The 1993 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel from the same year is one of those movies you kind of forget exists. It came out, didn’t get a lot of promotion and only received mixed to negative praise. Mostly relegated to airings on cable television The book itself really isn’t one of King’s most notable – have you seen the wikipedia page for it, it basically acknowledges that this book exists and that’s about it. Not surprisingly, the film Needful Things received a Blu-Ray release this past week. So does the Blu-Ray worth it? Is the film worth watching again – or watching for the first time? Does anyone actually remember this movie?
BOOK VS FILM
To say “the book is better than the movie,” is pretty trite – but honest. The novel Needful Things is among one of King’s more verbose (the paperback copy I re-read this past week was around 800 pages I believe). Naturally, condensing that much material down to two hours (exactly two hours at that as the film’s runtime is 120minutes) a LOT of material will be cut out.
The book takes place in the fictional Stephen King town of Castle Rock and is notable for being the “last” Castle Rock story (though the name of the town appears here and there in later works, the characters and life in the town were never a focus after this). It draws a lot from Peyton Place in dealing with life in a New England small town and all of the grudges and fishbowl mentality that develops. The story of Needful Things involves an otherworldly fellow named Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) who opens a sort of antique shop where payment for these “needful” items often involves a seemingly harmless prank on a fellow citizen. These pranks trigger these grudges and escalate to violence. The only one unaffected it seems is the town’s sheriff (Ed Harris).
That’s essentially the synopsis of the film. What the film misses out on is the depth of character development present, the stronger motivations these people have for not only carrying out these pranks on each other but also why it so quickly escalates to violence. As I said though, condensing that much material to a two hour film, a LOT of material is going to be lost.
HOW THE FILM IS WEAKNED
I can sum up the vital difference easily.
Needful Things(novel): A small New England town is visited by an enigmatic character who….
Needful Things(film): An enigmatic, evil salesman visits a small town and….
The novel is about the town, the movie is about the character of Leland Gaunt. He’s the focus of the film and is played delightfully well by Max Von Sydow who gives the role a healthy dose of snark and devilish charm. The rest of the cast, Ed Harris, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh, et al do the best with what’s given which, unfortunately, isn’t a whole lot. Versus the novel where the town is the focus, all its citizens are fleshed out and detailed people while Leland Gaunt doesn’t really have character or any kind of back story – he’s just an evil presence that drives the rest of characters to action.
The novel is, to use a cliched word, epic. The movie tries so badly to capture the epic scope and laughably fails. There’s this soundtrack (composed by Patrick Boyle) which is actually pretty good. It’s a lot of bombastic orchestral music reminiscent of Carl Orff or Verdi. Both the film’s theatrical trailer and a sequence in the film make appropriate (though typical) of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” It’s a loud and ambitious soundtrack that would feel at home in something like Lord of the Rings or, perhaps, a film that sought to be a verbatim adaptation of King’s novel. Here, in such a low-key film where not much happens it feels so badly out of place.