Thinner - 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 work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
One of the great joys of exploring the adaptations of Stephen King's literary work is to see how the master storyteller's words are brought to life on screen and to see how a particular filmmaker can add their own interpretations to the source material. When it works it etches iconic imagery into the collective memories of audiences worldwide becoming a permanent addition to pop culture. Unfortunately when they don't work you end up with something like 'Thinner'.
Director: Tom Holland
Starring: Robert John Burke, Lucinda Jenney, Joe Mantegna, Michael Constantine
Written by: Michael McDowell, Tom Holland
Produced by: Michael Galin, Richard P. Rubenstein
Cinematography by: Kees Van Oostrum
Original Score by: Daniel Licht
An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.
The last of the Bachman books, the origins of 'Thinner' (originally titled Gypsy Pie) stretch back to a routine medical exam for King. He had gone into the appointment knowing that he had gained a substantial amount of weight and when he was asked to step on the scales as soon as he entered the room he wasn't happy. Just as he had predicted, the doctor told him he was overweight at 236lbs and entering, in his words, "heart attack country". He was told to lose weight and to stop smoking to turn it around. King left in a bit of a huff but took the doctor's words onboard and lost some weight along with cutting back on his smoking. The effort had a strange effect on him as he had become strangely attached to his weight. This led him to think of what would happen if someone kept losing weight and couldn't stop it.
At this time King's pseudonym of Richard Bachman was still a mystery to the public but it wouldn't be for long. Stephen P. Brown (a bookstore employee in Washington DC) read an advanced copy of 'Thinner' and was 80% convinced that King was the real author as it was written in a similar style with the endings being the only difference. Out of curiosity he consulted the copyright documentation to the first four Bachman books and found out that King's agent Kirby McCauley held the rights to 'Rage'. Brown wrote to King about this and some time later King called him to confirm that he was Bachman. On the 9th February 1985 King publicly revealed that he was Richard Bachman in the Bangor Daily News. With this declaration the book sales of 'Thinner' increased ten fold.
With the Bachman mystery being revealed the race to secure the rights of 'Thinner' was on and Richard P. Rubenstein of Laurel Entertainment won, buying them up with the idea of hiring Tom Holland to direct it and Michael McDowell co-writing the script. With the director of 'Child's Play' and 'Fright Night' locked in you would think getting the film off the ground would be an easy feat but this was far from the truth. It was rejected by numerous studios and underwent around 15 rewrites within a five and half year period. Some executives feared the public would liken the lead characters' plight to the AlDs epidemic but the ratings success of 'The Langoliers' miniseries helped the film get the green light to enter production.
The film opens with a caravan of Romani people travelling into a New England town to Daniel Licht's fairy tale-like score which wouldn't be out of place in a Tim Burton film. The film then focuses on Billy Halleck (played by Robert John Burke), an overweight self centred lawyer who is failing on his diet thanks to his lack of effort. This introduction marks the beginning of the film's myriad of problems. Burke is placed in a "fat suit" with prosthetic makeup on his face used to make his character look obese but it is cartoonish in appearance immediately giving the audience the impression that Holland's take on the material is going to be very arch.
Burke himself under the makeup is very one note throughout his performance despite all his character goes through. It is almost like he believes that the makeup will do the talking but it simply doesn't work as it isn't very convincing to begin with. Even his suits throughout the film look like they were lifted from David Byrne's wardrobe on the set of 'Stop Making Sense' to give the illusion of extreme weight loss but they are comical more than anything. The manner in which Holland tries to portray Billy Halleck as a horrible person is quite lazy too as every scene has him eating something in an exaggerated way or breathing heavily after carrying out the simplest of tasks.
The stereotypes don't stop there however. The treatment of the Romani people in the film is downright offensive. He presents them as being nothing more than a bunch of thieving carnies with exaggerated accents with every passing stereotype appearing to be a box ticking exercise. It can be summed up with the head of the group, Tadzu Lempke (played by Michael Constantine). With stringy grey hair, yellow teeth and a rotting sore on the side of his nose Constantine leans heavily into these trappings giving an over the top performance in line with the perceived tone. It would be easy to blame these issues on Tom Holland but King even admitted that when writing this aspect of the novel he lazily pulled phrases from Czechoslovakian editions of his books which seems to have carried over into this adaptation.
The remainder of the cast are pretty one dimensional as well. The only thing Billy's wife Heidi (played by Lucinda Jenney) seems to do throughout the film is worry about her husband's weight. She seems to exist within the film to make Billy seem like more of a sympathetic character but it fails miserably. Judge Phillips (played by Howard Erskine) does nothing but discriminate against the Romani people that roll into town and when he is stricken down by a curse giving him reptile-like skin you don't care what happens to him at all. The strangest character of all is the psychotic gangster Richie 'The Hammer' Ginelli (played by Joe Mantegna) who revels in dealing out punishment to the group of Romani people as a favour to Billy for getting him off with a count of murder. His character feels more like a get out of jail card to help Billy reverse his curse as their personal relationship seems baffling given how he is supposed to be a mob boss and not his personal assistant. It almost feels like the worst aspects from the rewrites survived up until the final draft with these kinds of characteristics or lack of them for that matter.
The film ends in a very mean spirited way when Billy is offered a chance to pass on his curse if he can get someone to eat a pie containing his blood. Yes that's right, a pie. As ridiculous as this sounds, you are so exhausted by the film at this stage that you accept this ludicrous idea. Believing his wife is having an affair with the local doctor he offers the pie to her. She eats it resulting in her gruesome death but little to Billy's knowledge his daughter joined his wife in sharing a slice going to school, unaware of her imminent death. Wracked with guilt he almost does the one thing he should have done in the first place by eating the pie himself but backs out of it with the film ending by him offering some to the doctor.
When you look at the film as a whole you see how it feels like an extended segment from 'Creepshow' that is just dying to be handled in an over the top manner with the stylistic touches of someone like Sam Raimi but alas the film has a flat look and style similar to a Hallmark movie making it completely unengaging. A story such as this has some potential to be a black comedy/satire on consumerism and image culture but instead it takes aim at the low hanging fruit opting to lean into dated stereotypes in an offensive manner that does the film no favours. It is the kind of adaptation that would make King wish the Bachman identity remained a secret to save him the embarrassment of being associated with it.
- Joseph McElroy