I highly suggest listening to this podcast or watching this youtube video rather than just reading the blog post because I sat down with Luke and James from the Ink to Film podcast and discussed Secret Window with them!
Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King (1990) from the story collection Four Past Midnight
Secret Window directed by David Keopp (2004)
Mort Rainey is a writer who is recently divorced and his wife is living in their house, so he moves to their cabin up north. He is visited from John Shooter, a man who claims Mort plagiarized a story Shooter had written. Shooter says he wrote it in ’82, but Mort says his story was printed in a magazine in ’80 and therefore the man is lying.
Shooter is a threatening man and threatens Mort’s life as well the lives of Mort’s family and friends.
Shooter kills Mort’s pet, while things in Mort’s personal life also get messier when he finds out someone burned his house down. He has to go into town and be around his ex and the man he caught her cheating on him with.
Things with Shooter escalate when he kills two men. But before long, Mort and the reader discover that Shooter is part of Mort’s imagination and it was he who killed his pet, the men, and burned his house.
There is a finale involving his wife, but from there the book and movie endings differ so I will save those details for later.
I went into this book remembering that Shooter is in fact Mort. I was able to pick up on some clues because of that, but I think I would have suspected that fairly early on because the “hints” that are given seem pretty clear. I would love to hear from someone who read the book not already knowing and hear when it was you guessed Shooter was Mort.
Anyway, I think the story was lacking some of that edge your seat feeling, because I already knew the reveal. I still enjoyed this story though, and the last half I found myself reading quickly because I kept waiting for Mort to come to his realization.
I like how King will overlap his stories to some extent, for example, Mort and his wife had lived in Derry, and his wife, Amy, has a bit of the shine.
The horror of this story comes from the realization that our protagonist is the monster. This isn’t the first time King has done this, but it makes sense it is a theme he returns to because it is so horrifying. Someone losing their mind and doing these terrible things yet having no memory of it, would be terrible-to put it lightly.
Then his lids closed slowly over his slightly bloodshot eyes, and Mort Rainey, who had yet to discover what true horror was all about, fell asleep.
This movie was released a month ahead of schedule because they wanted to ride Depp’s success from Pirates of the Caribbean. I am actually one of those that became a Depp fan after the release of Pirates and saw this movie when it became available to rent.
The director David Keopp is a writer for a lot of movies, such as Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park The Lost World, Death Becomes Her, Mission: Impossible, the 2002 Spider-Man and War of the Worlds. He even had a cameo in the Lost World as a guy who dies when the t-rex takes over San Diego.
This movie has some great shots, including the opening scene which is an extended shot traveling up to the cabin, coming in through the “secret window” and travels through the house and goes through the mirror into the room.
There is also a scene where Mort is having a nightmare that he is on the couch, about to fall into the ocean as he falls off his couch but wakes up and falls onto the floor. I thought this was very Alfred Hitchcock like, similar to that ending shot in North by Northwest (which is a movie about a man who is mistaken to be someone else, who doesn’t actually exist.)
This movie stays faithful to the novella and it isn’t until the end when it starts to stray.
I loved Depp in this, but to be fair, I am a sucker for Depp. I found Mort to be very likeable and you felt for him and I didn’t blame him for the aggressive way he would be towards Ted. This movie also has a number of comedic moments, including when they are going over the items lost in the fire and Mort accuses Ted of rubbernecking. The disagreement about having Ted looking at the list was in both book and movie, but the rubbernecking line is just in the movie.
The book has a line about Mort’s agent which reads, “he was something of a stereotype: Civilized Man, late-twentieth-century model, urban and urbane. He was the sort of man who believed in counselling. The sort of man who believed in meditation and mediation. The sort of man who believed in discussion when reason was present, and the immediate delegation of the problem to Persons in Authority when it was absent. To Herb, the concept that sometimes a man has got to do what a man has got to do was one which had its place . . . but its place was in movies starring Sylvester Stallone.”
Sounds like a smart guy to me! I suppose this is included to show us the kind of person Mort is-by telling us the kind of guy he isn’t.
Early on in the movie, Amy refers to a time in the past when Mort plagiarized and the guy came after him and Mort had him paid off. This is very different from the book, where we don’t learn until the end that he once plagiarized. However, he was never caught and he even suppresses the memory but still harbors a secret guilt about it.
We also learn one of his books was optioned for a movie, but they found an old script and thought the story was too much like the script and didn’t make the movie. It is said the script only slightly mirrored Mort’s story, but Mort was still very distraught about the whole thing and according to Amy, had a nervous breakdown.
In the movie, Shooter says his ending to the short story is a better one than Mort wrote. We never hear what Mort’s ending was, but it would appear that the wife lives in his version.
In the book, both stories had the same ending, where the husband is eating the vegetable from his garden, where he buried his wife and the man has gone crazy.
I love that King wrote about a writer being accused of plagiarism because I am sure this would be a horror situation for a writer to be in. I like that in the book, he hadn’t come to terms with what he had done when he was younger, and it has eaten him up so much that when he is alone and depressed, it is this guilt, along with the pain of his divorce, that causes him to lose control.
John Shooter proves himself to be truly crazy and terrifying, and strong. In the book and movie, he kills Mort’s pet-in the movie it is his dog, in the book it is a cat. I think King must be a cat person. Anyway, after this, in the movie he goes to the local sheriff and reports Shooter. We see that the local sheriff is an old man who isn’t paying attention and doesn’t seem to take it very seriously. He then hires some kind of bodyguard type person, and initially, this guy isn’t taking him seriously either.
In the book, he didn’t go to the police because he felt the need to handle things himself. After their house is burned, he tells the investigators about Shooter, but purposefully lies because once again, he wants to deal with Shooter himself.
In the book, he does call up a friend from the lake town and tells him about Shooter and says that a guy named Tom saw Mort and Shooter. The guy talks to Tom, but Tom is weird about it and says Mort was by himself. Mort and the other guy plan to talk to Tom the next day and see what the deal is.
Shooter Frames Mort
The next day, Mort goes to meet these guys in book and movie and they don’t show. He ends up finding that Shooter has killed them and has framed Mort. In the book he passes out and comes to hours later and heads back home. In the movie, he passes out, and when he comes to, Shooter is there. Shooter and he talk, and when Shooter leaves, Mort removes his tools that killed the men, and pushes the car over a cliff.
In the book, before passing out he sees a squirrel giving him the stink eye, and when he comes to, he has a hard time walking because his leg has fallen asleep. I like the movie kept both of these details.
In book and movie, he has the magazine with his story mailed to him. When he opens it in his car, he sees that Shooter somehow cut out the story, ridding Mort of his proof that he wrote the story first.
In the movie, this is when Mort starts to question his sanity, because how could Shooter have cut out the pages…?
The Movie Reveal
From there, Mort goes inside and a second Johnny Depp appears, trying to get Mort to realize the truth-that Shooter is someone he has created in his mind. I loved this scene in the movie, it reminded me of the scene in Spider-Man when Osborne is talking with his alter ego in the movie. Keopp wrote both scripts, so it makes sense it was reminiscent of Spidey.
He also hits the wall, and the hole in the wall turns into a crack that starts going all the way up wall and the ceiling-signifying Mort’s split personality.
The Book Reveal
In the movie, there are different events that happen throughout the story, that seem like huge coincidences. Shooter uses the phrase “pilgrim”, and Mort’s agent uses the same phrase; Ted is southern as is Shooter and is from Shooter Bay; his wife talked about a secret window that looked on her secret garden and the title of Shooter’s story is Secret Window, Secret Garden.
After the magazine story is cut out, a memory he has suppressed comes to the surface about how he submitted a story that wasn’t his and the story was excepted. After this realization, he starts to realize he is Shooter, but he still resists totally believing it. Shooter was supposed to arrive at the cabin, and is Mort is struggling with this, he hears a car drive up. He becomes almost giddy, thinking it is Shooter and therefore proving he isn’t crazy. Of course, it isn’t Shooter, but is in fact Amy.
In the book, Shooter has taken over and he and Amy have a scuffle during which time she falls out the front door and Mort follows her. He hears someone shooting for him to stop, but he doesn’t respond and is shot and killed.
The book then has an afterword where we see Amy, who has since married Ted, talking to the insurance investigator. He explains how he realized Mort was involved in the fire. They then talk about how Tom, the guy who saw Mort “with” Shooter had told another guy in town about what happened. He had seen Mort alone, but when he was past and looked in the rearview mirror, he says a ghostly looking man with Mort. Amy says she thinks Shooter was a real person who had possessed Mort and she even found a note in the hat after Mort’s death.
I thought the afterword was unnecessary and would have liked the story ending better if it had left it out. Though Amy finds a note from “shooter” saying he got his story and has named it Crow Foot Mile. Did “Mort” write this before he tried killing her…?
In the movie, Mort realizes he is Shooter, and then we see Amy drive up. She and Mort once again have a scuffle, he about to kill her, when he hears Ted coming into the house. He ambushes Ted and kills him, then goes back to Amy and kills her! I was so surprised by this ending!!
We then flashforward and Mort seems to be doing great, in an unnerving way. We see him in town and the townspeople are scared of him.
He goes home, where he is steaming corn and preparing to eat as he writes a story. The sheriff comes up and tells Mort that he knows what he did and once they find the bodies, he will be arrested. He then asks Mort to stop coming into town to which Mort agrees. We then see the corn growing in the secret garden, and of course he has done what the character in Shooter’s story has done. He buried the bodies in the garden below the corn.
I actually really loved the final act of this movie. Mort finding the dead bodies, him realizing he is Shooter, and the final moments between him, Amy and Ted. Having the word “Shooter” everywhere was in both book and movie and it was a bit over the top. However, the movie does something the book doesn’t-the final writing of Shooter, is spelled “Shoot Her”.
Depp also starts having this weird jaw tick near the end which was off-putting and fantastic. He was sympathetic when he was Mort, and he was believable as his crazy side, Shooter.
The movie credits also have Depp singing the song, “mama likes shortening bread” which isn’t totally random, but kind of weird but I loved it.
Book vs Movie
Neither book or movie are stellar thrillers and certainly aren’t King’s best book or movie. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the story and had a great time with the movie! I liked the book ending, where wer are sympathetic for Mort, though as said, I could have done without the afterword.
The movie ending was so unexpected, and as I have thought about it, I almost think I prefer it. I hadn’t expected the movie to take the darker ending, but I think it works well.
EDIT: After talking with Luke and James, I decided I actually liked the novella better after all. King got into the psychology more and Mort in some ways was more likable in the book. I also like the plagiarism aspect from the book and how that effected Mort in the book. The movie is still quite good though and I would recommend it.