There has been no shortage of Stephen King adaptations this year, with Netflix’s 1922 joining The Dark Tower, It, and Gerald’s Game in the Stephen King re-popularization party. Even Stranger Things, which takes influence from various King novels, takes from the best in King’s catalogue. But what separates 1922 from the rest of these adaptations is which story in King’s vast library it’s picked from. While all of the aforementioned films are based on full novels by King, 1922 is based on a 131-page novella that appears in King’s 2010 short-story compendium Full Dark, No Stars. While other quality films have been made using King’s short stories (including Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption), this film suffers from picking a story without enough meat to make an 100-minute film consistently engaging.
Nevertheless, an average King story is still an interesting one. The film tells the tale of Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a Nebraska farmer who writes a confession to the audience of how he convinced himself and his son to murder his wife for financial gain. The murder takes place in the first act, and this is the biggest issue the film has to overcome. Most of the action takes place in the first 20 minutes of the film, leaving the majority of the remaining 80 minutes to take a slow stroll down Wilfred’s guilty conscience. While this may work for a short story, it is difficult to translate this into film. The film attempts to combat this with a liberal amount of narration from Wilfred, who is telling the story from years in the future. For the most part, it is effective and provides interesting insights, but it’s hard to deny that reading the novella with all its narration would be more fulfilling.
That being said, the unique capabilities of film as a visual medium are taken advantage of through good cinematography and directing. The film combats the issue of conveying conscience through film with a particularly effective visual symbol: rats. Rats constantly rear their ugly heads throughout the film, and they make the rat cage in Room 101 from 1984 look like a petting zoo. They are used to evoke the suspicion that James’ secret may be rotting him from the inside. This analogy is made explicit through scenes involving rats and reanimated rotting corpses. There’s a lot of icky images in this film, so the squeamish may want to sit this one out (especially if they are not a rat person).
Jane’s performance as Wilfred also helps makes this film worth a watch. His depiction of a simple yet conniving farmer is compelling, and he effectively portrays a man donning a mask of confidence to hide deep regret. Overall, Jane’s acting is able to convince the audience to give our lead character a surprising amount of sympathy. Molly Parker plays Arlette James, Wilfred’s wife, and although she doesn’t appear in the film for very long she gives a very convincing performance of a woman trapped in a marriage and lifestyle that won’t allow her to express herself. Their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) also does well conveying youthful trust and innocence. The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job as well.
The resulting concoction allows the film to convey its themes freely. First and foremost of these is the effect of guilt on a psyche, how it slowly eats away at the evil-doer and how hiding the lie becomes more and more impossible. As Wilfred tells it, “Murder is a sin, murder is damnation, but murder is also work.” The film also explores the trappings of marrying young in light of a changing America. The impetus for Wilfred’s murder of his wife is their disputes over whether or not to move to the city. Arlette, who is clearly not happy in her marriage and with living on a farm, wants to move to Omaha to open up a dress shop. The only problem is that in order to do this she would need to sell their land and take custody of their son Henry. Wilfred, scared of losing his son and land, any man’s pride and joy in rural 1922, decides he must take matters into his own hands. Henry points out later that there could have been another way, to which Wilfred admits that he had begun to hate his wife, suggesting a marriage that was deeply sick and forced-upon at a young age. The trappings of young marriage are also explored in the film’s subplot of their 15-year-old son Henry and his relationship with a girl down the street that soon takes a dark turn.
1922 is a good retelling of an average and short King story, an inherent problem that the film valiantly tries to overcome. Netflix subscribers who are fans of King’s work or in the need of a decent horror flick could find enjoyment in this film. For everyone else, 1922 may already be getting old.
Featured Image By Netflix