The Dead Zone Book vs Movie Review

The Dead Zone by Stephen King (1979)

The Dead Zone directed by David Cronenberg (1983)

This is the story of a man who is in a coma and when he reawakens, he is able to see into someone’s past and future when he touches them.

From here on out there will be spoilers!

The Fair

The movie begins with us seeing that Johnny is a schoolteacher who is dating a fellow teacher named Sarah. The two of them go to a fair, in the movie, he begins to get a headache so they go home. He drops her off, and she wants him to stay the night, but he says no, that some things are worth waiting for. On his drive home, a semi-truck driver falls asleep at the wheel and his huge tank of milk slides into the road and Johnny hits it. They say you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk, but this is an exception.

In the book, we begin when Johnny is 6 years old and he falls and hits his head ice skating. He doesn’t really remember this event later in life, and every now and then he will get a hunch about things but nothing so crazy that he thinks anything of it.

He is dating Sarah and the two of them go to the fair. In the book, there is a wheel you can bet on, and Johnny feels lucky and puts money down. Prior to this, Sarah had suggested they stay the night together, but as he is gambling on the wheel, Sarah gets food poisoning and starts throwing up. Johnny is getting that feeling with the wheel and knows where to put the money and he ends up winning a considerable amount. However, there is an ominous feel to it all, despite him winning.

He then takes Sarah home and she is still very sick. He offers to stay and look after her, but it is still too early in their relationship for her to be comfortable with him seeing her throw up and have diarrhea so she tells him she’s okay and he should go home. They do tell each other “I love you”.

He then takes a taxi home, and the taxi hits a car that is street racing and this lands Johnny in the hospital.

I thought the book was much better with Sarah being sick be the reason Johnny doesn’t stay over. The gambling scene at the wheel was also very tense and wish it would have been in the movie.

After the coma

In the book we hear about Sarah and his parents while he is in the coma, but in the movie we just flash forward to him waking up. In both, he had been in a coma for nearly five years. In the book, his mom had always been very religious, but after this accident she becomes very extreme and gets in with weird extremists. When Johnny wakes up, she tells him God has a duty for him. We kind of see that his mom is religious in the movie, but we don’t see the extent of the craziness she that had been going on with her like we do in the book.

In both, Sarah gets married during this time, and when Johnny wakes up, she also has a baby. In both, she comes to see him while he is recovering and, in the book, he touches her and tells her about her wedding ring she had lost a couple years prior. She goes home, and it is where he told her it would be. This is not in the movie.

But yeah, he can now touch people, and know things about them. In both, he tells a woman at the hospital that her house is on fire, he tells his doctor that his mom is still alive and where he can find her (in both the doctor calls her up and realizes Johnny is for real), he also has a press conference during which he tells a man about his sister. In the book, he can sense things just by touching objects too, but in the movie, they just focus on when he touches a person skin.

In both, when his press conference is on TV, his parents are watching it and his mom has a stroke and she dies.

In both, after he can be released from the hospital he goes to stay with his dad.

The Dead Zone

In the book, as the doctor is running brain tests, there are things that Johnny can no longer visualize-like a park bench. When something isn’t accessible, he says it is in the dead zone. This happens with his visions too, he may tell someone that they will be a building that will catch fire, but he can’t tell what type of building it is exactly, because that information is in the dead zone.

Sarah Visiting

In the book, while he is with his dad Sarah writes to tell him she will be in the area and to give her a call if he wants her to come by. He calls her up, and they plan for her to come over. Soon after she arrives, she tells him that they deserve to be together just this one time, to make up for what was lost. They have sex, then she spends the evening having dinner with Johnny, his dad, and her son. Johnny feels that this is what life would have been like, if only he hadn’t been in the coma. She then leaves, and the agree not to see each other again because it would be too easy to begin an affair.

We get this in the movie as well, but Sarah just randomly shows up one day without any heads up. She tells him a similar thing, about how she has waited long enough to be with him. But as in the book, she acknowledges that she loves her husband and that this can only be a once time thing.

In both I did think it was a great scene seeing her having dinner with them, and Johnny’s dad giving the baby Johnny’s old toys to play with and like is said in the book, it is a bittersweet moment into what could have been.

Castle Rock killer

In both, the sheriff of Castle Rock reaches out to Johnny asking for his help to catch a serial killer. In both, Johnny is famous/infamous for his abilities even though he has tried to stay out of the limelight for the most part.

In the book, his doctor (the one who Johnny told that his mom was still alive) is friends with the sheriff, and he tells the cop that Johnny is the real deal and he gives him his number. In the movie, the cop just shows up based on what he has seen of Johnny in the news. In both, he is reluctant, but untimely decides to help.

In both, he killer turns out to be one of the police officers and in the book the sheriff refuses to believe it at first because he loves the guy like a son and doesn’t believe it is possible. However, Johnny produces enough evidence that the sheriff agrees to go question him. When they show up, the guy has killed himself and had written “I confess”.

In the movie, the guy had been there when Johnny says his name, so the guy takes off. They show up to his house, where they find him dead, and then his mom pulls a gun and shoots and she ends up killed.

The mom is played by Cathleen Dewhurst who was Marilla in the ‘80’s Anne of Green Gables! Pretty weird to see her in a role like this! In both, it is also revealed that she had known all along that her son was a killer, but in the book, we also learn that she was twisted and was abusive to the son.

Being a tutor

After this, Johnny wants to get back to teaching. In the book he was supposed to go teach at the high school he had been at before his accident, but due to him being in the news, he is told he can’t come back.

In both, he ends up being the tutor for the son of a rich man. In the book, the son is like 17 whereas in the movie he is like 12. In both, Johnny connects with him and is making great progress. The details are different, but at one point the son hugs Johnny, and Johnny sees that the son is going to die. In the movie, he warns the father but the dad is upset and fires Johnny. He then continues with the hockey game (he was told the ice would break and his son would die) but the son believed Johnny and doesn’t want to play. Other kids play though, and some of them die when the ice breaks. We later see the dad is in an out of it, depressed state and we never hear about them again.

In the book, he tells them a building a party is being held at will be struck by lightning and they will die in the fire. The dad tells the kids that they can have the party at his own house instead and some agree, but other kids in the class go to the restaurant still. While Johnny is with the family, they hear on the radio about the restaurant being hit by lightning and later find out that there were students who had died. Johnny gets thrust into the limelight once again, and even though the father is grateful to him, Johnny takes off and moves to Arizona to get away. The father and son write letters back and forth with Johnny though and stay on good terms.

Early on, the book includes a scene with this restaurant owner being approached by a lightning rod salesman. I get this comes into play later, but I didn’t guy why we had this scene in the book.

Greg Stillson

Throughout the book, while hearing about Johnny, we also get a look into this guy Greg Stillson. In the movie, we don’t hear about him until about the halfway point-maybe even later than that though. The first scene with him, he is a salesman in his 20’s and he approaches a house with a dog. He pretends to be nice to the dog initially, but once he sees no one is home, he blinds the dog and then proceeds to kill it. King writes about the point of this scene in his book On Writing and how this shows us right off the bat that Stillson is a guy who wants to appear like a good guy in order to make a sale, but when he sees no one is looking, his true, cruel, colors come out.

But later in the story, in both, Stillson is holding a rally because he is running for some local political office. In the book, Johnny has been making a point to go see different politicians and shake their hands to see what he sees for them and decides to check out Stillson. When he shakes Stillson’s hand, he sees that he will one day become US president and somehow starts a nuclear war. He doens’t see all of the details because a lot is in the dead zone. But the feeling he gets, along with the vision, is more powerful than anything he has ever felt.

He knows Stillson becoming president is far in the future though, so he has time to think about what he should do and researches Stillson. The book by the way spans from 1970 (when the accident happens) to 1979, where in the movie, everything I am talking about seems to happen with the first year of Johnny waking up.

In the movie, Sarah is part of Stillson’s committee and he sees her setting up a rally by his house and goes to see her. He is in the crowd and is thrust forward and happens to shake Stillson’s hand by chance. In the book it was a big more vague as to what Johnny saw, but in the movie we clearly see that he is going to launch nuclear weapons.

Killing Stillson

In the book, quite some time passes as Johnny debates what his options are with Stillson. However, while in Arizona he finds out he has a tumor in his brain that has been growing and he has a limited amount of time left alive. He realizes he can’t wait around trying to decide what to do, and goes back to the east coast and learns about a community hall thing that Stillson is speaking at and waits up in the balcony area with a rifle.

When Stillson shows up, Johnny stands and shoots multiple times, however he keeps missing. I thought this detail was kind of funny, but of course there is chaos down below. While this is happening, Stillson grabs a woman’s child and hold it up as a body shield. A young photographer is there and takes photos of him doing this. Johnny ends up being shot by Stillson’s men, and as he lays dying, Stillson walks up to him and Johnny is able to grab his ankle. From the touch he can feel that even though he didn’t kill Stillson, this event with the child was enough to change the trajectory of the future.

In the movie, he doesn’t take much time at all deciding what to do. It is the same thing with him in the balcony, but Sarah is there as well and it is her baby that Stillson grabs and uses as a shield. Photos are taken, and Stillson tells his goon to catch the photographer. The guy no longer respects Stillson though and is like, “I didn’t see any photographer.” This was such a lame line. This guy is clearly messed up and has been helping Stillson force his way into political power, and now suddenly he has a conscience.

Anyway, here Johnny is once again shot and when he touches Stillson, he sees not only that Stillson’s career is ruined, but that he is going to commit suicide. Johnny smiles as he sees this future. This I thought was pretty dark, I know the guy sucks, but to be happy about anyone committing suicide seems in bad taste. I mean, I know Hitler committed suicide and that isn’t anything to be sad about I guess, and they compare Stillson to a future Hitler, but regardless, it was almost darkly funny how Johnny was happy seeing this outcome.

In the movie, Sarah is there and so she runs over and hugs Johnny as he dies, the end.

Book vs Movie

This was actually King’s first bestseller, coming out five years after Carrie (which he references in this book lol), this book didn’t have many horror elements despite it being a supernatural story so I think that makes sense that it did so well. It reminded me a lot of 11/22/63 not just because both deal with politics but also the main character and his experiences and elements of the romance were also similar.

I loved this book though, I like books like this where there isn’t a suspenseful plot necessarily, we are just with our main character who granted, is going through something unusual, but we just see their daily life as we see one side plot unfold after another. I also really liked how it ends with him not killing Stillson, but still exposing the kind of man he is.

The movie kept in all of the side plots, and while I can admire its desire to follow the book, I think it would have been better if it was either longer, or if it cut either the serial killer story or the tutoring story. It does move at a quick pace though, going from one event to the next. This was made into a tv show in the early 2000’s and this seems like a good way to keep in all of these events and give each side story the time it deserves.

I will have to say the book wins not only because it gives each story time to breathe, but I also liked that we got that look into Stillson throughout the book. I thought the love story was also better handled in the book and there was more feeling there. We get a scene at the end when Sarah goes to his grave which was a great moment. Also, Christopher Walken plays Johnny, and he has this Dracula-esque collar in so many scenes. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it was kind of funny and sometimes distracting. Was that the style in the ‘80’s? I did like the performances though and if you want to watch a Cronenberg movie but have a weak stomach, this movie is a good option!