PG-13, despite the fact that it is a horror story that involves murder of both humans and animals. There's a couple of pretty grizzly corpses. We're not talking Eli Roth gross here, but there's a really fine line between PG-13 gore and R-rated gore. Still, I'm not going to call the wolf out of the woods. The movie also reminds us about an extramarital affair that keeps getting flashed to. Nothing is gratuitous, but it is a stark reminder that the world can sometimes be a terrible place. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: David Koepp
Sometimes, you watch a movie because you have consumed the same material in a different format. My next DVD from Netflix DVD is Tomb Raider. It's not because I'm excited to watch the new Tomb Raider movie. It's because I finally got around to finishing the first game in the reboot series of Tomb Raider games and I'm curious how intensely close the adaptation will be. It's not a good reason, by any means. It is a reason. This summer, I read Stephen King's Four Past Midnight. It did exactly what I wanted it to do. The book was a series of four novellas, each presenting an anthology style approach to horror. One of the stories in the book was "Secret Window, Secret Garden". It was fine. It did its job. Now, I've seen Secret Window before. The trailer was wildly misleading and I kept waiting for an explanation to the whole magical window the trailer kept talking about. Instead, I got a movie that disappointed me the first time and was fine the second time.
The insane thing about Secret Window is that it is CLOSE to the original story. I think that it might be common knowledge that Stephen King has a problem with his endings in stories. I remember that It: Chapter Two had a jibe at King's endings. Secret Window makes the same joke. But with Secret Window, it changes the ending. I've always preached that a book should be a book; a movie should be a movie. I know that there's always going to be the crowd out there that screams, "But the book is always better." While the reader in me wants to preach that, sometimes that isn't true. I mean, it's kind of true in this case, but that's besides the point. But really, the movie should be its own thing. The greatest compliment that I can pay to Secret Window is that it followed a lot of the same beats as the novella, but it isn't beholden to it. And I'm not off the hook here for being this wise and all-knowing blogger. I didn't remember much about the movie from when I saw it in theaters. But after I finished reading "Secret Window, Secret Garden", I really hoped the film adaptation was going to stay close to the short story. It does, but it makes a lot of the changes that I would have made...
...which creates this weird paradox. David Koepp, who apparently has more fame as a screenwriter than as a director, totally saw the same weird things in the story that I did. One of the throughlines of the novella is that the protagonist, Mort Rainey, continues to justify his reasoning for not going to the police. Because this is one of those stories that is completely dependent on the twist, I will post a rare SPOILER WARNING because it makes or breaks the story. I imagine that King's reasoning for having Rainey so obsessed with not accepting help is that he is actually John Shooter the entire time. Yup. The movie is Fight Club before Fight Club. King probably had this idea that, if Rainey was Shooter, he would do everything in his power to minimize the chance of discovering this himself. Okay, fine. But it also makes Rainey really hard to relate to the entire time. See, Shooter proves that he's more than some wackjob by murdering Rainey's cat. (In the film, it is a dog.) But Koepp's version of Rainey instantly goes to the police. I like that. It's what I would do. It's really what most people would do.
He also makes a change to the end. After all, King has a problem with his endings. I mean, I didn't hate the ending to the novella. Rainey, in the book, is killed and his fiancee is saved by the insurance agent. It is a bit random, the more that I think about it. But it is an ending that is wrapped up quite nicely. But Koepp sees that the ending isn't a slam dunk, so he changes it to Rainey just murdering everyone. It actually works better with some of the hints dropped throughout the piece. After all, the story "Secret Window" inside the story involves Rainey writing a protagonist that murders his wife, buries her in the yard, plants corn over her, and eats the corn. (I don't know if this is as clear as Koepp wants it to be in the film.) So Rainey / Shooter end up doing the same thing. Also, the entire idea of an ending is so important to "Secret Window, Secret Garden" that the film really plays that up.
So why doesn't the movie work? I mean, is this one of those great Stephen King adaptations? David Koepp, for all of his contributions to amazing cinema through screenwriting, doesn't really have a hit when it comes to directing. (I'm sorry, Mr. Koepp. I haven't directed anything, nor would I know where to start.) When it comes to this movie being successful, it's successful in its script. But in terms of actual filmmaking, it's completely vanilla. This is the part where I start listing and where I get bummed out in the writing process. Bear with me. There's a reason why The Shining is King's most famous adaptation. I know that King hated what Kubrick did with his film, but it really worked. Kubrick saw beyond the text to the potential for what it could be. Honestly, as much as I like The Shining as a novel, it doesn't really hold a candle to what Kubrick did with the potential for the film. And that's where being beholden really causes problems.
As much as I enjoyed reading it at the beach, "Secret Window, Secret Garden" is exactly that: a beach read. It's not something that is must-read or quintessential to the King canon. Instead, it's a kind of fun story of a writer (surprise, surprise!) slowly breaking down after his wife divorces him. It doesn't really bear too much weight on its own. But there was a reason that the Bond folks didn't make a proper Casino Royale until well into Bond's run. Both "Secret Window, Secret Garden" and Casino Royale by Ian Fleming share a commonality. As enjoyable as they are as books, the stories aren't particularly cinematic. To do something with Casino Royale, there has to be a wider sense of scope. The book is an intimate evening with James Bond at a casino playing baccarat. But when you watch Daniel Craig's first outing, it seems larger-than-life. That is what makes that movie worth watching. Koepp stayed so close to the scope of the novella that it doesn't really have anywhere to go. The story of a man being haunted by this imaginary John Shooter doesn't really leave its constraints. It's a safe movie. It cast Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey for goodness sake.
Maybe it's just me. I always imagined Mort Rainey as kind of a dumpy introvert. Having this sex symbol pretend that he's going to be stymied by his wife for a real estate guy (I think he's a realtor. I don't know) seems completely implausible. Also, Johnny Depp is constantly being way too cool for this character. He's one of those people who actually makes smoking look cool. There's a bunch of ideas that smoking looks cool on everyone. Disagree. But Depp makes me want to pick up a cigarette despite the fact that I find that vice abhorrent. He fills the role with charm because that's why you hire Johnny Depp. But Mort Rainey isn't charming. He's a bum. He's a guy who has no idea how to fix his marriage. He should be unpresentable and gross. Instead, we have what we think of as gross. But Johnny Depp, even unkempt, looks like that is a fashion choice. He wears a robe that's falling apart and I believe that the robe would have been tailor made by Gucci to ensure that Johnny Depp still looks attractive.
Secret Window is a warning about the dangers of playing it safe in Hollywood. This feels more like a cash grab than anything to actually make it memorable. I could open the door to high art and low art. But that's a really petty argument. Instead, there's nothing that feels loved in this movie. There's never the thought that this film was going to change the world. Instead, most people will be wondering why I picked such a weirdly forgettable film to write about. If I didn't read the story as part of an anthology, I probably wouldn't have thought of this movie again. But I did. And really, it's a forgettable movie. It has a decent performance by John Turturro, which is fine, but I feel like he could do that in his sleep. While I don't have a problem with Depp (despite some of the shady things he's been associated with), I feel like this could have been this amazing acting challenge between Turturro and Depp. Instead, it is simply a boring Stephen King adaptation that had almost no aspirations to be better than its source material.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.