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Dead Zone series - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Dead Zone series
I re-read The Dead Zone lately, and randomly decided to give the series another try, this time thinking of it as entirely re-setting the idea rather than adapting it, which caused some cognitive dissonance (as Johnny is, you know, dead at the end of The Dead Zone).

This worked a little bit better, but the problem with the series became clearer--it really lacks the engine that made the book work as well as it does.

Yes, there's a Stillson plot, rendered in the series as, more or less, your typical Big Bad that Johnny doesn't quite ever get to in the episodic course of his life, but to tell the truth, is that really what clicked in the book, either? Yes, interesting moral dilemma, but it seemed almost grafted on, like, "Okay, what plot can I make out of this situation?" But it's the situation that's interesting, which is why it really is the one King book that seems very plausible for re-setting as an ongoing series. They'd have probably done as well to leave Stillson out of it entirely.

The problem is that Johnny's life is more or less right there. Yes, his parents are dead (book fen who haven't seen it, yup, Herb, too), but it's not played on, while what made Johnny work in the book was the pathos for everything he lost. He didn't spend all of his time complaining about it, but it was always an undercurrent. The woman he was falling in love with began an entirely different life while he was in a coma, and it's completely separate from his own. (The show works it that Sarah was a lifelong friend and they were definitely going to be married and she was pregnant when he got into the accident... which is overkill, and also diminishes the idea that at the exact moment of the accident, Johnny's life was full of possibilities, not certainties. He and Sarah both, at various points, think of what might've been, but the bond they may have had was cruelly severed. In the series? Not so much. There's Walt/Sarah and Johnny/Sarah, and of course the previously non-existent JJ (Johnny and Sarah's biological son, raised by Walt), and they all see each other all the time. The crippling sense of isolation that Johnny is trapped in never materializes. (And yes, I've seen more than one episode; I watched a marathon a while back, and I know they try, but it doesn't come off.) Walt, an amiable if frustratingly mundane guy in the books, is suddenly a vital character--in fact, he's Big George Bannerman. No Cujo, though. A chapel, but no Cujo. (They should have had a rabid dog in the last episode, is all I'm sayin'. Just as a shout-out.)

There's also the very real, painful financial fear that permeates Johnny's life--the medical bills hanging over his head, his inability to get even a low-paying teacher's job back because he's "too controversial" due to his psychic abilities, the thought of how much his parents had to sell to keep him alive during his coma... those were all things that kept the novel's heartbeat going, but were removed entirely from the show by making Johnny rich (in fact, he suspects the preacher his mother went to of being after her money, though this turns out not to be true... unlike in the book, where a whole lot of people bilk poor Vera until Herb has to step in). Much of this real drama is replaced by overdone romantic melodrama (Rev. Purdy was OMG in love with Vera!!!! Is he Johnny's father????), while Johnny's crushing loneliness is alleviated by a large cast of regulars. It leaves the series emotionally bland. (The fact that the woman playing Sarah seems to have "the emotional range of a teaspoon" doesn't help, but she doesn't have much real drama to work with, just melodrama.)

It's also missing the small town setting--yes, it's supposed to be set in Cleaves Mills, but gosh, it looks more like suburbia than any small town I've ever seen. (I sometimes think--and it's not entirely implausible--that there are people making tv shows and movies who have quite literally never set foot in a real small town, and just think of them as suburbs with fewer streets. The made-for-tv 'Salem's Lot also had this problem. Both of them, now that I think about it.) One of the things that King tends to do well is use his setting for mood and theme, but the Cleaves Mills of the show could be Anyburb, and the people plod along through it without many distinguishing characteristics.

None of this can be hung on Anthony Michael Hall, who is actually an excellent Johnny--I pictured his face in my last re-read. And it's not a bad show; I'd probably watch it again. But I doubt I'd ever reach a point, as I did in the last scene of the novel, where I'm sitting around in public trying not to burst into tears over a novel whose ending I already knew.
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olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: June 20th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
For a book I don't like and didn't touch me at all due to its fragmented, eposodic character, Dead Zone went a long way in convincing me we were dealing with a genius here in Stephen King. It's one of the first books of his I read (right after my friend introduced me to him via Tommyknockers and Carrie), and I thought, man, even in a BAD book I like the way he writes! Maybe I should reread it now, 12 years later, to see if my assessment of it will change? I doubt it, I've never liked stories that meander around being mostly pointless.

The most recent King story I read was The Man in the Black Suit which was just about phenomenal, one of the best short stories and certainly the best horror short story I've read. So creepy I've been having recurring dreams about a Thing who makes grass blades wither yellow when its shadow falls on it. *shiver*
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: June 20th, 2007 08:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very interesting analysis. I've had similar issues with trying to watch the show, but I hadn't broken it down to the many pieces of setting and characters that contribute to distancing it from the goodness that is the book.

I actually *did* blame some of it on Hall, who is more broody in the role than I think of Johnny as being. But when you think of his character in the altered setting, not nearly as isolated, not nearly as driven...yeah, he actually does a really good job.

I doubt I'd ever reach a point, as I did in the last scene of the novel, where I'm sitting around in public trying not to burst into tears over a novel whose ending I already knew.

It's few books that can do that to me. (Now I'm tempted to try writing a comparison between The Dead Zone and Ender's Game, because both of them get me right at the end, every single time I read them.)
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