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Movies & TV

21st Oct 2023

40 years ago, the best Stephen King adaptation arrived in cinemas

Stephen Porzio

The Dead Zone

The movie saw King team-up with two other horror legends.

There are several worthy contenders for the title of best Stephen King adaptation.

Probably the author whose work has been brought to the screen the most in the history of cinema, many would cite The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, Misery or Stand By Me as being the greatest film based on his writing.

And that is even without mentioning the recent adaptations of It – featuring the nightmarishly iconic Pennywise the clown – or 2007’s The Mist – with its notoriously shocking ending – or several other excellent King adaptions like Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game or The Green Mile.

On the 40th anniversary of its release, however, I would argue the case that in fact the 1983 horror thriller The Dead Zone is the best of the bunch.

Based on King’s fifth novel published in 1979, Oscar-winner Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter) stars in the film as Johnny Smith, a kind teacher whose peaceful life in a sleepy town in Maine is forever altered after a serious car accident.

The Dead Zone

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone

Awakening from a coma five years later, he is devastated to learn that Sarah (Brooke Adams, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the woman he was dating and intended to wed has since married and had a child with another man.

And as if this was not bad enough, Johnny’s time in the coma has left him with a strange supernatural ability. When he touches other people’s hands, he is struck by frightening visions often depicting those people or their loved ones’ deaths – events which have either already happened or will.

These visions take their toll both mentally physically on Johnny and wind up making him a social pariah. That said, he eventually begins to see his new psychic powers as a gift, as opposed to a curse.

First, they lead him to be recruited by a local sheriff (Tom Skerritt, Alien) to help catch a murderer of young girls dubbed The Castle Rock Killer.

Then – after shaking hands with Greg Stilson (Martin Sheen), a sinister politician with his sights on becoming the US President – Johnny realises he himself may be the key to saving the entire world from complete destruction.

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Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen’s characters shaking hands in The Dead Zone

King was not the only horror legend involved with The Dead Zone movie as it was directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly) and was produced by Debra Hill (co-writer of Halloween).

According to Cronenberg – who at that time was known for making extreme, violent yet intellectual body horrors in Canada like Shivers, The Brood and Videodrome – he first passed on adapting the book but was later convinced to join the project by Hill.

Discussing this, he told critic Serge Grunberg:

“The whole idea of prophecy and that sort of supernatural thing that King does all the time, I avoid it because I don’t believe in it – although you don’t have to believe in it, obviously, because it has metaphorical value.

“Once I started to think about that, first of all, it amused me to think that the whole film could be interpreted as the fantasy of a crazy person, and secondly, it is a very good analogy of an artist who creates and has visions of some kind, and is an exile from normal society for that.

“So, it had honourable roots for me, and I got into it. And even some of the American politics – of course, in Canada we’re obsessed with American politics even more than the Americans are – was [of] legitimate [interest to me].”

Cronenberg states that when he was joined the project, he was presented with five different scripts for The Dead Zone – none of which he liked. He even said one of these was written by King himself and was “the worst one by far”.

That said, the screenplay he liked the most of the bunch was written by Jeffrey Boam (who would go on to write The Lost Boys and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and so Cronenberg recruited him to pen a new draft – with the director retaining control over what was and what was not to be included within the eventual script used to shoot the movie.

Boam and Cronenberg wisely stripped a lot out of King’s original 428-page-long story, condensing it into a tight three-act structure consisting of Johnny’s life immediately before and after his car accident, the effort to stop The Castle Rock Killer and Johnny trying to prevent Stilson – a character who in the years since has drawn some comparisons to Donald Trump – from coming to power.

Dead Zone

Martin Sheen in The Dead Zone

Arguably this blend of Cronenberg and King’s sensibilities is what led to The Dead Zone being such a successful adaptation.

The author’s original story perhaps brought an emotional, more human touch that was perhaps lacking from the director’s work up until that time.

On one level, the movie is extremely tragic – focusing on a fundamentally decent person whose quiet idyllic life is forever destroyed, seemingly randomly, in an instant – mutating into a living nightmare.

Adding to the tremendous emotional power of the film is its snowy secluded New England setting – the movie was in fact shot entirely in Canada – which mirrors the desolation of its lead character.

Also helping is a never better Walken, who reigns in the quirkier tendencies as a performer that made him such an icon in order to fully convince as an everyman thrust into a situation beyond his control or imagining.

That being said, fans of the actor are still treated to one of his best line readings of all time when he tries to warn the father of a young boy that he tutors that the child is in danger.

Meanwhile, nearly all Cronenberg movies are about characters undergoing rapid changes either mentally or physically or both – his earlier film Scanners even centred around psychics.

So, one imagines that, along with tightening King’s original narrative, the director brought his own ideas and thematic interests to The Dead Zone adaptation.

A lot of fascinating questions are raised in the movie, most notably regarding the responsibility of people to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

When discussing his dilemma involving Stilson with his sympathetic doctor (Herbert Lom) – who fled from Poland during its Nazi invasion – Johnny asks him:

“If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him? … You’d never get away alive.”

And while the movie on one level is hopelessly tragic, there is a sliver of an optimistic streak to its ending, as it is suggested that Johnny’s suffering may not have been for random as it did ultimately serve a higher purpose.

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Brooke Smith and Walken in The Dead Zone

It is worth noting that King is reported to have remarked that the changes Boam and Cronenberg made to his story actually “improved and intensified the power of the narrative”.

The Dead Zone received rave reviews upon release, with legendary critic Roger Ebert stating at the time that “no other King novel has been better filmed”. Given that the movie came out following Carrie and The Shining, that is high praise indeed.

Speaking about the reaction to his big screen version of The Dead Zone, Cronenberg remarked:

“It is the only film I have ever had a good test screening for… They had a test preview somewhere, I think it may have been in New Jersey. Anyway it scored the highest scores that Paramount have ever had [on] a film score, the highest on every level.”

However, Cronenberg alleges that at the time of the movie’s release, Paramount’s marketing department was embroiled in a huge scandal and “in complete disarray”.

As a result, he claims that they failed to market the King adaptation well, calling the situation a “nightmare”.

And though the film did more than double its reported $7-10 million budget at the box office, the director feels like it could have been more of a hit with better advertising.

“I realised that the movie could have been hugely popular, because it’s the only movie I’ve made that grandmothers love, grannies love it,” he once said.

In spite of The Dead Zone novel later getting a TV adaptation that ran for six seasons in the noughties, it is true that the book and the movie seem to have lingered less in the general public’s consciousness than many of King’s other works – meaning that both are now ripe for rediscovery.

The Dead Zone is available to rent on Apple TV and Google Play.

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