We’ve all met the kinder, gentler Stephen King who’s on display in Hearts in Atlantis. Far from the creator of skin-crawlers like Pet Sematary and It, this Stephen King traffics in rosy reminiscence and moral uplift—he’s the one behind critically-lauded dramas like Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Sure, he can exploit your deepest fears, but even deeper down it appears that our pop culture’s chief harbinger of nightmares for 25 years is really just an old softie.
The problem with this Stephen King is that he’s just as much a fantasy creation as the Overlook Hotel and Carrie White. Every once in a while, King eases back on the supernatural throttle to tell a more character-based story, but even when he’s in the real world, it’s a pretty dark world. Filmmakers, however, have decided that whenever there’s not a zombie or a demon car in a King story, it’s an excuse to take the edge off of it and aim for middlebrow respectability. Somehow, Hollywood has managed to de-claw Cujo.
In Hearts in Atlantis, director Scott Hicks (Shine) takes a King story and beats it with a nostalgia stick until there’s nothing left but a gloriously photographed bag of oatmeal. It begins in the present day, where Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his hometown for the funeral of a childhood friend. There he flashes back to the summer of 1960, where as an 11-year-old child (Anton Yelchin) of a widowed mother (Hope Davis) he meets new upstairs boarder Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Ted’s an odd sort of fellow, not inclined to reveal much about his past, which naturally makes Mom suspicious. But young Bobby makes a fast friend, even if he finds it a bit strange that Ted wants to pay him to keep an eye out for “low men.” Who are these low men? What do they want with Ted? Why does Ted seem to have an odd way of knowing things about people?
And what exactly is this movie about, anyway? The framing sequences find the adult Bobby hanging on to a photo of first sweetheart Carol (Mika Boorem) as he returns home, reacting with tremendous emotion when he learns that Carol has died young, and eventually meeting up with Carol’s teenage daughter. Carol, however, is mostly a tangent in a narrative that focuses not on the relationship between Bobby and Carol, but on the relationship between Bobby and Ted. We see Ted—played with casual, grandfatherly charm by Hopkins—become a father figure to Bobby, to the extent that he actually seems to be channeling the memories of Bobby’s late dad. What a compelling story of paternal-need friendship this must turn out to be.
Problem is, there’s no substance to that element of the tale, either. In King’s story (“Low Men in Yellow Coats” from the novella cycle Hearts in Atlantis), Bobby’s mother isn’t simply absentee; she’s emotionally and even physically abusive. It resonates when Bobby reaches out to Ted, because it’s obvious that no one else in his world has earned that kind of adoration. Hope Davis’ Mrs. Garfield is softer, a harried single mother far from the jaded soul of King’s vision. That choice makes her more sympathetic, but it also blunts the impact of the connection between Bobby and Ted. When Bobby asks of the possible arrival of the low men, “Would you have to go away?” it’s hard to figure out why it would really matter to Bobby, except that he’d be losing his job.
Hearts in Atlantis, ultimately, isn’t about anything. It’s an exercise in gold-tinged niceness, with every possible sharp corner rounded off into something inoffensive and mass-market-friendly. The late, gifted cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski sprinkles scenes with filtered fairy dust. Mychael Danna lays on a score thick with sentimentality, and Hicks lingers on pleasant images of Bobby and his friends frolicking in a river to the strains of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.” Though there are nice small touches throughout the film—like the size-too-small shirts Bobby wears—there’s nothing solid for those touches to cling to. Hicks directs Hearts in Atlantis as though setting a film in 1960 makes it inherently more emotionally affecting. Who needs to build bonds between your characters when the past can tug at the heartstrings simply by virtue of being the past?
It’s not a matter of the source material being so spectacular that any variation was going to inspire shrieks of outrage. Indeed, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” lurches and stumbles on its way to a baffling confrontation with extra-dimensional pure evil, which screenwriter William Goldman blessedly streamlines considerably. This is a minor work in the King canon we’re talking about, and it’s not as though the King canon is akin to that of Dickens.
At the very least, though, there was the kernel of something true at the center of “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” true even if it was sometimes ugly. King’s Bobby Garfield became a recidivist juvenile delinquent thanks to his troubled upbringing. Hicks and Goldman turn him into a tousle-haired lad on his way to a happy life of renown as a photographer. A story of brutal youth becomes a feature-length episode of The Wonder Years.
But that appears to be the fate of Stephen King’s works when he turns them over to Castle Rock Entertainment. The films may sometimes be good ones, but even the good ones exist in a universe not of King’s making. Hearts in Atlantis strips away King’s creepiness, and finds nothing underneath but a cuddly little puppy of a movie so desperate to be liked that it hopes you won’t notice it keeps pissing all over the rug. Nice Cujo. Goooood boy, Cujo.
Hearts in Atlantis (PG-13) H1/2 Directed by Scott Hicks. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin and Hope Davis.