Saturday, June 5, 2010

Book to Movie: 'Salem's Lot (2004)

‘Salem’s Lot
Book to Movie
2004 made for television
Directed by Mikael Salamon

In 2004, ‘Salem’s Lot was updated for television. This time the director was Mikael Salamon. The tale is updated from King’s 1970s New England to the modern Maine in the 21st century.

The departure from the book in the 2004 version is early and apparent in the opening scene. A disheveled and aged Ben Mears – played by Rob Lowe – attacks Father Callahan in a New York soup kitchen – months or years after the fall of ‘Salem’s Lot. I can’t help but believe this was written into the stories to strengthen the Father Callahan character to bolster the Dark Tower books which were being released at a rate of one a year at that time.

The 2004 telling of “Salem’s Lot is not a straight retelling of the book and differs from its 1979 predecessor in almost every way imaginable.

The most tangible of these differences is the ‘Salem’s Lot of 2004 is very much different in appearance and zeitgeist. In the book and the earlier celluloid version, ‘Salem’s Lot starts out as a customarily insular bedroom community. There are all of the traditional sins in place such as adultery and alcoholism in its earlier incarnations. The later version adds vengeful landlords, a deceitful seductress and corrupts the real estate agent Larry Crockett from a mild opportunist into a willfully devious character in both his business and personal conduct. It’s much harder to sympathize with this town than the slightly more idealistic 1970s version (and its hard to idealize anything from the 1970s)

As someone commented on my 1979 review, the fact that the vampire Barlow was invited to the town is addressed in the modern version. In 2004, it’s Larry Crockett’s willingness to embrace a to good to be true land deal where he trades the virtually worthless Marsten house for very lucrative commercial property. Thus, Barlow arrived in ‘Salem’s Lot – a very important point in traditional vampire lore.

There are fundamental alterations to the character of Ben Mears that detract from character in the book. In this version, instead of entering the Marsten house and seeing a vision of Marsten hanging from his rafters, it is a young Ben Mears that actually finds the body of Marsten and his wife – along with that of a young boy who had been killed and sadistically murdered.

This detracts because it destroys the anonymity of Ben Mears as he entered town. He was a semi-successful writer and people in the Lot knew he had once lived there. But nobody knew him personally. Only Susan Norton recognized him on sight and that was because Mears made a point of talking to her when he observed her reading one of his books. In 2004, he is recognized by everyone who found Hubbie Marsten’s body.

Another fundamental change in Mears is his profession. In the book, he is a writer of western and mainstream fiction. In the 1979 version, we only know that he wrote novels without a clue as to what kind. In 2004, he is a journalist who had served in Iraq. While there, he was taken prisoner and eventually rescued by soldiers. Upon returning to the states, he authored a book about his rescue that implicated his rescuers in several crimes against humanity.

Instead of a emotionally shattered, anonymous writer recovering from the accidental death of his wife, Rob Lowe portrays this leftist, anti-war, anti-hero who has earned the scorn of a great deal of the country. Like the modern village of ‘Salem’s Lot, this Ben Mears is a lot harder to root for.

Straker is portrayed by Donald Sutherland. Sutherland’s portrayal of the Renfield-type character is too menacing. He’s passionately evil where the character in the book is cold and detached in his evil. Like the rest of what is an all star cast, Sutherland does the best he can with a bad script.

Mark Petrie is given the same kind of treatment as Ben Mears. Instead of the quiet, reserved loner, Petrie is portrayed as a small time, adolescent punk, pulling mean spirited pranks and petty acts of vandalism. It’s as if screenwriter Peter Filardi is deliberately populating the Lot with characters we wouldn’t mid see dying. That’s the recipe for a B-slasher movie – not a retelling of a highly respected horror novel.

Casting Rutger Hauer as the vampire Barlow is the most revolting development in the modernization. The novel portrayed Barlow as the traditional vampire – evil, but suave and refined in his demeanor. Rutger Hauer seems to be styled more after Randall Flagg – the chief antagonist in The Stand. Hauer’s vampire is not fearsome, threatening, or menacing. He more closely resembles an undead creature undergoing a midlife crisis.

Matt Burke is changed from both versions – but for the better. Portrayed by Andre Braugher, Burke – a teacher – is intellectually stronger than the 1979 version. He’s given a contemporary makeover when the director cast him as black and gay, but in this case, it only adds to the strength of the character. He is apparently the only black man in town and probably the only uncloseted gay man in town. Yet, through his strength of character and moral fiber, he is respected in an otherwise insular society of small town New England.

Father Callahan appears much more prominently in the 2004 version and, as we learn in the very beginning, survived his encounter with Barlow and moves on to the very thing he resolved when seeking guidance and forgiveness – the God of the soup kitchen. He is ably portrayed by the Hollywood veteran James Cromwell. We know from the Dark Tower series that he goes on to survive Mears’ attack in New York to travel far into the future to join Roland’s band of misfits in their quest for the Dark Tower.

The strong acting in a weak script and the modernization of the cinematography save this from being a total disaster. It’s faster pace somewhat offsets the bastardization of its main characters.

It’s definitely not as entertaining as the 1979 telling, but it is different. It’s strengths don’t quite offset its weaknesses and pales in comparison to the original novel. However, as a stand alone movie, it is worth seeing once if you are a King fan.

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