This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The Film: Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a school teacher, happily in love with his colleague, Sarah (Brooke Adams) and living in Castle Rock, Maine. However, this is Castle Rock and people never stay happy for long. During a trip to a funfair, Johnny has his first premonition and later that night, he is in a terrible car accident. He wakes up from the resultant coma five years later to discover that Sarah has moved on and his visions remain, helping to save a nurse’s child from a house fire. With the help of Dr Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), he comes to terms with his accident and abilities. He uses his powers for good in various ways, but it is a premonition of a possible President, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) that forces him to make a huge decision.
When Stephen King adaptations started out, he was an author barely registering in the public arena, so much so that his name is, in fact, spelled wrong in Carrie’s trailer. But the success of that film, as well as works like The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Stand, meant that King’s star was firmly in the ascendancy and The Dead Zone became the first of his novels to land the top spot in both the paperback and hardback bestseller charts in 1979. The subsequent adaptation was therefore inevitable, but it would be a bumpy ride for King’s new hit.
The rights were snapped up by Lorimar Film Entertainment and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam was given the first crack at writing the adaptation with director Stanley Donen, whose association with the project would be short-lived. Lorimar’s film division closed soon after due to a series of box office flops and the rights were then bought by super-producer Dino de Laurentis, who wasn’t particularly enamoured of Boam’s first draft. King was given a chance to write the screenplay, but that also hit the reject pile before Boam was invited back to the project with David Cronenberg now in the director’s chair.
King’s novel is a bit of a sprawl, wandering through both Johnny’s life and the parallel rise of his eventual adversary, the politician Greg Stillson, but it plays out neatly in various episodes and encounters. It is this that Boam picked up on for the screenplay, chipping away at King’s narrative until he had what was more or less a three act structure. Cronenberg would file it down even more and Stillson would be relegated to a figure who looms suddenly over the proceedings. It works a treat, producing a lean story that shelves a lot of extra detail without losing any of the atmosphere that King created.
As we have seen in earlier pieces, The Shining and Carrie go big on the scares, ramping up the different elements of their respective films for maximum effect be it in soundscapes or larger-than-life performances. Cronenberg and Boam take the opposite tack with The Dead Zone, opting for a quieter sense of foreboding and melancholy. Amidst the supernatural trappings, it’s also a relatable story of thwarted ambitions, of growing up without the person you thought you’d be with for the rest of your life, the career you thought you’d have, or the adventures you dreamed of taking. Johnny may have visions, but he is diverted from his initial path by a non-supernatural random act in the form of that road accident.
The adaptation brings forth the book’s sense of a constant weight of inevitability influencing each of Johnny’s decisions. He knows there are some things he can change in a positive way, but there are others that he knows he cannot influence. It is a deeply human way of looking at how supernatural powers could affect an everyday person and their life. Johnny gets fanmail from people pleading with him to help them locate lost items and finds himself dealing with the kind of ethical dilemmas usually reserved for pseudo-philosophical conversations had after a few pints at the pub.
The film is aided in this respect by the Canadian deep freeze that the production was forced to work in. Though the film spans several years, we check back in with Johnny’s life each winter, the month always symbolically associated with death and decay. It builds that cold, almost detached atmosphere and feels like Johnny’s life is taking place in one perpetual winter. At once, The Dead Zone feels like Johnny must, seemingly stuck in one place and yet forced to move forward any way possible, usually by pushing its lead character into the next horrible scenario.
Christopher Walken’s central performance is a key aspect of the film’s success, particularly the way in which he physically transforms as the narrative develops. He starts the film fresh-faced and open, moving in the kind of carefree manner that comes with having your life all sorted out. The physical toll of the car accident, as well as the mental one from losing five years of his life and his girlfriend, starts a kind of shrinking. As the premonitions get stronger and the physical wear and tear stays with him, Walken hunches over, he becomes hollow-eyed and haunted, moving through the film with a world-weariness that makes Johnny’s story all the more tragic.
He’s ably supported by the rest of the cast too. Sarah might be a more symbolic role, but Brooke Adams elevates her from just a representation of what Johnny’s life could have been into one where we see the effect of losing him in her performance too. Herbert Lom’s Dr Weizak is a calming presence and he brings a gravitas that helps ground the supernatural story. The most showy performance in a film of subtleties is that of Martin Sheen, later to be the best fictional President the world as had, but here as possibly the worst it could get. Though he goes broader than his fellow cast members, Sheen never crosses into parody, something which makes Stillson feel more plausible and therefore more frightening.
Speaking of plausibility, The Dead Zone cannot be talked about now without acknowledging the new resonance it has taken on in light of recent political events. The apparent similarities between Sheen’s Stillson and Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump have become something of an oft-repeated joke during the 2016 campaign trail. Rewatching it in this context, the connections become more apparent and that section of the film takes on a more powerful quality than perhaps Boam, Cronenberg or King intended. The Cold War was very much the context for Stillson’s political rising star there, but Johnny’s vision, in which he sees Stillson force his colleague to agree to a nuclear strike, has become just that bit more chilling.
The Dead Zone is one of the finest King adaptations out there, brave enough to cut down King’s text to something more cinematic, but faithful enough to retain his carefully constructed and oppressive atmosphere. Recent events have seen it re-emerge in the public consciousness and it is one of those films that is well worth a revisit if you haven’t seen it for a while.
Scariest Moment: The Dodd murder investigation could have been a thriller in its own right, but Cronenberg condenses it down into the middle act of the film, magnifying the scenes’ ability to unsettle. The sudden ramp-up in intensity for the Dodd house is almost overwhelming.
Musicality: The Dead Zone is one of only a few Cronenberg films to not feature a Howard Shore score. Michael Kamen was pressed upon the director by the studio and reportedly, when he was composing the music on his piano at home, his neighbours requested him to stop because it was giving them nightmares.
A King Thing: The reluctant hero. Like Stu Redman of The Stand or Ben Mears of ‘Salem’s Lot, Johnny Smith is a classic King everyman figure, thrust into responsibility when people need him most and propelled by a strong sense of decency.
Join me next time, Constant Reader, for a ride with Christine…
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