October 13th, 2003
The seemingly unending string of Stephen King adaptations making their way through the Hollywood pipeline these days is, quite frankly, puzzling.
The quality of said adaptations, historically, has been nothing but mixed – real gems like "Stand By Me," "Misery," and, the gold standard of Stephen King adaptations, “The Shawshank Redemption” coexist along with less successful translations such as “Cujo,” “Firestarter,” and (shudder) “Maximum Overdrive.” More recently, the last few King films, “Apt Pupil,” “Hearts in Atlantis,” and “Dreamcatcher,” have fared poorly, both commercially and critically.
The question all this raises is, why another?
Why has “Secret Window,” the subject of this review, and a screenplay based on King’s 1990 novella, been given the go-ahead when there isn’t much success to point to in the realm of Stephen King adaptations, especially in recent years? Especially considering that even the critical hits listed above started out as, mostly speaking, box office disappointments? The answer is beyond the purview of this review, but the question did remain mired in my brain as I read the screenplay. Keep in mind also that that question was percolating through the mind, not of a King detractor, but of an avowed fan. Indeed, I’ve read all of his novels, many more than once. So the preponderance of bad adaptations is evidence, to me, not of problems with King’s stories themselves, but of how they’ve been adapted.
What’s encouraging about “Secret Window, Secret Garden” is that it’s not a horror film, but a thriller. It’s the straight horror books that seem to, for whatever reason – they certainly work on the page - have had the most trouble adapting to the screen. To this day, it surprises many to learn that “The Shawshank Redemption,” along with “Stand By Me” the least genre-based of King films, is based on a King novel. “Secret Window, Secret Garden”’s closest cousin in the King canon, genre-wise, would be the aforementioned “Misery,” and the success of that adaptation has me hopeful about this newest script’s possibilities.
The script I read was written by Hollywood’s go-to genre adapter, David Koepp (of “Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room,” and “Spider-Man” fame), who is also directing; principal photography began in September. How close to this the final script is I couldn’t say, but it does seem pretty polished and ready for filming. The story concerns one Mort Rainey, played by newly hot Johnny Depp, a novel writer undergoing a relatively acrimonious divorce. The script opens with Mort’s discovery of what we later learn to be his wife and another man in a hotel room, and after a brief and muddled confrontation, marked by lots of hysterics, yelling and implied violence, immediately flash-forwards to a writer’s-block stricken Mort, holed up in his cabin near Tashmore Lake in the Maine woods.
The action of the film truly begins when John Shooter, who will be played by John Turtorro in the film, appears on Mort’s doorstep one day brandishing the manuscript to a story that he insists Mort stole from him. When Mort reads the story, it’s confirmed that it is almost identical to a story published by Mort in a short-story collection several years before. The thriller aspects of the screenplay come into play when Shooter proves to be decidedly unhinged, threatening Mort, in quiet, calm insistent tones, that if he doesn’t “make things right” bad things will occur. Shooter carries out on his threats by gruesomely murdering Mort’s dog. As Mort scrambles to retrieve the screenplay’s MacGuffin, a copy of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine” that will prove that Mort published his story years before Shooter claims to have written his, the violence escalates, even as it begins to draw in Mort’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Amy, and her soon-to-be husband, the man from the opening, Ted, who may or may not have connections to Shooter. As in all good thrillers, the violence and tension escalate until climaxing in an action-filled finale.
As a King fan who’s read the source material twice, I liked the script. Koepp does a fine job of capturing Mort’s degenerating state-of-mind and the stress that the writer’s block is inducing in him. It will be very interesting to see what Depp does with the character; Mort demands some subtle acting work and asks for none of the embellishments and quirks that have made many of Depp’s most recent performances so interesting. In some ways it’s a much more straightforward role, while in other ways it’s not, and how Depp strikes that balance will, I think, be key.
The slightly tired, but still effective, device of having that opening scene, of Mort barging in on his cheating wife in the hotel room, become more and more meaningful as the story progresses, works well here. This is a small film, with a small cast, and Koepp is able to quickly sketch these characters from within the confines of the plot with considerable skill. In addition, he deftly handles the more psychologically based drama and character moments that begin to dominate in the script’s third act.
The script’s main problem unfortunately coincides with what would be a major spoiler – on the level of giving away the “Sixth Sense” secret – and I’m not looking to reveal that here. King has crafted a real twist ending, one of the only times he’s done so in his writing, and it’s Koepp’s handling of that ending that I’m leery of. It’s not that I think he gives away the game too early - the script’s ending should, as far as I can tell anyway, come as a surprise to the average moviegoer. The hints are there, and King and Koepp play fair, but it should still come as a surprise. However, without giving away the ghost, this is a down ending as written, very creepy and very non-Hollywood, and I have serious doubts that it’s being filmed as is. It works in the script, and the down ending could be very effective in the finished film, but it does take King’s story to a place it hadn’t gone to before. What Koepp has done is to take King’s twist ending and lead it someplace else, to a darker place than King did, and I’m not sure that the story supports that weight. On top of that, I have serious doubts, given the way Hollywood movies tend to work, that the ending will actually survive; my hunch is that the final film will hew more closely to King’s original vision.
The ending aside, and, as I said, it could work, this is a fine adaptation, penned by a writer playing to his strengths, and, if executed well, could make for a tense and satisfying thriller.
My rating: B+
This draft of "Secret Window" is dated February 11, 2003, under the project's previous name of "Secret Window, Secret Garden." Written by David Koepp, it is based on the novella by Stephen King.