There’s always a thrill that comes from discussing the adapted works of Stephen King. It’s especially exciting when they’re in a televised mini-series form.
Needful Things doesn’t quite have the ambitions of The Stand, and hasn’t penetrated the pop culture the way IT did. The story also doesn’t swing as broadly as Storm of the Century or sink to the same depths we see in The Tommyknockers. No, Needful Things as a novel and an adaptation sits comfortably in the middle. It isn’t the most desirable of King’s works, but it does just fine. Over the years, people may have gotten the wrong idea about what was supposed to be the town of Castle Rock’s final tale.
Needful Things is the story of a small town with a lot of unchecked tension that leaves certain people on edge. But if that were it, this drama would play out with only a few small incidents. To add gasoline and stoke the flames, a stranger enters town and opens up a shop of curiosities and goodies where the price is to die for — or at least, as long as a soul sounds cheap. This malicious force is making deals, giving customers everything they want in exchange for small favors. But these errands set people off, and violence ensues. We get to watch as the town breaks down and burns under the weight of its own avarice.
The cast is spectacular, with many of the small roles being noteworthy character actors. I won’t attempt to list them all here, but almost everyone sticks out in at least one scene. It’s impossible to miss Amanda Plummer as Nettie Cobb, J.T. Walsh’s explosive performance as Danforth “Buster” Keeton III, Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro McClane – I mean, Polly Chalmers, and of course the incredible Ed Harris takes on the role of Sheriff Alan J. Pangborn. That character was originally played by Michael Rooker in The Dark Half (1993 release, filmed in 1991), but the studio wanted to go with someone different — even against King’s wishes to bring him back.
But arguably the most important casting selection would be that of the town’s nemesis, Mr. Leland Gaunt — played to near perfection by Max von Sydow. He’s the best part of the experience, with a graceful flow between cordial gentleman and vengeful spirit; it’s like watching a tapestry be woven. He acts as both surgical instrument and shotgun, sadistically reveling in the destruction of the small hamlet. It’s hard to dislike the not-so-subtle hints about him being the devil, and he manages to turn horribly ham-fisted lines into graceful anecdotes. Gaunt is a treasure, but there’s always something happening behind the camera as well.
The duties of directing fell to Fraser C. Heston, the son of Charlton Heston, who worked with his father on most projects. Adapting a book into something feature-length is often difficult, especially one that has as much ambition and story to tell as Needful Things. Condensing all of the author’s details and moving parts into a neat box means that some elements will be lost – in this case, entire characters like Ace Merrill, who also appeared in Stand By Me. One big change was to the fate of Brian Rusk, an 11-year-old boy who felt guilty over his part in the chaos after agreeing to an exchange with Gaunt, leading to his eventual suicide. The studio apparently asked for this to be changed later on, having the movie awkwardly state that he had survived the attempt. It removes one of the more meaningful deaths from the story.
The violence is part of the thrill in this story. Scenes are creepy and foreboding, accompanied by some tonally appropriate music to drive it home. A few moments are jarring, and may make viewers want to pause. It’s a story about ‘80s excess, greed, and keeping secrets, with the classic trope of some problems being as simple as two people not speaking to each other. It all of this plays into the base themes, and as Gaunt himself says, “people kill people.”
The pacing is a little slow, but the material creates a solid buildup, only for the ending to fall a bit flat. This is the problem in both the book and film, as the fiery confrontation between Pangborn and Gaunt fizzles out. There are a few goofs that are hard to unsee – like the characters getting the title of the stolen book wrong – but it’s campy, something I feel just goes hand and hand with King. Some describe the novel as a sort of black comedy in parts, and perhaps they attempted to bring that influence over to the screen unsuccessfully. Even the author himself doesn’t think the book has held up over the years.
We’re our own worst critics, however, and although the initial film release of Needful Things was panned, a new extended version was commissioned for television as a mini-series, using cut material from the original shoot. This added a little over an hour of deleted scenes after some new editing, bringing the total runtime for this televised event to 187 minutes. Heston claims to prefer the theatrical release, but wished he could add an additional twenty minutes to it.
I adore the extra scenes in the extended cut, and appreciate how much clearer it makes some of the minor plots. That said, it isn’t hard to understand how most of these parts were initially discarded. Until this year, however, it was only available on places like YouTube. The lone official release of the extended cut for some time was as a bonus feature for one of the German DVDs. The new version will have even more footage, coming in at 191 minutes.
Everyone has something they need. For a select group, it was a new 4K or Blu-Ray version of this Stephen King tale. It isn’t his best, it’s far from his worst, but it’s definitely bound to be one of someone’s favorite things.