It’s possible that more film and TV adaptations have been made from the works of Stephen King than any other living author. In 1976, Brian De Palma turned King’s debut, Carrie, into iconic cinematic horror; 1990’s Misery won Kathy Bates an Oscar; and in 1994, the cult status and adoration of the adult and engaging Shawshank Redemption cemented King’s reputation as a critically acclaimed popular storyteller. The stylistic gap between Carrie and Shawshank highlights the biggest problem with adapting King. To borrow a phrase from a film that clobbered Shawshank at the Oscars, King’s work is “like a box of chocolates.” You never now what fresh hell you’re gonna get. Will it be the erudite King, who’s capable of crafting dark, textured, adult stories? Or will it be the goofy shockmaster, delivering scenes of gruesome terror and borderline nonsensical plot twists? In TNT’s anthology series, Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, the answer is: both. The miniseries takes its title from King’s 1993 short story collection, though only five of the eight episodes are from that book; “The Road Virus Heads North” and “Autopsy Room Four” are from his 2002 anthology Everything’s Eventual, and series opener, “Battleground,” is from 1978’s Night Shift, King’s first story collection.
Here William Hurt stars as John Renshaw, an assassin who executes a toy company executive in Dallas, then flies home to San Francisco. Here he receives a package containing army soldiers from the same toy company he’s just visited. They spring to life and begin attacking him with surprisingly powerful munitions. It’s to the credit of director Brian Henson (son of Jim) and writer Richard Christian Matheson (son of legendary horror author Richard) that they embrace this typically King-ian turn to surrealism and don’t explain away the soldiers as figments of Renshaw’s paranoid imagination. Also to their credit, “Battleground” is free of dialogue, focusing attention on Renshaw’s “expert” response to the assault, his complete acceptance of the situation. At one point, he crushes one of the soldiers between two elevator doors, and I thought, “Would the doors really crush it? And shouldn’t they slide back open if something’s in the way?” Then I realized I’d been debating the physics of how to kill a demonically possessed toy soldier. It’s that kind of analytical thinking that the story seeks to bypass, evidenced by Renshaw following his instinct to fight, instead of wondering what’s happening or calling for help.
As we’re sucked into the situation along with him, the giggle value of walking toy soldiers wears off quickly. When Renshaw is knocked on his back and stares up at the miniature commando standing on his chest, it roars in its tiny voice. Renshaw follows suit, through bloody, gritted teeth. His profession defines him. While “Battleground” is a straight shot of King’s signature horror-fantasy, the second episode, “Crouch End,” showcases his skill at mirroring the mundane in the extraordinary. The story follows a young American couple honeymooning in London. Lonnie (Eion Bailey) and Doris (Claire Forlani) are endearing, but just a little too clean and geeky to be real. This is more the fault of King’s original story than Kim LeMasters’ adaptation or Mark Haber’s direction. (While his early work deftly conveyed the thinking of characters of his own age, his most recent novels, The Colorado Kid and Cell, feature 20something characters whose language is almost comically awkward.) But here, Lonnie and Doris’ innocence helps to enhance the otherworldly nature of their tragedy.
During the cab ride to Crouch End (they’re meeting friends for dinner), the driver says the neighborhood is one of the “thin spots,” where supernatural things tend to happen and people become lost. Once they’re dropped off, Doris and Lonnie wander the streets in search of help, directions, or just a working phone, growing increasingly frustrated with each other. The real hell isn’t that they’re plagued by forces from other dimensions, but that they fall apart on each other. The show builds a sense of unease with oblique camera angles and tight framing. Eve as we realize something awful is lurking nearby, Doris and Lonnie are too busy trying not to panic to notice it. The structure of the episode, which begins with Doris weeping in a police station and then cuts to flashback, makes the plot fairly predictable, though it includes some disturbing ideas and images. The most harrowing scene comes when Lonnie walks between a large set of bushes to investigate a strange noise on the other side (always a bad idea), leaving Doris on her own. They keep shouting over the hedge wall, but soon Lonnie is silenced, only to reappear several yards down the row from Doris, his bruised arm jutting through the hedges in a plea for help. The episode keeps us rooted in Doris’ perspective, her isolation and fear.
The brevity of “Battleground” and “Crouch End” works in their favor: King is infamous for massive novels that can be off-putting to even hardcore fans. (The Stand and It clock in at around 1,000 pages each, the seven-volume The Dark Tower is even longer.) As a result, most screen adaptations tend to cut out all but the most important plot points. But by adapting short stories (“Battleground” is only 10 pages long), Nightmares & Dreamscapes preserves their spirit too. For those who find his written works too long or the films incomprehensible, TV here proves a happy medium.