The Dead Zone

Few authors in history have acquired as loyal a fan base as Stephen King. These readers have made the majority of his 54 books into bestsellers, and, according to fan websites, hunger voraciously for every next bit of King’s writing to be published, even if it is “incomplete.” They don’t just read his novels and set them aside; they read and reread them, excitedly explaining to anyone who will listen the thrills they experience. And they’ve made King one of the most powerful men in the field of publishing in the last century.

Unfortunately for King, their enthusiasm hasn’t always extended to film and television adaptations of his work. To date, 26 theatrical releases and 9 made-for-tv films or miniseries have been based on King’s works, as well as one original tv series, The Golden Years.

Several of these adaptations have been financial and critical successes (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Rob Reiner’s Misery, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), but many have been greeted with disdain or disinterest by both fans and critics (Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye, Tom Holland’s Thinner). The name “Stephen King” may ensure a book will be a bestseller, but it’s no guarantee of sales at the box-office.

That fact is what makes the USA Network’s series The Dead Zone such a risk. Published in 1979, The Dead Zone became one of King’s most successful novels, and David Cronenberg’s 1983 film version, starring Christopher Walken, was also well received. The recent release of the film on DVD has sparked new interest in the story, leading to the production of a television series based on the characters in the novel. It is the first time that one of King’s novels has inspired a series (the 1991 series The Golden Years was not based on previously published material), and USA is banking on the devotion of King fans to make the series a hit, even though King himself is not involved in the project.

And the fans came through: the series’ premiere was the highest rated premiere in cable history. However, King’s fans will be expecting a show as exciting as the novel and film, but that’s not what they get. I doubt that few of the six and a half million people who watched episode one will still be around at season’s end.

The series closely follows the premise of the novel, with some updating to allow for contemporary references. As his name suggests, Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) is your average, All-American guy. Life is good for Johnny — he loves his job as a high school science teacher and he’s recently become engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah (Nicole DeBoer). His only worry has to do with a developing relationship between his wealthy mother (Anna Hagen) and the shifty Reverend Purdy (David Ogden Stiers).

Despite his wholesome demeanor, one thing sets Johnny apart from the guy next door, his ability to predict the future, a characteristic he does not work to develop or find unusual. In fact, he uses it only sparingly, and most often for fun, as when he helps one of his students make a killing on the Wheel of Fortune game at a local carnival.

His life changes drastically one rainy night, as Johnny is driving to the video store. A head-on collision with an 18-wheeler leaves Johnny comatose, and his family, friends, and doctors have no hope that he will ever emerge from his vegetative state. Of course, they are wrong. After six years, Johnny suddenly awakens, ready to pick up his life where he left it on that fateful night. But things have changed. His mother is dead, leaving Purdy in charge of her sizable estate, and Sarah is married to the county sheriff, Walt (Chris Bruno). Johnny also learns that he is a father, and that Sarah and Walt are raising his son as their own, a decision that Johnny stoically agrees is for the “best.”

Johnny strives to understand the many changes in the world during his absence. His physical therapist and new best friend, Bruce (John L. Lewis), enlightens him as to social changes that have occurred, in one of the show’s more humorous exchanges:

Bruce: Bill Clinton got busted for getting head in the Oval Office from a 22-year-old intern and Regis Philbin is the biggest star in primetime.

Johnny: Right! I just had brain damage. I’m not stupid.

There is one change that Johnny can’t understand, however, and that is the oomph to his psychic powers. Merely touching another human being or an object they have handled transports him mentally into his or her past, present, or future. His first experience with these new powers occurs as he is emerging from his coma, when the touch of his nurse gives him visions of her daughter trapped in a raging fire at home. He is also able to determine through his visions that his doctor’s mother in Vietnam is still alive, despite reports of her death, and that Sarah loves her husband, but is not “in love” with him.

Medical tests reveal nothing unusual, so Johnny is released from the hospital and left to deal with his powers by himself. The novel had him help local authorities catch a serial killer by using his abilities, and the series has included this storyline as well, which means that Johnny must work side by side with Walt, an uncomfortable situation for both. Whether or not the series will also incorporate the novel’s story arc regarding Johnny’s efforts to stop a corrupt Presidential candidate remains to be seen, but the series, assuming it runs more than a few episodes, will eventually have to come up with new situations not in the novel. Because he is such a wholesome lad, it is easy to assume that Johnny will end up using his powers to make the world a better place, a sort of psychic version of Touched by an Angel, minus the sermons.

But there are reasons that novels are rarely adapted into television series. Good literature is complete; there is no need to expand upon the original storyline. If the author has done his or her job well, we learn all we need to about the characters and become emotionally involved, either positively or negatively, in their fates. Whether the literature is about characters or the events that occur to them, there is seldom reason to expand upon the original work.

In King’s case, the literature is usually about extraordinary events, and it is of little consequence to whom they occur. The star of Cujo is not the mousy housewife, but the rabid dog that has her trapped in her car; in The Shining, it’s not the writer turned hotelkeeper, but the ghosts who drive him insane. And in The Dead Zone — novel and film — you care less about the so-average Johnny Smith than the psychic gifts that help him prevent World War III.

In the case of The Dead Zone (the series), Johnny’s psychic gifts, the extraordinary event that propels his actions, remain the focal point of the series. But Johnny remains uninteresting. He’ll have to get interesting for the series to succeed. After all, how many world wars and events of that magnitude can the man halt? The best sci-fi series have fully realized characters as well as stimulating stories. Viewers grew to care about Mulder and Scully, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and Xena, but it’s doubtful they will feel the same about Johnny Smith, especially as portrayed by Hall.

Now 34, Hall has matured into a skilled actor, as he proved in TNT’s Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999). But here, he seems lost, his role already (after two episodes) repetitive: Johnny gets a vision, looks awestruck, and then sleepwalks until the next big vision. To an extent, it’s the fault of the script. During one scene in the second episode, Johnny tells Sarah, “You’ve had six years to adjust. I haven’t.” This is the only indication that Johnny is troubled by his radical life changes. His emotional conflicts remain masked — is he really okay with Walt raising his child? Is he angry that Sarah gave up hope of his recovery? Is he grieving his mother’s death? Do his new powers confuse, frighten, thrill, or anger him?

Hall’s performance isn’t exactly inspiring, either. At one point, Johnny experiences a murder through the eyes of the serial killer, and mutters afterward, “I now know what it is like to kill.” Hall reads the line as if Johnny’s revealing that he now knows what it’s like to sew a button on a shirt.

It is only when Johnny is in one of his trances that Hall exhibits energy, sneering menacingly as the serial killer watches his next victim or screaming frantically for someone to save the little girl trapped in a burning building. These visions are the show’s single highlight: excellent stop-motion photography conveys that Johnny is no longer in the here and now. This effect and others are effective, but my mind wandered during much of the first two episodes, especially during scenes of the clichid love triangle involving Johnny, Sarah, and Walt.

Whether or not King’s legions of fans (or Hall fans, or anyone who tuned in out of curiosity) will stay with the series will depend on what happens to Johnny the man, not Johnny the psychic. Based on the first two episodes, I would guess he won’t develop, putting The Dead Zone in the category of King-inspired failures.