Book & Film Review: Stephen King’s Needful Things

I am going to review Stephen King’s 1991 novel Needful Things and I shall review the 3-hour TV extended cut of the 1993 film (which criminally has not been released on any home media).  Get ready for a very long and meandering discussion.  

I try to avoid the political with my articles, but there is a part of King’s novel that I feel practically forces me to address the political context and perspective.  I think it’s interesting to look at Needful Things in this Twitter era and in this Post-Obama era.  

Firstly, Twitter has revealed to us Stephen King’s politics like never before.  He’s quite outspoken.  Before Twitter was such a significant part of American life, I don’t think every reader knew so terribly much about King’s political beliefs.  But we know a lot more about his views now.  And we know how passionate he is about his liberal political views.  

Let’s jump back to 2008, when then-senator Obama was raked over the coals for saying:  “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. . .So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  This became Obama’s “bitter clingers” quote or line.  

I dug up this old Obama quote, because I think I have to say King’s Needful Things novel (in the context of his other work as well) is a pre-Obama expression of the same view as Obama, that small town folk are bitter clingers.  They’re needful things, they’re all too human.  

I think prior to my recent re-read of Needful Things, I never realized the full extent to which King’s work might conform to his political views.  Does King just love writing about small towns like H.P. Lovecraft and his other favorite authors?  Or does King’s focus on small towns, often but not solely in a negative light, go a bit deeper than that?  

I’m not surprised I did not entertain this full realization sooner, because King is often pretty moderate or centrist in his earlier books; he maybe still is, I do not know.  For example, he could have easily cast The Dead Zone’s politician villain, Greg Stillson, as a Republican, but King instead makes him an “independent” (a hawkish socialist independent) and offers some little positive sentiment about establishment Republicans.  But Needful Things’ strong subplot focus on a small town religious civil war makes the novel feel like a clear view of King’s that small town folk in particular are “bitter clingers” to or needers of religion and “antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”  

But let me step back from that for a moment and talk a little about the story.  An older urbane gentleman named Leland Gaunt, who claims to hail from Akron, Ohio (a small detail I love!), opens a store called Needful Things in the town of Castle Rock, Maine.  He then uses his considerable literally magical salesman abilities to sell the fine folk of Castle Rock the very junk their hearts’ desire.  But Mr. Gaunt’s wares come at a price.  They cost most buyers little by the way of money (they’re a real steal of a deal), but at the same time cost them everything (i.e. their very souls).  Pranks are extracted as payment and long-standing private grudges and feuds between the various townspeople of Castle Rock soon escalate until the whole town is engulfed in madness and violence.

This time around I was struck a bit by Needful Thing‘s similarity to the novel ‘Salem’s Lot.  Grady Hendrix on Tor.com put it well in 2013:  “Needful Things feels very much like an extension of ‘Salem’s Lot with Leland Gaunt’s store resembling the antiques store opened by that book’s [villain] duo, Straker and Barlow.”  He’s correct.  And it’s more than just the antique store thing.  Needful Things (and Storm of the Century) is like ‘Salem’s Lot in that small town secrecy and antipathies almost bring down the town.  King subverts the common portrayal of or connotations toward small towns.  He loves the idea of the dark side of what it means when “communities come together” in the face of crisis.

Hendrix (on Tor.com) smartly pointed out that King’s added focus on the Catholics versus Baptists inter-Christian war in Needful Things might just be King offering a new take on old (and toxic or controversial) folklore and legend, but I do not think I could be persuaded away from the stark clear idea that Stephen King really does not think too highly of Christians.  King is just a bit less subtle about it in this book, the dislike feels more prominent and sweeping.  It really feels like King is saying that Christians are bitter clingers, just hateful hypocrites.  And not just these particular Christians, but all Christians it feels like.  Needful Things especially reeks of King’s politics on organized religion and it feels like the narrative height of his dislike of Christians.  Agree or not, like it or not, I think this aspect must be noticed in this book. 

While the story has two fine compelling protagonists in Sheriff Alan Pangborn and Patricia “Polly” Chalmers, the villain Leland Gaunt steals the show, much like how Flagg does the same in The Stand.  It feels like if King’s villains are not cosmic entities (It, Crimson King) or mere humans/rabid animals/ghosts/aliens, then the only category left is dark magician (Flagg, Gaunt, Andre Linoge, even Kurt Barlow).  And it seems like that is what Gaunt truly is, a long-living or immortal dark magician hunchbacked dwarf. 

I’ve read wikis and reviews that believe book Gaunt is a demon (or The Devil) or Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep and I simply don’t think the book is clearly pointing to those.  I think Occam’s Razor leads me instead to think Gaunt is what the book tells us and shows us regarding Gaunt (especially considering Flagg and other magical King villains).  I don’t know how to explain Gaunt’s ending transformation into an archaic dwarf if he’s not an archaic magical dwarf.  Why would the proud arrogant Gaunt, already exposed to be no mere human, not drop his false face and transform into his true form on his fiery way out?  The creature It reverts to its true form at that novel’s end, it’s just that the Losers cannot fully perceive it so instead they see a spider.  Yes, there are Lovecraft references with Gaunt (Yog-Sothoth, Leng), but none that clearly point to Nyarlathotep.  I think some simply want to believe Gaunt is cool and popular Nyarlathotep (versus a magical evil dwarf) rather than have much or enough evidence in that direction.  And sure, there are hellish and Faustian allusions with Gaunt (and at least the film version of Gaunt may be The Devil), but such allusions were there for other King villains that are clearly not demons or devils (like Flagg).  Overall, my take is that book Gaunt is mostly likely a mere fantasy dark magician like Flagg or Linoge (Gaunt is really very similar to Flagg and Linoge) or, less likely, another unique cosmic entity whose dwarf form is maybe the closest thing humans can perceive of its true cosmic Macroverse form.      

Gaunt is fun because he is supremely unpredictable.  Like Flagg, he can shift to and from friendly and charming to irritated or even explosively angry at any point during a scene.  He’s a fine mixture of smart, scary and humorous.  You wait on the edge of your seat for each next Gaunt scene in the book.  If the book is a slog at times it is because most of the many town denizens you read about are only interesting for so long especially since you already figure that they are mere fodder for Gaunt’s Machiavellian schemes.  ‘Salem’s Lot (approx. 200 pages lighter than Needful Things) was better at the economy of fleshing out so many small town residents; it spends just enough time with each without overdoing it.     I enjoyed that King dug up and reused Ace Merrill (who I will always picture, young or old, as Kiefer Sutherland) from the novella The Body (which became the amazing film Stand By Me).  I don’t know why, but I love King’s bully characters like Ace and Henry Bowers.  And the coke-addicted desperate Ace makes for an interesting odd couple henchman of Gaunt’s along with Danforth “Buster” Keeton (who I will always picture as deceased actor J. T. Walsh, who left us too soon at age 54).

My first and last thought about the 1993 theatrical and television versions is that they had all the raw ingredients (except likely the budgetary ingredient) to be capable of being a super accurate and super definitive adaptation of the novel Needful Things but frustratingly fell short of greatness.  I figure that Max Von Sydow as Gaunt alone will likely keep it the best adaptation that we’ll ever see.  I enjoyed the extended film, but like with most King adaptations, I was also unsatisfied and still remain so. 

It must be said that Von Sydow feels like the definitive actor to play Gaunt.  As the L.A. Times review in 1993 said, “Von Sydow plays Gaunt perfectly: a man whose Old World manners belie his stated origins.”  I find it uncanny and remarkable that two such heavyweight actors played King’s two top . . . antique dealers.  James Mason stole the show in the 1979 ‘Salem’s Lot miniseries as antique dealer Richard Straker, vampire Kurt Barlow’s “familiar” or human thrall.  His performance will never be matched or outdone.  The Leland Gaunt character is essentially just a fusion of Straker (the well-mannered antique dealer) and Barlow (the monstrous seducer and tempter).    

The rest of the film cast is solid too with Bonnie Bedelia as Polly, Ed Harris as Pangborn, J. T. Walsh as the mentally unravelling head town selectman Danforth Keeton, and Amanda Plummer as the nervous but earnest Nettie Cobb (Plummer won a Saturn for this role).  The theatrical release received generally negative reviews from top film critics, but I don’t believe they ever reviewed the TV extended cut (not that that would mattered much I’m sure!) and I often feel they don’t come from the same perspective as King book readers so I find a lot easier to dismiss some of their views. 

I doubt King writes a novel thinking about the film adaptation and thus many of his books are not so well suited to the conventional horror film standards.  This is especially true of the King novels on the longer end of the page length spectrum.  I find it would have been darn near impossible or just incredibly unlikely to both faithfully adapt Needful Things and have it be full on scary quite like The Exorcist or Jaws or Halloween.  The novel Needful Things was actually not purely written as a straight on horror tale (as opposed to ‘Salem’s Lot), if you can believe that.  As student Chiel van Rijn wrote in his 2009 Master’s Thesis (which I found online for some reason),“Needful Things is both a satire and drama; an allegory of capitalism.”  And he’s right; it’s a story about sinister pranks for chrissakes.  I wonder if people think The Stand is a pure and conventional horror tale?  So when I judge this film, I come more from the perspective of whether it ends up an accurate fully effectively told story versus whether I am scared or not. 

If the film could have scared audiences more, that needed to come from Von Sydow’s Leland Gaunt and the production just did not adapt the more monstrous Gaunt “Hulk Out” moments from the book (yes, the Hulk reference I made there is from the book).  You merely see Gaunt’s devilish long fingernails and stained teeth in the film and that overall is just inaccurate and a huge lost opportunity to scare and explain Gaunt’s character with a little more nuance.  Was this more a deliberate creative failure or a budgetary handcuff caused by the fine cast?  I don’t know.  But Leland Gaunt could have been a movie monster and he should have been.  As celeb chef Emeril Lagassé undoubtedly would have advised director Fraser C. Heston: “Kick it up a notch.”  Instead the film dialed down Leland Gaunt.

The only character or aspect the film perhaps improved (over King) was the paranoid unhinged selectman Danforth “Buster” Keeton played by the extremely talented villain character actor J. T. Walsh.  King kind of quickly casts Keeton aside at the end of the book in slight favor of Ace.  Heston’s film instead totally omits Ace (which was a very wrong choice since Ace’s book scenes are great) but cleverly uses Keeton to publicly expose Gaunt’s lies to the duped townspeople and break Gaunt’s spell so to speak.  Keeton’s explosive end ends up making the film’s Keeton a more tragic one than King’s and it totally and ingeniously worked despite being a bit inaccurate to the book.  Much as I love source material accuracy, it isn’t everything all the time (and more precisely, not for all books since not all are so worth adapting accurately). 

So, there you have it, my thoughts on the book and film.  This is not my best work, not by a long shot.  But Lee and I’ll see you all in Jakarta, 2053.  

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