Cronenberg looks under King’s Dome

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This past Thursday night I was treated to a very special surprise: last minute tickets to an evening with Stephen King. I estimate that no one has written a larger portion of my lifetime’s reading than this man. And as an added bonus, he was interviewed by my favourite Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg. I didn’t even know this event was happening here in Toronto, where I pride myself in usually being ‘in the know’ about this kind of thing.   I’m not sure where they advertised it, but I suppose not much publicity was needed to sell out the 2200 seat Canon Theatre for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

After being introduced by George Stroumboulopoulos (this guy’s everywhere!), King came out in a typical dressed-down writer’s attire which included white running shoes, a red t-shirt and faded blue jeans that were a little too short. He then expressed his nervousness caused by having to read excerpts from his new book to a bigger audience than he had ever read to before. It’s ironic that the author who has written about nearly every supernatural fear you can think of is still subject to the most common fear of all: public speaking. Perhaps this was an attempt to make himself more relatable after entering a stage on which the cover art of over 30 bestselling novels had just been projected one at a time to continually growing applause. He then mentioned that he had dropped his pages while they were putting his wireless mic on, and then proceeded to read them out of order, as he had feared… the horror! I felt a certain poetic justice in watching the man squirm a bit after my experiences reading It when I was 13 years old. Under the Dome is a return to those 1000-plus page yarns he was spinning in the 80’s, it’s been flying off thankful bookshelves for about two weeks now.

When I first heard that he was going to be interviewed by David Cronenberg, I thought this was an inspired pairing that would result in similar sensibilities engaging in a free flowing natural dialogue, which was both true and untrue.  There is a lot of middle ground between the horror novelist and a filmmaker like Cronenberg, but I didn’t get the sense that these guys would choose to spend time together in different circumstances. When you think about it, they not only work in different mediums, but have entirely different approaches to the genre.  Anyone who has seen a few of his films knows that labeling Cronenberg a ‘horror’ director is a gross oversimplification. On the other hand, King epitomizes the horror novelist, despite his occasional foray into other genres. Their careers have only really converged once before with Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone in 1983, and though it is not considered the highest point in either’s career, they did not let it remain the elephant in the room for long. I should state that I have not read or seen The Dead Zone, but I think its title can be applied to the gap in their personalities that lead to a somewhat stunted though still informative interview.

I see now why talk show guests often discuss what they want to talk about with the interviewer beforehand. Even though this leads to sometimes forced, obvious prompting questions, it gives the interview a smoother flow. Several times it felt as though Cronenberg would try to begin a discourse on something King was not very interested in talking about. He would ask a question about religion, and King would talk about politics. For some reason Cronenberg kept bringing up technology with comments or observations that would never really go anywhere. For example, he called King’s new book a tangible ‘object’ that feels good to hold, referring to its massive size in contrast with the growing popularity of e-books. King didn’t really have a response to this, the most he ever got into the technology discussion was when he mentioned that he thinks it would be cool to see a story about somebody who starts receiving emails from the dead. Cronenberg’s delayed response was a clear indicator that this wouldn’t be a story he’d be adapting if King ever got around to writing it.

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At one point when comparing the medium of film to the written word, Stephen King made a very good analogy in which he likened reading a book to swimming, where you become much more immersed in the world, where as a film is more like skating because it’s much faster and remains on the surface of things. As accurate as that may be, I find it’s almost the opposite with the works of these two. I believe Cronenberg is a much more philosophical storyteller, concerned more with the inner workings of the mind and psychology than King’s primarily superficial tales. Cronenberg made several references to his own ongoing attempts to complete a novel. It’s not surprising that he’s having difficulty finishing it, as I’m sure it’s probably a very abstract piece that tries to paint pictures with words and has less plot-centered concerns than all those books King seems to skate right through.

Perhaps in a subconscious way, Cronenberg’s own inabilities to finish his book led him to bring up Maximum Overdrive, King’s one directorial attempt which he has recognized as a B movie by an inexperienced filmmaker for almost 20 years now. Even though it feels like an inconsequential part of his career, he still likes to talk about it and tell stories about its making. Since the audience was there for an ‘evening with Stephen King’  (the interviewer took minimal billing), all of his stories had great reactions and rarely did the author have a joke fall flat. Cronenberg made some very dry jokes that people would chuckle at but all King had to do was drop an ‘s’ bomb and you’d think  they were watching  Louis C.K. up there.

King also talked a bit about a possible follow up to The Shining.  In it, Danny would be a 40-something year old orderly traumatized by the childhood events depicted in the first book. King said he was inspired by a true story he heard about a cat in a hospital that would somehow know when patients were going to die and always visit their room just prior to death. Danny’s real job at the hospital would involve using his unique capabilities to ease the dying’s passage into the next life.  “I’m hoping that if I talk about it enough I’ll eventually write it” says King, but let’s hope he comes up with a better title than his tentative ‘Dr. Sleep.’  Personally, I’d much rather see him take on the rumoured eigth Dark Tower book before returning to the troubled Torrance family.

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And of course there had to some discussion about the book this was all arranged to promote. Under the Dome is a story about a small town that is suddenly shut off from the rest of world by an invisible dome. People have criticized the author for taking the story from The Simpsons Movie, but King has been working on the book intermittently since the 70’s. Any negative publicity these accusations garnered were overshadowed by the announcement last week that Spielberg and Dreamworks are already interested in making a mini-series based on it. The author also mentioned that the book has some political undertones and that the transgressions of the Bush administration played a role in inspiring him to return to the story.

The entire interview lasted only about an hour and certainly left the audience wanting more.  If we had our way, I’m sure we would have all stayed for a second portion in which the interviewer and interviewee switched roles.  Perhaps this would have helped bypass some of the awkward moments caused by having such an accomplished individual as the interviewer, something that a respectful King kept feeling a need to acknowledge.  But ultimately they were there to promote the book which I’d say they were very successful in doing, as line-ups for the book made it very difficult to exit the building. I was one of the lucky two hundred who were able to get a signed copy.  So far I really like the book and think it will probably make for a very good mini-series.  Keep an eye out for my full review in the next couple of weeks.

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