When word came out about yet another adaptation of a Stephen King property, I wondered if there would be fan fatigue. King is a prolific purveyor of written horror, but when creatives attempt to bring his works to TV or the big screen, results are decidedly mixed.
For every box office darling like It, there always seems be a hot mess flop like The Dark Tower. Mr. Mercedes bowed to great reviews on the TV side this year, but The Mist turned out to be an epic fail. And so on, and so on.
The inherent problem lies in how the writer or Director is able to translate the overall tone of King's work to whatever medium he or she chooses.
King has a tendency to be wordy and oftentimes overly descriptive in his stories. While that works fine in books (I find it to be a positive), it's problematic when someone is trying to adapt one of his books to the primarily visual medium of film and TV.
Since much of King's works rely on the inner conversation of the hero (or in the case of 1922, the villain), it can be a tricky enterprise to translate that to film. Writers have to be clever at adapting his stream of consciousness style of storytelling into a compelling narrative, both visually and through dialog.
King's Gerald's Game, another recent #Netflix original, faced a similar problem. The story is basically a drawing room horror story, with almost all the action taking place in one room, the plot driven by the inner dialog of the protagonist, who is seemingly going slowly mad.
It was deemed virtually un-filmable for years due to the inherent problem of the trippy visions of an unreliable narrator. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan solved this by turning the hallucinations into an often funny conversation between the handcuffed Jessie Burlingame and her dead husband Gerald.
The one very important aspect of the story that failed in this approach, however, was the the depiction of the big bad, The Moonlight Man. He is given short shrift in the film, his effect blunted by the Gerald/Jessie back and forth, and by a rather predictable ending. Well, enough about that, on to the review.
"In the end, we all get caught."
1922 tells the sad tale of Wilf James, a farmer in Hemingford Home, Nebraska. If the location sounds familiar, it was also the home of Mother Abigail in King's The Stand. Wilf's wife Arlette hates the farm life, so when her deceased father leaves her 100 acres of adjacent farmland, she wants to sell it, divorce Wilf, and take her teenage son Henry with her to the city.
Wilf has slowly grown to hate his wife, so her threat of taking his son away is the last straw. Henry is in love with neighbor girl Shannon, and it is this relationship Wilf leverages in his attempt to keep Henry down on the farm. Wilf's tragic, horribly misguided solution is to kill Arlette (with Henry's help), dump her body in a dry well, and concoct a story of her leaving them both.
Murders in horror stories never seem to go as planned, so it doesn't take long for Wilf's grand scheme to go off the rails. The murder of Arlette is particularly brutal: it gives a realistic view of just how hard it is to kill someone. Arlette literally fights for her life, causing Wilf and Henry to have to work very hard to finally finish her off. Wilf slits her throat in front of Henry, and they are forever changed for the worse. Both men are totally exhausted after the murder, so dragging her body to the dry well is a slow and torturous slog.
To cover up their crime, Wilf comes up with another gruesome idea: he leads one of his cows to the well, and it falls in, covering up Arlette. The cow's body is broken, mewling in pain, as Wilf pumps a bullet into it to put the poor thing out of its misery. Wilf and Henry cover the well in dirt, essentially burying Arlette.
The sheriff comes around, doing a cursory search, but he buys Wilf's story of Arlette leaving him and Henry. So Wilf and Henry live happily ever after, right? Not so much.
Soon after, Henry comes home from school with some shocking news: he's knocked up Shannon. Shannon's dad want to send her away to a wayward girl's home to have the baby, and then bring her back to the farm like nothing ever happened. Henry wants to run away with Shannon, but Wilf forbids it. Henry, being a headstrong teen, goes his own way: he runs away, leaving Wilf alone with his poisonous, guilty thoughts.
It is here where the film hits its stride. 1922 is essentially a mashup of William Faulkner and Poe's A Tell Tale Heart. The movie is told in flashback: Wilf is writing his murder confession in a hotel room, recounting the whole sordid affair.
At its core, the film examines what crippling guilt can to to a man's psyche. Once he's alone, Wilf is consumed with hallucinations of his dead wife, and rats-LOTS of rats. The rats are essentially a metaphor for his madness. They emerge from the well (after dining on Arlette), and attack Wilf in the house. No matter what he does, the rats of his conscience scurry around, following him everywhere he goes. He tries to escape into the cellar, but something follows him down.
Arlette, dead, slashed, and bloody, sidles up next to Wilf, and tells him what really happened after Henry ran away.
Henry turned to a life of crime after rescuing Shannon, and together they became The Sweetheart Bandits, and ersatz Bonnie and Clyde. During one of their robberies, Shannon is shot. Henry carries her through a snow storm to an abandoned cabin. Shannon dies in his arms, and Henry uses a gun to follow her.
The murder of Arlette begats more and more death, leaving everyone associated with Wilf broken and and alone. The finale has Wilf watching as rats eat their way into his hotel room. He turns to find the dead bodies of Arlette, Shannon, and Henry standing, staring at him. Henry, brandishing the knife Wilf used to kill Arlette, promises "it will be quick."
The film is unrelentingly grim, with the sole highlight being the intense performance of Thomas Jane as Wilf. His thick Nebraska farm accent is difficult to understand at times, but his portrayal of a man slowly descending into madness is haunting.
Director Zak Hilditch does the best he can with a thin story (the source material is a mere 131 page novella), focusing his camera on the farm vistas to good effect. He sets the mood well, ratcheting up the tension as Wilf's world and mind slowly collapse.
The film is overlong, and probably would have been a better fit for the upcoming J.J Abrams/#Hulu Stephen King anthology series Castle Rock. Slow burn stories are fine, but this could have been much more effective if told in a tighter and shorter format.
That's my take: tell me yours in the comments section!