King's Highway pt. 24: The Dead Zone

Written during "a depressed state of mind," according to SK.
This is a quirky little novel. I don't use quirky condescendingly. It's just a bit odd, both in how it stands out from King's other books and how the plot unfolds from other would-you-kill-Hitler narratives.

Why doesn't anyone ever go back in time to kill Stalin? I've always wondered that.
The epilogue ("Notes from the Dead Zone") and the way the sections fit together/ unfold... the character arc of "John Smith..." It almost seems like a strange version of Don DeLilo's Libra, but I'm sure that's not what he was going for. Interesting, though, that the two ideas, there, kind of converge later in 11/23/61, but I'll get to that way later.

(I'll get to my Castle Rock thoughts, later, too, and the lasting impact of Frank Dodd et al. when I see the exits for The Dark Half and Needful Things.)

I was reminded both of Duma Key and of On Writing, both which came much later in King's career, of course. But the accident and physical recovery section of TDZ brought to mind the similar section in OW, and the first two acts of TDZ brought DK to mind: accident, severed relationship, psychic ability, used on serial killer, and ... then the two novels diverge, but you see what I mean.

If you haven't read it or seen the movie or the tv show, you're probably still familiar with the essential elements of the story. Like a lot of King's work from this period (Cujo, Christine, Pennywise, The Stand, Redrum, Carrie White Burns in Hell, etc.) the core ideas have taken enduring root in the collective unconsciousness.

Once it's on The Simpsons, it can be considered as belonging to all of us.
King has said that he likes the movie better, and I agree. The changes in the material that the conversion process necessitate definitely work to the story's advantage. The relationship between Sarah and John is more romantically-doomed as it stands in the film, as is the undoing-of-and-apocalyptic-visions-pertaining-to-Stillson scene(s). I think the book is good, don't get me wrong. I just like the way the film handles the elements better.

I suppose it's not that uncommon a practice, but I like how the same font design is used for both the book and the international markets for the film.

That tunnel by the way - which I remember as the main picture that ran with the Fangoria article I read (it might have been Starlog, but that seems wrong - I don't remember clearly) at the time it came out - is called Screaming Tunnel:

Creepy first date...! Creepy any date, maybe.
There's a good review of the film here. Simply put, it's a great film. I don't think "masterpiece" would be unfairly applied. It always seems to be the undiscovered Cronenberg film or King-adaptation film for a lot of people. I don't know why that is. Christopher Walken and David Cronenberg are certainly well known enough. Yet it rarely pops up as the number one King adaptation, or on a short list of Cronenberg's best. (Or, hell, best of the 80s, for that matter.)

This title design is just such a treat. What a way to set the mood. If you haven't watched the movie in awhile, watch those credits again; hell, if you haven't seen the movie at all, watch it, too. It works as a trailer, granted a murky one. The score by Michael Kamen is haunting and used to great effect, particularly the music cues for Sarah.

And of course there's this:

I grew up watching The Dead Zone and even as I discovered the rest of both his and Cronenberg's catalogs, Walken's portrayal of Johnny Smith has remained a Katahdin among Appalachians.

Odd fact I came across while googling for this entry: Bill Murray was considered for the role before Walken.

Martin Sheen's portrayal of Greg Stillson is great, as well. Another role (like Firestarter) where it's fun to think of this as some bizarro previous-work-experience on President Bartlett's cv.
I did enjoy the evolution of Stillson's career in the novel, as well as the friendlier relationship he had with Chuck's family, both of which are changed considerably for the film.

I'm always amused when we cut to a scene where the President has his finger on the button vs. a boardroom in the middle of the night with a bunch of bankers flown in straight out of the movie Margin Call... 

The wolf is loose...
Sheriff Bannerman is played here by Evan Drake from Cheers aka Viper from Top Gun (like he'd be Viper from anything else) aka Tom Preston from The Devil's Rain:

Bannerman pops up or is referenced in several of the Castle Rock stories. Not to mention the Dead Zone tv show, where he's combined with Walt Hazlett and George Bannerman to create Walt Bannerman. Whew. Anyway. Cujo eats him, eventually. So it goes.

Chuck's Dad, Roger, is played by Anthony Zerbe aka that-one-guy-from-Insurrection, not to mention

The Omega Man:
Which, now that I think about it...
is another film where a cult leader must be put down with a rifle via heroic self-sacrifice. (And look at that outfit! Not to make this a review of The Omega Man, but man, that movie.)
Two quick words on the Frank Dodd serial killer sequence: 1) my friend and I have the same lingering-audio-OCD-ness from this film. Anytime we see a gazebo, we say, either out loud or in our heads, "gaa-zee-booh." Try it - you may never stop. And b) now that I think about it, I think it was Fangoria...

and not Starlog. The twitching in the tub was a real fine touch for me. It made the difference to me in the 6th grade and still does today.
As for the tv show, I know many people who enjoy it. I watched the first two episodes to see how they'd handle the origin story and the Frank Dodd bit. I can see it being a fun show. I know they deal with the Stillson stuff as an ongoing subplot. Characters are added or, as aforementioned, fused. I prefer the way the film handles the material, so some of those changes are hard to roll with. But, what I saw wasn't bad, just not my thing.

One thing I noticed in there, though - the fictional 3rd district of New Hampshire was changed to the 2nd district of Maine. Which is an actual district. This district encompasses (I think) the fictional towns of both Derry and Castle Rock.

Has King ever introduced a congressional character from that district? There could be a whole new novel in that. I hope the idea has occurred to him.

I guess not every adaptation keeps the font design.


  1. I feel the need to correct an error: in the movie, Sheriff Bannerman is not played by Viper from "Top Gun," but by Captain Dallas from "Alien." Supposedly, these guys are both named Tom Skerritt.

    On the subject of the television series: if you were only lukewarm on the first couple of episodes, then do yourself a favor and don't watch any more of it, ever. I liked season one a lot, and season two was also fairly good, but after that, things go downhill rapidly. There is one episode -- I kid you not, a Christmas episode (titled, unbelievably, "A Very Dead Zone Christmas") -- that revolves around Johnny using his psychic powers to find his son a video game he wants for Christmas.

    Many of the same people are now making "Haven," which explains a lot about that mediocre show.

    1. A Very Dead Zone Christmas! That's... damn. That almost sounds like a serious attempt at the SNL skit Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.


      "You're eating a bag of pistachios... you'll find that one is very difficult to open..."

      It seems like it could be a fun show. And I'm not opposed to an ongoing show based on any of King's works, in theory even when the changes are substantial. Most of them would have to be to make it an ongoing series, I imagine. If American Horror Story was used as a template, The Shining could work - it might not necessarily work for ME, I just mean, I could see it translating to a successful show. If, like here with TDZ, you put off the ending for awhile, and fuse some characters/ change things around.

      Yeah I tried Haven but wasn't too jazzed on it, either.

      Dallas, too, certainly. I mercifully left Johnny Marinville off the list.

    2. When the show was good, it was damn good. The problem was that the main producer, Michael Piller, died after the first season, and the show was taken over by considerably less-talented people. I gave up watching after the fourth season or so; eventually, I'm going to rewatch the whole thing so I can post an extensive episode guide, and I positively dread doing it.

      In theory, though, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea. Shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" prove that long-form television is, in many ways, superior to theatrically-released movies. I hope that eventually, this is where King novels end up being adapted, because they are excellent fits.

    3. Yeah, I also enjoyed the TV show quite a bit (never saw the whole movie or read the book), and the first couple of seasons were definitely better than the rest. The rest weren't that bad, in my opinion, but they didn't hold my interest much and I eventually stopped watching. It's one of the few things in which I found Anthony Michael Hall tolerable, but he definitely looks older than his years.

    4. Jeff, I was going to type " oh man, you HAVE to see the movie," then some of your comments to other things came to mind, and thought, meh, you'd hate it, lol. But for what it's worth, it is one of my all-time favorites. But it's somber and the main character dies and all. (Armageddon is prevented because of it, of course.)

    5. Bryant - absolutely re: long-form storytelling as adaptation of King's stuff. If A Song of Ice and Fire can be such a successful show for HBO, I can't see why The Dark Tower wouldn't.

      Or practically any of his work, to be honest. I never would have picked, say, The Dead Zone, for an ongoing show, but its successful transition opens the gates for many other takes. (Not too wide, naturally - don't want to give any hack-producers/showrunners out there any ideas above their pay grade...!)

      While I certainly understand the "oh great now I have to do this damn show start to finish"ness of what you say, the upside for me is if you ever do that Dead Zone series, I can then cherry-pick the eps I want to watch, so! maybe sooner or later.

  2. By the way, just came across this essay on The Dead Zone - a scholarly analysis, first published in Tony Magistrale's The Films of Stephen King:


    Haven't read it yet, but "Reaganomics, Cocaine, and Race: David Cronenberg's Off-Kilter America and The Dead Zone" certainly seems all-inclusive. I saw little of cocaine, reagonomics, or race in it, to be honest, but I'm willing to hear out the argument.

    1. Okay, just read it. Or the first few pages, anyway. Nah. Unconvincing. First off, the allusions to Sarah's "wicked cocaine use" are clearly jokes/ banter and not meant to indicate she actually uses cocaine. (I'd say it's unlikely, at least, and clearly-not-the-case, at most.) Secondly, once anything gets into "normative hetero determination" discussion, it usually means an academic is disappearing up his/her own aperture and far afield of the story in question.

      I'd like to check out that book just the same, but I'd probably just get annoyed.

    2. Sounds like an annoying essay to me. I've read some of Magistrale's stuff, but I don't remember it well at all.

      I will say that a lot of what powers the novel is the shock Johnny feels at waking up in a world that, for lack of a better phrase, has moved on politically. There is certainly no reason why the movie couldn't hold meanings like those, but as far as I can recall it simply doesn't; the movie focuses mostly on the personal implications of Johnny's second sight. Granted, it's been a few years since I watched it last, so maybe I'm just not remembering it well.