Directed by Mick Garris
Teleplay by Stephen King
Distributed by Lionsgate
I think I'm developing a reputation among the staff here at DC as "the Stephen King girl." I am a huge fan and have grown used to the teasing over the years about how devout I am. So, when our beloved Uncle Creepy said, "Here, I've got the Desperation DVD…you review it," I greeted it the way I do every King adaptation…I begged and pleaded not to have to watch it. Alas, slave driver that he is, the Creepster said I would not get my monthly allotment of corpses to play with if I didn't do the review. So here I am!
When ABC aired Desperation several months ago, I caught about thirty minutes of it, in the middle, and then went the bed, content I was missing yet another botched TV translation. Reports from several people afterwards backed me up, so I went into this viewing with a "grin and bear it" attitude. Maybe it was that, or the fact that I hadn't read the book since high school (I've found that the amount of time it's been since my last reading of the source material directly affects my enjoyment of an adaptation), or that I was a little more partial to The Regulators, but I have to say…I didn't hate it.
Now don't get me wrong; I am not here to sing the praises of this adaptation. It did not get it all right. They never seem to, and I've decided they never will until Stephen King wises up and hires me to oversee all projects being adapted from his works. Are you reading this, Mr. King? It's really the best for all involved. Trust me.
But back to the matter at hand…
First off, a couple of warnings that are very, very important. One, if you are easily put off or offended by religious things, this is NOT the movie for you. There is a lot of God stuff. Really, it's all about God stuff. God is one of the main characters, if you will. That's basically the whole story right there. It's Good versus Evil; all the rest is just the hows and wheres. Very much like The Stand in that way, only a lot heavier on the God stuff. Second of all, this movie is best watched with all the lights off. Not that it makes it more scary or anything, but for some reason, it just makes it look better. I tried turning the lights on, and it didn't look right…I'm not sure why. Just trust me on this one.
Okay then, now that we've got that all out of the way…Desperation is a small mining town in Nevada where some very bad things are happening. The local mining company recently reopened a mineshaft that was closed in a cave-in in the 1800's, killing many Chinese workers, and released an ancient evil that has taken over the town. This evil spirit, named Tak, can control all kinds of nasties and creepy crawlies – snakes, spiders, scorpions, wolves, buzzards - and has possessed a local cop named Collie Entragian (played superbly over-the-top and creepy by the wonderful Ron Perlman). Collie, after killing lots of people in town, takes to the local highway and begins to waylay travelers and bring them back to town.
We meet most of our core group of characters in Desperation's jail. They consist of Tom Billingsly (Charles Durning), Mary Jackson (Annabeth Gish, in dire need of some sandwiches), Johnny Marinville (Tom Skerritt), and the Carvers, Ralph (Matt Frewer), Ellen (Sylva Kelegian), and their twelve-year-old son, David (Shane Haboucha). Here is where we get the first inklings that Collie is more than just crazy and David is more than just a boy. Most of this opening sequence, the introduction of Mary and Peter Jackson (a wonderful but brief role played by Henry Thomas), and the first appearance of Collie Entragian are really very brilliantly done. Veteran King helmer Mick Garris' surreal style and too bright color palette have often been an issue in past adaptations but suit this one to a "t." In the opening he nails everything from camera angles to sound effects. It gave me a lot of hope.
As the story progresses, it – perhaps predictably – begins to stumble. David's revelation of his friend's accident and his promise to God are handled ham-fistedly both in the writing and the filming. Another huge problem presents itself with the introduction of Steve Ames and his hitchhiking gal pal, Cynthia Smith. Garris has once again cast Steven Weber in a King piece, in the roll of Ames, which I don't mind at all. He was both charming in his portrayal of the down-to-earth roadie and mouth-wateringly delicious looking. My problem is with the casting of Kelly Overton as Cynthia Smith. Overton's only claims to fame are the hopelessly befuddled Breaking Dawn with Angelina Jolie's surprisingly pretty talented brother, James Haven, and abysmal The Ring Two, which I've blocked from my memory.
Now, this is most likely just because I'm a rabid King fan and I'm being nitpicky, but hey, that's sort of my job. Most of the rest of you wouldn't know this. But Desperation is not the only King book Cynthia pops up in. And I'm not just talking about The Regulators, which most of the characters in Desperation appear in as well. Cynthia shows up in one of my all-time favorite King books ever, Rose Madder. And Cynthia is a kickass chick. She's kind of a punk rocker with short and spiky two-tone hair (orange and green), skinny as a boy, and missing the top part of her ear. It got bit off in a fight with a mean ex-boyfriend. See, now this is the thing; she's cute, pixie-like, but not what you'd call a babe. And she's a scrapper. She survived the abusive asshole who tried to take her ear. She survived getting beaten on by Norman in Rose Madder…and Norman is HUGE. Hell, the guy turns into a Minotaur later on! But here in Mick Garris' Desperation she's a "beautiful young woman" with cherry red hair and big boobs who screams…a lot. There's one sequence while she and Steve are looking for a phone where she literally screams about six times in a row. And she whimpers. And clings to Steve Ames a lot, too. The times where Cynthia's quirky dialogue remains intact, Overton delivers it in a simper. This is NOT Cynthia.
If it was King himself who made these changes, then shame on him. But I don't see it. He writes strong and believable female characters, and Mary Jackson and Ellen Carver are proof of that. And it pisses me off that no one can look interesting anymore; everyone has to be a model. Surprisingly, though, this is one of few deviations from the book. I went back and scanned through it to check since it had been so long. Unfortunately, the changes that were made, whether they were made my King or Garris, ended up not helping the story at all. I don't understand most of these changes. Losing Audrie Wyler's character? Okay, it didn't really hurt the story not to have her in it. But the rest of them are really lost on me, as usual. And strangely enough, though they're few and far between, the changes that are made – like Johnny's mind-changing revelation at the end – are pretty big ones.
They were so close. That's the real tragedy here. I can tell you almost exactly what they changed, and it's very little. David's friend Brian was alone when he had his bike accident; David was not with him. David made his promise to God in a hospital room, not on the road. They cut some stuff out, mostly for time's sake and mostly stuff that wasn't missed, like Audrie Wyler (a local geologist who gets possessed by Tak and tries to kill David, but not until she tells them how to blow up the mine). They changed the story of the mine cave-in. Here was another big stumble and a change I just do not get. In the book Billingsly doesn't try and sell a story about happy Chinese miners and an accidental cave-in. He tells a story about exploited Chinese men forced to work and left to die after an accidental cave-in. And when David learns the truth, it's not that the miners found Tak's well and brought the mine down on themselves with only two barely escaping to be hanged as responsible, it's that two miners caused the collapse to trap the others underground because they had been driven insane. Perhaps the original story was too brutal for ABC. The biggest cop-out change was Johnny's Vietnam experience. In the book there was no bar bathroom bomb, no prior experience with Tak. Johnny had nothing to redeem, aside from being a Class A asshole.
But that's it. As King adaptations go, this one hugged the straight and narrow pretty well when it comes to the source material. King did a fair job of adapting his own work, though why in hell he made some of those changes, I'd really like to know. Especially the Johnny one. That just felt like it was done to appease an audience where everything has to be pat, like so many are these days. Garris does, at least in the beginning, a pretty adept job of directing though at the end things really feel like they are falling apart, and he just completely loses you. It's sad because until that point I was enjoying it, despite the God stuff. Or maybe because of it. Being pagan, I find it very interesting to read a story like this where one of the principal characters is a Christian God. There are not many stories nowadays that portray God at all, aside from straight-up Christian literature, and even fewer horror stories that do so. And King's take on God is an interesting one, to say the least. David is a young boy, just learning about his faith, really just coming into a realization of what God and belief are, and to be with him on this particular trip with the issues it raises provides quite a bit of food for thought – not to mention some intense conversation starters.
As for the DVD itself, it's pretty spare on extras. Unless you're a rabid Stephen King fan, it's not going to float your boat, and even if you are, it's pretty slim pickings. It contains a brief interview with Mick Garris and Stephen King on the timeline and process of adapting Desperation entitled "Postcards From Bangor ME." There's also an audio commentary with Mick Garris, Ron Perlman, and producer Mark Sennet. Mick is actually pretty amusing most of the time and imparts some interesting information. Perlman seems almost uncomfortable and in fact states he doesn't like watching himself act, but Garris draws him out and manages to keep the conversation flowing nicely. At some point producer Sennet wanders into the room, and Garris ropes him in as well, although he doesn't add much to the mix. Perlman takes his leave roughly an hour into the film, about the same time his character Entragian does. Sennet leaves, too, and then we're just left with Mick. It's not so bad really; he valiantly keeps up a pretty steady stream of interesting chatter. Although at times certain things become clear; for instance, I don't think he's read many Stephen King books (he makes a statement that King doesn't write much eroticism, which really isn't true; King doesn't get freaky all the time, but it's there a good bit). However, listening to the commentary, I learned that a lot of what I thought was wrong with the film, Garris felt rushed filming or felt didn't come out right, which at least makes me feel a little better. Aside from the commentary and the interview, all you get are some Lionsgate trailers.
So that's all, folks…not one of the worst adaptations by far. The acting is (mostly) not bad. Except for Kelly Overton, who should be roasted on a spit and fed to a real actress. The writing fell down a lot at the end, but it wasn't unforgivable. And Garris did a passable job. I, surprisingly, actually kind of liked it, up until the end there. I wouldn't say rush out and buy it, but if you're a King fan, it's definitely worth picking out of the bargain bin at your local video store, if only for the conversations you can have afterwards (or, if you're me, to drool over Steven Weber).
Audio commentary with director Mick Garris, actor Ron Perlman, and producer Mark Sennet
Interview with Stephen King and Mick Garris
3 out of 5