Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tales from the Darkside: "The Word Processor of the Gods"

"The Word Processor of the Gods," written by Stephen King.

First published as "The Word Processor", Playboy, January 1983.
Reprinted as "The Word Processor of the Gods" in Skeleton Crew, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, June 1985.

Adaptation for Tales from the Darkside by Michael McDowell, directed by Michael Gornick. First aired 25 November 1984.

Summary: Struggling writer Richard Hagstrom inherits a home-made word processor from his dear departed nephew Jonathan, and soon realizes that by typing simple statements he can alter reality. He is faced with the opportunity to change his life by deleting his nagging wife Lina (Linda in the TV version) and their absent son Seth.

King's short story appears at first a simple fantasy to adapt, yet an important aspect of Richard and Lina's relationship is not well translated and the moral aspect of the story becomes completely skewed. The story is adapted in a fairly straightforward approach, even faithfully transcribing some of King's own lines. The adaptation was produced a year after the story's publication, and able therefore to remain undated in terms of the early 1980s novelty of word processors.

The story presents us with an interesting moral dilemma: is it right to delete the existence of two "unworthy" characters by replacing them with better people? King's short story is satisfying and makes the trade-off welcome, but McDowell's adaptation is morally dented, since the hero of the story is no longer the victim, and deletes the two victims of his own spineless existence.

In the Darkside version, hero Richard is presented immediately as a spineless loser trapped in a marriage to a compulsive eating and nagging wife Linda, while son Seth is locked away in his room incessantly pounding on his electric guitar. We meet Seth only in a photo and, really, the photo of the kid strikes me not as a hopeful guitarist but rather as someone planted on a couch playing video games (I guess at that time it would be the Commodore 64). This is presented to us as average middle American modern man's worst nightmare.

What fails in this rendition of the story is the characterization of both Richard and Linda. "Hero" Richard has clearly done nothing to make a life for himself. He was destined to marry his sister-in-law Belinda but was too spineless to propose, and his wife is fully aware of this. Imagine being married to someone you know is in love with someone other than you, and has married you because there was no emotional involvement? Of course she will be unhappy and nagging, even compulsively eating to fill a void created by a husband who still pines for an earlier love. Hero Richard has not taken any initiative to make something of his life, and has in the process managed to drag another down and produce a son who will likely contribute little to this world. He takes no responsibility whatsoever yet feels he has the right to wipe these two victims off the face of the earth, so that he can be with the woman he loves and seems to love only because she is beautiful (so it would appear; it is the only thing we learn of her). It is true he brings Belinda and Jonathan back from the dead, but in this scenario he should be sacrificing himself for their resurrection.

Richard is presented as a victim because he has a fat wife and a self-interested fifteen year-old son. He takes no responsibility for what he has himself made of his life, does absolutely nothing to redeem himself in any way, and manages to find a way to gain his childhood dream. I was unable at the onset to sympathize with Hero Richard, and wonder what kind of message we are expected to gain from this drama. We choose our paths and make our own mistakes; it is up to us to try and better the world we live in. The philosophy presented to us is that we can still achieve the ideal by doing nothing, or rather by actively sacrificing the victims of our life mistakes. It is likely this apathetic belief-system that has made modern man so lethargic.

This adaptation: 3/10

Director Michael Gornick here revisits Stephen King material which he did, just as poorly, with Creepshow 2. As with the material selected for the movie anthology, King's short story is infinitely better than its adaptation. Though the episode is fairly faithful to the source, King is adept at giving character back-story, and we learn quickly that the marriage between Richard and Lina was once a good thing.

Young and filled with great expectations, their aspirations for the future were quashed when, the one thing they were both relying on, Richard's writing career was sidetracked at the outset by a poorly-received first novel. The couple had placed too much importance on this, unable to accept the possibility that life might require hard word and not offer the anticipated riches that lie in the hearts of most youths. Disappointed by this failure they soon grew apart, and Lina holds what she believes to be a failed marriage against Richard's inability to achieve the riches of such authors as, let's see, Stephen King. Richard is not a failed writer, able to bring in about five grand a year on stories and articles; he has simply not written a bestseller.

We learn early on that Lina is the one unwilling to take responsibility for her unhappiness. Rather than be content with a marriage to a high school teacher and part-time writer, indeed to the man she seemed to have loved a few years ago, she is still hanging onto her dream and reminding her hard-working husband that she "backed the wrong horse." Whatever they believed when young, Lina is responsible for the unhappy state of their marriage. There are clearly no guarantees in life, and Lina's inability to get off her cloud and live in reality is what has destroyed the relationship. She did not marry Richard "for better or for worse," but because he was her ticket to a life of splendid idleness.

In essence, Richard is replacing two selfish people who refuse to serve society in any capacity, and replaces them with two caring, intelligent and creative people whose lives ended too early, and who were victims to Belinda's marriage to Richard's mean-spirited older brother Roger. Unlike the Darkside version, Hero Richard has the sense to understand why he never married Belinda to begin with. Richard did once date Belinda, but forever threatened and bullied by his older brother he gave up the chase out of cowardice and notions of self-preservation. Richard admits this flaw, his cowardice, and recognition of one's flaw is the first step in making amends.

The original short story: 7/10

Comparing the short story with the television adaptation is not entirely fair. Short stories have greater opportunity in sharing information, such as spending even a short paragraph giving back-story, while a twenty-two minute script has various inherent limitations.

It is not, however, impossible.

There is no need in the script for Linda to make certain accusations, such as Richard being in love with beautiful Belinda and not having the guts to propose. This we can eliminate entirely. Rather than be aware of Richard's love for Belinda, she can accuse him of failing in not providing her with the ideal she had not only hoped for, but had expected to achieve through their marriage. "Had I known your novel would fail I would never have married you." Ouch! Now that's a bitch. It's small details such as these that can affect the whole of a work.

Moreover, casted to play Richard was character actor Bruce Davison (best known as Senator Kelly in X-Men). Davison here is overly soft, expected to appear as a victim since he seems like such a nice guy. In reality he would appear haggard, frustrated and depressed. A better bet would be not a visually accepted "nice guy," but rather a visually recognised overworked and exhausted guy.

The choice to adapt King's short story was a good one, but the handling of the shady moral areas transforms the episode into an uncomfortable portrait of suburban America. Perhaps it is precisely that which makes this a tale from the Dark Side.

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