playing out the string.
Unlike the book, which primarily focuses on the relationship between Ed Harris’s sheriff and Bonnie Bedelia’s cafe owner, the movie adaptation of Needful Things is almost entirely the Max von Sydow and J.T. Walsh show. No movie starring Sydow as a charismatic version of the devil can be entirely bad, and there are moments early in the film – when the characters are discovering Leland Gaunt’s curio shop for the first time – where the adaptation rises to the level of its source material. Sydow gently coos at each of his broken customers, caressing their weaknesses and promising them everything their heart desires… for a token amount of money and a small favor. When Walsh’s character falls under Gaunt’s influence, the movie takes a page from Dracula and creates a power dynamic reminiscent of the vampire and his human familiar; it’s less interesting the more broadly its played, but nobody can accuse Walsh or Sydow of refusing to commit.
There is also a darkness to the film that surprises, especially given TNT’s original plans to release Needful Things as a television mini-series after its theatrical release. From the constant use of profanity to the surprising bursts of violence as residents of Castle Rock square off, Needful Things is, at the very least, not the watered down version of King’s novel that so often finds its way to the big screen. The film might fall short of some of the book’s most memorable moments – it cuts out some of the weirdest sexual elements from the novel and flinches when the moment comes to have the youthful Brian kill himself – but especially given some of the campiness present in King’s other horror films, Needful Things at least has its heart in the right place.
That’s the good news; here’s the bad. Despite an Academy Award nomination for 1980’s Brubaker – and the now-beloved script for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China – screenwriter W.D. Ritcher seems uncertain who to focus on, costing the film its moral center by downplaying Ed Harris and Bonnie Bedelia’s relationship (Polly Chambers, so important in the novel, is barely present in the film). Similarly, director Fraser C. Heston can’t seem to develop a cinematic language that mirrors the fevered tempo of King’s novel. Both Heston and Ritcher seem fascinated with the violence of King’s novel without putting in the work needed to set the stage for seemingly normal people to go after each other with knives; Needful Things is a book about how communities rot from the inside out for decades, and instead, Heston and company throw a few television-grade fantasy sequences our way and hope to call it a day. Like many of King’s movies, Needful Things operates under the misguided notion that Leland Gaunt or any other supernatural character is the true source of evil. As Gaunt himself says, however, “people kill people,” a much more nuanced concept that rarely makes the leap to the screen.
Nowhere are the sins of King’s cinematic adaptations more evident than in the film’s final minutes, where a dark showdown between Pangborn and Gaunt is replaced by a motivational speech issued to the townsfolk of Castle Rock and the benign retreat of Sydow’s character. The film even suggests that J.T. Walsh’s Danforth Keeton wasn’t entirely in control of his own actions when he murdered his wife, absolving the Castle Rock citizens of their own violence and placing it squarely on the shoulder of Sydow’s demonic interloper. This couldn’t be farther from the message of King’s novel. While evil creatures certainly do exist in the world – and Leland Gaunt is undoubtedly one such monster – nothing that happens in King’s Needful Things that wasn’t lurking beneath the surface years before Gaunt arrived. The book is about escalation, not possession, and ducking that complex message for a more simple tale of oogedy boogedies is the main reason why King’s films remain such a mixed bag to this day.
On paper, there’s a lot of reasons to like this adaptation of King’s Needful Things. Hell, by the standards put forward by his other movies, Needful Things remains something of a breakout film in the author’s oeuvre. But in practice, Needful Things is just another in a long line of movies that seem to misunderstand what makes King tick. In a year where two high-profile Stephen King adaptations are about to hit theaters, it’s good to remind ourselves that any prospective filmmaker would do well to focus on King’s human element over his signature monsters. Demonic creatures don’t kill people; people kill people.