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Picking the Bones

The Night Shift Adaptations

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#2.4

Whilst it is generally the big names in horror that have been 'trusted' with filming the novels of Stephen King, and generally came off second best to the task (now, imagine Dario Argento having a go, say with Gerald's Game), the short stories have inspired a much greater spread of talent. And yet the thirteen or so movies that have resulted from Night Shift are a fascinating look at the process of understanding, and misunderstanding, the original stories.

In 1983 it couldn't be known that Frank Darabont would become an important script-writer and thence director in the genre, culminating thus far with his superb rendition of The Shawshank Redemption, but even so it is clear from his production of The Woman in the Room that he has a large dose of talent. This is the first adaptation from the book, and he not only successfully captures King's story, but surrounds it with detail that fleshes out the scenario without detracting from King's intent (plus a dream sequence which is a little too inevitable), complemented with some great performances. If you find a copy, you'll also end up with Jeffery Schiro's The Boogeyman, a relatively creepy if not overly enthralling production made in the same year and released with TWitR on video as part of Stephen King's Night Shift Collection.

The author himself adapted 'Quitters, Inc' and 'The Ledge' for Lewis Teague's film Cat's Eye (1985), and in the process has captured one of the rare cinematic portrayals of his macabre humour. Neither of the stories can be taken too seriously, and so the film doesn't, delivering a seriously twisted and entertaining view of the world (on the other hand, the third, original story in the collection is a bit of a non-entity, though is saved through some good writing and performances). But on a more serious level, The Ledge doesn't convey the full impact of its source, because the screenwriter takes the easy way out of the ending. Cressner falls to his death, and we don't get Stan Norris' resolution that he will shoot the man whatever the outcome of the bet. In this story it's only a small point, and easily excused for convenience, but it does show the sort of details that can slip by when doing an adaptation.

In general, it is the short films that capture their source most accurately -- not just because of the level of detail is about right, but because it is the details like that one that are usually left in -- the little details that define King's world. One would think that with more time, more room to move, it is those details that could be dwelt upon. And yet...

Fritz Kiersch's 1984 feature Children of the Corn shows how not to do it, and quite apart from the sheer lack of quality behind the camera, it manages to twist King's tale right back into cliche-land -- instead of the bitter tension between the protagonists we get a trite happy birthday scene that tells us these are good wholesome movie people, and then special effect sequences that trivialise any sense of mythology behind the action. All for commercial reasons, of course -- who wants to see a film about real people, or without some gratuitous pyrotechnics at the end? In contrast, David F Price's recent sequel Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is actually quite well made -- but once again it is not set in the same countryside that King walks. The scary question behind the story is how the children of Gatlin can get away with what they have been able to. In a sense the film addresses that question, as the media furore dies down awfully quickly at the beginning, but then it substitutes sheer stupidity among the residents of Hemmingford as its answer (plus some weird filmic references and subplots thrown in for good measure).

There is a decent adaptation of the story, once again a short film doing the original justice, John Woodward's Disciple's of the Crow. It's not a complete success, as the actors could have done a better job of it and it seems to end awfully sudden, but it is certainly trying to present a creepy idea, and does pretty well.

The extreme case of a movie diverging from its source is of course The Lawnmower Man, with only a couple of lines of dialogue to indicate that the writers had even read the original (not to mention it being quite dreadful all by itself). Once again there is a shorter, more reverential version -- though at this point I'll admit I haven't managed to see it, along with The Last Rung of the Ladder. Also, Tobe Hooper's The Mangler hasn't reached Australia yet, though having seen his last effort I'm not overly disappointed at the wait.

But it is certainly not all bad news on the feature-length front -- even though each of the three remaining films under discussion takes away what I would consider to be the most potent image of the short story in question. Tom McLoughlin's TV movie Sometimes They Come Back takes the bite out of the ending by substituting a nice happy mythology in which Everything Turns Out Alright, Ralph Singleton's Graveyard Shift doesn't really explore the possibilities of the story, and Stephen King's own Maximum Overdrive adds an explanation to the premise of 'Trucks' we would have been better off not having. And yet each is watchable in its own right -- the first is too generic for words, but is well made, the second keeps things simple and does them well (not to mention it looks great and has Brad Dourif) and the third... we'll let's just say I'm one of the minority who thinks King produced a pretty good movie, and we'll cover it in detail when we get to it.

Maybe the pressures of film-making are too great, and King's name too alluring, to ask anything more of the adaptations than being watchable, at least from these minor tales in big-budget hands. But, as I believe Stephen King has said himself, we can take heart in that the books are still right there on the shelf.


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