The Dead Zone (1979) is a tale that, like much of King’s broad oeuvre of work, is particularly character-driven. At the centre of the impending storm is a teacher at the local high school, a young man who goes by the unlikely name of John Smith, no middle name. Johnny is a charming, sympathetic character, a teacher beloved by his students, and he is in love with Sarah Bracknell. In his heart of hearts, Johnny believes that teaching is his true talent, and is what he has been intended to do in this life.
What has interrupted his life plans rather abruptly, though, is that like Carrie (from Carrie) and Charlie (from Firestarter), Johnny has psychic abilities. Unlike Carrie (from Carrie) and Charlie (from Firestarter), Johnny’s psychic abilities came to him after a long-forgotten childhood accident, one that created what he eventually came to call a “dead zone” in his brain. This ability of his, which is triggered by his sense of touch, leads to brushes with both skeptics and believers, and intense internal arguments as to whether or not he should turn his back and walk away. The music eventually comes to an unavoidable crescendo that begins when John Smith, former teacher, present tutor, very unwilling psychic, shakes hands with up and coming people’s politician Greg Stillson.
Through John Smith, the Constant Reader is allowed to explore, in our somewhat limited capacity, what it means to undergo a sort of morphology: John Smith has woken up from his coma entirely changed, into a life that has also been entirely changed. From being someone, he has been turned into something, the infamy that is associated with his ability has the effect of dehumanizing him to other people in one of two ways – either dehumanizing him (as a trickster or a fraud) or deifying him (as a being obliged to perform miracles). This unwilling metamorphosis is similar to those that emerge in I Am The Doorway, as well as in The Shining, particularly in the moment where Jack emerges from the fugue one last time to tell Danny that he loves him, and that he must run.
Unlike some other notable King stories, though, the ending to this book is wonderfully tense, exciting, building up to a run and then crashing into our Johnny. The writing in this book has been more literary, less run of the mill horror, but the final moments remind us, as human beings, that true horror resides in our own psyches, unleashed in what we are horrifyingly capable of.
The film: a true Stephen King adaptation
David Cronenberg, a filmmaker known for his genius in the body horror genre, directed The Dead Zone in 1983. Having seen a few of the many adaptations of King’s work, I confess to having a handful of favourites: Misery, Salem’s Lot (the miniseries), The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, Needful Things. The Dead Zone is up there, too, because one of the reasons that these are my favourites is that I believe they preserve the true spirit of the text: they are recognizable as Stephen King’s work, and so is The Dead Zone.
While I enjoyed young Christopher Walken before the accident as the charming, sweet soul that is Johnny Smith, it is truly in the post-accident moments of the film that he shines. He brings a extraordinarily vulnerability to the role that he amplifies ten-fold post-coma. His pain is not only over waking up to discover that Sarah is married and has a son, but also that the world has moved on without him, and keeps continuing to move before he has the chance to really catch up. Walken’s John Smith is true to the spirit of John Smith as he has been written, perhaps as true an acting moment as we will ever get in these adaptations.
Martin Sheen is fantastic as the politician who would reshape the world, Greg Stillson as the people’s candidate. He is continually disturbing and incessantly maniacal, and the moments when we see him take his power and wield it in a precise, surgeon’s move serve as a reminder that he is utterly convinced that not only is he doing the right thing, he is the right choice, in fact the only choice, to be doing the thing.
One of the better adaptations of a King work, The Dead Zone brings us, the Constant Readers, through the highs and lows of a fellow who has come to a point in his life where he must make a choice that will change the world forever.
Image of movie poster from mauvais-genres.