The King of 1983: ‘Cujo,’ ‘The Dead Zone’ and


By 1983, Stephen King had rocketed to the top of the publishing world within a fairly short period of time. His first novel, Carrie, had been published only nine years before but he was already considered the modern master of the horror novel. The adaptations of his work, Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976), Tobe Hooper’s TV movie Salem’s Lot (1979), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) had only served to feed the fires of his popularity. King had become a cottage industry by the third year of the new decade and the three films based on his work released that year remain among the best connected to his name while exploring some of the greatest issues he grappled with in the early years of his career.

The current preoccupations of a creator so often seep into their work, consciously or unconsciously. In Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine, King explores the creative process, the nature of and responsibilities surrounding gifts and talents, fame, the desire for anonymity, the destructive power of addiction and much more.

Real Monsters

Like most children, Tad Trenton, played by six-year-old Danny Pintauro, is afraid of the monsters in his closet. “There’s no real monsters,” his father Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) assures him, making sure that Tad knows that they are only found in stories. This early moment in Cujo lays the groundwork for the universal fear at the center of the film, that world-shattering moment when we learn that grown-ups, ostensibly our protectors, can be wrong. The monster comes in the guise of a St. Bernard, one of the friendliest dog breeds around; leave it to Stephen King to make them terrifying.

When producers Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer took up making the film, King was given first crack at the screenplay, but it was ultimately rejected for, ironically, straying too far from the book. The final screenplay by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner did carry over at least one change from the novel that King made in his draft—the fate of Tad. Feeling that the ending of the novel in which the child dies was too dark, King opted for a more hopeful ending where he lives. It is a change that has remained controversial among fans of the book for decades.

Stephen King personally suggested Lewis Teague to direct after seeing his previous film Alligator (1980), one of the great post-Jaws animal attack movies. Another director, Peter Medak, known at the time for a variety of films including the dark comedy The Ruling Class (1972) and the remarkable ghost story The Changeling (1980), was attached to make Cujo, but he and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond left the project after two days of shooting. Teague and new director of photography Jan de Bont were brought on with only two days to prepare. Having cut his teeth via the rigors of low-budget filmmaking, including making a movie for Roger Corman, Teague rose to the challenge and the film that resulted is remarkable.

One of the key reasons for Cujo’s success as a film is the tour-de-force performance by Dee Wallace, fresh off the biggest box-office smash in history up to that point, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Wallace’s turn as Donna Trenton remains one of the best performances in a Stephen King adaptation, if not the best. King himself has praised her portrayal on multiple occasions, calling it the best performance in a movie based on his work in a Turner Classic Movies interview and worthy of an Academy Award in a 2022 appearance on The Kingcast podcast. Wallace masterfully conveys not only the physical exhaustion, but the emotional weight of the ordeal underpinned by the strain she is already under from the events of the first act of the movie. She is fighting not only against the presence of Cujo, but the guilt of her affair with Steve Kemp (played by Wallace’s real-life husband at the time Christopher Stone), her failing marriage to Vic, and the fear of losing her son not only to death but to her own decisions inside and outside that stalled out Ford Pinto. Her reading of the line “alright I’ll get your daddy!” carries the weight of the thousand worlds that are sitting on her shoulders.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King candidly discusses his struggles with addiction admitting, “at the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all.” Peeling back layers of subtext, perhaps the rabid dog is addiction, a monster that attacks and consumes without pity or discernment. Or maybe more personally, Cujo is King himself—a big, lovable, playful boy turned into a monster by a sickness in his blood. Turned into this beast, he entraps and seeks to destroy, even against his own will, an innocent mother and child that could be stand-ins for his own wife and young children. But all metaphors aside, Cujo is one hell of a great story, and the movie captures the essence of it powerfully even with the drastic change to the ending of the book.

Released in August of 1983, Cujo opened to mixed reviews but decent box-office, becoming a modest hit. Stephen King has mentioned it as one of the films adapted from his work that he wished had more of a following, regularly listing it as one of his personal favorites. After its release, he once again requested director Lewis Teague, this time to direct his screenplay for Cat’s Eye (1985), another film that King (and myself) believes to be underrated. Four decades on, Cujo remains effective as an exercise in suspense, but also as a complex character study of a woman at the end of her rope pushed beyond her limits.

The Ice is Gonna Break

The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone, both as a novel and a film, is a watershed moment for many of the players involved. For Stephen King, it was his first number one hardcover bestseller and his first published novel set in his iconic locale of Castle Rock, Maine. It was producer Debra Hill’s first film independent of John Carpenter and would help pave the way for her unparalleled career as a Hollywood heavy hitter. It was David Cronenberg’s first American studio film, his first film from a screenplay he did not write, and a major departure in subject and tone from his previous work. It is also the first film in the King Canon produced for Dino de Laurentiis and the beginning of a long partnership with the independent titan. It is also the best film produced under that umbrella.

In many ways, The Dead Zone is barely a horror film, but in others it is the most frightening of any King novel or film. First and foremost, it is a character drama dealing with loss and recovery.

Johnny Smith is one of the most compelling characters King ever created. As his bland, anonymous name suggests, Smith is an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances quite literally by accident. His psychic abilities are the only fantastical element of the story and used to explore the best and worst in human nature. It is unusual for a King novel, particularly of that time, in that it is not an overt “horror” story, but also for the fact that it is a rare plot-driven novel. In On Writing, King states that most of his best stories and novels are “situational” and “the only plot-driven novel of mine which I really like is The Dead Zone (and in all fairness, I must say I like that one a great deal).” It is plot-driven in the sense that it has a clear end point in mind and must make various stops on the way to getting there. Here is how King puts it, “My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy?” But this is the endgame of the story, the process of getting there leaves vast emotional, subtextual, and philosophical country to explore.

The film holds the ultimate horror of the story, the Greg Stillson element, back for quite some time, choosing instead to focus primarily on Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith for more than half the film. After a severe car accident and a long coma, Johnny is given a “gift of sight,” a psychic ability that results in the saving of a child from a fire, a reunion with a long-lost family member, and revelations as to why a reporter’s sister committed suicide. In other words, his psychic abilities are legitimate, an important plot-point in answering King’s questions, but also a chance to explore the deeper nature of gifts and talents. It is interesting that in On Writing, King discusses going to a “far seeing place” in order to write. I believe The Dead Zone is in part an exploration of the creative process and the consequences of having such gifts.

In a key moment, Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) tries to recruit Johnny to help him find a serial killer that has been terrorizing the town for years. “If God has seen fit to bless you with this gift, you should use it.” King uses similar language of divine blessing in On Writing while discussing good writers who have written only a few books asking, “if God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?” It seems that in King’s mind, if something is indeed a gift, it should be put to use.

Still, Johnny gives Bannerman a forceful and pained response:

“Bless me? You know what God did for me? He threw an eighteen-wheel truck at me. Bounced me into nowhere for five years. When I woke up my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless. Bless me. God’s been a real sport to me.”

He ultimately comes to embrace his gift and the responsibilities that come with it but continues to grapple with the nature of his unique talent. After finding the killer, Johnny achieves a certain level of fame, another element explored by the film. He seeks a solitary life as his notoriety has brought with it resentment and a longing for anonymity. He also comments that the gift itself sucks the life from him saying, “when it happens, when the spells come…it feels like I’m dying inside.” The process of “seeing” takes a piece of the writer as well. These are complicated emotions. King is clearly grateful for the life he enjoys, having been given the rare opportunity to make a living doing what he loves. But it must be acknowledged that there are sacrifices involved as well.

The horrors of The Dead Zone come not from the fantastical element of Johnny’s psychic abilities but from very grounded, real-world terrors—the serial killer (which offers the film’s most direct horror, suspense, and gore sequences), the endangerment and death of children (the ICE is gonna break!), and above all the deranged politician Greg Stillson played by the master of depicting the best and worst in American statesmen Martin Sheen. Stillson was all-too familiar in 1979 when the book was first published and may be even more familiar now. He is a populist presidential candidate that cloaks himself in the guise of the everyday working man and the mantle of religion, but neither is sincere. The only thing Greg Stillson truly believes in is Greg Stillson. The moral conundrum explored in the last third of the film is one of the more complex in the human experience and usually couched in “what if?” scenarios. The problem remains complex here because of the titular “dead zone,” the part of the visions that Johnny cannot see as the story progresses, bringing a level of uncertainty to his moral dilemma.

Though more plot-driven and episodic than most King stories, The Dead Zone remains a profound emotional experience, both as novel and film. The episodic nature of the story lent itself well to the later television series starring Anthony Michael Hall that ran for several seasons from 2002-2007. As was the trend for King movies in 1983, the film was a modest success at the box office. It did, however, receive more critical admiration than most King adaptations up to that time. The film proved to be a stepping-stone for Cronenberg to more Hollywood Studio films including his next, The Fly (1986), which many consider to be his masterpiece. Debra Hill would go on to produce a variety of films from many genres including Clue (1985), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), and The Fisher King (1991) to name just a few.

Bad to the Bone

The year in King movies came to an end with a love story between a boy and a girl—but the girl was a 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine. John Carpenter was not a big fan of Christine as a novel, but he needed a job. The bleak outlook of The Thing (1982), which has aged so well in the decades since, did not sit well with early 80s audiences and critics hungry for optimism after two decades of tumult in the real world and on the screen. The Thing also had the misfortune of being released within weeks of Steven Spielberg’s friendly alien juggernaut E.T., which dominated the box office for the entire summer and beyond. Because of the poor reception of his masterpiece, the budget for Carpenter’s next film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter, was slashed and Carpenter left the project feeling he could not make the film he wanted on that budget. Christine may have been a “paycheck” job at first, but the film that resulted is one of the best King adaptations of all time, one that even Carpenter has come around on in the years since.

As with any adaptation, changes must be made. For Christine, one of these concessions for time and cinematic translation serves to the story’s benefit. In the novel, Christine is haunted by the spirit of its previous owner, Roland LeBay, who possesses the protagonist Arnie Cunningham at various times. In the film, Christine is born bad as indicated by the prominent use of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” a song that has since been overused but was an innovative inclusion at the time. In the film, Christine is not possessed by a demon or ghost, but is the possessor—the force that takes over her owners and bends them to her will. She does not fly into their bodies like Pazuzu in The Exorcist but gets under their skin and makes them fall in love with her. LeBay and Arnie may think they own Christine, but she is no one’s possession—she owns them.

Once again, the specter of addiction looms large in the subtext of Christine. She begins to change Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) in subtle and even positive ways that increase his independence and confidence. Soon it becomes clear, however, that she is remaking him in her image as he transforms from a withering 70s nerd into an arrogant 50s greaser, pushing away his parents, girlfriend Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), and best friend Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) along the way. Christine becomes Arnie’s all-consuming obsession and “no shitter” will ever come between them. Even when Dennis and Leigh stage a sort of intervention, Arnie would rather die than part with his beloved. The love between Arnie and Christine is so beautifully portrayed through the remarkable and too-often overlooked performance of Keith Gordon. Also layered into this performance is a great deal of ambiguity that prompts the question does Christine really change Arnie or simply bring out the darkness that is already there? This is a departure from the novel in which Roland LeBay possesses Arnie and causes him to perform heinous deeds, but is also a fascinating look into human nature, the origins of evil, the power of addiction, and the nature of obsession.

Of the three King adaptations of 1983, Christine departs most from the source novel, but what is very King is the colorful cast of supporting characters: bullies Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), Moochie Welch (Malcolm Danare), and Richard Trelawney (Steven Tash); Detective Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton); George LeBay (Roberts Blossom); and maybe more than any of these Will Darnell (Robert Prosky) with his declarations that he will “throw ya out on yer fuckin’ ass!” The world created in the film feels authentically King even if the details have been changed. This is true of all three movies, which capture the feeling of reading a Stephen King novel better than most adaptations. The weather (especially the oppressive heat of the summer in Cujo and the damp, cold Maine autumn and winter in The Dead Zone), the peeling paint on the houses, and above all the varied and unique characters that populate the stories are fleshed out into staggering reality.

These films mark a high point in the first wave of King adaptation, the crest of a wave that was about to come crashing down with a series of lackluster films. But then there have always been highs and lows in the quality of films based on King’s work. At the moment we seem to be in something of a Stephen King filmic renaissance, but let’s face it, when are we not? There were high points in the early 90s and the mid-2000s, but even interspersed among the most derided periods there have been very bright spots. After all, both Maximum Overdrive (one of the most critically panned) and Stand by Me (one of the most lauded), were released the same year. (For the record, I love Maximum Overdrive no matter what anyone, including Stephen King, has to say about it).

Even though Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine did not exactly set the world on fire back in 1983, they did do well enough critically and financially to keep the King-train moving on the big screen and have only grown in esteem over the ensuing years.

Today, all three stand as testaments to effective adaptation from page to screen and can easily be placed among the very best Stephen King films of all time.

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