Directed by Fraser C. Heston [Other horror films: N/A]
Some Stephen King movies are hard to talk about because they may be competently-made for the time, and possess different stories, but the source novels are far superior. Needful Things is one of my favorite Stephen King books, and as such, this adaptation is one of the least enjoyable versions of a good story I’ve seen.
When watching this, my brother said that it was like the creators of the film read the dust-jacket plot and set out to make the film without reading the full book, and that seems apt. There are so, so many things left out or minimized, and some of it was just terrible to leave out, such as:
Pangborn’s wife and child having died, Brian’s suicide while his brother (completely omitted from the film) watched, Polly’s life in San Francisco, Norris Ridgewick’s fishing pole and helping defeat Gaunt, Ace and his assistance of Gaunt (again, entirely omitted), the majority of Cora Rusk’s story, Lester Pratt and Sally Radcliffe, toning down the Catholic vs. Baptist conflict, leaving out most of Frank Jewett and George Nelson’s conflict, the same with Sonny Jackett and Eddie Warburton, and and entirely messing up the ending.
The book is a gourmet feast of characters and information, whereas the film is an unfulfilling cup of Ramen soup.
Leaving out Pangborn’s bout with depression following the death of his wife and child really strips the character of feeling, and taking out his amateur magician hobby strips him of life. In the movie, Pangborn (who was played by Ed Harris here, despite the fact that in the very same year, The Dark Half came out, which also had Pangborn, only played by Michael Rooker) just didn’t feel like the Pangborn I know at all. And in the novel, he didn’t meet Gaunt until the final 15 pages, whereas in the movie, he meets him something like twenty minutes in. It’s utterly ridiculous. Also, Pangborn doesn’t even defeat Gaunt here, that’s given to Buster Keeton, which is just terrible.
Now, before I go further, I do know that a three-hour version of this exists, a TV extension done by TNT. However, that’s never been put on DVD, and is somewhat difficult to find outside of torrents, so I watched the two-hour theatrical version. The extended version does, to its credit, add in Brian’s mother, Cora Rusk, and her own dealings with Gaunt, and likely some other stuff, but given that version is not commonly available, I can only go off what I saw.
There’s a whole point in the book about Polly’s past in San Francisco and the death of a young child, which later comes up as Gaunt’s messing with people’s relationships. In the movie, all of this is removed, and instead we get Polly thinking that Pangborn is involved in an embezzlement scheme with Keeton. They also left out the spider from the amulet, but of course they did.
Ace is a character that was used in the coming-of-age movie Stand By Me from 1986 (based off King’s novella The Body), and reappeared in a significant role in the novel Needful Things. Here, he’s not even on the radar, and the plan to blow up Castle Rock entirely abandoned.
One of my favorite portions in the book is the conflict between the Baptists and the Catholics, led by Reverend William Rose and Father Brigham. This involved twenty or so named characters, and ends in a massive and bloody brawl in the streets of Castle Rock during a rainstorm. The movie’s version in pitiful. Instead of a massive fight, William Rose and Father Meehan (he was renamed in the movie for God knows what reason) themselves punch each other out for a minute, and that’s it. Also worth noting, Nettie in the movie was apparently Baptist, when she had literally nothing to do with the conflict in the novel, nor would she have had been capable of dealing with such tension, so it was idiotic of the movie-makers to throw that in.
I will give the movie some credit for showing Frank Jewett, but for leaving out his story-line, along with the interesting triangle that was Sally Radcliffe, Lester Pratt, and John LaPointe (one of the officers), I condemn the lot of them. At least they kept in the conflict between Hugh Priest and Henry Beaufort, which was a surprise.
Brian’s story follows the novel decently well until the end. In the movie, after some cringe-worthy dialogue (‘I gotta go to Hell now’), he attempts suicide in front of Pangborn. In the book, he commits suicide in front of his little brother Sean. It’s when Pangborn interviews Sean in the novel that Pangborn finally pieces everything together, but who needs that when you eliminate Sean’s character? Also worth noting, the fight between Nettie and Wilma (which, in part, Brian was responsible for initiating) didn’t happen at Wilma’s house as in the movie, but in the streets, causing quite the scene and made for a memorable moment.
One last thing before I rate this abomination, what they do with Danforth ‘Buster’ Keeton’s character is despicable. In the movie, they make him out to be a hero, blowing himself and Gaunt up, finally killing him (it doesn’t work, but of course it doesn’t). Keeton’s no hero – he’s a paranoid and corrupt town selectman who, just hours before, killed his wife. His story in the book is a lot more fitting, and more so, the fact that they gave Keeton the final act of heroism against Gaunt as opposed to Pangborn (who just made a ridiculous speech in front of the town) was a kick in the face to fans of the novel.
Max von Sydow did decent as Gaunt. Not amazing by any means, but decent. I sort of like how they throw in an ability for him to see years in the future, but it doesn’t really add much aside from some cool lines at the end of the film.
If you’ve not read the novel, Needful Things might be a decent movie. If you have read the novel, though, and make it one of the books you read about once a year, this film feels utterly hollow and an insult to the source material. I didn’t like it much when I first saw it, and I’m bitter in my old age of 25 (at the time of this writing), so I hate it more now.
This is one of the films reviewed on Fight Evil’s podcast, so if at all interested, give a listen as Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss Needful Things.