The The Langoliers episode of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by Lance Vlcek and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian. Here is the text of Hatfield’s script:
Well, it’s time to let the King have his moment again. This is Stephen King’s second go around on the show and while Silver Bullet based on Cycle of the Werewolf is a minor cult classic, it’s not one of the bigger adaptations out of his overall catalogue. Today is going to an even deeper cut. While it seems that nearly everything has been adapted, there is a lot that has yet to be turned into a show, movie, or short film. Back in the 90s and early 2000s it felt like his made for TV miniseries were happening more frequently and had more hype to them, Shawshank aside. While huge productions of even bigger books in both It and The Stand, what else could we see come on the small screen? Well, it wasn’t exactly what people were expecting but The Langoliers hit our screens on Sunday May14th and Monday May 15th of 1995 airing on ABC. It was a two parter instead of a 4 parter like The Stand but how close did it stick to it’s novella roots? Lets go back to 1995 but not for too long as we avoid and find out what happened to The Langoliers.
The Langoliers was shot in Bangor, Maine for roughly 3 to 5 million dollars. It did well for ABC too, showing up in the top 5 for ratings the week it premiered even though it was only a two-night affair. I remember watching it as a kid when it premiered and then multiple times later on Sci-Fi Channel. As a kid I really enjoyed it and after reading the novella and watching it again, I still enjoy it, except for the titular Langoliers. Originally, they were set to be puppets that were handled by a team, you know, good old fashioned practical effects. Sadly, that wasn’t to be as it was decided late that CGI would be used. CGI could be really good, even in the early 90s like its use in Jurassic Park. It could also be an afront to God and constitute as a war crime, like in The Langoliers. Apart from that, it’s an affective little movie based on a fun story.
The writer and director of the project, which I didn’t know until beginning the research for this episode, is the legendary Tom Holland. Because of the year we are currently in, I have to reiterate that it is not the adorable web slinging and plot leaking Tom Holland of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but long-time horror director Tom Holland. This Holland is responsible for quite a lot and is a true master of horror. His early writing includes a personal favorite in Class of 84, but also the underrated sequel Psycho II, Cloak and Dagger, and The Beast Within. Later he would give us Fright Night, Child’s Play, multiple Tales from the Crypt episodes, a Master of Horror episode, and another King adaptation in Thinner. While he hasn’t done a ton the last couple decades, he has cemented his place as an all time great with some all-time great flicks.
In front of the camera had a track record for King TV movies as well all the way back to Salem’s Lot in the late 70s. That would continue through It with Tim Curry and the absolutely loaded cast of The Stand. For this movie they grabbed more reliable character actors mixed with TV stars. Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers and the Beverly Hills Cop films plays the films antagonist as an unhinged businessman who thinks everyone is there to get him. David Morse, one of our great character actors and a King veteran, plays another lead along with Dean Stockwell, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Frankie Faison, and Patricia Wettig. The rest of the cast is fun too and we get a director cameo with Holland who liked to show up in things as well as the expected King appearance as he loved that Hitchcock always showed up in his films. The movie isn’t easy to come by these days but does exist in a relatively inexpensive multi pack with a few other TV movies.
The novella, also called The Langoliers to make it easy on us, was one of the 4 stories written in 1988 and 1989 that ended up in King’s second compilation of novellas called Four Past Midnight. His previous collection of four stories, appropriately called Different Seasons, had some all-time classics as well as that 4th wheel on the shopping cart that never works. Both Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body would go on to massive acclaim as Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me respectively while Apt Pupil would get a much later movie adaptation to far fewer acclaim. The Breathing Method has yet to be turned into any other media. That book is also different as the stories aren’t horror or have very little horror in them. It was published in 1982 and Four Past Midnight, which came out 8 years later would hue much more towards that horror that we know King for.
The other stories found partnered with today’s movie are The Sun Dog, which reads almost like a creepypasta online story of today and has never been adapted, The Library Policeman which has also never been adapted and is a fun but weird kind of ghost tale, and Secret Window, Secret Garden which was turned into Secret Window with Johnny Depp. Unfortunately. It’s weird to look back at this collection and know that The Langoliers is not only the best story from the books collection but actually the best film adaptation too. Of note, King doesn’t hate the movie, but he understands it’s not one that people flock to. He liked what the director of 2023’s Boogeyman did with that property enough that he’s on board with a Langoliers re-do. The story has also been released as a stand-alone book as many of his collections of longer stories have.
What is the same?
The short answer here is that nearly everything that happens in the story was translated onto the screen by Holland. Let’s look at the story though. A plane leaves LA on the way to Boston. We have the characters of Craig Toomy, Dinah Bellman, Bob Jenkins, Laurel Stevenson, Don Gaffney, Albert Kaussner, Brian Engle, Rudy Warwick, Bethany Sims, and Nick Hopewell all on the plane, but they wake up and they are alone. Even the pilots who were in the cockpit are missing and Brian, a pilot, takes over. Unable to get ahold of anyone to help them, they decide that they need to land in Bangor, Maine rather than the original destination of Boston, despite the protests from Toomy.
They land in a deserted airport where they slowly figure out that they had to have slipped through some sort of time portal and been taken to the past. Unlike many of the interpretations of time travel in various media, going back in time will have nothing. No events to witness or change, just blank nothingness that they find out will eventually fade to actual nothingness. Food doesn’t have taste, nothing has odor, and things that should work normally like sound and fire don’t work the way they should. Toomy starts to lose it and has visions of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father while becoming more irritated and prone to violence.
He tries to hold one of the other flyers hostages and actually shoots a gun that was found but much like the other items, it doesn’t work, and nobody is hurt. Toomy is subdued but gets free and kills one of the passengers while stabbing another who is a blind girl. The rest of the stranded participants decide they need to refuel the plane and go back the way they came. Toomey is lured out under the idea that he can speak to is board members in Boston on the runway and then finally the Langoliers show up. That’s probably not what they are really called but Toomy spreads the word that the creatures coming are the ones he was told about when he was younger. The Langoliers chase Toomy as they eat the rest of existence down to nothing. They catch up to him and eat him while the plane takes off just in time.
They decide they need to go back through the aurora borealis to get back to the present time but also realize that they only survived the first time because they were all asleep. It’s decided that Nick will take the wheel and sacrifice himself to make amends for his past life. They pass out when the cabin pressure is lowered enough, and Nick gets them through but also disappears to wherever the other passengers went the first time. The plan lands in Los Angeles but it is just as empty as the airport in Maine. They wait a bit and realize that time just needs to catch up. The rest of the world joins them, and they all safely leave the airport. The plot, characters, and setting all match the novella to a remarkable degree and Holland definitely did his research while writing the teleplay.
What is different?
I mean really nothing significant. The main things that were changed from story to screen are all in the details that come from a page of a book compared to a page of a screenplay. Some of the things I’m sure Holland changed as it was designed to be a TV property too. Toomy’s demise in the book is a little more graphic while on screen it is toned down while still very much implied. The inner monologues and motivations of the characters are expanded on in the story as well. While it was a 2-part TV event, it still needed to be brief in some ways that a book just isn’t able to do. Another smaller detail is that in the movie when Nick disappears, all that’s left of him is his watch. The story leans even heavier into that theme with his knee replacement and fillings from his teeth being left behind. Of course, the decription of the creatures in the book is also more intimidating than the poorly rendered meatballs we were given on screen. Finally, the characters get a better sense of clarity on their journey in the story, even if the movie still does an admirable job trying to convey this. Overall, The Langoliers in both mediums are so close to each other that it would take some serious nit picking and fine-tooth combing to come up with more examples where they differ.
The legacy of The Langoliers isn’t something I thought I would find myself discussing but here we are. The story is the stand out in the book of collected stories and the movie is a forgotten gem of the 90s horror TV movie explosion. I’d give the edge to the movie here as within its category it stands out a little more against its contemporaries than the story does with other works of King. Get into both of them but they are so similar, you really can’t go wrong. Just make sure you get back to the present before the Langoliers find you.
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