King's Highway pt. 65: Needful Things

Needful Things was published in 1991 and takes place after the events of The Dark Half and the underrated "Sun Dog" from Four Past Midnight.  

Well, after all Castle Rock events, I guess, as printed right on the cover.
THE PLOT: This is a contemporary version of the "evil peddler" fairy tale: a mysterious stranger (Leland Gaunt) arrives in a small town (Castle Rock) and bewitches the locals with irresistible wares and a sinister clairvoyance. Gaunt is an ancient not-quite-human (shades of Barlow or Pennywise) who offers Castle Rock's large cast-of-characters "their heart's desire" in exchange for a small fee and pranks/ favors to-be-redeemed. Sheriff Alan Pangborn, last seen in The Dark Half, struggles with the off-screen death of his wife and one of his children, as well as his new romance with Polly Chalmers, who suffers from debilitating arthritis. As Gaunt sows discord, Alan is maneuvered out of his way, but he eventually puts the pieces together and (as the town explodes around them) destroys the valise where Gaunt stores the souls for which he has "fairly traded." This frees the town from his influence, and Gaunt, revealed as the inhuman creature he is, disappears on a ghostly "hellwagon" into the night. The survivors regroup, and Alan, freed from the painful memories/ guilt that plagued him as much as Polly's arthritis plagued her, plans a move out of town/ a change-of-career.

In the epilogue, (shades of Randall Flagg in The Stand) Gaunt sets up shop elsewhere: Junction City, Iowa, mistakenly-named as "Paradise Falls" at the wiki, ready to stir up his hornet's nest anew. Sam Peebles, of "The Library Policeman," is mentioned in this epilogue.

Leland Gaunt's modus-operandi reminded me of Flagg's, throughout. As mentioned in the review at You're Entitled to My Opinion, "As King chugged along toward the end of the Dark Tower series, I was certain that Leland Gaunt was going to turn up somewhere. He had all the makings of a tower minion. Alas, he never appeared. The worlds of Castle Rock and the Dark Tower did not meet." That's too bad. I agree - seems like a natural meet-up to me, as well. I'm sure that somewhere, Gaunt, Elvid from "Fair Extension," and Walter from The Gunslinger et al. are peddling their wares out of the same shop. That would be an ensemble sitcom I'd watch, week in, week out.

Interestingly, when Gaunt is destroyed, Alan is filled with "a great and incoherent ecstasy" and thinks "The white! The coming of the white!" That's a fairly-overt Dark Tower reference that is to my knowledge never followed-up on in any subsequent work.

I suspect that Gaunt and his shop are a tribute of sorts to Mr. Dark from Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I've never seen that mentioned anywhere, either. Quite a similar set-up, though, and King's a big Bradbury fan, so, stands to reason.
 King later said of this:

"To me, [Needful Things] was a hilarious concept. And the way that it played out was funny, in a black-comedy way. It really satirized that American idea that it's good to have everything that you want. I don't think it is."

He elaborates on pg. 458: "Because in America, you could have anything you wanted, just as long as you could pay for it. If you couldn't pay, or refused to pay, you would remain needful forever."

"Any customer can have a car painted any color you want as long as it's black" - Henry Ford
Polly, when she helps Alan unravel his own Gaunt-given fantasy, says "What's the one thing in all the world, the one useless thing, that you want so badly that you get it mixed up with needing it?" (Ironic, considering the one thing Polly wants is certainly not useless, i.e. an end to her arthritic pain; perhaps this is why she, of all the characters who purchase something in Gaunt's shop, is the only one who has to slay a magical spider. (Which powers the arthritis-numbing magical necklace Gaunt sells her.) Raising the number of magical spiders in King's work to at least three.)

As an examination of America's greed/ the price for a man's soul, etc., it's not bad, but as an example of one of King's "town under siege" plots (its most obvious counterparts being Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome) it holds its weight against any of them.

It's not perfect. The cross cutting in the final act is perhaps drawn out too much, though it is certainly satisfying to see everyone's threads intersect so seamlessly alongside the town's destruction. (Raising the number of towns destroyed at-novel's-end in King's work to at least four.) Sections of it could be cut  (like the Catholic vs. Protestant sub-plot, although I obviously see its relevance to the Devil Selling His Bewitching Wares theme), and I wouldn't miss them. But all in all, I found this compulsively readable; I missed it when I wasn't reading it.

Of course, the same material can produce wildly different responses. This was skewered in the New York Times upon its publication, which was at that time the default response from critics with a pretense to "highbrow" gatekeeping. Although the title of that review ("And Us Without Our Spoons") did provoke a chuckle, it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the approach/ analysis therein to this CharnelHouse review, which displays far more familiarity (and accuracy) with King's themes and motifs. Joe Queenan, the author of the NYT review and erstwhile "acerbic personality" on Real Time with Bill Maher and Hardball with Chris Matthews, writes about an idea of King and King's work; he exploits the novel only as a delivery mechanism for then-"correct" conclusions. (i.e. King is adolescent, King's characters are not "my sort of people," King's descriptions are just pop-cultural-references, etc.) For a critic like Queenan, King is Gaunt, and his Constant Reader is Cletus from The Simpsons, easily duped into buying his snake oil. Kevin Quigley, however, writes about the actual novel, and therein lies the difference. He also takes the time to position it vis-a-vis King's other work:

"Mental illness, class and gender inequality, pedophilia, and suicide have served to underscore the overarching supernatural horrors in King's novels before and after. That all surface in this novel makes Needful Things not only a terminal point for one of King's favorite fictional places, but also a hub for his favorite dark fascinations."

That, for my money, is the right way to look at it. "The Last Castle Rock Story" is the "Endsville" George Stark referenced (in The Dark Half, throughout, and in Needful Things, in one brief dream of Alan's), the terminal destination of one line and where Constant Reader connects to all points beyond.

A few quick things before I get to the movie:

- An "easter egg" for us "Sun Dog" fans: Ace Merrill, nephew of Pop Merrill, deceased, and last seen in "The Body" terrorizing Gordo and the gang, is taunted by Leland upon their first meeting with the verbal tic given to Pop in "Sun Dog," i.e. "what I mean to say is..." This made me smile. Ace reacts to it but doesn't identify it. Easy to miss but a pleasure to notice.

- Along those lines, Wilma Jerzyck is described as having "all the charm of a snowshovel." In parsing the text only for descriptions that fit his preconceived conclusion that King solely describes things via movies or tv or advertised products, Queenan missed this, and a few dozen others that might challenge that perception.

- King later said of this: "The reviewers called it an unsuccessful horror novel, even though I had assumed everybody would see it as a satire. Over the years I’ve come to think that, well, maybe it just wasn’t a very good book." Sorry to disagree, Steve, but I really enjoyed it.

As for the movie...
Roger Ebert described the movie as having only "one note, which it plays over and over, sort of a Satanic water torture. It's not funny and it's not scary and it's all sort of depressing." I don't quite agree, but I can see his point. As a compartmentalization of events from the novel, it's not bad, but perhaps someone with no familiarity with the original text might find certain things baffling or certain tensions unjustified.

It should be noted that two versions of this film exist, as described comprehensively over at movie-censorship. The version with the extended footage (an hour's worth) is unavailable on DVD, so that side-by-side comparison is very illuminating for those of us who haven't seen it. I've seen the theatrical version, though. How does it hold up vis-a-vis the book?

Not bad, actually. The performances are good, and the locations are great. Many things are changed from the novel, as per usual with these things, but I'll only address a couple of them. The score by Patrick Doyle sometimes doesn't match the mood of the events on-screen, but it's always powerful. Not quite John Williams, but definitely a serious symphonic effort. And it mixes in well-known pieces like Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to good effect.

Like pictures? Here we go:

Directed by Charlton Heston's kid, Fraser, which gives rise to an interesting situation. Fraser Heston played infant Moses in Dad's The Ten Commandments, and Max Von Sydow played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Ergo, in Needful Things, Moses directs Jesus as The Devil.
Ed Harris plays Pangborn, and he's fine, if given to some eruptions of anger that are more Ed-Harris-like than Alan-Pangborn. Likewise, he's given a very Ed-Harris-esque backstory that does not appear in the novel.
Michael Rooker's portryal of Pangborn in The Dark Half is probably closer to how he is characterized in either book. But the change isn't too distracting.
Alan and Leland meet face-to-face near the film's beginning. This change I found less successful, as it's fairly pivotal to how things unfold in the book that they don't meet until well into the final act.
Bonnie Bedelia plays Polly, whose backstory re: her daughter's death is excised from the film, and she is no longer the proprietor of You Sew and Sew but instead of the diner that Nan runs in the book.
Her relationship with Leland is sexualized, somewhat. Leland has the hots for her, here, whereas in the book, he's only interested in corrupting her soul.
She's sexed-up even more in the extended version, with more than a few gratuitous close-ups of her necklace.
Ace Merrill (played by Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me) plays a pretty big part in the book, but he's not in the movie. Too bad.
The character of Brian Rusk is rearranged perhaps the most unkindly.
He remains Leland's first victim, but whereas his "needful thing" in the book is Sandy Koufax's 1956 baseball card:

in the film, it's Mickey Mantle.

Necessitating the placement of this unholy relic upon his head.
There's actually a good reason for this, though, as King explains:

"...holy shit, was Sandy Koufax mad at me. Especially since the last thing the kid says [in the book] is “Sandy Koufax sucks,” and then, pow! He blows his head off. Koufax said that he had tried to be a role model for youth throughout his entire career as a pitcher, and that he was very angry about playing a part in a child suicide.

I tried to explain that the boy doesn’t mean Sandy Koufax sucks, he means that Leland Gaunt and the shop and this whole business sucks. See, this is the only way that the character can say that this whole business of buying things and selling your soul is wrong. Koufax didn’t understand. When they made the movie, they changed it to Mickey Mantle. Mantle didn’t give a shit. He thought it was funny."

In the movie, Pangborn is able to intervene, and Brian survives his suicide attempt. Understandably, I guess. In the book, Brian's younger brother witnesses it, and Pangborn is put on Gaunt's trail (almost too late) after questioning him. Since the younger brother doesn't appear in the movie, and since onscreen-kid's-suicides are rarely cinematic selling points, it makes sense.
Speaking of the Rusks, Brian's mother Cora appears, unidentified, only in two scenes of the trimmed version: the above, and

here, after the Red Hour has struck.
In the extended version, her part is considerably larger, though her needful thing is changed from a pair of the King's sunglasses to a bust of Elvis.
Making all the imagined sex she has with it a bit more literal and way creepier. But why does she have both?
When Father Meehan is introduced, he reads aloud the poison-pen letter his church receives re: Casino Night, and I kept wondering from where I recognized his voice. A quick imdb search supplied the answer:
It's Colonel Hargrove from the Medal of Honor series! I spent many a night in 2001 (and again in 2004, when Frontline came out) listening to this guy introduce the missions. Bad news, Paterson, you're going behind enemy lines... again.
The film lives or dies on the performances of its male leads, though. Harris, as we've discussed, is fine.

As is the late JT Walsh as Head Selectman Danforth "Buster" Keaton.
But this is Max Von Sydow's movie.

Although Gaunt comes across as less-supernatural in the movie, Von Sydow's performance is pitch-perfect.
At the film's end, Gaunt mentions to Alan that he will see Alan's-and-Polly's grandson in Jakarta, circa 2050. This doesn't exist in the novel, but I like it. (Actually, his send-off in the novel might be a little too heavy on the ALL-CAPS DEVIL-WE-CAST-YOU-OUT!! vibe, so I might prefer the movie's, where he drives off, smug as a bug in a rug.)
I just wanted to take a moment before signing off to recognize the longevity and integrity of Max Von Sydow's career.

He rose to prominence in Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal,
achieved mainstream American success in Friedkin's The Exorcist,
brought the main character of one of my favorite books to life in Steppenwolf,
imprinted himself on every boy my age's imagination as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (here seen with Ornella Muti)
and of course is still active today (here in Scorsese's Shutter Island.)
His being cast as Leland Gaunt is a real treat. Definitely one of the iconic King-film performances.

NEXT: Probably Dolores Claiborne. See you then.


  1. I'm looking forward to re-reading the novel big-time; it's one of the next four or five on my list (although since I made literally zero progress on that list in 2012, it might yet be years and years before it happens unless I can manage to get my life better organized vis-a-vis reading time).

    The movie is an underrated one, in my opinion. Not a great flick, by any means, but I definitely think it's a good one, or least an entertaining one. The casting and performances alone make it worthwhile, for me; and I'm a big fan of Patrick Doyle's score, which I own on CD and give a spin around Halloween every year.

    A couple of notes:

    (1) I am all for any excuse to have mid-nineties Bonnie Bedelia baring her cleavage. Apologies to all who are offended by base instincts such as those, but I try to make up for having them by merely being honest about the fact that I have them. So we're all on the same page and stuff. She's not AS hot in this movie as she was in "Salem's Lot," but it's close.

    (2) I don't feel like Gaunt has any sexual interest in her, particularly. Instead, I think he is causing sexual desire within her, and then exploiting it to get what he really wants. Similar to how many rapes are about domination moreso than actual sexual fulfillment. I say this being, happily, no expert on the subject of rape.

    (3) I have seen the extended version of the movie. It is a crime that that version is not more widely available. It improves upon the shorter cut in numerous ways. I've actually got a copy of it, which I taped off of TNT (or TBS) back in the day. I had someone transfer it to DVD for me, but the audio is badly out of sync and the tracking on the original VHS tape that I recorded it onto was also horribly off. So it's viewable in only the most technical sense of the word. Still, I'm very pleased to have it; if I didn't have it at all, it would haunt me. As is, I still try to find a pirated copy once a month or so. No luck yet. That sucker seems thoroughly buried.

    1. I've had similar trouble landing a copy/ viewing. I wonder why? You'd figure a flick by Charlton Heston's kid starring Max Von Sydow, Ed Harris, and a cleavage-baring Bonnie Bedelia would be more widely available, for those facts alone.

      You're probably right on Gaunt's motivation. I don't recall their kissing in the novel is all I meant.

  2. Neddful Things was,in a sense, my first King novel and the first time I ever heard the author's voice in the form of the Neddful audiobook. Since then, it's King's voice I hear narrating his books in my head, if not voicing all the characters.

    To be fair, I think the novel has promise that's never quite fulfilled. There are a few scenes in the final stretch that just go nowhere to me, and I felt the destruction of the Rock should have been gone into more detail, showing the whole town being damn near uprooted. I think this is because King might have lost the narrative thread somewhere along the way. For that reason I tend to like the movie's ending over the book also, though I wouldn't mind seeing remade as a TV miniseries. Just two caveats, expand and tighten the ending a bit, make it more grand in other words. And finally, either Sutherland comes back to play Ace Merril or it just doesn't work for me.

    Von Sydow's closing speech actually sums up my own opinion about both book and film nicely, and like he says, "This is not my best work, not by a long shot...but, what the hell."

    Any chance we could get a rundown of the "uncut version", Bryant?


    1. I still have yet to listen to King reading one of his own works. What would you recommend?

      I agree - a mini-series (with Kiefer!) would be great for this.

      I have a feeling Bryant could do a pretty brisk business with the extended Needful as well as his full Golden Years collection. "Of course I'll let you watch them... if you'll just perform one little prank..."

    2. Your in luck on when it comes to King narrating his own work. I'd recommend his narration of both the gunslinger and drawing of the three. And yes, he actually does the voice of Flagg...Although I always picture him as more somber and low key in the scene, oh well. His narration of Drawing brings the characters and above all the humor of that book to life, seriously, you need to hear him, it's a goshdamn riot!


      Quiet you fool! Don't give Bryant any ideas.


    3. If I had a way of easily doing so without risking detection by the fuzz, I'd gladly share the long version of the movie with any and all who wanted it. Same goes for Golden Years.

      Sadly, I lack the means to do so.

      Chris, thanks for the request on reviewing the extended cut. It is most definitely on my docket, for the inevitable cornucopia of posts that will happen when I finally get around to rereading the novel. Glad to know there's some interest!

      As for King audiobooks, you really can't go wrong with any of the ones he performed. If I had to recommend only one, I think I'd recommend "The Gunslinger." I'm biased, though, since that's one of my absolute favorite King books.

    4. Actually, having just listened to the "Needful Things" audiobook as read by King, I'd recommend that one to anyone. King is in fine form throughout, and on a few occasions shows himself to be a not-half-bad actor.

      I should also mention that the long-ago requested post comparing the original cut of the movie to the television cut is on its way; it's currently being composed, in fact.

  3. Ive seen the extended version of Needful Things and I have to tell you that it is superior to the abridged version. The abridged version feels too rushed while the pacing in the extended cut works much better. Overall, the extended cut is the preferable version but unfortunately it seems to be unavailable on DVD. If you ever get a chance to see, make sure you do!

    1. I've got it on tap - first rainy day comes my way...