Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 12, 2004, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Stephen King’s Novellas and the History of Cinematic Adaptations

Since many of the films made from Stephen King’s lengthy novels seem to suffer from compression, while features derived from his short stories have largely revealed that the tales worked best in brief form, the author’s novellas would seem just right in terms of suitability for adaptation. Certainly, two of the most successful (albeit non-horror) King films have been Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, derived from pieces in the Different Seasons collection. And when the author has written about writers, the eventual cinematic results have included the excellent Misery and The Dark Half. So there was plenty of anticipation going into Secret Window, David Koepp’s adaptation of the Four Past Midnight entry Secret Window, Secret Garden, additionally because Koepp did such a fine job bringing Richard Matheson to the screen with Stir of Echoes. Those expectations, it turns out, are only partially met.

Introducing “Secret Window”: Anticipation and Execution

Koepp gets the movie off to a solid start with a vividly presented scene of thriller author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) discovering his wife Amy (Mario Bello) in bed with another man (Dark Half’s Timothy Hutton). We next find Rainey holed up in a remote woodland cabin, struggling (but not very hard) with writer’s block, wearing a ratty robe and hair that makes his Oscar-night coif look refined. Depp, who always goes the extra mile to make a role feel lived-in, applies amusing quirks to Rainey so that he’s fun to watch instead of morose, and Koepp provides him with the cinematic equivalent of King’s interior dialogues that allow the viewer something of a glimpse inside his head. Soon, though, Rainey is faced with an exterior threat: John Shooter (John Turturro), a Mississippi-accented stalker who claims that Rainey once stole one of his stories.

Rainey’s Plagiarism Dilemma and the Unusual Antagonist Motivations

As motivations for mania and murder go, plagiarism doesn’t quite stand up to, say, accidental death or adultery, and the hoops Rainey has to jump through to prove he published his tale before Shooter supposedly wrote his seem odd. (Surely he could just call up some evidence on the Internet, rather than go to the torturous lengths he does to produce a copy of the magazine containing the story.) And Shooter’s demands—not for a public apology or monetary compensation, but that Rainey “fix the ending” that Shooter claims he altered—feel more like a literary conceit than a solid basis for cinematic thrills. Throughout, in fact, Secret Window plays like a story that simply played better on the page than it does blown up to motion-picture images. The stakes, for a while, are psychological, and seem somehow too small for the big screen, especially when the images are as lushly shot as they are here, by Fred (Freddy vs. Jason) Murphy.

Comparing the Film’s Storytelling to King’s Written Narrative

Koepp’s storytelling is technically solid, and it is fun to watch Depp deal with his assorted crises (also including his ongoing divorce proceedings from Amy). Turturro is also a good enough actor to prevent his drawling villain from becoming a caricature; he finds an intelligence in Shooter that makes him more than just a hick thug. Eventually, his threats against Rainey bear fruit in violence, and those around the writer being falling victim in pretty much the order you’d expect them to. (When a house pet and a psychopath share a movie, the outcome is pretty much a given.) The suspense thus never truly builds to a boil, despite the strenuous efforts of composer Philip Glass (evidently a last-minute replacement for the previously announced James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer), who forgoes his ethereal Candyman tones in favor of bombastic ersatz Bernard Herrmann.

Mystery Deepens: Exploring Shooter’s Motivations

The longer the film goes on, the more muddled Shooter’s motivations become—is he really out to avenge a literary theft, or, as Rainey begins to suspect, is he a goon hired by the spiteful Ted whose harassment has gotten out of hand?

Revelations and Plot Twists in “Secret Window”

All the narrative and subtextual threads get tied together by a third-act revelation—one that, while somewhat satisfying on an aesthetic level, won’t come as much of a dramatic surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. (Like another recent, well-known movie big twist that I won’t reveal, this one comes off as a concept that worked better in its source fiction than it does on screen.)

King’s name is nowhere to be found in the advertising for Secret Window, which has largely been the trend where his non-genre adaptations are concerned. Which makes the approach appropriate here: The movie is ultimately more successful at exploring Rainey’s inner life as he wrestles with inner demons than when it ventures into genre territory as he tangles with his external tormentor.

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