Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Needful Things
We take a look at the movie version of Stephen King's Needful Things, starring Ed Harris...
The film: A mysterious new shop called Needful Things opens in the town of Castle Rock, owned by the mysterious Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow). The residents discover that the antique shop provides them with exactly what they’re looking for, no matter how specific. The price to pay isn’t of the ordinary variety, however, and Gaunt invites his customers to commit pranks on their fellow townsfolk which steadily escalate in complexity and consequence. It soon attracts the attention of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (lately of The Dark Half and now in the form of Ed Harris).
See also: the BFI’s Stephen King season continues this weeek.
A satire on greed culture, small town politics, and mob mentalities, Needful Things is one of Stephen King’s more cynical works with a streak of dark humour a mile wide. It contains his truly go for broke endings that work better than in some of his others (not for Castle Rock or its residents, mind). Reviews were not kind to the first book that he wrote after his rehabilitation. It is, however, one of the first King books that I read as a young ‘un and as such, I have a soft spot for it, despite its considerable flaws. All told, it’s not a great book; the nature of King’s story means that it’s quite repetitive and there aren’t a whole lot of characters to root for.
This leaves the film with something of a tricky proposition, which it sadly fails to navigate all that well. That repetitiveness is carried over; once you’ve seen one townsperson turned by an object bought from Gaunt, you’ve literally seen them all, and little is done to add a new perspective to the sequence of events. It also doesn’t quite the escalation of carnage right. In the book, it quite literally explodes into life and becomes unrelentingly more chaotic. The film, in contrast, feels more like fits and starts as Castle Rock goes into meltdown.
Like the book, its characters are one of the weak spots, unusually for a King story. The central figures of Alan Pangborn and his girlfriend Polly Chambers (Bonnie Bedelia), who suffers from crippling arthritis in her hands, remain the only real sympathetic figures alongside Netty (Amanda Plummer). Harris and Bedelia bring a dignity to their roles as the tale’s moral compass and Plummer is especially good as the shy Netty who finally finds her backbone to disastrous effect.
Elsewhere though, the secondary characters are largely myopic, selfish creatures who leave you with little to no emotional attachment. The residents of Castle Rock are smalltown caricatures with little depth or development. There’s a weird, nasty edge to the film too in that it points you towards rooting for the people to start tearing each other apart rather than for Pangborn to bring everyone to their senses.
In a league of his own though is Max von Sydow, who is wonderful. W.D. Richter’s screenplay gives him a lot of ironical comments to work with, sly puns and wry asides that the veteran chews through with sinister relish. A European sophisticate in King’s own brand Americana, he’s a Pied Piper type figure, but instead of taking the town’s most precious things, he offers them and waits for the people to lead themselves to ruin. The film lights up, sometimes quite literally, whenever he’s onscreen and he’s a great villain in a classic, dastardly way.
In a jarring contrast to the bleak and cynical events earlier in the film, there’s something soaringly optimistic the ending and the way in which Pangborn brings everyone back. He simply gets them to talk. They admit to their pranks and apologise. They’re honest and reconciliatory, holding themselves accountable for their actions even when under the influence of Gaunt’s devilish magic. Simply put, communication is key. There are themes running throughout Needful Things that are still relevant today, but that one feels particularly poignant.
Though both the film and the book are less than successful with their respective stories, I think the concept of Needful Things is such a good one. It’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ fairytale that could ensure a new version works especially well these days in our culture of weird nostalgia and attachments to the material possessions that inspire it. For now though, we have Max von Sydow and a chance to relish his particular brand of cardigan-clad malevolence.
Scariest moment: Needful Things is largely low on outright scares, but there’s a good jump to be had when you find out the fate of Netty’s dog. It’s pretty grim.
Musicality: The film relies on classical music pieces a lot, including Schubert’s Ave Maria during a particularly key moment, but it’s the use of Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King that sticks out for me. It’s deployed so effectively during one of Netty’s pranks as she gleefully covers Buster Keeton’s office in police warnings that accuse him from embezzlement to, erm, inappropriate relations with horses. It’s one of the more fun pranks that occurs during the film and Plummer’s enthusiasm works beautifully with the musical crescendo.
A King thing: Temptation. The characters in King’s stories are often undone by objects or experiences they desire, which Leland Gaunt uses to his particular advantage. There’s something about the promise of satisfaction that captures people and King uses it to tease out their weaknesses or demonstrate their strength in resistance.
Join me next time, Constant Reader, for The Shawshank Redemption.