Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is a thrilling trip through time

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I’ve just finished reading my 26th Stephen King book, 11.22.63; I read my first – It – in 1988. I’ve read more of his stories than I have of any other author, with Isaac Asimov next at 18.

Stephen King doesn’t give the reader any easy rides. His protagonists go through pain. Lots of it. There are lots of lead characters in popular culture who get hurt, like Indiana Jones and John McClane; but those guys mainly experience physical pain and they are still strong enough to bounce back in the next action scene a few minutes later. King’s characters on the other hand, keep hurting for a long time because the pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Like in real life. I think this is the real reason he is classified as a horror author, because we know that life’s realities can be more horrifying than any ghost, monster or supernatural phenomenon.

11.22.63 falls into the scifi spectrum of Stephen King stories, like Under the Dome. In 2011, a small town high school teacher Jake Epping is invited by long-time acquaintance Al Templeton to his house, where he learns that Templeton has been using a secret time portal to travel back in time; the portal opens into a specific day in 1958. Templeton extracts from Epping a promise that he will go back and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a pivotal moment in American history which Templeton believes led to America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War and many other ills the world has suffered since. Epping agrees, goes through the portal and then travels down south to Texas where he has to get through the next 5 years, find Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the foul deed. In the hands of any other author, this would have become a typical suspense thriller, but King is interested as much in the journey as the destination and takes us on a tour of America in the late 50s and early 60s, a nation that has gone past the post-war baby boom and is now dealing with urban decay and social cynicism. Along the way, Epping meets some memorable characters, falls in love, gets into some heart-stopping dangerous situations and eventually faces his destiny as the man who has the power to change the course of history.

One key plot mechanic used – kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina (apparently the term is ‘diabolus ex machina’) – is that the past does everything possible to prevent its course from being changed. And so, Epping has to battle all sorts of people and incidents that pop up, like Murphy’s Law, to stop him from getting to Oswald before he fires that gun. And afterwards, Epping finds out that even if you do manage to change the course of events, Time has a way of taking revenge.

This is a fascinating story that stays in the memory well after the last page has been turned. I would love to watch the mini-series featuring James Franco as Jake Epping, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year and see if it does justice to King’s writing. If it weren’t for the fact that King writes horror/ fantasy/ scifi, he would certainly have been celebrated as one of America’s great modern writers of fiction.


James Wan: Yet another low budget horror maestro goes epic

Earlier this week, Warner Bros. announced that Malaysian-born Australian director James Wan would direct Aquaman, the 7th entry in its newly created DC Cinematic Universe, which started off with Man of Steel in 2013. It was also announced that he would direct the big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese anime franchise, Robotech. James Wan had already hit the big league, with his Furious 7 becoming the most successful entry in the franchise earlier this summer, but with this news, one can confidently add him to a small but illustrious group of directors who have made the transition from micro-budget horror to epic action blockbuster.

Sam Raimi was the first of these guys to break onto the scene in 1981 with yet another version of ‘silly teenagers get killed off mysteriously’. What differentiated The Evil Dead from previous low budget horror flicks was the liberal use of blood and gore, supercharged with great editing and camera angles, and leavened by the unexpected use of black comedy. More such films followed, each growing in budget and scope. Then in quick succession between 1995 and 2000, Raimi ‘matured’; he directed a western, a crime thriller, a sports drama and a supernatural mystery thriller. Across these films, he worked with established and future stars of Hollywood – Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Leonardo di Caprio, Kevin Costner, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes! Soon after, Raimi was chosen to direct Spider-Man for Sony Pictures. The highly anticipated film opened in April 2002 with highest opening weekend of all time and went on to make USD 800 mn worldwide. In 20 years, Raimi had gone from a haunted tree attacking a woman in the forest to the unforgettable upside-down kiss in the rain. Its success ensured that superhero films were here to stay. Raimi went on to direct two more highly lucrative Spider-Man films and although he is now primarily a producer of TV shows, he remains one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.

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Peter Jackson started off his career in New Zealand making low budget ‘splatter’ horror comedies, with films like Bad Taste and Braindead. Then unexpectedly, he switched genres and directed the highly acclaimed true-life drama Heavenly Creatures starring a teenage Kate Winslett. It made a splash at film festivals from Venice to Chicago to Toronto before landing Jackson an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He then got his first Hollywood gig, the big-budget horror-comedy The Frighteners (I think of it as ‘Beetlejuice meets Ghostbusters‘) and then spent the next 4 years working on the biggest gamble of his life – The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Three years and 3 Oscars later, he was the undisputed king of big budget, intelligent, epic film making. His Weta Digital special effects company had taken over from George Lucas’ ILM and James Cameron’s Digital Domain as the new powerhouse for visual effects. His 2005 remake of King Kong remains one of my most memorable cinema theatre experiences (along with Jurassic Park and the first LOTR) and I enjoyed his recent Hobbit films although they didn’t reach the critical or commercial heights of the LOTR trilogy. He is now likely to direct the next installment of the animated Tintin feature films he is co-producing with Steven Spielberg. But as you can see from the images below, he seems to be constantly drawn back to material that deals with spirits and the afterlife, so it will be interesting to see what comes after the Tintin movie.

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Last but not least, Guillermo del Toro. I first heard of him when Barry Norman reviewed his debut film Cronos on BBC’s Film 93. Cronos was a contemporary vampire drama in which the vampirism is ‘created’ through a mysterious biomechanical device. The film was screened at Cannes and won several Mexican Ariel awards. Mr. del Toro’s output has not been as commercially successful as that of Raimi or Jackson and I guess that’s because his movies are mainly for fanboys. Because of that, all his material has a distinct and memorable visual signature. Think about the two Hellboy comic-to-film adaptations or his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth or even the derivative Pacific Rim, and there will always be some character, creature or device that remains in memory years after watching the movie; for those who have read the monochromatic Hellboy comic books, it is easy to see del Toro’s contribution in translating those characters to the big screen; likewise, who can forget the creepy ‘tenome’ creature in Pan’s Labyrinth with eyes on the palms of his hands or the exquisite technical detailing of the Drift/ Jaeger tech in Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, del Toro has also emerged as a prolific producer (both sides of the spectrum: horror and animation) and mentor of up-and-coming directors. His upcoming Crimson Peak is his take on the good old ‘haunted house’ sub-genre.

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Another director who crossed over from horror is David Cronenberg, but unlike the others he continues to work outside the Hollywood studio system and has never ventured into escapist blockbuster territory. The Canadian director was one of the pioneers of the ‘body horror’ sub-genre in the 70s; Scanners in particular became infamous for its exploding head scene. He then broke out with a variety of intelligent but disturbing scifi films like The Fly, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ which continued to explore the effects of science tampering with nature. In the 3rd phase of his career, he has diversified yet again: gritty crime dramas A History of Violence and Eastern Promises earned multiple Oscar nominations followed by the period piece A Dangerous Method, the psychological drama Cosmopolis with Robert Pattinson and the Hollywood semi-satire Maps to the Stars. Unlike the other directors in this group who have transitioned from claustrophobic horror to epic escapist fantasy, the claustrophobic settings remained a constant while Cronenberg moved from scifi-based horror to reality-based drama.

When I listed these directors, I thought about Stephen King’s body of work and I realized that the best horror story tellers are able to find the path to the darkest corners of the human psyche. King may have started off with buckets of blood in Carrie and The Shining, but pretty soon he was exploring the epic post-apocalyptic genre with The Stand and The Dark Tower. Some years later he traveled into the ultimate heart of darkness with Misery. With all these books, what made King successful was not his ability to think up of fearsome entities, but his ability to show us that true fear lurks deep in our own hearts. Once a storyteller has been able to reach that far inside, all the other layers of emotion are easier to uncover.

Coming back to James Wan, his horror films Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring are truly disturbing, less like the early gross-out work of Raimi, Peter Jackson and Cronenberg. His work on Furious 7 was competent but did not produce anything very distinctive in my opinion, particularly because it was the 7th entry in a franchise where characters and relationships were already set. By the time he gets to Aquaman, that too will be the 7th entry in a franchise for which the creative direction is being set by Zack Snyder, so once again I’m not sure how much he will have to play with. If he is able to find his own ‘voice’ in spite of this, it will definitely place him in the same league as Raimi, Jackson and del Toro.

Under the Dome premiere delivers the goods

The premiere episode of CBS drama Under the Dome, based on Stephen King’s highly acclaimed 2009 novel, delivered giant ratings when it debuted a few days ago. I haven’t read the novel yet and I understand that several plot elements of the  TV show vary from that of the novel. Given that the TV script is written by Brian K. Vaughan, that’s perfectly fine by me. You see, Mr. Vaughan wrote the outstanding post-apocalyptic graphic novel series Y: The Last Man from 2002-08, which explored what would happen in a world where every male living being suddenly died. The series – much like Max Brooks’ World War Z – used a post-apocalyptic setting to evaluate how social and political structures would respond to a calamitous event…how strongly would the veneer of civilization hold in the face of the unthinkable.

I think Mr. Vaughan is bringing much the same thinking to his writing on Under the Dome. How will the citizens of a small town in North-eastern US respond when a single event takes loved ones away and leaves you having to defend your way of life against forces that you have no understanding of? Some people look to take advantage of such a situation while it brings out the best in others, frequently from those who have never demonstrated much altruism in normal times.

Another novel which explores a similar situation, although in a spatially inverted manner, is Eric Flint’s 1632. In that novel, a town in West Virginia mysteriously is transported into the year 1632 and transposed into the middle of Germany. I found many parallels in the story structure of the early chapters of 1632 and the pilot episode of Dome.

I really hope the showrunners of Dome can keep the momentum and quality going into the 2nd episode and beyond. I had similarly high expectations with J.J. Abrams’ series Revolution a few months ago. The premiere episode was directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau and was really good. Thereafter, it went downhill, primarily because of the irritating Matheson family, especially Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and to a lesser extent her mother Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell). Even the presence of intriguing characters like Major Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) wasn’t enough to save the show for me.

Similarly, I noticed that the pilot episode of Under the Dome had great credentials – executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man who directed the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hopefully with the solid source material from Stephen King and the adapted writing from Brian Vaughan, the subsequent episodes will maintain standards. The other reason I have hope is that the casting seems to be better than that of Revolution. Although the father-son combo of ‘Big Jim’ and Junior Rennie are going to be a handful to deal with, there are likeable characters like Linda the cop (Natalie Martinez, who had such a good role as the cop’s wife in last year’s End of Watch), Julia the journalist (Rachel Lefevre, who plays the vampire Victoria in the Twilight movies), the precocious kid Joe McAlister (played by Colin Ford) and the mysterious stranger ‘Barbie’ (Mike Vogel) who just missed leaving town before the dome fell.

The show is a bit violent and gory, but what would you expect of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel? And I have to admit, the bit with the cow was one of the best scenes in the episode!

I understand that the scientific explanation of the dome will differ in the show vs. the novel (although I haven’t read the novel, I know what causes the dome to happen), so that’s a good trick by the showrunners to keep people hooked till the end of the series, even if they’ve read the book. The only thing I am uncertain about is the likelihood that CBS will make this an open-ended story lasting for months (and therefore extending beyond its current 13-episode first season order), unlike the King novel in which the story lasts just a week or so. I am not keen on an endless wild goose chase like Lost (for which Mr. Vaughan was a story editor and co-producer for several episodes, by the way), where ultimately the sub-plots get so convoluted and characters become increasingly weird, that it becomes tough for the writers to resolve the story in a sensible way. No matter how good a story is, there can always be too much of a good thing!

Chloe Moretz signs up to play Carrie in Stephen King remake

One of the most engaging characters in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated Hugo is Isabelle, the goddaughter to Ben Kingsley’s Georges Melies character. In a story that features a distraught orphan, a grim shop owner, and an obsessive station inspector, it is Isabelle who stands out for her sincere, girl-next-door personality and ends up becoming the glue that binds the characters together. She reminded me of the spunky schoolgirl heroines from Enid Blyton books, full of good cheer and endless optimism.

When I watched Hugo a few weeks ago, I hadn’t realized that Isabelle was played by Chloe Grace Moretz, the actress who created a stir among casting agents in 2010 with her portrayal of the vampire Abby in Let Me In, the acclaimed English language remake of the even more acclaimed Swedish romantic horror film Let the Right One In.

I then realized I had also seen her in a supporting role in the excellent romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, in which she played the very grown up kid-sister of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character.

Anyway, it has just been announced that Chloe Moretz has been selected to play the lead role in the remake of Stephen King’s prom-thriller Carrie. Stephen King’s debut novel has been adapted to screen four times, most famously in 1976 by Brian De Palma when it secured Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek (Carrie) and Piper Laurie (her mother), besides launching John Travolta’s film career.

As I said, the casting agents are working overtime with this 15 year old actress who has 6 movies lined up in the next 15 months alone, not including Carrie.

For starters, she will be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s rebellious teenage daughter in Tim Burton’s next film Dark Shadows, an over-the-top remake of the 1960’s gothic soap opera, being released in May this year, featuring Johnny Depp.

In the space of 3 years, Chloe Moretz has played good-natured, mature-for-their-years pre-teens in Hugo, (500) Days of Summer and Diary of a Wimpy Kid – and at the other end of the spectrum, she has played an emotionally challenged pre-pubescent vampire in Let Me In, a ruthless young vigilante in Kick-Ass, and now in Carrie, a high school misfit whose awakening sexuality is mirrored in her fast developing telekinetic powers.

Chloe Moretz continues the trend of remarkable young actresses emerging from Hollywood in the last decade – Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) and her younger sister Elle Fanning (Super8), Abigail Breslin (Oscar nom for Little Miss Sunshine), Ellen Page (Oscar nom for Juno) and Hailee Steinfeld (Oscar nom for True Grit). What is interesting is that they get fantastic roles as kids, but once they grow up, Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to get the best out of them – case in point is Kristen Stewart who was outstanding as Jodie Foster’s asthmatic daughter in David Fincher’s Panic Room in 2002 and magnetic in her brief supporting role as Tracy Tatro in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild in 2007, but who has now been reduced to knitting her eyebrows as an excuse for acting, in the Twilight movies. And of course, let us hope that none of them go the way of Lindsay Lohan who promised so much as a 12 year old in The Parent Trap in 1998 and as a teenager in Freaky Friday in 2003…

Meanwhile, one can look forward to great roles from Chloe Moretz and her sisters-in-arms over the next couple of years, before they hit the late-teen ‘danger years’.