King's Highway pt. 16: Dreamcatcher

As always, there be spoilers ahead; turn back now if such things offend thee.

I saw this trailer before X2 in the theater, if memory serves.

I remember thinking Good lord, that looks a mess... is that one movie or a dozen movies smashed into one? 

Both the book and the film (though perhaps more the film) provoke wildly divergent reactions. The garden variety reaction is something like this (and man, do I disagree with just about every word in that, but it's a fair example of the general consensus), but there is also this. I don't necessarily agree with that one, either, but just included it to show the other side of the Dreamcatcher coin in internet-land.

As evidenced by this, as well, which I adore.
The film must have seemed like a slam dunk on paper. Best-selling Stephen King novel? Lawrence Kasdan? (Despite Grand Canyon, he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, right? Wrong. The failure of this film led to this gap in Kasdan's career. He's lamented it a few times in interviews, which is probably why we don't get a director's commentary on the DVD.) William Goldman? Writer extraordinaire and veteran of other successful King adaptations like Misery and Hearts in Atlantis? And this cast?

"How could we go wrong?" harrumphed the Hollywood fat-cats, who financed this to the tune of 65 million:

How? Two words: Shit Weasel. A lot easier to deal with on the page, and for some it was a shit-weasel too far. The original title of this was Cancer, which Tabitha King wisely talked him out of. I think Dreamcatcher works great - mysterious, apt for the material/ subtext - but I almost wish it was just called Shit Weasel. 
Also in the "How" department... Donnie Wahlberg does a good job, actually, but I'm just saying. Maybe if David Cronenberg directed this, it'd have struck the right tones, but tender scenes of childhood juxtaposed to attack helicopters machine-gunning a field of CGI Gray Aliens/ explosions? And suddenly Duddits is Donnie Wahlberg? With light coming out of his mouth?
I actually threw out a few paragraphs of my review once I came out across this. No point summarizing/ analyzing a movie that has been so hilariously skewered elsewhere; I can only say "Chapeau." Seek thee elsewhere for anything but personal impressions from here on out; the AV Club beat me to/ bested me re: any jokes.
Far be it for me to criticize a luminary like William Goldman, but transcription-wise, the film stumbles right out of the gate by compartmentalizing sequences of the novel that only make sense in the third act, reading-wise. Specifically, 1) Duddits-as-realized-dreamcatcher; I mean, they toast him as "their dreamcatcher" in the beginning of the film (even in the freaking trailer), whereas it's an important realization for Henry and Jonesy in the book, and a well-paced one at that. 2) Mr. Gray's possession doesn't come across as intriguingly onscreen, nor does the way he disposes of Pete. (In the book, Mr. Gray manipulates the byrus growing in Pete; in the movie, he turns into a CGI Venus Flytrap and chomps him in two. So, Jonesy's body can now change shape?) 3) The child actors don't do a bad job, but this is sure no Stand By Me. 4) Jonesy's Memory Warehouse is a not-unclever sequence in the film but it nonetheless comes across as too-on-the-nose foreshadowing:

Feel free to skip over the first minute or so; I couldn't find a clip that didn't have the guys at the beginning BS-ing. Roger Ebert singled this clip out as his favorite part of the movie... but also added that he hadn't read the book.

Well, sure, Roger, it's a cool sequence; it can't help but make you think of the ways you store and re-sequence your own memories, and it's a pleasure to watch. But, Jonesy's experiences in the inner sanctum of his memory warehouse (not to mention the reason why he is the successful exception when it comes to being possessed) come across so much more elegantly and "organically" in the novel. (I know "organic" is one of those BS words, these days, but there it is.) Here, it's just another sequence that feels at odds with the sequences around it. Loses its impact as just an info-dump to be exploited later by Mister Gray.

Ahh, Mister Gray.

Jonesy 1: Aren't you the fella whose head exploded back at the Hole in the Wall?
Jonesy 2: Damian Lewis deserves props for his performance, but as mentioned above, Goldman/ Kasdan should have approached his possession much differently. Comes across, again, much better in the reading of it.
One change I did like, tho, (and it's a big one, from the novel to screen) was making Duddits into one of Mister Gray's own for the climax. This alteration gets a lot of "bad press" on the Stephen King Forum for that, but meh. While the emotional impact of the character is far greater in the book (I, for one, cried almost every time Duddits appears in the story), this altered-resolution to Duddits's character arc makes sense to me. Like The Langoliers, perhaps the rest of the adaptation suffers from too rigid a faithfulness to the source material without accurately translating its "vibe," but here, specifically, I'm glad the film charted its own course.

Duddits sees the line. Ooby-Ooby-Doo, where-are-oo? We gah sum urk oo-do-now.
King wrote in On Writing about how critics never talk about the language in his books (paraphrasing). It's a shame, as he invests as much as any author noted-for-such in the language. To that end, I assembled some phrases I really liked in the novel and mashed them up. I tried different combinations of the sentences and my favorite combination is below.

(This may not be to everyone's liking, so my feelings won't be hurt if you skip over this part.)

Change will come upon them sudden and unannounced, as it always does with children of this age; if change needed permission from junior-high students, it would cease to exist.
There is no darkness, not this time; for better or for worse, arc-sodiums have been installed on Memory Lane. But the film is confused, as if the editor took a few too many drinks for lunch and forgot just how the story was supposed to go. 
Jonesy's in the hospital with Mister Gray.

Mister Gray is the pain in my brain.
Then he stepped out into the cold.
"Time slowed and reality bent; on and on the eggman went."

Henry believed that all children were presented with self-defining moments in early adolescence, and that children in groups were apt to respond more decisively than children alone. Often they behaved badly, answering distress with cruelty.

Henry and his friends had behaved well, for whatever reason. It meant no more than anything else in the end, but it did not hurt to remember... that once, you had confounded the odds and behaved decently.
Our wickedest motions, in a cosmic sense, come down to no more than counting someone's crib, pegging it backward, then playing dumb about it.
Henry was crying again. "So long, Beav," he said. 
"Love you man and that's straight from the heart."

King writes in the afterward that he wrote all 620 pages of this with just a fountain pen and that "to write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven't been for years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored." Amen.

It shows. a) in the above quoted bits, b) in The Beav's dialogue ie. Fuck Me Freddy and Jesus Christ Bananas and He's bald like Telly What's-his-fuck and all of his mantra-like expressions, c) in the military jargon, with its Ripleys and Blue Boys. Along the lines of "c," I like this section:

"Is she a cannibal, Freddy? The person we leave in charge here has got to be a cannibal."
"She eats em raw with slaw, boss."

I should mention the Kurtz aka "Boss," above, is played by Morgan Freeman in the movie.
"Okay," Kurtz said. "Because this is going to be dirty. I need two Ripley Positives, hopefully Blue Boy guys... Imperial Valley is now a search-and-destroy mission..."The firelight painted Kurtz's brain with byrus, turned his eyes into weasel eyes. "We're going to hunt down Owen Underhill and teach him to love the Lord."

But language or no, this is a novel about a group of boys who do the right thing instead of the cruel thing, and the effect it has on their life. That it incorporates shit-weasels, alien possession, UFOs and Grays, suicide, Maine, and drinking too much is par for the SK course. Maybe I'm just getting too used to walking the links. But part of its power of the whole thing lies in the Lord of the Flies like reality of children in groups, particularly boys. That we all have a Duddits/ dreamcatcher and that we all need that to not turn down the wrong roads makes reality/ safety seem so fragile. And all the more important.

To sum-up, the movie is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. It's just one of those like John Carter or Ang Lee's Hulk where people seize upon it as the ultimate example of terrible-ness and never give it up. It's no masterpiece, but I can think literally of thousands less imaginative. (That goes for Hulk and John Carter, as well) And the performances aren't bad. But let's not kid ourselves - it's a mess. And as an adaptation of the book, it's not very successful.

The book is a deeply personal work with some wonderful language, wild twists and turns, and a lot of heart. The adventures of Duddits and the gang as kids are both heartbreaking and inspiring. And they ring true even when you might not want them to. Good stuff. I referred to Stand by Me, above, but the parallel here would definitely be It. (Right down to the setting in Derry as well as references to "all those kids who keep disappearing" and some graffiti: Pennywise Lives.)

It will likely be one of the last blogs of this series, so we won't get to it for awhile. (The world gasps and with trembling hands updates its calendars...)
It may lose a little steam in the last 200 pages. Which may have been why Goldman decided to condense the interstate chase into a mano-y-mano helicopter showdown between Morgan Freeman and Damian Lewis... for the record, this is a condensation that doesn't work for me. (Though it fits the lunacy of the film enough where I laughed and went along with it.) And the very end of the film is a bit like a door slammed in your face; the book has an epilogue and some actual denouement.

One last thing - the book deals with the wider implications of an alien invasion. (A Presidential address, the reality of citizens with lawyers and families getting corralled and "disappeared," the decades-long UFO phenomenon, and some quarantine-and-recovery for Henry and Jonesy after the whole experience) The movie does not. A huge wasted opportunity, if you ask me.

P.s. Very disappointed with internet-land for not picking up more on the Red Weed allusions. It's only War of the Worlds, people! Google searches for "red weed War of the Worlds" do not inspire confidence that enough people made the connection.


  1. That's a nice defense of a movie that probably does receive a lot of hate than it deserves. Some of that hate comes from me, because I really do hate the movie, and the things that I hate about it totally overpower the things I don't hate.

    Most of the acting is good, and the look of the movie is generally nice, and I also like the music by James Newton Howard. I hated every second of Duddits, though, although to be fair, I also hate Duddits in the novel.

    Mainly what I remember about seeing the movie is that it made me realize that Morgan Freeman WAS capable of giving a poor performance, and that's something that seemed almost impossible at the time.

    I'm with you on the subject of "John Carter" and Ang Lee's "Hulk," though. I like "Hulk" a lot, and I flat-out loved "John Carter."

  2. I hear you - on one hand, it's a terrible film. On the other, it's still a terrible film, just there are plenty more that are terrible for more important reasons, if that makes any sense. I do like the novel and Duddits quite a bit, so I'm more forgiving, there, but the way it all comes across in the movie... whew.