Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When the Past Kicks the Door Down

"Whenever it wants, the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's going to take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you want to go."

Bobby as an adult
Hearts in Atlantis

I'm a fan of Stephen King's writings, and, a few years ago, I read "Hearts in Atlantis," mostly during my lunch hours at work.

I would pack a lunch — usually a couple of sandwiches — and go out to my car and read my book for about an hour. It was good, but it wasn't a single novel, like many of the King books I have read. It was one of his collections — some short stories and novellas that were linked (modestly and, to a great extent, chronologically) via some recurring characters.

And it wasn't the best of King's works that I have read. If I had to recommend any of his books — even a collection of his short stories — to someone else, I would never choose "Hearts in Atlantis."

The general theme of the stories in the collection is summed up by Peter Fonda's line from "Easy Rider""We blew it" — which is how King (or, at least, the narrator) opens the first story — and apparently feels about the postwar generation (also known as the "baby boomers") and its perceived failure to live up to expectations.

In a sense, I guess, that was a good simile for the movie, which was released 10 years ago today. It's kind of a Reader's Digest condensed version, emphasizing one story but trying to link elements of the others in the process — usualy without much context. At least the stories in the book were linked in ways that the reader could see clearly.

It was hardly clear in the movie, which was told as something of a flashback, with a now–grown man returning to his childhood home for the funeral of one of his childhood friends.

The title was explained in the movie only through a somewhat contrived comment that must have been created specifically for the movie. It actually comes from the name of the second story in the published collection, which takes place on a college campus, but the only story that was told in the movie, really, was the first, which was titled "Low Men in Yellow Coats." In that story, a young boy befriends an older man who moves in a couple of floors above the boy and his mother.

The man and the boy spend a great deal of time discussing books, and the man eventually works out an arrangement to pay the boy to read the newspaper to him, supposedly because his vision is not as good as it once was. As the two develop a bond, the man confides in the boy that he is being stalked by "low men in yellow coats," and he man tells the boy of the signs that warn of their presence.

Well, I don't want to give away the rest of the story, but it is a Stephen King coming–of–age story, in the mold of "Stand By Me" with some elements of some of his novels — and kind of a supernatural twist.

(The way King frequently focuses on childhood has often made me wonder if there was something traumatic in King's own childhood that perhaps the rest of us should know about.

(Well, he does what he does so well that perhaps we should be grateful that we don't know all the details ...)

Anthony Hopkins was wonderful, as always, as the older man who comes to live above the boy and his mother. Sometimes I think Hopkins was born to play the older man roles, even though he has been appearing in movies since he was in his 20s.

At such times, I can't help but think the first 20 or 30 years of his career — as loaded with praise and award nominations as they were — were merely prologue for this phase.

And I thought 12–year–old Anton Yelchin did a good job as Bobby, the boy who finds himself torn between his mother and his friend, but I wasn't overly impressed with Hope Davis as the mother.

I rarely have been, I guess. I mean, I wasn't impressed with her supporting performance in "About Schmidt" as Jack Nicholson's daughter, and I guess that was her most noteworthy role after "Hearts in Atlantis." To be honest, I can't recall seeing her in anything, even though I know I have seen movies in which she appeared. Perhaps that will tell you how little of an impression she has left on me.

But, to be fair, Davis' character was not as developed in the movie as it was in King's original story, and that really isn't surprising. King was able to explore many of her fears, her motivations, her reactions to her experiences in ways that a movie never really could — especially if the director (Scott Hicks) showed no real interest in making the attempt, which, apparently, he did not.

That is odd, too, because screenwriter William Goldman was responsible for the adaptation of King's "Misery" in 1990 — and "Misery" was one of the better (although, like the rest, far from ideal) adaptations of King's work.

Davis' character was self–absorbed and bitter about her relationship with her late husband, for reasons that became less clear as the story unfolded. But, in spite of her seeming disinterest in her child, she did show her maternal instincts in both the book and, to a less obvious extent, the film when she fretted about whether Hopkins' character might be molestiing her son.

But King, as I recall, left some gaps in the readers' knowledge of the mother that might have been helpful in understanding why she jumped to the conclusions she did.

Her concern was unfounded, of course, and it appeared to be mostly based on her own experience of sexual harassment by her employer (an angle that was explored in more depth in the story than in the film), not on anything Hopkins' character had ever said or done in her presence. Although Hopkins' character was courteous when they met, Davis' character clearly did not like him from the start.

Maybe there was more to it than met the eye..

It's been several years since I read "Hearts in Atlantis," but it seems to me that Bobby's mother may have had issues with men in general that predated her relationship with her husband. Perhaps she had been abused as a child. Perhaps she had been raped even before her boss assaulted her. I could be wrong, but I don't think King ever got into that much detail.

I suppose you could debate whether it was wise to tell readers and viewers so little about what influenced Bobby's mother to make the decisions she did. But the story really wasn't about her. It was about Bobby, his childhood friends and his special older friend.

"I wouldn't have missed a single minute of it," Hopkins told Bobby when the low men finally caught up to him and took him away. "Not for the whole world."

I'm glad I didn't miss the book — or the movie.