We all know that Stephen King is a prolific author, so it isn’t surprising that so many of his works were turned into films and television miniseries, and it’s less surprising that several of those adaptations are often forgotten. There was a push to make more, and adapt everything, because his work was hot, and in 1993 we were blessed with a two-part event for The Tommyknockers. It doesn’t quite rank as the worst of King’s televised offerings on most lists, but there’s certainly an argument for it being the biggest letdown.
Tommyknockers may have been a doomed adaptation from the beginning because of its source material, and that’s coming from the author himself. King wrote the novel while under the influence of hard drugs and feels that it is too long and unfocused, even if there’s a solid core premise buried in all of those pages. It was the last full book he penned before seeking help and cleaning his life up, but King also referred to it as a ‘cry for help.’ King usually prefers his works to be shown as a miniseries or multiple-episode show, because he often has a lot to say, but here he felt that the adaptation of Tommyknockers was actually too short, not getting enough of the good parts out and that the people making it didn’t understand what the text was going for. Considering his thoughts on the book and looking at other takes on the material, this isn’t that surprising.
I hope we all like that bright green color because there’s a lot of it here.
What is The Tommyknockers About?
This story is mostly about Jim Gardner (Jimmy Smits), local poet and the town drunk, whom everyone calls ‘Gard,’ but it starts with his lover, Roberta Anderson (Marg Helgenberger), or ‘Bobbi,’ walking her dog and stumbling onto a huge find buried in the woods behind their house. She’s an author too, and the idea of two writers living together either equals the occasional wonderful creative ping-pong or a stress-induced nightmare.
We’re introduced to several other characters around Haven who have their own interesting relationships and problems, but things pick up when this newly unearthed relic begins affecting everyone in strange ways. For some, their vision is improved, several of them gain the ability to read minds, and most of the residents begin creating futuristic inventions that do spectacular things, made out of common parts. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when the toll of these new gifts begins to show, and people in the small hamlet start having to hide their secrets and keep outsiders away.
Only Gard is immune to the effects of this mind-warping structure that the town is now excavating, all because of a metal plate placed in his head at a young age from a skiing accident while trying to impress a girl. Our hero will have to overcome his addictions and prove that he’s more than just the town drunk if he wants to save Bobbi and a few others along the way. While that’s happening, Hilly Brown (Leon Woods) makes his brother Davey (Paul McIver) disappear during a magic trick gone wrong – luckily Grandpa Ev (E. G. Marshall) is on the job – and Joe Paulson (Cliff DeYoung) is about to receive a rude awakening for his ongoing affair with Nancy Voss (Traci Lords).
There are some solid sections in this presentation, and I don’t just mean that two of the main characters are trying to get it on in the mail room. However, that does lead to a wonderful scene where the television uses a dating show host to convince Becka Paulson (Allyce Beasley) she should kill her husband in a fun way. This sub-plot was adapted from a previously published King short story and fits in quite well. I also enjoy the interactions and puppy love between Ruth Merrill (Joanna Cassidy) and Butch Dugan (John Ashton), but something about how his character goes out, a victim of his unending desire for Coca-Cola, is corny but highly entertaining. I can relate to that.
The acting isn’t the bad part of this series, at least not in the main roles (there are a couple of amusing stinkers). Several characters are dealing with a great loss or struggling to overcome their dependence on something, and those painful moments hit decently. There are numerous recognizable performers from that time present here turning in some solid work, but several of the more interesting personalities are either shelved or killed off too early.
There’s a lot of potential in the first episode. What we see starts off well and then gets a bit goofy. Some of that is from the story, a little bit due to the visual effects, and a small part from some overacting, but honestly, a ton of it works until they fully uncover the alien ship. The last twenty minutes or so fall apart spectacularly somehow, with no explanations as to what the extraterrestrials’ plans were, and a foundation built on a series of questions better left unanswered. Gard’s sacrifice is important and needs to happen, but there’s no resolution for the other characters, and closing out with his poem is a bit cheesy. It doesn’t help that the aliens look silly either.
The visuals were certainly made for television and apparently, not much of the budget went to that part of the production in the first place. According to an article about the show in Fangoria No. 123 in a piece called Tommyknockers at the Door, the project was shot in New Zealand due to the current weather in North America and the location cost was steep, especially when it came to shipping equipment and materials over. Some chemicals had trouble getting through customs and other cost-cutting measures meant that certain visual effects were executed differently. King himself has said that the production felt cheap.
Shooting overall was apparently rough and frantic, with several last-minute rewrites happening late in filming, while most cast members were never given a full copy of the script. The show also fired director Lewis Teague after only two days on set. He seemed like a sure thing, as Teague made King’s Cujo and Cat’s Eye, but John Power would be brought in to finish the production, and this changed the course of the miniseries altogether, potentially taking it further away from the book.
The Tommyknockers lacks the charm of other King adaptations
Comparing it to the novel, that version of the story was much more brutal and had a higher body count, plus we don’t get to see how the outside world reacts to the events in Haven and lose several characters and stories that had to be cut out of a shorter televised adaptation. As King is known for horror, the book does a better job of getting those elements across. The first part of the miniseries never quite reaches any truly scary levels, but it has moments where it tries and does nail some of the body horror aspects. I remember watching it as a kid and being a bit uncomfortable in a couple of scenes. Part two, however, is less creepy and becomes campier toward the end, with fewer moments that stick out for the better.
Some viewers saw the Vidmark release of Tommyknockers, which was an edited version of the miniseries that cut an hour from the runtime and dropped several characters and smaller plots altogether. This is probably the worst way to see the story, which is saying something. Tommyknockers may be the most disappointing adaptation, but that’s because people other than King see good core ideas here that just weren’t executed well. James Wan is apparently one of those people, as he wants to remake the film.
The Tommyknockers was made into a television event after the success of the IT miniseries and it’s hard to think that without that previous success, this one would have made it to screen in this state. But King was hot, and IT was big, meaning this probably seemed like a slam dunk for ABC, and so they rushed it. That was most likely the main reason Tommyknockers suffered, and some were impressed the movie still managed to almost work. Unlike many of the other King television adaptations, this one lacks bite and is missing a certain charm, but it’s hard to captalize on great ideas in such a flawed creation.