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Hearts in Atlantis

Directed by Scott Hicks (2001)

A review by David Carroll

Hearts in Atlantis posterThey didn't do anything to my novel. It's still there on the shelf -- aphorism attributed to a great many people, including Stephen King.

Note: this review contains some spoilers for the movie.

I warn you from the start, I'm writing this from the viewpoint of a Stephen King fan. It's not that I haven't written plenty of movie reviews in my time. I'm quite prepared to enjoy films on their own terms, and greatly enjoyed Monte Cook's recent rant about people who say "the book was better". But in this case I'm finding it difficult to be impartial. That's because there is something very important missing from Scott Hicks adaptation of Hearts in Atlantis -- or rather the story 'Low Men in Yellow Coats' from that collection. And despite the various things I've been hearing from other fans and the director himself, I'm not talking about the tie-in with the Dark Tower. Not even the yellow coats, for that matter. I'm talking about the point.

I don't really want to say a lot about the book, because it's in on my to-do list, and if you look down the left hand column, you'll see there's an awful lot to catch up on first. But briefly, Stephen King's writing has been of variable quality lately -- hell, for the most of the last twenty years. Maybe it's just different strokes for different folks, but I find the gap between the taut and exciting The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and the somewhat naff Dreamcatcher to be remarkable. More obviously, there is the difference between Desperation and The Regulators -- talk about sending Bachman off with a whimper, did anybody like that book?[1] But King is still capable of some damn fine -- and important -- writing, and Hearts in Atlantis is one of his best of recent times. As such it would seem a natural for an adaptation, to be given the same serious treatment as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption.

Enter Stephen Hicks, acclaimed Australian director of Shine, which I have as yet completely failed to watch.

Everything starts off very well, and proceeds like that for quite some time. In a suitably bleak introduction Robert (aka Bobby) Garfield attends the funeral of his childhood friend Sully, and learns that his first love Carol Gerber has also passed on. Robert is a successful artist (a photographer, in a strange synergy with noted cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski to whom the film is dedicated), and thus a successful person in Hollywood speak. Most of the rest of the movie is then told in flashback, as Robert remembers the events of 1960, and in particular the presence of the mysterious Ted Brautigan. Ted is on the run from somebody, but for the time he can stay he is a father figure to Bobby, and a gateway into a wider and scarier world. This is not unfamiliar territory. The 1950s seems to occupy a special part in American literature, invoking long golden summers and growing up in trying but heart-warming circumstances, and although Hearts misses the actual decade by a few months, it's set squarely in the tropes of the genre. It's not exclusively a horror setting, but horror authors have long used it. I think Ray Bradbury was writing about the 50s before it even existed. Carnivals and horror movies, burgeoning sexuality and paranoia in the shadows. All good stuff.

The movie captures all of that. It looks gorgeous and does not shirk from the nastier aspects of human interaction, from bullying to rape. The actors all do good jobs. Anton Yelchin has the right amount of wide-eyed wonder at the world, looking somewhat hobbit-like. Anthony Hopkins is a dignified presence as Brautigan, although he's not given a great deal to do when it comes down to it. I did get a few Lecter flashbacks during his performance, but that may have been because I watched Silence only the week before (gotta love the out-takes). Mika Boorem and Hope Davis play the women in Bobby's life with a somewhat stretched patience that is convincing. Mika as Carol in particular looked very familiar to me, but I'm not sure where that's from. The adult Robert is played with suitable sparseness by David Morse, recognisable from unexpected places like Contact and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and also from The Green Mile and The Langoliers.

Speaking of other King movies, Hearts' screenplay was by William Goldman, a highly respected writer whose credits include Misery. But that's where things start to break down. In short, the movie doesn't go anywhere. I'm sure it's difficult to adapt a novella that is part of a larger work, especially when you've been given a title that doesn't relate to the story, and a central figure that happens to be a Breaker on the run from the Crimson King (when describing the original material, Scott Hicks wisely sticks to 'aliens'). But even so...

Firstly, it does do some things right. Taking out the Crimson King was a necessity, I think. With the success of Lord of the Rings someone might just tackle the Dark Tower series, and even do a good job (quite a scary thought), but Hearts in Atlantis wasn't the time or the place. The decision to use FBI mind control experiments was a good one, apparently suggested by Steve himself (who in turn got the idea from Bill Gates!). In the end it didn't really make much difference either way. Presumably Brautigan's telepathy is mildly contagious, which is why Bobby gets a dose at the inevitable carnival (either that or it's the stirrings of, um, first love shall we say?). It's a good scene, but doesn't really go anywhere. The entire Sully connection is dropped really fast. Apart from a quick scene to explain the baseball glove, he is ignored. The trials of Bobby's mother make more thematic sense, but like everything there are no surprises. At the end of it all we have some fumbling apologies, Brautigan is gone, and everything works out OK. An exciting career in photography awaits.

Why is everything OK? Just because. Maybe being given a fairer picture of his real father means Bobby can forgive the betrayal of his mentor -- but I'm not really buying it. It's a happy ending out of the hat.

It's also the most important and disappointing change from the book. 'Low Men in Yellow Coats' is a story about betrayal, and not only by Bobby's mother. If you've read it you'll know what I mean. The book Hearts in Atlantis is about the 60s, and Vietnam, and regret. People are touched by the consequences of their actions, and perhaps no restitution is enough.

There are other changes along similar lines, most particularly Carol, who on screen basically ends up having a kid and dying. Does any of this matter? I think it does.

What is the point of adapting something if you change the essence of it? It becomes nothing more than the excuse to make a movie. I don't think anybody was motivated by a love of the source material -- the very story that they are committing to film -- but simply took the opportunity to do some work and sell some seats. Of course, that happens. As a struggling freelancer I am not complaining about writing for cash. But as a Stephen King fan, I can and will complain about other people doing it, hypocrisy or not.

In the end, I think this movie was trying to be Stand By Me, an adaptation of a remarkable Stephen King novella (about, of course, children growing up fast in the 50s), that nonetheless was great all on its own. But 'Low Men in Yellow Coats' is telling a different story. Difficult to film -- of course -- but possible.

The movie wasn't a total disaster by any means. It was familiar tropes well made, with its fair share of wonder and trauma. It certainly was never boring. And it's true that a movie does not damage its source directly. I do think this one will lessen the likelihood of the book getting the recognition it deserves, but then, maybe I can also blame Stephen King for the occasionally less than gripping work that surrounds it. Whatever the case, I can't find myself recommending this one to you.


1. Harsh words. It's been a year since I wrote them, more or less, and after listening to Kate Nelligan's excellent reading of the The Regulators, I have repented... to an extent. The characters are so damn passive, it's like watching the cast of Desperation mown down with a scythe. Nonetheless, the brutality and the character's reaction to it -- and how suburbia has shaped those responses -- are very much the point of the novel, and well worth saying. Likewise for the depiction of children's entertainment taken to its logical conclusion, even if I cringed the first time around. I still have problems with the verisimilitude of the diary entries, but there are worst things in the world.

Speaking of which, there's Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher. But hey, I enjoyed it -- if nothing else, it was truly in touch with its inner naffness, and Damian Lewis as Jonesy did well for himself.


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