Part one of Bag Of Bones debuts tonight on A&E at 9 p.m. Eastern. Part two debuts tomorrow night at the same time.
Bag Of Bones is one of the funniest pieces of television I’ve seen all year. Only two things keep it from being a classic:
1. It’s four hours long (including commercials).
2. It’s not supposed to be a comedy.
But then, it’s not like intention ever truly dictates audience response; as a firm believer in the healing power of The Cape, The Room, and the movies of Ed Wood, I should be well aware of this. The length is more problematic, because stretched over two nights, Bag Of Bones is as much an endurance trial as it is an example of unintentional hilarity, and I can’t really recommend it to anyone without serious reservations, even if you are just in it for the yucks. Still, if you’re enough of a Stephen King junkie that you need to watch every adaptation, or if you have a high tolerance for boredom punctuated by absurdity, this may be of interest. Everyone else, consider yourself warned. I don’t like reviews that tell people not to watch something, because that seems a little on the autocratic side, but there really isn’t any reason to see this. Bag was directed by Mick Garris, and it bearas all his usual stylistic tics—overly broad emotional bids, cartoonish shock moments, pacing that is simultaneously sluggish and frenetic—without any of the few graces that kept something like The Stand from being an utter wreck. (Confession: I think The Stand miniseries is terrible, but it does have a sort of “How in the hell did they pull this off?” appeal.) Even more frustrating, at least to me, is that I’m fond of the original novel, for all its faults; this adaptation takes the basic outline of the source material, and strips it of all narrative drive, emotional weight, and sense. That makes for crummy television, which is bad, but there’s the very real chance that someone unfamiliar with the book could see this and assume the source material is no better, and that’s worse. I doubt King needs help to attract an audience, but it’s painful to watch good stories get turned into jokes.
Still, I laughed harder watching this than I laughed at most comedies this year, because when Bag Of Bones is bad, it is ludicrously awful. One of the big problems is the lead actor, Pierce Brosnan. I like Brosnan, normally. His best roles cast him as a handsome cad, someone whose looks have allowed him to coast through life without developing much depth, right until the moment he comes up against something that’s too complicated for him to handle. In Bag Of Bones, he’s asked to play Mike Noonan, a popular writer dealing with the sudden death of his wife (and I do mean sudden; Jo’s demise in the first five minutes of the series is, um, definitely something), a standard Stephen King hero, and Brosnan can’t quite manage it. King’s protagonists tend to be solid everyman types, generally uncomfortable in displays of serious emotion, which means that every time emotion does surface, it’s intense and shocking. What this translates to on screen is Brosnan looking like he’s going to burp, fart, and sneeze simultaneously every ten minutes or so. Sometimes he yells at his laptop. Often he talks to himself, and it’s never convincing or casual or charming, the way that “talking to yourself” really has to be to work on screen. (For a better example, see Johnny Depp in Secret Window. The movie’s basically rubbish, but Depp is good.) There’s a bit where he has a seizure and vomits explosively, and, well, it needs to become a .gif, like, right now. The vomit-seizure is in tomorrow night’s episode, so apologizes for the spoiler, but somebody get on that.
Brosnan can’t really maintain any credibility in the face of what he’s required to do, but in his defense, it’s hard to imagine anyone surviving very long with this script. King’s novel is in first-person narration, which is one of its strengths; it helps personalize the story, which sometimes feels more like a long monologue than a book. The downside of this, for adaptation purposes, is that a lot of the novel’s exposition was delivered via the author’s narration. Bag Of Bones, the novel, gets tension from Mike’s internal struggles, and there’s a lot of puzzle-solving and writer-talk that, while entertaining on the page (at least to me), is useless on the screen. But the miniseries, scripted by Matt Venne, does its best to keep everything in, with generally lousy results. For example, one of the core ideas of the novel is that Mike is unable to write after his wife’s death. Any attempt he makes leaves him physically ill, but because he’s a mainstream novelist, he still needs to churn out product to keep his publisher and and his agent happy. So he starts using trunk novels. These were books he’d written but never submitted to his publisher, mostly because they were additional manuscripts to the ones he’d original contracted for, and over-saturating the market with your work is about as bad as disappearing from bookstores all together. So Mike’s got a few of these trunk novels stored up, and when the writer’s block hits, he starts sending them into his agent, who accepts them without question.
This is inside-baseball stuff, interesting because it provides information about a world most of us don’t know anything about, but it’s not exactly critical, and in terms of adaptation, it’s the sort of subplot that’s the easiest to drop: a complicated idea that has limited, if any, relevance to the main story. And yet the miniseries chooses to spend time on Mike digging through a safe, pulling out an old manuscript tied up in twine, giving it to his agent (played, oddly enough, by Jason Priestley), and later, explaining to Mattie (Melissa George) what he did. It’s dead screentime, and what’s even more baffling is that the main reason all of this came up in the novel—Mike’s writer’s block—is significantly downplayed in the miniseries. We do get that lovely scene of Brosnan shouting at his computer, but it’s hard to connect this to his decision to bust out some old manuscript, since he starts writing again soon after. I spend a lot of time on this small element of the miniseries partly because it irritated me, and partly because it’s indicative of Bag Of Bones’s central problem: The screenwriter has no idea how to effectively adapt a complicated novel. Garris’s garishness is as evident as always, but he’s not the one directly responsible for scene after scene of tedious, momentum-killing exposition.
A good genre story is designed in such a way as to distract you from its inner machinations. Intellectually, you can go back and say, yes, this was a scene of rising action, this was a character development moment, this was a piece of information that will become crucial later on, this was was a resolution of an earlier mystery. Everyone quotes Chekhov’s comment on a gun in act one going off in act two, and at heart, that’s all stories really are: First you load the pistol, then you aim it, then someone pulls the trigger. It’s a method of delivery for a series of stimuli designed to provoke audience response, and the better the book, movie, or TV show, the less time you spend thinking about the mechanics of the process, and the more time you spend luxuriating in the response. Bag Of Bones is not good, which means it’s agonizingly easy to see all the pieces being put into play. Characters serve as tour guides constantly trying to explain sights we have no interest in seeing. Every scene is either “exposition” or “cheesy scare.” And worse, none of this really combines into anything. The original novel worked because it had momentum. King is good at that; he uses all kinds of tricks, some of them more obvious than others (“I realized what I was missing. So I went to the store and bought the thing I was missing, which I’ll tell you about in a couple chapters.”), but, in most of his novels, even the not-so-great ones, he pulls the reader along.
I can’t really imagine this miniseries pulling anyone along. That could be because the show holds no real mysteries for me; I read the book, I know why we started with a montage of drowning kids (which, by the way, is bizarre), I know why Mike keeps hearing music recorded by a decades-dead black singer, I know why Max Devore, computer billionaire and Mr. Potter-with-rabies villain, wants custody of his granddaughter so badly. I even know about the damn owls. But even knowing all these things shouldn’t stop me from wanting to see them revealed; we love mysteries partly out of curiosity, and partly from a hunger to see the truth come out, so that even knowing the killer’s identity, seeing his mask come off is still satisfying. But the only catharsis to be found here is poor stuff indeed. Bag is horribly structured, creates no internal momentum, and never seems to have even the slightest clue of what it’s doing. The cast is minimal, and what characters do exist are lost in a fog. Melissa George, who plays the young single mother struggling against Max to keep her daughter, sometimes forgets she has a kid; the actress was apparently given little direction beyond, “You want to fuck Pierce Brosnan,” and she clings to that for all she’s worth. There are no relationships here, no rising action, no catharsis. Instead, you’ve got some goofy jump scares, a lot of bad dialog, and a former James Bond vomiting against a tree.