Nightmares & Dreamscapes: Autopsy Room Four (TV)
Starring Richard Thomas
Directed by Mikael Soloman
Written by April Smith
The human mind is an incredible thing. The things it can dream up and accomplish. It's a matter of fact that even in today's world of advanced technology, doctors and scientists understand very little about the brain and how it works. One of the most mysterious functions of the brain is the imagination. I'm not sure if it serves any purpose other than for amusement and entertainment, but I know the capacity of the imagination completely eclipses anything put to the screen, small or large.
Not that there aren't movies and shows that are amazingly imaginative. But the difference is that once something is put to film, it can only be the way it is on film; whereas, in the confines of the imagination, things can look and act an infinite number of ways all at the same time. This phenomenon is what so often causes stories and books that have been adapted into movies and shows to be poorly received. Our imaginations pictured something better than the filmmakers delivered.
Some stories are more likely to succumb to this particular affliction than others. "Autopsy Room Four" is one of them. It tells the story of a man, Howard Cottrell, who takes a bad shot while golfing and, while searching for his ball in the rough, gets bitten by a snake. The viper's venom causes immediate and total paralysis and temporary unconsciousness. When Howard reawakens, he's disoriented and confused. He can't see anything, can't move or speak, and he's being wheeled somewhere.
He slowly comes to the realization that he is in a hospital… on a gurney… in a body bag. They think he's dead. He's been mistakenly pronounced by the ancient doctor who was on the same course as him. And now he's lying on the autopsy table in the morgue, listening to the staff talk about him like he's not there… because they don't think he is. What follows is Howard's desperate attempts to let them know he's alive and thinking and feeing… before they start cutting him up. On the page, this is a tense and terrifying story – or at least, it was for me, as I've always had what teachers put nicely as "a vivid imagination."
But it was a very poor choice to adapt for TV. Why? Because three quarters of the story takes place inside Howard's head… and the only way to relate this on the screen is with a frantic voice-over from actor Richard "John Boy Walton" Thomas. Normally, Thomas is a decent actor. and he's done King before, portraying the inimitable Bill Denbrough in IT in 1991. But he's just not cutting it here. He conveys the panic very well, I will give him that. But there's no sense of the terror you would expect someone who is about to be eviscerated alive to be feeling. It's all too rushed and high pitched.
TNT has once again allowed April Smith, the scribe who hamfistedly adapted "Umney's Last Case" earlier in the series, to handle the teleplay. And once again, she's delivered disappointing results. I will allow as it's not all her fault… the story wasn't a good choice, and Thomas's delivery is lacking… but I swear her episodes come across like she's written the scripts with a crayon. At least I can kind of vaguely understand her reasons for adding certain thing to this episode, like Howard's fiancé, in an attempt to externalize some of the story.
But I don't see how making him impotent did anything… except make his means of salvation miraculous I guess. And really, the miraculous part is that, despite being completely paralyzed – unable to blink or sneeze or twitch an eyelid – to the point where trained professionals are about to crack open his chest without the benefit of anesthesia.... as soon as the mistake is discovered and they give him a little oxygen – VOILA! Completely cured.
In fact, the only time Smith seems loathe to make changes is when something translates awkwardly from page to screen; then she's all for adapting it nearly word for word. For instance, when Howard first awakens in the story, he is momentarily discombobulated and asks himself, "Who am I?" To which his response is, "I am Howard Cottrell. I'm a stock broker known to some of my colleagues as Howard the Conqueror." In the context of a man evaluating his mental state and what he knows and doesn't know, this line fits. In the hands of Smith and her crayon, it becomes the hackneyed line delivered as a bit of bravado while golfing: "I'm Howard Cottrell. Known to my colleagues in the gladiator pits of the New York Stock Exchange as Howard the Conqueror!"… delivered out loud… to a man who is supposedly Howard's good friend.
Like I said, part of it is Thomas's delivery, but I can't lay it all at his feet. I've seen him deliver the goods before, so I know he can. I don't know the same about Smith. This installment was directed by Mikael Solomon – who redeemed himself in my eyes with his stellar treatment of "The End of the Whole Mess" – so it at least looked good. What can't be laid at the feet of poor story choice must be laid, once again, at the feet of Smith. Maybe she's a talented writer in her own right and just sucks at adaptations, though the additions she's made to the stories would make me think otherwise.
The long and short of this episode is this: READ THE STORY. Solomon is talented and has proven himself adept at giving King adaptations several different and interesting looks. Thomas needed to tone it down just the slightest bit. And I hope and pray Smith has a fallback occupation… and that she'd gets to it as soon as humanly possible.
2 out of 5