The Dark Half (1993)

When author Thad Beaumont decides to go public with his pen-name “George Stark” in an effort to get back to meaningful writing after churning out a few commercial bestsellers, strange things start happening. After Stark’s “death”, people — real people — start actually dying, largely in brutal fashion and largely in connection to Thad himself. It’s a conundrum of a case to everyone but Thad himself, who’s slow to give in to what he knows must be the truth: George Stark, his pulp fiction pseudonym, is somehow real, walking around, back from the dead. And he’s not going back to the grave quietly.

It’s an awesome premise, one which gels with Stephen King’s knack for what if…? setups that are mind-bending and yet pretty damn simple. What if an author’s pen-name comes to life and kills people? — that’s the whole pitch for The Dark Half. It also gels with his occasional preoccupation with writing about writers, which typically ends up as a fascinating meta-commentary on the art itself. Sometimes this niche of King’s makes for a great movie, like with Misery. Other times…well, yeah. You know where this is going. And I don’t mean Secret Window, although that one’s a slog, too.

It’s always worth reiterating that a true 1:1 translation of book to movie is almost never possible, nor is it automatically a good idea even if feasibility is off the table. Sure, you can essentially turn the Watchmen movie into a motion comic, mirroring nearly every frame from the original source material, but the end result still pales in comparison to the comic. Print and film are vastly different mediums, consumed in vastly different ways. Veteran director George A. Romero knew this when he signed on to The Dark Half, having already adapted a few novels to the screen by 1993 (he had previously collaborated with King on 1982’s Creepshow, too).

So most of the changes to The Dark Half are pretty understandable, meant to streamline a 450-page novel into a two-hour movie. The film spends time setting up characters who will eventually be killed, whereas the book only briefly introduces them moments before their deaths. Alan Pangborn, a stalwart character of King’s Castle Rock stories, is given a reduced role in favor of putting Thad more fully in the driver’s seat. In the novel there’s an extended sequence where Thad ditches his police escort by hopping in his car, leading them to a notoriously dangerous intersection, evading them in a high-octane chase, and finally switching to a nondescript VW Beetle to make his getaway. In the movie, he just gets into the Beetle from the start and heads on his merry way.

Other changes end up losing a bit of King’s subtlety, a prime example of a film striving to hold your hand where the novel just trusted you to keep up. Thad gives a very on-the-nose lecture about the duality of man, about an “inner being” that only a writer can truly let loose. You can practically see the stage direction on the script saying wink wink. Conversely, though, Romero’s Dark Half is surprisingly too subtle when it comes to blood and gore. King’s detailed descriptions of George Stark’s carnage end up as shadows on the wall, off-screen slices, blood-spattered reaction shots. Only at the end of the film do we get the full-on gore for which Romero was likely hired in the first place.

And speaking of the end of the film, neither version of The Dark Half is quite sure what to do about the finale, providing little (in the case of the novel) to no (in the case of the film) closure after an action-packed climax. By that point, though, that initial what if…? kernel has mostly devolved into a plain old slasher movie. The last thirty minutes would really be no different if Thad’s persecutor wasn’t a dark figment of his own psyche at all, just a murderous Joe instead. That might speak to another minefield in adapting prose to the screen, that being the interiority of the characters. How do you film someone’s secret thoughts? Turns out that’s a crucial element to a story about an imaginary alter-ego gone rogue.

Timothy Hutton, much like that faulty dynamite, has never blown me away. But he’s well-cast as both Thad Beaumont and his inversion George Stark, suitably affable as the former but still able to convey the fact that the darkness inside him is rising and rising. He’s a bit over-the-top as Stark, though Stark’s an admittedly over-the-top character. The main point against Hutton here is that the delightfully villainous Michael Rooker is utterly wasted as Alan Pangborn, and might have been better as Thad/Stark if only too see him seethe menace as the latter. But even that wouldn’t save the neutered film, a story that’s supposed to be about a battle for supremacy between a set of supernatural twins. As is, Romero’s version of this story is the weak twin to King’s original.

So the novel of The Dark Half focuses on a novelist and the art of writing prose, and it succeeds (for the most part) where the film falls flat. What if (yes, what if…?) the film of The Dark Half focused on a filmmaker and the art of writing for the screen? Swap in Alan Smithee for George Stark and you’re off. It’s an idea that’s too simple, too obvious, too easy to actually work. But it’d freshen up The Dark Half and make it a better fit for the medium of film, rather than trying to squeeze a long book into cinematic confines. Maybe someday they’ll try adapting King’s yarn again, a late triplet, spurred by a rekindled interest in deadly doppelgängers after Jordan Peele’s Us.  For now, The Dark Half only gives more fuel to those who argue that the book is always better.

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