Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dear Stephen King, please stick to books.

"Now you're king of the mountain. But it's all garbage!!" Kaneda, from the original 'Akira' dub

Okay, so, let me start this post out by saying that I actually quite like Stephen King. I'm not in love with the guy, his writing style isn't perfect (and I am now finally well-read enough to realise that), but the stories are fun and engaging and quite weird. I can't, however, say the guy is scary. Calling him the "King of Macabre" is an extravagance he frankly does not deserve (if anyone wants to read something macabre, perhaps you should check out Jeff Vandermeer's 'Veniss Underground').
No, rather, his stories are simply of a spooky aesthetic. Not unlike the films of Tim Burton; they aren't scary, but they are spooky, it's all about the strange atmosphere, the mood.

Let me tell you who can pull off 'scary'. Lars Von Trier.

Arch came home a while ago with yet another slew of new DVDs aquired from the magnetic, parasitic, money-gorging beast that is JB Hifi, among them a Danish miniseries called "The Kingdom". He pointed out that it was directed by Lars Von Trier, as though this alone justified the purchase of two seasons of a show neither of us had ever heard of.
I asked, "who's Lars Von Trier?"
Arch dramatically rolled his eyes and discontentedly spat out, "I'm sick of having to tell you. I'm sure I've told you at least five times."
Knowing Arch will be Arch, I accepted this and probed, "well the name rings a bell, but just refresh me, what has the guy done?"
He smirked and said, "nothing you would have heard of".
Upon examining the man's back catalogue, it turns out he was right. I have no idea what the fuck any of these things are, but I'll tell you one thing, The Kingdom ('Riget' in Danish) is probably one of the most mind-blowingly awesome television shows I have ever seen in my entire life.

The show bundles with it an earthy, homemade which makes it painfully engaging. One gets the sense that beyond a couple of very simple special effects, this show was made on practically no budget at all. And yet it is carried by the sheer skill of Lars Von Trier's insanity.
The editing is haphazard - what looks like a single take is often jilted into several - and most of the camerawork is hand held, slightly shaky. Everything has a disgusting red wash over it that, just as the green tints used in the Matrix made everything seem slightly more artificial, lend the entire hospital - even in its most mundane moments - a chilling sense of oncoming dread.

What I love most about this show, however, is the dialogue and the acting.

The characters are universally hilarious, deranged and hypnotising. There is the trainee nurse who refuses to witness an operation; the lovable, self-declared psychic Mrs. Drusse and her oafish son; the student whose love for a woman in the hospital is so incredibly deranged that he is willing to desecrate corpses to prove a point; the omniscient dishpigs with down syndrome who seem to be more in touch with reality than the surgeons; or my personal favourite, Stig Helmer, the stuck-up sham of a brainsurgeon who was exiled from Sweden and now resides in Denmark, possibly the country he hates more than anything else on earth.
There is a realness to these characters; flaws, redeeming features, quirks, untold intricacies, that draw you in and hook you with every episode. It is not the fear of the unknown that propels you through the series, but wondering how this unknown will affect the lives of the living, breathing human beings who reside in this hospital.

On that note, I must warn you in advance that the scary moments in this show are few and far between. The pace is extremely relaxed and never rushes to any conclusions. But when the freaky moments come they hit pretty hard as a result. Lars Von Trier is clearly a believer in "less is more" and he has succeeded brilliantly in creating a rich, immersive world that pulls and tugs at you with all its might.

Aaaand then there's the Stephen King version.

As many picky nerds such as myself will always be tripping over themselves to tell you, remaking something fantastic usually ends badly. Why? Because there's no fucking point in remaking it.
I'm sure Crispin Glover had the time of his life acting as Willard or The Wizard Of Gore, hamming up the cheese to critical levels, but no one really gives a shit about the originals so he had nothing to loose. The same treatment has been given to The Kingdom and the end result is an extremely cheesy version of a really good show.

Everything I like about The Kingdom, everything, has either been removed (for instance, the homebrew camerawork) or dumbed down to the point of insulting one's intelligence (for instance, the script).
The characters have somehow been simplified from three dimensions to one. Only the most superficial and cursory elements of the original cast have been brought into the remake, as though the reality of European conversation is simply too much for an American mind to handle.

The easiest way to describe Kingdom Hospital is as a dumb version of The Kingdom. It's an art film script given to Michael Bay to direct. Hence we have flashy special effects (which now look pretty dated), stupidly snarky and bravado versions of the entire cast, and many more "spoooooooooooooOOOOOooooky" moments which fail to scare at even the most withdrawn, interior level. While The Kingdom was a scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon, making precise cuts in exactly the right areas that would not be felt under the anesthetic, Kingdom Hospital is a rusty hacksaw in the hands of a bubble-headed nurse from Silent Hill. It straps you down in a chair and orders you, nay, commands you to be terrified. Then it explains itself in precise terms why it is so scary and why you should be scared of it.

Personally, however, I'd have to say the greatest sin of Kingdom Hospital is of Stephen King's incredibly vain (though admittedly not exactly new) decision to write himself into the fucking story.
The main difference between his Gary Stu in this ridiculous exercise in pointlessness from his far more forgivable literary works is that this guy is a painter (and also a hilariously crappy one, which no one in the story seems to notice but I guess I'll hold my tongue). Usually when Stephen King writes Stephen King into a novel and changes the name, he's still a writer. So this was a pretty brave move for him. He's essentially just decided to write himself into The Kingdom, like a bad fanfiction, based on the time he got his clumsy ass hit by a huge motherfuckin' car. I'd be more sympathetic if he weren't trying to capitalise on this incident at the expense of a great show. I am reminded of The Box, that fucking awful Richard Kelly remake where he couldn't decide whether he wanted to remake a pretty lame short story / twilight zone episode or write a love letter to his parents (the film is basically 50% a barely disguised biography of Mr. and Mrs. Kelly in the good old days).
Some people are actually interesting enough to have movies made about them. Others are not. In any case, if you're not exactly sure, it's not kosher to just tack it onto an existing franchise in the hope that your tragic / triumphant / amazing life will ride the tailcoats of someone else's work.


If you liked the American version better than the Danish one, be sure to check yourself into a hospital.
Preferably a haunted one.


  1. I never saw the US version, just the von Trier one. Maybe you don't know that there are actually 2 seasons of that show.

    I loved the first season as much as you did, but I felt something is missing from the second one... it has more plotlines, more weird stuff, more "spooky" elements, but I never really liked it that much

  2. I do know there is a second season, I haven't seen it yet though. Apparently there was also going to be a third but two of the main actors died. Which sucks!