The Tommyknockers - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
The term "Tommy-knocker" is from the Victorian era that was used to describe an incident where a trapped miner would knock on the walls of a mine to be rescued. It is said that even beyond their death you can still hear the knocking from the ghosts of those long dead. With that in mind you would think that Stephen King would be running over some familiar territory when he released a novel with that term as its title but no, 'The Tommyknockers' was the first time he ventured into the realm of science fiction in a novel outside of his short stories and his Bachman pseudonym. In the book 'Stephen King At the Movies', author lan Nathan perfectly sums up the novel by saying that with 'The Tommyknockers', "King was relocating 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' to his rural manor with a touch of satire".
Director: John Power
Starring: Jimmy Smits, Marg Helgenberger, John Ashton, Allyce Beasley, Robert Carradine
Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen
Produced by: Jayne Bieber, Jane Scott
Cinematography by: Dan Burstall, David Eggby
Original Score by: Christopher Franke
The small town of Haven becomes a hot-bed of inventions all run by a strange green power device. The whole town is digging something up in the woods, and only an alcoholic poet can discover the secret of the Tommyknockers.
The origins of the novel stretch back to King's youth when he came up with a story about a man coming across the wreckage of an alien ship. Inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft story, 'The Colour Out Of Space' he reached around 20 pages before deciding to shelve the story. He believed it was too large in scope and that he was unsure about how to approach writing the main character, but it never ventured too far from his mind. By 1983 he finished his first draft of the book but it took a further five years to get it to a stage where he was happy with it. He was writing it at the peak of his addiction to alcohol and drugs. He would spend hours on end writing with a racing heart rate and a bloody nose from cocaine use at a speed akin to the self writing typewriter of writer Bobbi Anderson in the mini series. Such a hectic method led to less than satisfactory results as King admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in 2014 that 'The Tommyknockers' was an awful novel, but he also believed that there was a good 350 page book in it somewhere.
The 90's saw an explosion of mini series adaptations of his work off the back of the success of the 1990 adaptation of 'It'. TV studio ABC had the rights to the novel so writer Lawrence D. Cohen (who had previously written adaptations of 'Carrie' and 'It') alongside 'Cujo' director Lewis Teague were tasked with bringing King's extra terrestrial tale to the small screen. The studio demanded that they start shooting the miniseries in October 1992 to complete it by May 1993. To save money they had to shoot in New Zealand with an inexperienced crew stacking the odds against it before it even got started. Two days into filming and Teague was fired for working too slowly and outside the confines of what is expected from a miniseries. He was replaced by veteran TV director John Power. The problems didn't stop there as there were last minute rewrites to an already incomplete script meaning that the cast and crew had to work weekends and extra days to cope with the demands of getting the production done on time. They managed to complete the shoot in its allocated 60 day production time but this would have a detrimental effect on the overall quality of the show.
The series opens by introducing the residents of Haven, Maine one by one with the likes of the Brown family led by the overbearing patriarch Bryant (played by Robert Carradine), the town sheriff Ruth Merrill (played by Joanna Cassidy) alongside her kooky deputy Becka (played by Allyce Beasley) and Becka's husband and local postman Joe (played by Cliff DeYoung) who is having an affair with his boss Nancy (played by Traci Lords). They're the standard group of characters you'd find in any of King's work set in a sleepy town with a dark secret, but leading the ensemble is author Bobbi Anderson (played by Marg Helgenberger) and her alcoholic boyfriend and poet Jim Gardner (played by Jimmy Smits). Across the entire board the cast do a perfectly fine job with the material they are given with few standouts but they seem to loosen up more when the effects of the uncovered alien ship take hold of them. The rest look like they want to go the way the ending of the novel (with most of the town being wiped out) before the first part of the series even finishes.
As Jim Gardner, Jimmy Smits plays the archetypal leading man as the struggling alcoholic poet whose past work isn't as well received as his current more inflammatory work. His struggles with addiction were a mirror image to King's own struggles with substance abuse at the time as King admits that the story itself was a commentary on his own addiction. In his book 'On Writing' he talks about it in relation to the power the aliens of the novel give to the people of New Haven. "What you got was this kind of superficial intelligence. What you gave up was your soul. It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with." In and of itself this sounds like an interesting enough idea but it gets lost in the midst of the convoluted structure of the miniseries. It also lacks any real sense of cohesion as it jumps from one bizarre plot element to the next. The imbalance of these elements is detrimental to the story as some sections are bloated (like Jim's recital of his latest material) whilst others are underdeveloped (like the budding relationship between Ruth and Butch) leading to an unsatisfying and downright dull watch.
One element that works better for the film is how it is a commentary on the dangers of unchecked technological advancement. Right now Elon Musk has been boasting about his Neuralink company who are developing microchips that will allow people to control computers using their brain signals, which sounds like the abilities that the alien creatures of the story give to the people of New Haven to develop inventions that would enhance their lives. Having said that, reports indicate that up to 1,500 animals have been killed in the development of the technology in a four year period with further reports indicating that Musk wants to speed up the testing to the human trial stage, which in all likelihood will point to a case of life imitating art. Hopefully the side effects won't be any worse than the tooth loss in the miniseries. It is the thread line through the show that works best as it shows the advantages of yielding such power before everything plummets off the side of a cliff, taking the entire town of New Haven with it.
From a technical perspective there is very little flair to the miniseries in general as it all looks rather flat and televisual which to be fair, was standard at the time. At times you feel like you are watching an episode of 'Are You Afraid of the Dark' rather than a tentpole miniseries. It's all the more glaring when you compare the look of it to other King adaptations of that era such as 'The Stand' or 'It' which for better or worse were light years ahead in terms of creativity. You can argue that these shortcomings were more than likely a knock on effect from the troubled production. Most disappointing of all is that the score throughout the show sounds like melodramatic stock music from a soap opera which tries to convey a sense of mystery in a small town but it instead evokes no real emotional reaction except mild irritation.
There is no escaping the idea of 'The Tommyknockers' being a poor miniseries but when you factor in it being an adaptation of (by King's own admission) an awful book it almost felt doomed for failure before it even started. Even with the difficult production there wasn't enough in the source material to inspire much confidence. Having said that, there are a number of ideas in the book which could work well within a modern context. Some of the fat of the novel could be trimmed to make a more streamlined and cohesive story that might even be a better fit as a movie rather than a miniseries but anyone brave enough to take on that task would have a lot of work on their hands.
- Joseph McElroy