Saturday, May 07, 2011

Stephen King Month: Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

For readers of Stephen King books, the interweaving nature of so many of his stories is a treat, a little bonus for paying attention and remembering details from one book to the next. As King's epic Dark Tower series went on, he started adding more and more of these connections, such that seemingly unrelated novels turned out to have significant connections to the Dark Tower mythology. Sometimes this was just tedious (Insomnia is an absolute slog, for example), but sometimes it gave extra resonance to an already well-crafted story. The problem is that taking what is essentially a piece of a larger story and trying to make it stand on its own as a movie inherently loses something in the process.

That's doubly the case with Hearts in Atlantis, based on one portion of King's 1999 novel of the same name. Atlantis the book is a collection of five interconnected stories, two of which are practically novels on their own, the other three of which are shorter, and as such it doesn't really lend itself to a unified feature-film adaptation (even a miniseries might feel disjointed). The different parts of the book have different tones and styles, but the cumulative effect is a powerful examination of the legacy of the 1960s, and the way that various characters pop in and out of the narrative creates a sense of scope and meaning that isn't accomplished by any one piece alone. Atlantis the movie takes the most substantial section of the book -- the first, "Low Men in Yellow Coats" -- and a tiny bit from the final section and lops off the rest, leaving a sort of prologue with no aftermath. What's worse, "Low Men" is closely tied to the Dark Tower series, and the movie has to cut off that connection as well.

What's left is a lot of unfocused nostalgia without King's pointed social commentary or the bigger picture of his epic fantasy world. Instead it's a slight coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old boy (a young Anton Yelchin) who befriends a strange old man (Anthony Hopkins) living upstairs from him. Although the movie is set in the past, screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks go light on the period references, and the time period isn't really important to the story. The central idea of King's story is that Hopkins' Ted is being pursued by the titular low men, hunting him on behalf of the Crimson King, who is working to break the bonds that hold the Dark Tower aloft. Ted's unique psychic abilities would allow him to destroy the Tower's supports, but he refuses to cooperate. The young Bobby protects Ted without really understanding the larger ramifications, but his efforts give him a greater purpose and help him grow up.

In the movie, Ted's abilities and pursuers are vaguely defined, although there's briefly a mention of the government's secret projects with psychic soldiers, and it's implied that Ted is somehow a part of that. Watching the movie, I kept adding in the extra connections that I knew were there, even though it's probably been close to a decade since I read the book. Bobby's two best friends, also, turn out to be very important characters in the later parts of the book, but here they get limited screen time, although his budding romance with Carol (Mika Boorem) plays out sweetly. Still, there's a sense of something missing, of a larger theme that's just out of reach. The performances are all fine, but the stakes are always unclear, and the style suggests more meaning than the movie actually has. It's all warm tones and wistful looks as a substitute for real feeling. Plus, the title (which refers to the second section of the book) is rendered irrelevant, even though Goldman and Hicks add some muddled dialogue relating it to childhood. I'm not sure how satisfying this movie could be for people who've never read the book, but for someone who has, it's like watching the first episode of a TV show that never got picked up.

How far to Castle Rock: Shockingly, the small town here is in Connecticut, not Maine.

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