Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hearts on the Line

"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."

Adult Bobby (David Morse)

I'm a fan of Stephen King, and I remember reading "Hearts in Atlantis" before I saw the movie, which hit the theaters on this day in 2001. It was not a single story. It was a collection of two novellas and three short stories that involved the same primary characters and were told in roughly chronological order. "Hearts in Atlantis" was merely the title of one of the pieces in the collection — and it wasn't even the title of the story that was told in the movie.

The movie was a dramatization of the first and longest story in the book, "Low Men in Yellow Coats." I suppose "Hearts in Atlantis" was considered a more marketable title — but its meaning had to have been virtually incomprehensible to anyone who saw the movie but had not read the book. In the movie adaptation, Atlantis was casually mentioned a couple of times, justifying the title

Having said that, I was impressed as always with Anthony Hopkins' work. He is already extensively recognized and praised, but I think that, in the future after he is gone, he will be seen in hindsight as one of the best actors of his generation — if not of all time.

Anton Yelchin, who played his young friend, might have been one of the best actors of his generation. Roger Ebert wrote that Yelchin "is not just a cute kid but a smart and wary one." That seems to have accurately described him as he grew and appeared in quite a few other movies. He didn't fall into the self–destructive trap in which so many child stars seem to fall, but tragically he died earlier this year in what can only be described as a freak accident.

The movie, Ebert wrote, "weaves a strange spell, made of nostalgia and fear. Rarely does a movie make you feel so warm and so uneasy at the same time." As he so often did, Ebert made the perfect observation.

In my life I have learned that the best fiction writers are the ones who can vividly recall what it was like to be a child. The children in this story were living in 1960, which was before my time, but childhood experiences tend to be kind of universal, I guess. As such, I suppose it would be a natural assumption that anyone can write a story about being a child, which is not true. Anyone can feel a personal connection to such a story, but few can write the story. Fewer still can do it well.

I can think of no contemporary writer who is better at that than King, and "Hearts in Atlantis" really may have been one of his best — the best of the best. In the book, the novellas and short stories told the tale of Bobby (Yelchin), and that first story, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," was about an older man who was taken in as a boarder by Bobby's self–absorbed widowed mother (Hope Davis), who constantly complained about her late husband leaving nothing but debts when he died.

The story took place in the summer of Bobby's 11th year. His constant companions were Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar), but Ted (Hopkins) became his special friend, sort of a father figure for the fatherless boy.

In the book Ted and Bobby had a conversation about Carol that I was pleased to see was brought to the screen. Ted asked Bobby if he had kissed Carol; upon learning that he had not, Ted observed, "You will, and it will be the kiss by which all others in your life will be judged — and found wanting."

That isn't the sort of thing your typical 11–year–old wants to hear. But it is so true.

Having been an 11–year–old boy once, I know that most 11–year–old boys do like to talk about sports, and Bobby remembered his father telling him about seeing Babe Ruth and Bronko Nagurski. Ted told him about Nagurski's miraculous comeback. Six years after his retirement, Nagurski was persuaded to return to pro football because the NFL's teams had been depleted by World War II. He led the Chicago Bears to the NFL championship, as Ted said in the movie, but the victory he described over the crosstown rival Cardinals occurred on the final day of the regular season. It was not the NFL title game. That came against the Washington Redskins. Nagurski did score a touchdown in that game, but the Bears won that title game by 20 points.

Ted made it sound like Nagurski scored the touchdown that broke open a close game with the Cardinals, but that margin was 11 points. A little poetic license, I presume. Perhaps Ted knew that and just embellished the story a bit for Bobby's sake.

The movie was about the relationship between Ted and Bobby as much as anything — even though the movie began with the adult Bobby going to his old stomping grounds for Sully's funeral.

Ted recruited Bobby to be on the lookout for "low men," strange, mysterious men who wanted to have Ted under their control, apparently because of some kind of psychic ability Ted possessed.

"Some think of it as a gift," Ted told Bobby after confirming that the low men's pursuit of him was connected to the FBI's alleged recruitment of psychics in the war on communism, "but to me it's always been a burden."

Although it received nary a nomination from the Academy Awards, I liked "Hearts in Atlantis," probably because it reminded me of my own childhood and adolescence.

Every young person should be fortunate enough to have a mentor like Ted. Not every one does, of course. The prisons are filled with folks who didn't have such a positive influence in their formative years. But I did. I called her Aunt Bess — as did everyone in my hometown. We talked about all sorts of things. Sometimes I read to her, much like Bobby did for Ted. And she shared her wisdom with me.

I guess she was sort of like a grandmother to me. My own grandmothers lived more than 300 miles away. I saw them a few times a year, usually around holidays. I could see Aunt Bess every week — and most weeks I did.

Aunt Bess wasn't psychic — probably, although she always seemed to know when I was fudging the truth. Maybe that is something all adults — or at least the ones who have been parents — know or seem to know.

The best ones aren't bothered when their young charges prove fallible. And Ted was one of the best ones. Even after he had been captured by the low men, as he was being taken away, he saw Bobby and told him he wouldn't have missed the experience of being Bobby's friend for anything — even though it was Bobby's mother who had played a key role in his capture.