Nightmares & Dreamscapes: The Road Virus Heads North (TV)
Starring Tom Berenger and Marsha Mason
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Written by Peter Filardi
A lot of Stephen King stories feature a main character who is a writer, to some degree of success or another, proving King adheres to the old axiom "Write what you know." These characters are often more than just a smidge autobiographical. Such is the case with Richard Kinnell in the story "The Road Virus Heads North" (actually from the Everything's Eventual collection, which contains some really great stories…so if you haven't read it, and you like King, pick it up).
Anyway, Richard Kinnell is a writer, and he writes scary books. In the beginning of the story he's heading to a writer's conference of some sort, where he's going to speak. And you'd have to be completely oblivious to miss the slight tone of frustration that creeps in when, after they've asked him "Where do you get your ideas?" and "Do you ever scare yourself?", they no longer really have any interest in what he's got to say. I'd be willing to wager Mr. King has been asked those particular questions a time or oh...three thousand before.
On the drive home from the conference, while trying to work through some writer's block, Kinnell decides to stop at a yard sale in the small town of Rosewood, where he discovers a painting of a young heavy behind the wheel of a muscle car crossing the Tobin Bridge (the former Mystic River Bridge in Boston) at sunset...a young heavy with teeth filed to points and a smile that says, "I know something you never will." (According to the intro King wrote in Everything's Eventual, he owns the actual painting.)
While attempting to purchase the find, Kinnell learns its sordid history from the woman running the yard sale, a friend of the people who owned the house. She tells him that the painter, Bobby Hastings, son of Iris and George, committed suicide – hung himself. It was the drugs, according to her. But first he took all his paintings and sketches – except for this one – and burned them. And then he offed himself, leaving a note that read "'I can't stand what's happening to me." On the back of the painting is the title "The Road Virus Heads North."
Satisfied he's made an interesting find, Kinnell pays for the painting and heads on his merry way to see his Aunt Trudy (who knows all the best gossip). But when he shows her the painting, her reaction is a lot stronger that he ever imagined. She loathes it and tells him to throw it in the river. Examining the painting to try and understand what exactly caused her virulent reaction, he notices that the picture has changed. The smile seems to have gotten wider, and the arm cocked on the door is now turned to make a tattoo visible (a vine-wrapped dagger with DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR in the short story, a sexy silhouette with a tail and horns and LUCK OF THE DEVIL in the adaptation).
Kinnell is shaken but figures he just didn't inspect the painting that closely at the yard sale. The proprietor, the talkative Judy Diment, probably just distracted him. Satisfied it's just a hyperactive imagination (and shouldn't a writer of scary stories have one of those?), he has a nice visit with his aunt and then heads on home. But along the way he gets to wondering if he didn't imagine the changes and decides to stop for a second look…and what he sees is even more unsettling. You can't see the tattoo anymore, but the Tobin Bridge is gone and so is the sunset. Now it's nighttime in the painting, and the muscle car is cruising along Route 1 outside a small town...Rosewood. Seriously perturbed, Kinnell chucks the painting into the woods. But like a bad penny, it just keeps turning up.
I won't sit here and relate the whole story to you. You're all big boys and girls and can read it yourselves (and should, it's a good story). And besides, we're here to talk about the TNT adaptation, even if I'd rather not. This installment, penned by Flatliners and The Craft scribe Peter Filardi and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, who's worked for TV a lot and as assistant director or second unit director on plenty of big-name movie productions, was another less than satisfactory offering. Oh, don't get me wrong; like all of the shows so far, it's looked good, damn good. TNT has put some excellent talent behind the camera, and I commend them for it.
But as a King fan, I'm getting really tired of works I enjoyed reading being messed up on the screen. End of the world? No, of course not. It doesn't diminish how good the original work is either. But it's damn frustrating to be sure. Maddening. And more than a little sad. Like seeing the house you grew up in -- and love -- badly redecorated. Really badly in some cases. This was not one of the worst redecorations, but that's about all I can say about it.
Filardi, who also penned the unsatisfying Salem's Lot remake in 2004, decided to imbue what was a nice little nasty story with a message. Now, maybe it wasn't his idea. Maybe the suits at TNT said it had to have a message. I don't know. All I know is, it felt tacked on and out of place...because it was. In this adaptation, after the conference Kinnell has a colonoscopy and his doctor finds some irregularities...a subplot that seems to only serve to throw all the things that were good about the story into doubt. Now, Kinnell's worry about his health transmits itself into hallucinations that the picture is changing. Or at least the possibility.
There's even a scene where, during a crystal healing from his kooky but sweet ex-wife (who's only mentioned in the story, but fleshed out here for some reason or another), Kinnell has some sort of shaman vision about trying to destroy the painting which has turned back up in his car. And another where he actually is in the car with his sharp-toothed stalker and accuses the tough of being his disease – to which the youth replies in a moment of painful exposition – "I'm not your damn disease. I'm your fear."
Well, thank you, Captain Obvious. And really, that's the problem with this whole episode. It suffers from the disease so many movies these days are crippled with: over-explanation. Everything has to have a reason, an easy one, that is laid out from point A to point B for everyone in the audience. There can't just be evil things that happen for no reason! It has to be a manifestation of a writer's fear of the disease that's eating him up. And we have to make sure everyone understands that because we wouldn't want to cause any kind of upset to anyone's fragile psyche. Oh, it's his fear. That's okay...as long as some random badness doesn't happen to people for no reason. We couldn't handle that.
I was willing to give Peter Filardi another chance after Salem's Lot, because I liked both Flatliners and The Craft (yeah, I said it). But I've come to this conclusion: He's apparently only talented when he's writing his own work. He needs to STOP ADAPTING. Because he's apparently quite sure he knows how to write Stephen King stories better than Stephen King. Which, it is quite clear, he can't.
It's really disappointing that TNT has managed to get such big names, who are providing some pretty decent acting (for the most part at least, *cough "Crouch End" cough*), and has gotten talented directors to man the camera. But they have been extremely hit or miss when it comes to the writing department. I don't know if it's an underestimation of the necessity of a well-written script or a genuine misunderstanding of the subject matter. Either way, it's just disappointing.
2 out of 5