Many a movie has been based on prolific writer Stephen King's works of fiction. And while quite a few of those pictures were deemed genuine misses, several of them have been held in high regard to this very day. One such adaptation is Canadian director David Cronenberg’s take on The Dead Zone, King’s seventh novel published in 1979. Right after the book was released, Lorimar Film Entertainment had its sights set on making it into a feature film, with Jeffrey Boam quickly becoming attached to the project as the screenwriter. Joining forces with director Stanley Donen, Boam wrote the first draft, but Donen eventually quit before production could take off. This was only the first in a series of changes The Dead Zone would go through before ultimately hitting theaters on October 21, 1983. Sometime after Donen’s departure, the aforementioned production company was forced to close its movie division on account of a number of its pictures performing poorly at the box office. In came Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who saved the day by buying the film rights to The Dead Zone. But the fact that he did not think much of Boam’s script resulted in him offering the screenwriting gig to King himself. The author accepted and did the work required of him. Unfortunately, the powers that be proved to be less than enthusiastic about King’s adaptation, with De Laurentiis reportedly dismissing it as “involved and convoluted” and asking Andrzej Żuławski to write it instead. After rejecting Żuławski’s screenplay as well, the producer re-hired Boam.
David Cronenberg, whose body horror Videodrome hit theaters in 1983, was already on board as director and claimed that he was, in fact, the one who disliked King’s script, calling it terrible: “It was not only bad as a script, it was the kind of script that his fans would have torn me apart for doing […] It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant slasher script. The Castle Rock killer in the middle of the movie becomes the lead, and it was, ‘Let’s show lots of his victims.’” Boam agreed with this verdict, saying that the author had “missed the point of his own book.” So, both the screenwriter and the director were set on making sure that the same mistake would not be repeated twice.
The story follows schoolteacher Johnny Smith, a man satisfied with his job and happily in love with his colleague. But he soon finds himself out of luck and in a five-year coma after surviving a horrific car accident. Upon regaining consciousness, Johnny is forced to come to terms with a reality much different than the one he left behind—not only is his girlfriend married to another man, but he also starts exhibiting psychic powers. When making physical contact with other human beings, Johnny is suddenly capable of seeing their future, as well as their past, a gift that quite literally gives him headaches and starts taking its toll on his body. But our protagonist has a choice. He can either see this new ability as a curse and isolate himself from the outside world completely, or he can uncover the gift inherent in his superpower and use it to help those who do not know they are in trouble to begin with.
Johnny’s character arc is nothing short of a hero’s journey that requires him to experience the former so that he could allow himself to eventually tap into the latter. He goes back and forth between turning his back on the world around him and lending a helping hand to those who need it, be it a boy whose life is in danger or a sheriff who desperately seeks assistance in tracking down a notorious serial killer. But after coming into contact with a dangerous politician, Johnny is soon forced to choose one over the other, well aware of the fact that embracing his gift means going past the point of no return.
When working on the screenplay, Boam decided to ditch the narrative structure of King’s 428-page novel which switched from Johnny’s point of view to the politician’s and vice versa. Instead, he placed the focus on the psychic protagonist and his journey of self-acceptance, with his nemesis appearing in the movie’s final act. But what Boam did do was retain the novel’s episodic quality, which resulted in a clean-cut three-act structure. The first part of his triptych introduces us to Johnny before his life-altering car accident and paints a picture of his character and mindset post-comma. The second part sees him deciding to help out the local sheriff catch a murderer who had been wreaking havoc. And in the final chapter, we bear witness to Johnny’s becoming, as the sensitive teacher comes to terms with his true potential upon meeting the politician Greg Stillson.
But Boam was not the only one who ended up working on the script. The screenwriter, the director and producer Debra Hill had meetings with the intention of fleshing out the details. This resulted in Cronenberg revising it no less than four times, throwing out substantial amounts of King’s plot points that he felt did not serve the story and even rejecting Boam’s own twist ending that was a far cry from the conclusion of King’s novel. This meticulous approach to the screenwriting process turned out to be just what the doctor ordered—unnecessary details were left out but the atmosphere of the source material remained intact. And although violence is somewhat present in Cronenberg’s film—the scissor-scene is in no way a pretty sight to behold—it is much less prominent than in the book. This may come as a surprise, seeing as how the Canadian auteur is no stranger to blood and gore, with his previous movie Videodrome even centering around visual depictions of violence as one of its main themes. However, there is a reason why the director did not pull out all the stops in terms of violence this time around—after the intense body horror fest that was Videodrome, he simply needed a change of pace. In the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he states the following: “Videodrome was a very heavy experience. If you’re used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a very heavy picture. But if you’re used to Videodrome, Dead Zone is not. At that point I needed to do something based on somebody else’s work, as a relief.”
This lack of extreme violence ultimately paid off, because it enabled the movie’s focus to linger on the main character and his inner journey. That is, perhaps, one of the greatest achievements of Cronenberg’s adaptation—making us view the protagonist’s supernatural abilities not as a genre-defining story element, but rather as an obstacle that disables an average Joe from living out his life in peace and quiet. Johnny’s attempts to come to terms with the paradigm shift that has befallen him form both the emotional and narrative core of the movie, with the frozen Canadian exteriors perfectly reflecting the character’s psychological state. No matter how much time passes, the parts of Johnny’s story that we get to see are always set in winter, a season associated not only with introspection and contraction, but also with death and deterioration. Winter is the season where things come to die before they can be reborn again in spring. Johnny’s life is, metaphorically speaking, stuck in a world of permanent winter, his body getting weaker with the passage of time, his need for solitude turning him into a recluse. However, Johnny’s decision regarding his lifestyle changes when he realizes that his visions have a blind spot or a “dead zone”—the awareness of the fact that the future is not unchangeable. This newly uncovered information turns out to be all it takes for Johnny to start contemplating the positive flip side of his curse and seeing its potential for altering a future that would prove to be catastrophic without his interference.
In the role of Johnny, we get to see the ever-fantastic Christopher Walken, whose mood, demeanor and facial expressions speak volumes about his character’s state. And even though a better Johnny could hardly be imagined, King himself wanted Bill Murray for the role, while Cronenberg had his sights initially set on Nicholas Campbell, who would ultimately play the part of deputy Frank Dodd. For the role of Sheriff George Bannerman Cronenberg had Hal Holbrook in mind, but De Laurentiis disapproved of the decision, so Tom Skerritt was cast instead. Anthony Zerbe was lovely and empathetic as Johnny’s doctor Sam Weizak, Brooke Adams gave unexpected depth to the character of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Sarah who could have easily been reduced to a mere plot device, and Martin Sheen was absolutely electric as the movie’s main antagonist, the ruthless politician Greg Stillson.
The Dead Zone was a critical success when it first came out in the fall of ’83 and although it managed to make money, it did not become a hit the same way as De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie or Carpenter’s 1983 rendition of Christine. But in spite of this, The Dead Zone is still considered by many to be one of the best adaptations of a King novel. Its thought-out writing, strong direction and intense performances make it a gripping drama about one man’s burden, with its science fiction elements serving the purpose of emphasizing the magnitude of that load. Even King himself was impressed with how his story was handled, claiming that the changes that were made to it “improved and intensified the power of the narrative.” And if that is not a testament to what a successful adaptation The Dead Zone is, I do not know what is.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay for The Dead Zone [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
DEAD ZONE, THE (1983) Interviews (part 1) with David Cronenberg, Debra Hill, and Martin Sheen
DEAD ZONE, THE (1983) Interviews (part 2) with David Cronenberg, Debra Hill, and Martin Sheen
How Christopher Walken Got Cast in Cronenberg's The Dead Zone