Evil Queens and Bad Mothers
Whatever you think of the literary “quality” of his work, the fact remains that Stephen King is a publishing juggernaut. The volumes he pumps out at an astonishing pace are perennial bestsellers, and occasionally, critical successes to boot. It is hardly surprising then, that King’s popular fiction is so often turned into film—money follows money, or so the logic goes.
However, the problem with film treatments of King’s work is much like the problem with his novels: many of them suck. For every Carrie or The Dead Zone, there is a Firestarter or Christine lurking in its shadow. Unfortunately, the newest cinematic adaptation of King’s work, Hearts in Atlantis, falls into the latter category. The main annoyance of Hearts in Atlantis is its incessant nostalgia for the presumed “innocence” of 1950s America (in this, it is like much of King’s writing, as well as Rob Reiner’s film, Stand By Me). For King, this time marked the end of some sort of “pure” childhood, and by extension, marked the end of the nation’s innocence.
In its willingness to forget the events of the past it so idealizes, King’s repeated effort to recapture this blameless society is the dark twin to Ronald Reagan’s 1980s presidential bid. The Gipper’s “It’s morning again in America” ad campaign featured tv spots depicting the sun rising over a “normal,” quasi-‘50s-style, suburban community, as neighbors greeted each other warmly and readied themselves and their families for the day. Both Reagan and King’s edenic visions are, of course, socially conservative and dependent on certain categories of “normalcy”—whiteness, middle-classness, and heterosexuality, to mention a few. In order for either man’s national nostalgia to work, we must forget our own recent past. We must forget the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Medgar Evers and the Civil Rights Movement, Chicago in ‘68, ERA, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and on and on. It didn’t work for Reagan in the ‘80s (or at least not for very long, as AIDS changed everything), and it doesn’t work now.
The nostalgia infusing Hearts in Atlantis often makes the film infuriating, as well as just plain dopey. Hearts proceeds like an extended Old Tyme Lemonade commercial (it even directly replicates a scene from one of those commercials, in which a group of gangly white kids loll a golden-hued, lazy summer day away on inner-tubes in an impossibly crystalline lake). It focuses on Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin), who pines for the top-of-the-line, cherry red bicycle that shines in a local store window, and spends his days with neighborhood pals Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar): their only worry is the local bully Harry Doolin (Timothy Reifsnyder). To hammer home the point that this childhood existence is bliss, the film introduces the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). A lodger at the Garfield house, Ted has an expansive intellect, and, it appears, some psychic powers. He’s also on the lam from some nefarious “Lowmen,” which gives him an appreciation of life that he passes on to Bobby at every turn. And I mean, every turn. Ted is relentlessly maudlin, and even the generally respectable Hopkins can’t hurry along the film’s dreadful snail’s pace.
And just in case you have still missed the story’s yearnings, Hearts further demonstrates, and bemoans, the passing of this American idyll in the failures of Bobby Garfield’s family, and more pointedly, in the failures of his mother Elizabeth (Hope Davis). Bobby’s father passed away not long ago, and since then, his mother has been forced to provide for the family. Rather than show a little compassion for a working single mom in 1950s America, Hearts in Atlantis thoroughly demonizes Elizabeth Garfield. She is shown to be superficial and entirely self-serving, and gives Bobby an adult library card for his birthday rather than the new bike he so covets, even though, as Bobby’s pals point out, she always has money for new dresses. The film can’t merely accuse Elizabeth of being a bad mother, or even suggest that if her husband were still alive and she could stay in her “proper” place, the family’s life would be very different indeed. No, the film must punish her, and in the end, she is raped by her real estate agency boss and shown to be the whore that she is by her own son, who throws at her feet a pile of money that he and Ted have won betting on a boxing match.
It’s not just women who don’t know their “proper” place that are responsible for the end of the film’s idealized past. While there is a bit of the supernatural in Hearts (it’s a Stephen King story, after all), the bad guys are distinctly human. Turns out that the spooky Lowmen are really just J. Edgar Hoover’s black-clad henchmen, hunting Ted down. But this is, don’t forget, the FBI as established and run by Hoover. More to the point, don’t forget the details of Hoover’s cross-dressing proclivities and homosexuality, a fact that Hearts goes to unnecessary lengths to recall for us. It’s as if there is some transparent connection in/for the film between Hoover’s sexuality and the fascistic tendencies of his Bureau.
The film further drives home its paranoid homophobia by providing a local parallel to Hoover in Bobby’s life, the bully Harry, who, Ted reveals by way of his psychic wisdom, has homosexual tendencies and likes to dress up in his mother’s clothes when no one is around. Not content to be merely nostalgic, Hearts in Atlantis also resorts to misogynistic and homophobic finger-pointing. You see, it’s the Machiavellian plottings of Evil Queens and the disruptive force of Bad Mothers that have been directly responsible for the downfall of America.