DECEMBER 30, 2011
I still remember reading "Bag Of Bones" my freshman year of college; it was one of the first full length Stephen King books I actually finished, and I believe my first in hardcover (I had bought it at the school book store along with my textbooks, which my parents were buying as a gift - suckers!). And I didn't like it much, but I was somewhat intrigued by the possibility of the feature film, since at one point Bruce Willis was attached to star, and perhaps a good filmmaker could fix the narrative issues with the source material and thus the MOVIE Bag Of Bones would be the rare King adaptation to improve on the book.
Well, all of that hope went out the window as soon as I saw Mick Garris was directing it. Mick's a nice guy and loves the genre, but I think he's a rather lousy filmmaker who has somehow gotten King's blessing - perhaps because unlike Kubrick he has nothing to say and thus won't change much of the original material? If you look at his filmography, it's basically just a bunch of King adaptations and a few other one-off projects like Psycho IV and Critters 2, where again he is working in a world he had not created. Not that a filmmaker can't succeed while sticking to adaptation - hell, almost Kubrick's entire career was made of films based on novels - but this is material that needed someone who COULD bring something to the table, and Garris just isn't that guy.
The main problem I had with the novel is faithfully reproduced here - our hero's journey has him solving a murder that he has almost zero connection to. In movies like The Ring (which this apes at times, and like many Asian horror films the climax comes down to giving a murder victim's corpse a proper burial) they get around this problem by making the stakes personal - Naomi Watts didn't know anything about Samara, but when her son fell under the curse, she became determined to stop it. Mike Noonan (played by Pierce Brosnan here) doesn't have that connection - he goes to an old family estate and starts seeing ghosts, and he has no family to protect. There's the nice widow (Melissa George) and her daughter, but by the time they finally become close the movie's almost over, and without spoiling much, this gets botched as well. We're supposed to believe that he could be a surrogate dad for the kid, but they've barely spent any time together - I was just wondering why George apparently didn't have any family or friends that might make a better option to help with her daughter instead of a visiting novelist she just met a few days ago.
Plus the crime happened so long ago, most of the potential witnesses or suspects are dead, so lengthy flashback scenes that we have no real investment in provide the backstory sans any sort of anchor for the audience. We know who is dead and who did it, so who cares? I didn't care much for Ghost Story (which King was sort of ripping off here, I now realize), but at least the guilty parties were characters in the narrative, not long-dead ciphers, and we got pieces of the tale throughout, rather than in one long chunk at the end. Seriously, out of nowhere, halfway through the 2nd part of the movie, a guy we've never even heard of shows up and explains everything to Mike. And this is AFTER the other murderer died (via suicide), and he was just some generic old man villain in a wheelchair that just made me wish I was playing Deadly Premonition.
Brosnan's casting is another issue. I like him as an actor (and he was a great Bond stuck in mostly shitty movies) - but he's too old compared to the two female characters. He's at least 10-12 years older than his wife (Annabeth Gish), and more than 20 years older than George, which makes the latter's instant crush on him all the more puzzling - would a young hot blond woman really need to wait around until a guy old enough to be her dad moved to town? Brosnan is also remarkably "hip" for his age: he's constantly playing with his iPad, he listens to the sort of pop rock you might expect a teenaged girl to have on while she's trying to drown out the sounds of her parents fighting, etc. Someone closer to 40 than 60 would have made a lot more sense.
Part of his character arc makes zero sense as well - his suspicion that his wife was having an affair when she died (which they changed from an aneurysm in the book to getting hit by a bus, for some reason). His main clue seems to be that she was seen having dinner with someone (THE WHORE!!!) and that she "didn't tell me she was pregnant". Well, she died right after buying a pregnancy test, so how would she have told him something she didn't yet know herself? They even show the test lying on the ground (still in the box!) like five times, so every time he brought up her "secret" I wanted to throttle him. I can't recall if this was an issue in the book or not, but either way it's a wholly worthless subplot that goes nowhere.
Speaking of plot holes, the ghost of his wife leaves him messages with magnet letters on the fridge. Why a nearly 60 year old man with no children even had these in the first place is beyond me, but there's only one of each letter, so he has trouble understanding some of the messages - why not just buy more letters, then? I guess he's already figured out that she's a movie ghost and thus chooses to be vague and cryptic despite having the power to communicate in a variety of ways, but if there's a reason why he can't at least give her a few more vowels to use, it escaped me.
But ultimately the main problem is Garris and screenwriter Matt Venne never getting around the fact that the book was a first person narrative and thus needed heavy retooling to make for a more interesting movie (especially one split into two parts; I wasn't surprised to see that the second half didn't have as many viewers as the first). Watching a guy - even one as charismatic as Brosnan - putz around his house and talking to himself for nearly an hour straight is hardly the best way to draw an audience's attention. Plus, there are two major elements to the narrative - the mystery, and Mike's healing process over the death of his wife, neither of which can properly be conveyed in scene after scene of Brosnan just sitting with his iPad or whatever. The movie comes to life only in those few scenes where he's actually interacting with the people in the town who have all the answers, but there are so few of those. In fact, apart from the flashbacks, there's only a single scene in the film that he is not present for - there definitely should have been more, allowing us to have more of a vested interest in the story that barely involves him. It's like everyone only exists when he's around, and have no life outside of helping/hindering him in this rather silly ghost story (which he takes to rather well, actually - there's almost no disbelief on his part).
The other main element is his grieving, which the book internalized at length (as many King protagonists do - it seemed like half the book was just his thoughts). So we'd have stream of conscious ramblings and the general "what he is thinking" text, endearing ourselves to Mike Noonan. In the movie, we have an aging ex-Bond sitting sipping whiskey and occasionally talking in single line phrases to a stuffed moose head. And the things they DO change aren't for the better - I already mentioned the random bus crash, but the book also had a gap of a few years in between her death and him going to the house, but it only appears to be a few weeks here, which makes George's character less reasonable - can the guy grieve a bit? A month is barely enough time to get over a breakup, let alone the sudden death of his soul mate. I was also annoyed by the cute King references - the book takes place in King's universe (Ralph from "Insomnia" even popped up), but the movie takes place in ours, so someone mentions Annie Wilkes from "Misery" and Brosnan's agent (Jason Priestly, utterly wasted) mentions a newly discovered Bachman book. Maybe if the movie was more fun they would work, but it's otherwise morose and flavorless, making these little jokes fit about as well as a square peg in a round hole.
Rebuttal time... not much to report on though. Ms. Gish is aging nicely and will make you miss her when she's gone (especially since she's largely represented by a not very flattering photo for most of the middle of the film). Garris doesn't hold back on the gore, particularly in the film's final two on-screen murders, one of which I had forgotten about from the book and thus actually worked as a good shock moment (guessing non-readers will shit themselves if they've made it that far). And I actually really thought they were in Maine or at least the US (North Carolina?) until Julian Richings showed up, because that dude never leaves Canada for anything (seriously, does he not leave the country? He's been in enough horror movies to qualify as a sort of "horror regular" but they're always Canadian productions), so I knew right then that it was Canada after all. Also, a minor thing, but I liked when Brosnan searched for "Dark Score Crazy" (without quotes) in order to do some research but just got back unrelated things like song lyrics and such - most movies would just go with a "No matches found" thing to make their point; this was a bit more realistic and had to have taken some effort to mock up, so well done.
Oh well. Again, I wasn't a giant fan of the original novel, and I can't think of a single Garris movie I truly enjoy (though his Shining adaptation wasn't as bad as some might say, however I think Kubrick was right to replace the topiaries with a maze), so it's not like a rushed cable adaptation (they just shot it like 3 months ago) held much promise. It's just a shame it didn't even meet those low expectations.
What say you?