The might and breadth of the popularity of author Stephen King is mind numbing and continues to grow. As early as the mid-seventies as an emerging author his presence quickly jumped from the novels and stories he wrote to both TV and theatrical released movie adaptations. So much was his name bandied about that even I kind of dismissed him after reading a few of his books (Salem’s Lot and The Shining) and while not displeased, not entirely enthralled either. I was actually more impressed reading The Running Man that he wrote under his Richard Bachman nom-de-plume. (Needless to say, much better that the Schwarzenegger film).
As time went on I continued to enjoy his movie adaptations, especially some early adaptations like the two Creepshow features being downright campy horror. But I also noticed him continually progressing into realm of human and social oriented stories with perhaps just a touch of paranormal that ensured that his stories remain purely fictional.
The story that really caught my eye was director Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the novella The Body into the movie Stand By Me. I can honestly say that if I had to select one movie above all others that would earn the accolade of ‘Best’ in my view, it would be Stand By Me. So you can see how The Body has always been on my ‘must read someday’ list. The fact that it was published in Different Seasons along with three other novellas, one being Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, that happens to be the second greatest King story adapted in a movie, just sealed the deal. Where other authors dream for a day where a story of theirs may someday be optioned for a movie, having two from a single book is hitting it out of the ballpark. But this is King we’re talking about so perhaps it isn’t that surprising to learn that a third story in this collection, Apt Pupil, was also made into a movie, although not as highly acclaimed as Shawshank and Body.
So similar are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body to their filmed counterparts that I will dispel with their story synopsis’ as I will assume readers have seen them, both being such universally acclaimed films. If you haven’t seen these two see movies stop reading this blog and go watch them. Not that I’m advocating that movies are better than the source stories. They usually aren’t. But in this case I will say that the essentials of the stories were captured magnificently and those few parts excised or added did enhance the cinematic versions. If you’re a purist you can read the novellas first but by all means do watch the movies as well.
The adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption, the story of how innocent banker Andy Dufresne is jailed for the murder of his wife, is probably as close as one can get to filming the source material novella. Like the movie, the story is told from the point of view of Ellis “Red” Redding who befriends Andy and is the ‘scrounger’ making deals with guards and inmates to procure items for prisoners. All of the manipulative anecdotal events carried out by Andy in the movie, both funny and serious, are in the novella as well. Unlike the movie, Red is not an African American so the aspect of racial discrimination is not really addressed here. Some of the material shortchanged in the movie are the bookends to the story arc. Readers get to enjoy additional detail on how Andy ended up in jail in the first place and there is a prolonged ending describing his ultimate fate as well. In a nutshell Shawshank is a great human interest story as Andy schemes and manipulates others to acquire a special place within the prison system in order to survive what is for him an alien environment, and to eventually plan and execute and intricate escape. The does not dwell on guilt or innocence for either Andy or Red, but rather what it means to be in prison and what it means to be free. But all the heavy themes addressed are captured in these minute changes that Andy makes along the way and the friendship between the two men.
Like Shawshank, Stand by Me is superior to it’s original written origin, The Body. One thing clearly missing in the written form is how the magnificent soundtrack selection for the movie plays a significant role in placing the viewer in a precise nostalgic time and place. The novella makes references to certain tunes of the time, but they were not the same ones used in the movie and I did not recognize most of them so the effect was lost on me as a reader.
Set in the late 50’s, the story of four young boys from a small town embarking on an adventure to find the body another kid deals not so much with the morbidity of their goal as it does the sad state and personal issues of the boys themselves. While not everyone can reminisce of the situation and time period, it will undoubtedly rekindle memories of youth and simpler times. The story, told from the point of view of an accomplished writer recounting the episode from his past, contains flashbacks and ‘story-within-a-story’ devices. The one big difference between the movie and novella is in fact on such ‘story-within-a-story’ that was excised in the movie version and, quite frankly, thankfully so as it was a distraction in the book.
While the boy’s journey does pony up some some perils and hardships, both at the hands of nature and human impediments, it also delivers revelations in the relationships among the boys, which end up being the lasting memories of the adventure. In the end, the body they sought out so fervently at the beginning becomes inconsequential to the journey, much like life itself. As an aside to the story itself, one aspect that makes the movie that much more poignant is how the real life circumstances of the actors playing the major roles ended so eerily parallel to their onscreen characters. I’d like to go into detail, but this is really not the place for that. Just something to consider the next time you watch the movie.
The second novella in the book, Apt Pupil, is the story about an old former Nazi commander Kurt Dussander living in suburban California as one Arthur Denker when his true hidden identity is suddenly discovered by high school student Todd Bowen. Rather than expose the former concentration camp commandant, the kid instead keeps Denker as his virtual prisoner on a tight leash all the while digging for information and stories regarding the Holocaust horror and Denker’s specific digressions during the war. Todd thrives on Denker’s past and becomes obsessed with both the man and the ideology he once stood for. But Denker, ever fearful of Todd exposing his true identity, is trapped by circumstances and slowly comes to realize the true evil lurking in his captor. It isn’t long before you’re cheering for the Nazi here as Todd`s lies to his family and everyone else, and his own digressions slowly pile up. The story is uneven and slow at times as Todd drifts in and out of Denker’s life for a short period after graduating, but when Todd does come back he inadvertently divulges the true extent of his inner demons, thus providing Denker with counter leverage on Todd himself. The story digresses to an uncomfortable stalemate with Todd dreading the untimely demise of the worn, elderly man while Denker still seeks a release from the kid`s grasp. Things unravel when Denker has a sudden heart attack which then forces Todd to stand up and cover for him lest his own secrets be revealed. I wish I could comment on the movie version starring Ian McKellen, but never having heard of the movie before my reading, I suspect it does not play out as well as the other two adaptations, in part I surmise because of the weaker source material.
That last story in the book is The Breathing Method and it differs from the others in many respects, aside from being singled out as the only story never adapted to film. On the positive side, for those looking for pure King horror in this tome, this is it. On the other hand this is a drawn out “story within a story” with a last moment punch that many readers, I suspect, will not like. A doctor belonging to a mysterious gentleman’s evening club in which members gather each Christmas eve to hear some exotic tale finds that it his turn to entertain. He tells them the story about a particular woman patient he had many, many years ago. While strong willed and resourceful, the unwed woman faced many challenges as she was determined to bring the child she was bearing into the world alone, societal taboos be damned. Knowing that she will be without any personal help from a partner at birth, one of the things that the doctor imparts to the woman is a childbirth breathing method much like the popular Lamaze courses today. It’s a small point that ends up being crucial to the hair raising ending. One can only wonder if this last story will ever be adapted into a movie as have all the other stories in Different Seasons. I see it more as short segment in some horror anthology movie (remember those?), but I do hope it gets filmed someday regardless of format.