Book to Movie: The Road Virus Heads North (2006)
Teleplay by Peter Filardi
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Based on the short story The Road Virus Heads North by Stephen King from Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales
In my previous reviews of episodes of TNT’s miniseries, Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, I’ve noted how teleplay writers found creative ways to pad scripts to fill out stories so that they could fill 44 minutes of television with a meaningful story. In The Road Virus Heads North, the story is padded in a way that tries to make it a meaningful metaphor for growing older and confronting the health problems that come with it. It’s not done well and Filardi only feints at it, leaving the King story intact and therefore not ruining it for the television viewer.
Tom Berenger plays Richard Kinnel, horror author with an obsessed public. In King’s story, he’s on his way back from a book signing when he happens upon the haunted painting. The story opens with Kinnel arriving at his signing. Mimica-Gezzan makes sure to pack in every cliché about horror fans and makes them into obsessed lunatics who invariably scream at him, “Where do you get your ideas?”
After the convention, Kinnel visits his proctologist where he gets the news that he has some pre-cancerous growths on his colon. He takes the news stoically and heads north from New Hampshire to his home in Derry, Maine.
He arrives at the yard sale and the King story kicks in just as King wrote it. Kinnel admires the painting and hears the sad, twisted tale of its artist. He purchases the painting, puts it in the back of his car, and continues north.
He makes the stop at his aunt’s house. She views the painting and is appalled. She says it’s evil and that Richard ought to dump it in the river on his way home. It is here the Kinnel first notices that the painting has changed. He notices that the driver has turned so that a tattoo on his left arm is visible.
Krinnel continues north and takes his eyes off the road to check the painting for any additional changes. He loses control of his car in a construction zone, nearly kills some construction workers, and apparently tears off his exhaust system. After pausing to catch his breath, he continues north.
I know it has nothing to do with the story, but that scene really hurt the credibility of the story for me for purely scientific reasons. We blatantly see Kinnel’s muffler and exhaust pipe on the road as he pulls away from the near- accident scene. Yet the car is not any louder. It now smokes horribly, but there was no damage done to the engine or radiator. Technical details, I know. But getting technical details correct are important.
He stops at a gas station to fill up and dumps the painting in the river, just as in King’s story.
King makes reference to Kinnel’s ex wife who now publishes newsletters on UFO sightings and other worldly events. Firaldi, for no apparent reason, incorporates her into the story in a completely gratuitous scene. Kinnel stops to see his ex wife who lives in a trailer park. She is dog sitting for him. It is then he finds the painting has made its way back into his car and the driver is definitely moving north as Kinnel recognizes the new landscape in the painiting. He pauses long enough to get a New Age healing session with incense and crystals from his flaky ex wife, played by Susie Porter who is easily young enough to be Berenger’s daughter.
He gets home and we pick up the King story again. At this point, Richard is terrified by the painting and sets it on fire. As it burns, he hears the rumble of a muscle car pulling into his driveway. He opens the door and confronts the long haired menace that is the road virus. He tells the road virus, “You’re the disease growing in my body!” He goes on to reason with the driver that to kill him is to kill himself. The man driving the classic Pontiac Firebird turns to him and says, “I’m not your damn disease, you egomaniac! I’m what you don’t know!” He suddenly wakens from this nightmare in his shower.
Kinnel sees the news report about the woman at the garage sale who was decapitated. He immediately calls his aunt to make sure she’s ok. Just as in the story, she’s gone to the movies and calls Richard back later to tell him she’s ok. As he hangs up the phone, he again hears the rumble of Detroit muscle in his driveway and sees the Pontiac’s headlights in his driveway.
He retreats to his bedroom, but his dog escapes just as the driver walks into the house, brandishing a knife. He exits the bedroom and hears his dog’s barks cut off with a sharp yelp. He looks up on the wall and sees the painting hanging there with the driver silhouetted in his doorway. He rips the painting from the wall and throws it from the open staircase to the floor below, telling the driver he can have it. He tries to retreat, but slips on a paperback copy of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and falls down the steps. He lands on the painting. It now shows the interior of the car. Just as in the story, he looks at the knife brandishing demon on his doorstep and says, “I think I’m going outside now.”
King’s story about a haunted painting is strong enough to carry it through Filardi’s attempts to booger it up with metaphors. It’s strong enough to carry it through pointless padding. The reason the story works despite Filardi’s efforts to tinker with it is because Filardi keeps King's intact. Most of the dialogue is direct from the story. None of the story's elements were eliminated and it was a strong story.
The Road Virus Heads North is an example of how, sometimes, a good story can overcome bad screenwriting and entertain despite the efforts of an overly ambitious screenwriter to put his own imprimatur on it and make it a “meaningful metaphor.”
Filardi, who did a decent job modernizing and adapting 'Salem's Lot for TNT has not written for television or the big screen since. . .
Director Sergio Mimica Gezzan, who was an assistant director on notable films such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Minority Report truly makes a silk purse out of the sow's ear that was this script. Berenger's understated performance was just what was needed to keep this misconceived metaphor from becoming hoky and foolish. Despite all it's shortcomings, it still made for decent television.