Bait Taken: 5 of the Best Stephen King Adaptations Ever

There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.

It almost seems unkind — or maybe foolish — to take umbrage with the vaguely defined list of Stephen King adaptations recently published at New York magazine’s Vulture site. For starters, it’s obvious advertorial nonsense, released in conjunction with Spike’s needy attempt at cashing in on the lucrative market for genre-driven television. There’s also a woeful intellectual sloppiness to the endeavor, making it feel especially embarrassing to snap into the hook carrying this particular wad of pungent bait.

Even so, the damn quintet of pallid movie assessments is currently one of the top hits when King’s name is entered into Google. Chagrined, I find myself compelled to offer a corrective answer.

The Vulture-posted list tentatively offers that it covers “King adaptations that fall within the horror genre,” which strikes me as both needlessly reductive and a cheap attempt at avoiding some of the stronger cinematic renderings of the writer’s work, probably in part because they’re the titles everyone would expect. While strictly avoiding the entries in the other list (only one of which I’d be all that tempted to include anyway), here are five strong adaptations of King’s work, presented in no particular order.

shawshank

The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994). This is surely destined to go down in the popular consensus as the finest film to stem from a King work, even if it doesn’t quite deserve the level of unquestioned veneration bestowed upon it when it became the centerpiece of TNT’s “New Classics” promotional campaign. The prison drama is adapted and directed by Frank Darabont with consummate craftsmanship and boasts a Morgan Freeman performance of graceful understatement that he’s been Xeroxing into ghostly oblivion ever since.

stand-by-me

Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986). This story of childhood friends on a quest to see a dead body, on the other hand, still deserves any designations as the best film to ever include King’s name prominently in the credits. Drawing on reservoirs of empathy, Rob Reiner delivers a film that manages the tricky feat of being simultaneously nostalgic and truthful.

Dolores-Claiborne

Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1995). Released just a few months after The Shawshank Redemption, this seemed like the film that was going to lock in legitimacy for adaptations of King’s work, after years and years of big screen efforts that were dismal or worse.  Then critics shrugged, audiences rejected it, and the film faded almost entirely from the cultural memory. Prickly and bold, it deserves better. Anchored by a pair of fierce, deep performances — by Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh — Dolores Claiborne hostly grapples with the psychology of pain while also drenching the screen in bold visuals conjured up by director Taylor Hackford and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. It’s not perfect, but it pointed to an unfollowed route of treating King’s stories as if they are fully worthy of being spun into ambitious cinematic art.

pet

Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989). King’s novel arrived when I was still in middle school. It immediately become the book that all my peers raved about, thrilled by the illicit saunter into more adult horror that it provides. Though it was a major bestseller and just about every King book got dragged through the movie machine in those days, the bleakness of its story — in which a nuclear family discovers that maybe magical resurrection isn’t such a gift, after all — made it a tougher adaptation to crack than most. The resulting film is too messy to be called genuinely great, but it boasts a near-relentless tension, a strikingly good performance from Fred Gwynne, and spooky-good casting in the crucial role of Gage Creed. And as for the harshest elements of the film, director Mary Lambert doesn’t flinch.

the mist

The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007). And here again is Darabont, who’s regularly gone to the King section of his own personal library whenever he needed a bit of a career reset, doing pretty well by both himself and the author every time. The Twilight Zone-style tale follows a small group of people turning against one another while wracked by understandable duress when a thick fog populated by vicious monsters traps them in a small-town supermarket. It’s rock solid in its original iteration, but the black-and-white version — released as a DVD bonus — pushes toward the transcendent. Darabont was previously a dutifully faithful adaptor of King, but in The Mist he comes up with a drastically different ending that is starkly better. Even King knows it.

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Posted in Film

Beers I Have Known: Heater Allen Pils

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

helles

Dear Portland,

Back in the earliest years of the Beer City USA online voting competition, I saw you as a disliked rival to my modest little mountain town. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, which regularly took the top spot in the competition, much to, as we were made to understand, the chagrin of residents of Oregon’s most populous city.  At the time, I took some puffed up local pride in our small-ish city dominance of the major metropolis a couple thousand miles to the northwest, no matter how resolutely funky that metropolis was.

Now that I’ve spent a few days in your happy burg, with not only fine establishments within the city limits but a bevy of craft brewers whose wares rumble into local purveyors of adult beverages, I fully understand your agitation.

I’m still proud of Asheville and long for the beers made there, but I sincerely apologize for my prideful brattiness. Your beers are fantastic, from the first I drank — the Heater Allen Pils pictured above — to the cool, refreshing beverage that sits before me as I type my way through my airport wait.

Sincerely,

A Fan

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 31 – 29

31 antmusic

31. Adam and the Ants, “Antmusic”

“We name our music ‘antmusic’ to prevent classification and bracketing from other people,” Adam Ant told Tom Snyder when he appeared on Tomorrow to promote the 1980 album Kings of the Wild Frontier. “I don’t think that’s pretentious considering it’s taken four years to get the sound.” Besides the stretch of time identified by the singer, Adam and the Ants had gone through quite an ordeal on the way from their first to their second album, including the collapse of the band itself. Following a first flush of minor success — and some pigeonholing that clearly caused aggravation — with their debut album, Dirk Wears White Socks, Adam and the Ants recruited Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren to help shepherd their sophomore release to life. It didn’t exactly go well, at least from the band leader’s perspective. McLaren absconded with all of Ant’s bandmates, putting them in position behind Annabella Lwin to form Bow Wow Wow. Ant was left to rebuild his band from scratch, which did have the benefit of freeing him up to pursue a different, more brashly theatrical sound and image. “Antmusic,” released as the third single from the resulting album, Kings of the Wild Frontier, served as a calling card. It also became a major hit in the band’s U.K. homeland, peaking at #2. Although Ant never tired of claiming the British press that decried his vivid showmanship, he could also acknowledge — even while in the midst of it — that he cultivated and appreciated the cult of personality around him. “I think you have to be a bit of a narcissist to do any form of entertainment,” Ant said at the time. “It is an ego situation, and it can destroy you, like Hollywood people. With respect to kids imitating me, I’m flattered, because I’ve imitated people all my life. I bought a plastic Beatle wig when I was a tiny tot.”

 

30 why

30. The Cure, “Why Can’t I Be You?”

In proper gloomy goth fashion, Robert Smith was longing to be anyone other than himself. Although the lyrics of “Why Can’t I Be You?” suggest the song is loopy paean to being wildly smitten with another, the Cure’s lead singer says the inspiration came from a far more anxious situation. “I was in the middle of a tense discussion, and these people around the table were looking at me as if I was going to make some groundbreaking revelations,” explained Smith. “And I thought to myself, “Good God, why can’t I be elsewhere? Why isn’t someone else in my place?’ I would’ve traded with anyone. I would’ve preferred to be that guy leaning at the bar than myself.” Released as the first single from the Cure’s 1987 double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, “Why Can’t I Be You?” required a music video. By that time, the band had locked into a productive collaboration with director Tim Pope, who joyously upended the Cure’s reputation for shadow-strewn solemnity. The band members were adorned in goofy costumes — including, quite famously, a fluffy teddy bear outfit for Smith — and instructed to bound about the set with dance moves so awkward that they suggest a world in which choreography is an as-yet-undiscovered art. “I must admit I was quite drunk,” Smith recounted. `”When we talked about the video originally with Tim Pope, we said we wanted to do some choreographed dancing. He said we’d never be able to do it. So to disguise our ragged ability at dancing in any kind of formation, we decided to dress up. There was a good reason for it at the time, but nobody can really remember what it was.” For his part, Pope was ecstatic about the results. “The Cure dancing!” he cheered. “I can’t believe I’m seeing this. They’re finished.”

 

29 pink

29. The Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty in Pink”

The Psychedelic Furs song “Pretty in Pink” invariably calls to mind the image of young Molly Ringwald in a shapeless prom dress. But adhering to what Richard Butler originally had in mind when crafting the lyrics would have required the John Hughes-penned — and Howard Deutch-directed — film of the same name to wind up with a far more restrictive rating than its original PG-13. “The idea of the song was ‘Pretty In Pink’ as a metaphor for being naked,” Butler later noted. “The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she’s wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back. That was the idea of the song. And John Hughes, bless his late heart, took it completely literally and completely overrode the metaphor altogether!” It was evidently Ringwald who presented the song to Hughes in the first place, suggesting he use it as inspiration in crafting a screenplay for her. The raciness wasn’t the only element shaved off of the song when it made the journey from the the Psychedelic Furs album Talk Talk Talk, released in 1981, to the 1986 film that introduced the world to the teen love triangle suffered through by Andie Walsh, Blane McDonough, and Philip F. “Duckie” Dale. The powers that be felt the original recording was a little rough for a soundtrack that was hoped to duplicate the massive commercial success of the prior year’s collection of songs that backed up Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. “We re-recorded it for the film because they said there was some slightly out of tune guitar work on the original,” bassist Tim Butler said. “I could never figure it out, but that was the reasoning. Maybe the original sounded too ‘dense’ for a soundtrack.” While the new version didn’t enjoy the same enormous success as the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark offering on the same soundtrack, it did come within a hair of becoming the first U.S. Top 40 hit for the Psychedelic Furs. The second take on “Pretty in Pink” peaked at #41 on the Billboard chart.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Smart People

smartpeople

When I was reviewing films for a weekly radio show, I had to see practically everything that came through our modest little college town. In the few years after I had a diploma and no regular responsibilities for writing about the latest titles to grace the multiplex, I still saw nearly every major release that hit theaters. After that I was far more selectively, which sometimes leaves me wondering why I saw a particular film while it played in first-run theaters. I believe the outing that led directly into this review was because our household briefly — and occasionally to our unexpected benefit — decided we were going to follow Ellen Page anywhere.

Sometimes a film is filled with characters so consumed by their personal animosities that the film itself begins to feel angry, as if it will start barking complaints at the moviegoers about how they’re sitting too close or munching their popcorn too loudly. In Smart People Dennis Quaid’s literature professor character is angry about his deceased wife and any number of perceived slights from his academic institution, and his students are angry that he doesn’t remember their names. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an emergency room physician he encounters after a bad fall from the top of a chain link fence, and she’s angry about having to deal with him and other combative people. Ellen Page plays his daughter, angry that her S.A.T, preparation is disrupted by this medical emergency, and Ashton Holmes plays his son, who’s angry for no discernible reason. Perhaps its just some mood-based invocation of the “when in Rome” principle. The only one who regards the world with any degree of sympathy is the ne’er-do-well adopted brother played by Thomas Haden Church.

That relentless cynicism is okay by me as long as it’s accompanied by some inventive storytelling and depth of character. That’s where Smart People is really lacking. Mark Poirier’s script has a point of view, but little to express about it, and director Noam Murro films it with dutiful efficiency. There’s a grim outlook and a narrative destination point where the mandates of character development insist somewhat on the outlook lightening. The process of getting there is haphazard and poorly thought out. Characters make choices with no compelling drive to do so. You can reasonably puzzle out Page’s disgruntled exploration of the wilder parts of herself or Parker’s circling of Quaid as a love interest, but the film doesn’t provide much reason to believe in these developments. The film is barbed and clever, peppered with the intelligence that the title promises. It’s also rarely believable or built upon recognizable emotions, which makes it feel empty.

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One for Friday: The Replacements, “Portland”

mats portland

(via)

It was one of those Replacements shows. Towards the end of the band’s tour in support of the album Pleased to Meet Me, the Minneapolis quartet was booked into the Pine Street Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Regional heroes the Young Fresh Fellows opened the show. Surely, it was a hot ticket, or at least a warm one, just a little uncomfortable to the touch.

By this point in time — 1987, to be precise — the Replacements had plenty of people lining up to declare them the best rock band in the U.S. They also had a deserved reputation of self-sabotaging disasters, a crew of drunken miscreants who leveled the combativeness of the punk rock ethos most effectively at their own shared career. A showcase on live, national television? That opportunity can be blown to bits for sure. And Replacements fans swapped tales of concerts that collapsed in on themselves, all because the band members took mighty swings at the load-bearing walls.

This brings us back to Portland. The fateful night mentioned above has gone down in Replacements lore as one of their most reckless wrecks of a show, at least from the later years, when expectations of onstage professionalism ran a little higher. While it’s always difficult to separate the truth from the myth when it comes to Mats debacles, it supposedly began with our heroes hurling junk as the Young Fresh Fellows as they played the opening set. By the time the Replacements took the stage, they were reportedly weaving from drink and whatever other party favors had been laid out backstage. Starting their own set with a take on a Rolling Stones song, the Replacements launched into several other covers — some abandoned midstream — as the night wore on, a sure sign they were in the extended process of giving up. According to the posted set list, the last song of the night was “Gary’s Got a Boner.” Of course it was.

Although there were undoubtedly more ragged Replacements concert, the Portland show has loomed large. In addition to the reasons noted above, that’s surely because it’s one of the few rough evenings the band addressed directly, recording a song that bears the city’s name and closes with Paul Westerberg sedately saying, “Portland, we’re sorry.” Even if the Portland show didn’t really reach the level of earlier acts of entertainment combustion perpetrated by the Replacements, at least it was commemorating in song.

Listen or download –> The Replacements, “Portland”

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if “Portland” is in print in a physical format that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I lost track of all the various Replacements reissues and comps long ago. Regardless, I offer this not as an excuse to eschew commerce, but as encouragement to do so. It is a sample and an enticement, and shared under the concept of fair use. Still, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove the music file from my little corner of the digital world is asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Laughing Matters: Portlandia, “The Dream of the Nineties”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I can’t claim that I stuck through Portlandia through it’s entire run — including the pending final season — but I have tremendous affection for the comedy series co-stewarded by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Although I didn’t have intimate knowledge of the scruffy metropolitan area it satirized when the program launched, I recognized a generational identity within the comedy.

My swath of the American experience — largely forgotten about in the social energy around both the arrogant authority of the baby Boomers and the misplaced scorn heaped upon the millennials — was briefly known as “the slacker generation” before “generation X” took hold. I always thought the former designation was more telling. We were the ones who formulated the dream of the nineties. Like a lot of the music that Brownstein signed her name upon, I sometimes felt like this early Portlandia sketch was written just for me and my people.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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My Misspent Youth: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I must on occasion, let me preface what follows by conceding that I am about to abuse the word “youth” in the title of this feature. Stumptown, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth, debuted in 2009, well past the point that I could claim any dewy upon mine eyes. My mild justification for highlighting it under this regular banner is that the series — while hardly a throwback — strongly reminded me of the independent comics I read while in high school, during the initial boom of upstart publishers challenging the so-called Big Two and their near pathological insistence that only superhero adventures could sustain a monthly publishing schedule.

The more accurate justification is that I just wanted to write about Stumptown today. So here we go.

Stumptown 1

The series follows Dex Parios, a privavte investigator in Portland, Oregon. In the manner of countless pulp paperback gumshoes before, Dex is beset by rough-edged flaws. She has a gambling problem, a way of blundering into trouble, and a tendency to hit the bottle hard enough that it is inclined to hit back. Rucka, who’s earned plentiful praise for his female characters over the years, doesn’t write Dex as particular remarkable of tragic. She’s not some facile “strong female character,” in place to prove something about post-feminist feminism or to upend genre norms or anything like that. Instead, she is just a complex person made up of fascinating layers — so the stuff of fine fiction.

While the fundamentals of the character and the storyline — involving a missing young woman, a batch of shifty individuals, and, of course, money that must be followed — are often deployed to fill up a lean detective novel, Rucka isn’t just transporting a story suited for a different format over to the funny pages. He knows full well that he’s writing a comic, which opens him up to other storytelling tactics in terms of staging. In particular, he and Southworth demonstrate an impeccable sense of timing throughout, taking advantage of the static progression of panels to deliver wryly humorous moments.

Stumptown 2

In addition to the jointly impressive commitments to character and plot, Stumptown is notable for its setting. More specifically, in placing the action in Portland, Oregon — Rucka’s home base — the creators deliberately tried to avoid any sort of generic rendering of the Pacific Northwest city, which would be inherently wobbly in its accuracy. As with everything other element, they wanted to get it right.

“It’s always a big disappointment to watch a movie shot in your hometown and find they’ve gotten it all wrong, that’s there’s no way that character can step outside that building and see that bridge or whatever,” Southworth noted in an essay printed in the first issue.

That conviction led him — a resident of nearby Seattle, at least at the time — to do meticulous research on the places Rucka spelled out in his scripts. There’s a general directness to Southworth’s art that can tip over into visuals that are thrilling into their detail and beauty.

stumptown 5

I had never ventured to Portland when I original read the series, but it didn’t matter. The verisimilitude of the storytelling — visually and narrative — carried its own weight that made the whole piece feel more authentic. Especially in an era in which superheroes rule the movie screen, the immediate cultural association with comic book stories is of the wild, the wondrous, the fantastical. Stumptown is a fine reminder that comic books are a medium and not a genre. There are a lot of different kinds of stories to tell in those stepping stone panels, including stories that feel as real as a gun barrel smacked across the bridge of one’s nose.

stumptown 4

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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