Stephen King is the most influential voice in horror of the late 20th century. His books have been best sellers since his debut and have gone on to spawn numerous adaptations in film, TV, video games, and other media. King Of All Media looks at those adaptations, starting with his TV miniseries in chronological order. Each week Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob Dean will discuss a new miniseries project of King’s, with today’s installment being on 2011’s BAG OF BONES, directed by Mick Garris.
Rob Dean: Plot contrivances — elements in a narrative where things aren’t fully explained or are very coincidental — are in most stories. It’s impossible to cram all of the backstories, motivations, traveling, and many other pieces into a tale and still have it be expedient and entertaining. For movies, if it’s an enthralling piece with novel ideas and engaging characters, audiences don’t really notice those leaps of logic until much later; they are too busy being caught up in it and enjoying it. But if the film doesn’t connect or isn’t as persuasive, then those flaws and gaps become more pronounced in the mind of a viewer. When BAG OF BONES ended, I found myself thinking about all of the parts of the narrative that didn’t really fit together — not a great sign.
After the tragic death of his wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish), popular author Mike Noonan (Pierce Brosnan) retreats to his vacation cabin on Dark Score Lake in order to hurriedly write his next novel and possibly connect with Jo’s ghost. Mike is soon wrapped up in a bizarre custody battle between Mattie (Melissa George) and a sinister, wealthy old man (Michael Schallert). Ghosts do contact him, including his wife’s, but also some angry spirits that appear connected to the 1939 disappearance of singer Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose). There are secrets at Dark Score Lake, a curse of madness that Mike has to uncover in order to save Mattie and her young daughter.
2011’s BAG OF BONES, based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Stephen King, is a veritable checklist of the author’s tropes: marital issues, isolation, a writer, substance abuse, a town with secrets, children, helpful and destructive ghosts, music. At times it feels like a grab bag assortment that blends elements of THE SHINING, SECRET WINDOW, and DOLORES CLAIBORNE. The film is well-acted, and there are some good little moments — but it mostly suffers from a scattershot approach to storytelling. The main plot doesn’t kick in until an hour into this two-and-a-half-hour event. While I haven’t read the source material, the miniseries feels like a very faithful adaptation of a novel with a bunch of meandering elements that don’t really add up to anything and a lack of streamlining that dulls the tension and entertainment.
Ale, what did you think of BAG OF BONES? What did you like about it? Is there a good story in here?
Alejandra Gonzalez: Rob, I think I can confidently say that this is the most frustrating miniseries we’ve covered. With only one left after this, I hope this is as bad as it gets because I don’t know that I can handle it even once more. Most of my frustration with BAG OF BONES comes from the choices it makes when it comes to pacing. I understand what a slow burner is, but a miniseries that moves this slow should at least instill a sense of dread and tension in viewers, not boredom. What’s worse is that the miniseries starts off in a promising way. We get a great glimpse into Mike Noonan’s marriage before tragedy befalls his wife who is killed in a bus accident. The accident scene was extremely well done and was effective in shocking me, reeling me in within the first 10 minutes of the series. Everything for about an hour after that I would call completely useless, though. I get what Garris is aiming to do — taking so much time to explore the grieving process of our protagonist and how he spends his time alone will make viewers wonder if strange things are really happening or if Noonan has just gone off his rocker. I still think there is a way to do this that takes less than 60 minutes. In fact, I would argue that at least 45 of those minutes are completely disposable and do nothing for the narrative. I believe it could even make the narrative stronger.
All of that being said, I do still think there was a lot of potential with this story. I thought the second half was at least stronger than the first, and I really think it’s because we spend more time watching Noonan interact with others. I think the acting was great in the miniseries, and I guess that, even when we spent time with him on his own, Brosnan was still doing a great job for how he was written. I only wish it had been structured a different way. I have not read the source material so I’m not sure how faithful to it this adaptation is, but I think had Garris played around with the order of events it could have been very interesting. What do you think could have been done to make this a bit stronger?
Rob Dean: The pacing is dreadful. Like I said, I think it apes too much of the feel of a novel — grounding it in foreshadowing and themes, but trying to hook viewers in through getting to really know a character. But we know who Mike is very quickly into this miniseries — too many of the same scenes repeat of him drinking and being sad, and suspecting his wife of cheating on him. The suspicion that Jo cheated on Mike when she was alive is a good example of this miniseries as a whole: in theory, it’s an interesting wrinkle that provides drama and character exploration. But in this it’s a diversion that doesn’t really add anything to the plot or the atmosphere, and instead muddies up the emotions fueling a particular scene or sequence.
Ultimately, it is revealed (SPOILERS for a miniseries that no one ever talks about) that in 1939, the sinister old man was a sinister young man who, along with his buddies, raped Sara Tidwell before killing her and her daughter. Before she dies, Sara curses the men that they — and all their descendants — will kill any female children by drowning them in the lake like they did to Sara’s daughter. Again, another interesting idea about how these crimes perpetuate and linger in towns and bloodlines far beyond the actual act. The echoes of horrific acts rippling through generations is an oft-worn idea, but still an effective one. In this case though, I was just confused by the wording of it because it’s supposed to happen until “all you are gone” — which I took to mean all of the original perpetrators died. But I guess that’s not the case? This is where, in a better story, the details don’t matter because the ride is so fun. In BAG OF BONES, though, it’s all about the clumsy execution of pretty good ideas. Mike is able to soothe the vengeful spirits by pouring lye on their hidden, buried bodies. It should be an emotional moment, but all I could think of was that he just destroyed the only physical evidence implicating the original crimes and bringing justice for the Tidwells.
I don’t think this is as bad as it gets (GOLDEN YEARS and TRUCKS still exist, after all). The second part moves at a clip, and there is good acting. Plus Matt Frewer shows up as Mike’s brother, even though no one points out they sound and look nothing alike. There’s some good imagery with decaying corpses and ghostly events plaguing Mike. But this is the fourth King adaptation by Garris that we’ve discussed — THE STAND, THE SHINING, and DESPERATION were the others. I generally like Mick Garris — he has proven incredibly knowledgeable on his excellent Post Mortem Podcast, and was a driving force behind the Masters Of Horror series (in addition to other works he’s done). But I don’t think he is ever scary, or really tries to be scary, through tension or dread.
What do you think, Ale? Are there Garris works you like? Is this a common theme? What did you think of the ending with the evil tree slapping at Pierce Brosnan in the rain?
Alejandra Gonzalez: Honestly, I thought THE STAND, THE SHINING, and DESPERATION were totally fine. I think I liked this one the absolute least from Garris, but you’re definitely right and at least it’s not GOLDEN YEARS. To be honest, I don’t really see that there’s a common thread that runs through the adaptations by Garris besides religious themes in THE STAND and DESPERATION. THE STAND is paced really well and is rather entertaining. I guess THE SHINING is the most similar to BAG OF BONES in terms of pacing, but even then I don’t think there is anything more significant that they have in common. I think this could be argued as a positive because it proves that Garris can do many different things, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily does them all super well.
As for the ending? I actually found the tree stuff to be quite comical and ridiculous… but I liked it. I don’t know that it was supposed to be funny but it’s the only time this miniseries elicited any type of reaction from me. Especially when in the first half Brosnan is out for a jog and stops mid-run to flirt with the tree. That is at least what it felt like! It’s funny at the end, too, because his apologizing profusely to Sara and her daughter is cut short by a swing from the tree. Sort of unrelated, but it reminds me of the scene in RETURN OF THE KING where Gandalf smacks Denethor with his staff mid-meltdown.
I can’t believe there is only one more miniseries for us to cover! We’ve been doing this for several months, and I can’t say that I have totally fallen in love with any of the adaptations we’ve covered. I hope I’m speaking too soon and that it changes with our final one.
Tags: 2011, Anika Noni Rose, Annabeth Gish, Dolores Claiborne, Ghosts, Horror, Jason Priestley, Jazz, Masters Of Horror, Matt Frewer, Melissa George, Michael Schallert, Mick Garris, Pierce Brosnan, Stephen King, TV