Face-Off: The Dark Half vs. Secret Window

Cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King have been coming out at a steady flow ever since the man started getting published, but rarely are their releases events on the scale of the upcoming IT and this weekend's THE DARK TOWER. Fans have been waiting 35 years for King's Dark Tower series to make it to the screen, and now it's finally happening... So to celebrate this week of King, I decided to take a look back at a couple previous King adaptations, a pair of films that have a lot of similarities at their core - George A. Romero's THE DARK HALF from 1993, and David Koepp's 2004 film SECRET WINDOW.
Thad Beaumont is a pleasant family man with a day job as a teacher that allows him the time necessary to craft highbrow novels that aren't nearly as successful as the violent crime novels he writes under the pseudonym George Stark. Thad is played by Timothy Hutton, who makes him come off as a likeable guy who's worth following and rooting for. When Thad stirs up a deadly supernatural force by announcing that Stark is being retired, we want to see him beat this evil thing and save his family.
Mort Rainey isn't the quirkiest character Johnny Depp has ever played, but Depp imbues him with plenty of quirk, from playing up a jaw issue and Mort's love for naps to dropping in some funny lines and deliveries. The casting of Depp was a benefit to the film; I don't think many other actors could have made me care for or like this guy. We can sympathize with him because he's going through a divorce after catching his wife cheating on him, but there's not much to him beyond that.
George Stark was given a fictional back story to convince his readers that this guy was well acquainted with the criminal lifestyle he was writing about. When Stark emerges into our world in the flesh, also played by Timothy Hutton, he is exactly as described: a hardcase from Mississippi who is just as violent as the characters he wrote about. George Stark is a great, sleazy character and Hutton did a wonderful job making his performance as Stark stand apart from his performance as Thad.
Mort Rainey's routine of napping and attempting to write in his vacation cabin is disrupted when John Shooter, an angry fellow from Mississippi, shows up at his door accusing him of plagiarism. Shooter believes Mort used a manuscript he wrote as the basis for a short story called Secret Window, and he wants payback. As played by John Turturro, Shooter is entertaining to watch (viewers will always be quoting his delivery of "You stole my story"), but a late twist sort of ruins him.
Stark can't hurt Thad, he needs him in order to continue existing, but he can hurt everyone around him. And he does, viciously slashing his way through Thad's friends and associates until finally taking his family hostage to force him to write a new novel with him. Stark is a very dangerous man who won't hesitate to kill anyone in his way, and he's so slimy that he's uncomfortable to watch. If his murderous ways weren't bad enough, he also shares Thad's fingerprints, so Thad is the prime suspect in these murder cases.
Shooter doesn't come off as being very physically threatening, even though there is a moment in which he lifts Mort off the ground. He's just not imposing. However, he can cause a whole lot of pain and trouble for Mort, and not just financially if his plagiarism claim proves true. Shooter starts killing off people and things associated with Mort (Mort's dog, a private investigator he hires, a neighbor, etc.), and commits arson, burning down the house that now belongs to Mort's ex, framing Mort as the prime suspect.
The explanation for George Stark's existence is a prime example of the particular brand of wild weirdness you could only expect to get from classic King. When Thad was developing in the womb, he absorbed the weaker fetus of a twin, but not completely. Years later, that twin fetus began to grow again, as a tumor in Thad's head. When that tumor was removed, Thad's parents had it buried in the family plot. During the announcement that Thad won't be writing any more George Stark novels, a fake headstone for George Stark is placed on that family plot - and Stark, a being conjured by Thad's will, inhabits that partially formed twin/tumor, grows into an adult man, and climbs out of the ground, ready to kill.
When the truth about John Shooter is revealed, it makes most of what has come before that moment feel pointless. Shooter isn't real, he exists only in Mort's mind. His wife's betrayal has caused Mort to snap, and Shooter is a character he has created to do every violent, illegal thing he wants to do but can't. Putting on a Quaker hat and speaking with a southern accent, Mort slips into the Shooter personality and builds up to seeking deadly vengeance. So basically most of this movie is just the story of a man being threatened by his imaginary friend. The plagiarism stuff means nothing, since there was no John Shooter to write a story that could be stolen. Try not to feel like your time has been wasted.
When that tumor started growing in Thad's head, he heard the sound of sparrows, and when it was removed the hospital was swarmed by actual sparrows. The sparrows start flying again when George Stark comes into the world, and they are the key to his destruction. While this is set up well enough, it's sort of a letdown that all it takes to defeat Stark is for the sparrows to finally fly into action. Especially since it takes nearly two hours of movie to get to that point.
This doesn't end on a happy note. Mort goes completely over the edge and murders his ex and her boyfriend, but this isn't an act of vengeance I feel good about. Amy (Maria Bello) and Ted (Timothy Hutton again!) were sleeping together behind Mort's back, it's terrible, but these characters are people with depth, emotions, and reasons. They don't deserve to be murdered, and Mort doesn't deserve to get away with it. But when the credits start to roll, it looks like he's going to.
I really thought SECRET WINDOW would put up more of a fight in this Face-Off, but when it came down to it the movie was only able to tie with THE DARK HALF in a couple categories. Tying in the final category isn't exactly a good thing, either. It's not that I liked the endings equally; they tied because they're both somewhat disappointing. Other than that, THE DARK HALF manages to trounce SECRET WINDOW pretty handily in most areas.

Would SECRET WINDOW have put up a better fight if you were comparing these two films? Let us know your thoughts on them by leaving a comment below. If you have any suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can send them to me at [email protected].



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