Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last week: Judge Dredd)
The Source Material
Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man is complicated. Back when Stephen King was still publishing short stories in adult men’s magazines, the short story about an average Joe and the creepy landscaper who disrupts his life was thought of as schlocky, Ray Bradbury inspired pulp. Fast forward a couple of decades to the time when almost all of King’s work adapted for the big screen, and Bob Shaye’s “the house that Freddy built” releases one of the oddest and loosest adaptations of literature ever made. New Line Cinema’s version of The Lawnmower Man is considered by many to be an awful movie, even though it’s kind of brilliant.
The original story by the master of the macabre concerns Harold Parkette, a simple man who loves getting his grass cut. Harold has his turbo lawnmower and his Red Sox and not a care in the world until a local kid uses his mower to run over the next door neighbor’s cat. He sells the mower, fire the kid and soon his lawn is overgrown. Enter Pastoral Greenery and Outdoor Services Inc., a locally advertised landscaping service that catches Harold’s eye. The events that follow are bizarre, perverse and just plain weird. It’s a quick, gross short story that would never have made a feature film unless someone decided to include a plot about a simple and likable handyman who becomes a cybernetic god through the use of virtual reality.
The Lawnmower Man begins with a monkey wearing a VR headset. Dr. Angelo is a computer scientist who has been developing virtual reality applications to increase brain activity in animals. An unknown government agency has been funding his research with the goal of using his findings for modern warfare. The monkey flees, and we cut to a happy, yet unintelligent fellow doing yard work. Jobe is mentally challenged and lives at the local Catholic Church. He is regularly beaten by the Father, who adopted him, and the locals aren’t too nice to him either.
This first third of the film features solid moments of character building and intimate drama. We get to know Jobe through his experiences, and while the events are mainly simple exchanges between characters, Jobe shines through as having a good conscience. Actor Jeff Fahey does great work portraying Jobe as a kind and victimized innocent who just likes doing yard work. The late, great character actor Geoffrey Lewis helps lighten these early scenes and the young Austin O’Brien, who starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero shows us that Jobe is eager to be friends with people who treat him nicely. The first 30 minutes of the movie lay the foundation for the transformation of a good soul into a force of evil.
Dr. Angelo, played by Pierce Brosnan before his long run as James Bond, gets the bright idea one day while drinking heavy amounts of whiskey to offer Jobe a chance to become smarter. He dupes Jobe into playing virtual reality games that help him build cognitive response and increase his thinking capacity, all the while injecting him with experimental drugs that have been engineered to affect different parts of the brain. At the beginning of the film, we saw that the test monkey went on a killing spree before escaping from the research compound, so it’s no surprise what happens next to Jobe.
After Jobe’s treatments begin to have positive effects on his wardrobe and love life, he starts having seizures and hearing other people’s thoughts telepathically. Dr. Angelo’s associate at the lab swaps Jobe’s brain serum with the highly volatile compound used on the monkey that went berserk. When Angelo brings Jobe to the test center to use a pair of gyrospheres while engaged in a VR interface, the brain boosting session goes out of control and completely fries Jobe’s mind making him claim to have seen God. As of this point in the movie, there has been no similarity to King’s story minus a mower.
This part of the film is where our main character becomes a supervillain. Dr. Angelo’s tampering with the human mind has rendered Jobe broken and insane. On top of that, Jobe can now read minds and is psychokinetic. In Stephen King’s story, the lawnmower man that shows up to Harold Parkette’s door strips naked and runs around the yard on all fours while the mower drives itself. In the movie, Jobe now controls his lawnmower with his mind from the balcony of a love interest that he mentally destroyed during a bizarre VR sex session that turned nightmarish. These two tales couldn’t be further apart in concept, but they are both in a way fascinating.
As Jobe continues to develop his powers while going progressively crazier, Dr. Angelo sees that his abilities are dangerous and needs to be stopped. Angelo’s top boss played by Dean Norris shows up do get an update on the project to turn Jobe into a weapon, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Multiple people who have been mean to Jobe get killed to include the Father at the church, the jerk at the local gas station and the drunk and abusive dad of Jobe’s best friend. This moment is the scene that associates the film with the short story. A lawnmower chases a guy through his house and then kills him. The next morning, a cop played by the always notable Troy Evans mentions his parts are in the birdbath. That’s it.
With the only real connection to Stephen King’s story out of the way, screenwriters Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett went wild with the idea that Jobe wants to become a “Cyber Christ” and rule the world through its computer databases. It’s funny that Jobe’s plan to transcend the physical world to become the ruler of virtual reality almost corresponds with the invention of the internet. His goal is to create a network of servers across the globe and make every phone on the planet ring at once. This signal will mean he has achieved global network domination.
Angelo tries to stop him as Jobe kills every government agent in his path. When Jobe jacks into the VR world and leaves his human body behind, Angelo follows and gets crucified and tortured. The computer graphics in the film are for the most part terribly dated and laughable, but some of the moments that take place in VR are still pretty disturbing when you think about it. Regardless, Angelo gets released to save Jobe’s friend before the compound blows up. It’s not until the remaining characters attempt to flee that the phones start ringing and we realize that Jobe is now a Cyber God.
The Lawnmower Man film has a terrible reputation, yet it has managed to develop a very dedicated cult following over the years. Most Stephen King fans hate the movie, but there are a handful of folks out there that love Brett Leonard’s odd cyberpunk horror opus despite all its glaring flaws. A string of video game adaptations were released to help market the movie, including a PC DOS version by SCi Games Ltd. that attempted to recreate the games played in the film. A Director’s Cut has since been released including almost a half hour of additional scenes; and even with a running time of over two hours, it’s still interesting to watch.
Stephen King was never a fan of the movie and actually took New Line to court and won. The lawsuit over The Lawnmower Man was intended to award King damages for using his name to sell the movie, but even today the film features his name in the opening titles. Stephen King’s story is easily accessible in the now classic story collection Night Shift, and a fantastic audiobook is also available featuring the voice of Scrooged and Gremlins 2 star John Glover narrating the tale. The Lawnmower Man is a strange short story and an even weirder movie, and both versions of the story are absolutely worth checking out.