Adaptation yields only broken `Hearts'

Review: Screenwriter William Goldman goops up this onscreen version of Stephen King's novellas.

September 28, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When Stephen King gets into his elegiac mode, it's time to reach for those man-sized disposable hankies.

Hearts in Atlantis smothers us with pathos and nostalgia. Although it features the cultured, mellow star power of Sir Anthony Hopkins, it may not pass muster with even those untold legions of male-weepy fans who won't admit they go to films to cry.

The equally lachrymose Stand By Me, also based on a King novella, boasted the infectious teariness of young "Cry-Me-a-River" Phoenix - as well as one great, puking gross-out scene. The equivalent in this movie is flat jokes about flatulence.

Taken from the opening and closing of King's 1999 collection of linked stories and novellas, it's a poor-boy victim fantasy, circa 1960, about a small-town Connecticut lad named Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin). On his 11th birthday he receives an adult library card (the one gift from his selfish mother) and meets the man who will transform his life: Teddy Brautigan (Hopkins).

Teddy pays Bobby to read the newspaper to him so that someday Bobby can buy a bike. Teddy opens his young friend up to the wonder of literature and the promise of mature emotion, and makes the boy realize he has courage. But he also warns Bobby to be on the look-out for "low men": chiselers in yellow coats who think they know all the answers. For some reason, they're tailing Teddy.

Teddy isn't just a wise mysterious stranger; he's a psychic. But this is no old-man version of Carrie - it's a coming-of-age story that ambles along like a wagon train.

With his own father long dead, Bobby needs somebody like Teddy to connect adulthood with childhood, and the world of intuition and unseen things with the world of gossip and journalism. It sounds like a workable premise. In the book, the affection King expresses through Bobby for young-adult classics like Lord of the Flies and great sci-fi movies like Village of the Damned carries readers along. Viewers don't get that benefit.

William Goldman would seem to be the perfect writer for this adaptation. He did King proud with his script for Misery. His own writing catches fire when he holds forth on popular fiction.

But Goldman ends up adding to the goop at the heart of the movie. He ditches the parallels to Lord of the Flies, which gave fiber to King's depiction of street-corner high-jinks grown ugly. Instead he invokes the idyllic fantasy of Lost Horizon. To buy this film, we have to believe that the moment between childhood and puberty is the Shangri-la - or Atlantis - of every red-blooded boy's life.

What's worse, the movie's compression of Bobby's story reveals just how egregiously King uses the hero's mother as a fall gal. She's a cliche-spouting widow so embittered at being left broke that she won't even pass down fond memories of her husband. Hope Davis is a lovely actress, but by the time her character turns, it's too late; we don't want to look at her.

Goldman does write a taut, emotion-charged monologue for Teddy about the gutsy final game of football great Bronko Nagurski. And Hopkins invests it with awesome stop-and-go tension; his edgy virtuosity is the one thing that keeps us awake in the movie.

After we leave the theater, it's hard to recall the features of Bobby's first love, Carol (Mika Boorem), and best boy pal, Sully (Will Rothhaar), or to think of a good explanation for why the movie is framed with a fiftysomething Bobby returning to Sully's funeral. Sully, we hardly knew ye.

In Shine, director Scott Hicks gave passionate and electric treatment to dubious material. Here, he returns to the mind-fogging atmospherics of his Snow Falling On Cedars. He and King aren't lively enough in Hearts in Atlantis to be a match made in hell. They make us feel as though we're being held after school in detention.

It's not hell, but limbo, junior high-school style.

Hearts In Atlantis

Starring Anthony Hopkins

Directed by Scott Hicks

Rated PG-13

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 101 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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