“It occurred to me that in the Eighties, everything had come with a price tag, that the decade quite literally was the sale of the century. The final items up on the block had been honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence. By the time I got home that night, I had decided to turn the Eighties into a small-town curio shop called Needful Things and see what happened. I told myself to keep it light and surreal; that if I just kept in mind the Bakkers’ doghouse, which had been equipped with heaters and running water, I would be okay.”
Light and surreal are hardly the words I’d choose to describe Needful Things to a new reader and I think there was clear miscommunication between the marketing department over at Viking and King himself over how to brand and sell the book. Subtitled, “The Last Castle Rock Story,” Needful Things was meant to drag King’s beloved fictional town into oblivion the same way the events of It did for Derry or Carrie did for Chamberlain – only as several other people have pointed out, these settings have been used by King again, which pulls the apocalyptic punch a bit.
Ostensibly the story revolves around the opening of a curio shop owned by the enigmatic (although admittedly cartoonish) Mr. Leland Gaunt. Among Gaunt’s dusty treasures are the deepest desired objects of the town’s denizens, for which the proprietor charges only what the customer can afford to pay…plus a little favor on the side. These favors take the shape of cruel pranks and through misdirection and clever insight, Gaunt manages to set most of the town against each other. Getting to the bottom of the mess is the job of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (and there are neat references to the events of The Dark Half that build up the universe bit by bit).
When the novel debuted in 1991, it was widely panned by critics as a sort of Stephen King Madlib where the enormous cast of characters, each with their own unique obsessions and secret desires, goes through the same Sméagol-like transformation and paired characters develop their incipient hatreds, rivalries, and jealousies until the town implodes in an orgy of violence that is paradoxically intensely personal, but distributed and widespread enough to leave Castle Rock smoking and leveled by the final pages.
This was King’s first novel after ditching drugs and alcohol. “I was in a sensitive place…because it was the first thing that I’d written since I was sixteen without drinking or drugging. I was totally straight, except for cigarettes.” Perhaps it made him a little less adventurous. Without the substance-induced shield, his ego was probably precariously raw and he stuck to safe Kingisms throughout and there are elements of previous works smashed together into a weird hybrid of golden ideas that sometimes seem contrived in their new setting.
That being said, I enjoyed the ensemble immensely. As usual, King gives everything except the car door an elaborate and plausible backstory, peopling a tale with characters you know and feelings you relate to. Not his best work, but far from his worst. And if you take King’s original idea into consideration – that this is supposed to be a light-hearted satire, I think your read of it changes. In that whole new context, the novel has wonderful possibilities and stands on its own.
The music says satire, but the acting cries, “Please take me seriously.”
Significant Points of Departure
There are a number of pretty strange departures from the text, most of which seem rather inconsequential (and thus moderately annoying to a purist). For example, Brian Rusk’s needful thing in the novel is a Sandy Koufax card, while in the film it is a Mickey Mantle card. Polly Chalmers doesn’t own You Sew & Sew across from Gaunt’s shop, but instead owns a diner – perhaps to serve as a central set piece on which the town regular gathers to make the visual ensembling a little more convenient. Other changes, however, are significantly more unnerving because they essentially erase the character work that King does in the novel. These include:
- Alan Pangborn is not a widower with guilt issues. Instead he’s a cop who was a little too tough on the streets of Philadelphia and ended up exiled in this small burg to play lawman. He proposes to Polly Chalmers in the first scene we get with him in the film. An essential component of the Polly-Alan relationship in the novel are their respective past hang-ups that prevent them from committing in a formal fashion. They dance around their relationship in a kind of cute way that makes you root for them. There’s nothing to root for in the film as it’s pretty well established from the beginning – “This is a couple. Their perfect love shall be challenged.”
- Subsequently, the major monkey wrench thrown into the Polly-Alan relationship in the film is a subplot that involves the town’s head selectman Danforth “Buster” Keaton. Keaton has been sipping money from the town’s petty cash to conceal gambling debts (just as in the novel), but comes clean to Alan about his troubles early in the film. Polly misinterprets a half-heard conversation between Pangborn and Keaton to mean that he’s somehow involved in the larceny. Her suspicions are of course abetted by Gaunt with the careful placement of packets of money on Pangborn’s (House?)boat and their relationship degenerates from there. All things considered, this is a paper thin reason for a fall-out between two grown adults who’ve been around the block and are so well-established with one another. The novel’s Gaunt is much more subtle, playing on Polly’s shame and fear that Castle Rock will find out what happened to her son while in San Francisco and placing a curious and overly eager Alan at the center of an attempt to unravel her secrets. It made the fallout and Polly’s conversion far more plausible.
- Wilma Jerzyk is a…turkey…farmer?
- There is no Ace Merrill. How can this be the “last Castle Rock story” without him? Really? No attempt at finding even a discount Kiefer Sutherland? This gives Alan no real nemesis.
- Brian Rusk attempts suicide, but unlike the novel, fails. The film is super ambiguous about this and it only becomes clear later after Pangborn has a rather melodramatic monologic implosion on screen.
- The Catholic versus Protestant subplot and intrigue over Casino night is downplayed to the point that I found myself asking why they even bothered including it. At the climax, when Gaunt brings the town to a boil by stoking religious tension, both churches are empty when they’re “bombed” (in the film they’re literally blown up, while in the novel, they’re stink bombed to drive the crowds meeting in both into a murderous frenzy), which leaves the overall showdown to be embodied in the personages of Reverend Rose and Father O’Neal who appear to be groundskeepers for their affiliated institutions rather than leaders of their respective flocks.
- At the end of the film, the denizens of the Rock are saved by Pangborn’s appeal to their reason rather than in the more magical utilization of everyday gag items (through the power of belief!) to counter Gaunt’s magic. Disappointing, but understandable. Translating that to the screen without it becoming absurd would be a difficult task indeed. However, if they had tried for satire throughout and set the tone as such from the beginning, it would have made sense and would have been forgivable and even enjoyable.
Standalone Analysis of the Film
This movie was a train wreck from the very opening shot. It’s soundtrack, tone, and acting give it a terrible case of identity crisis. Extended usage of such ridicule-inspiring music as “Achey Breaky Heart” or the more melodramatic usage of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” paired with overacted scenes of murder and mayhem on a shoe-string budget are almost embarrassing to watch. It’s not that the cast can’t act either. Starring Max von Sydow as Gaunt and Ed Harris as Sheriff Pangborn, the film should have had enough acting chops to at least stand upright, but it does anything but. Director Frank Heston and
Producer Jack Cummins bear the lion’s share of the blame for this flop. They took compelling characters and great actors and turned it into a farce – an unintentional farce, I might add, because it’s definitely not an intentional satire of anything. There are moments when the film seemingly acknowledges its absurdity that are followed by moments where it seems like Heston genuinely wants to evoke serious emotion and that makes it an unmitigated disaster to behold – even for 1993. On the whole, I take Harris’s sobering monologue from the climax of the film to reveal Heston’s true intentions, and taken even by itself it’s incredibly lacking.
Part of the problem with the adaptation of this particular work is its sheer size and scope. The novel is an ensemble of at least a dozen serious characters with extensive backgrounds and probably two dozen that had one-page backgrounds and just enough history to fit into the patchwork fabric of Castle Rock life. The film has about 14 characters and even with the reduction there was nowhere near enough time, development-wise, for a 120 minute movie. As with Cujo, there was just way too much story for a movie here without extremely careful cutting. A miniseries adaptation like The Stand or Under the Dome would have been a better format to do the tale justice, but those formats are problematic as well. It’s the essential problem at the root of bringing King to the screen in any way, shape, or form. The strength of the novel is its development of character on a grand scale, which makes the chief failing of the film its rather remarkable lack of development in even a single character. Pangborn is not a tortured lawman. Polly is not a haunted mother. There is nothing to overcome other than the glamour of a third-rate manipulator channeling Bela Lugosi. Poorly.
In fact, so poorly I’m having a rather difficult time finding things to talk about at all. From a technical standpoint the film is flat and un-engaging. It’s lighting choices are neutral. The framing of its shots practical and textbook. It has less vitality and character than your run-of-the-mill soap opera that’s been on the air for decades. All things considered, the most noteworthy aspect of its construction was its choice of music – especially during montage scenes, which I found almost surreally terrible in choice and taste. I simply couldn’t imagine the professionals handling this film thinking that “In the Hall of the Mountain King” would be a great choice for accompanying music and sitting back in the editing room knocking back a cold one proud of what they’d done. The set design is bland and virtually nothing is how I pictured it – especially Gaunt’s shop on the main thoroughfare of the town. Honestly it makes the films for Cujo and The Dark Half seem inspired by comparison.
What would I, or could I, have done differently, armchair quarterback that I am? I think I’d have significantly narrowed the cast of characters even further…Polly, Alan, Brian, Nettie, Wilma, and Buster. There was something that could have been good in the chemistry between Nettie (actually played and cast brilliantly by Amanda Plummer) and Wilma Jerzyck (played less brilliantly by Valri Bromfield – but she could have been good!). The story’s first real murder had the potential to be far more visceral because of Nettie’s backstory. Abuse made her a murderer and her steady-road to recovery makes for a tragic story in-and-of-itself. All we end up getting in the film is the fact that she’s a pitiable figure who has psychological problems. I’d focus on Buster’s financial problems as a bridge to the larger problems the town has and then give intimate focus to the jealous and secretive seeds of discontent sown by Gaunt between Polly and Alan. We never get to see the depth of manipulation Gaunt is capable of because of the time constraints and most of his customers are so laughably swayed that he ends up being a dismissible force. The reverend is stereotypically swayed by erotic art in a scene that consists of nothing more than lecherous close-ups, as if this is self-explanatory. There’s no sense of power or cunning, which makes Gaunt a terrible villain and Alan’s victory over him a fait accompli. He’d be better portrayed as a kind of evil genie, granting wishes with that people learn they’d rather not want once granted (perhaps episodically in a TV series). That type of self-realization would have been a far more effective, personal, and intimate vehicle for Pangborn to put together what’s happening in Castle Rock than the pile of old newspapers he finds in Gaunt’s basement that he spends the rest of the movie using to try explaining to people that Gaunt isn’t human and is responsible for disasters throughout history. And if the implication by the end of the film is that people have been pushed and manipulated beyond reason (a questionable statement at that), the sheepish way they own up to their terrible and secretive behavior like five year-olds caught with their hands in the cookie jar by a scolding and pedantic sheriff telling an absurd story, is even more incredible. Say what you will about the pseudo-magic that Pangborn uses to combat Gaunt at the end of the novel, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “appeal to altruism” harangue he uses to wrap up Gaunt’s little business venture in the Rock.
Read or Watch it? ಠ_ಠ Ebert gave the film 1.5 out of 5 stars. In his review he said the film “only has one note, which it plays over and over, sort of a Satanic water torture. It’s not funny and it’s not scary and it’s all sort of depressing.” Pretend this film never happened and with a paltry $15 million haul at the box office, it almost never did. Read it for the characters. Polly and Alan are actually really likable sympathetic characters that you root for.
Number of Beers Required for Enjoyment: There aren’t enough hops on planet Earth. Cannot compute.
For reviews of the novel see: