Back in college, a filmmaker-wannabe friend of mine would periodically rave to anyone who’d listen about how he wanted his first film to be a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Long Walk. “It’d be incredibly easy,” he said, many times over. “All you need is a bunch of kids, a road, some fake guns, and a half-track. Renting the half-track would be the only hard part. The rest is just walking and talking. It’d just take a couple of weeks to film, and you couldn’t screw it up. It’d be fantastic.”
Obviously, my friend never made a movie out of The Long Walk, for many reasons beyond the expense or trouble of renting a hybrid military vehicle. For starters, the film rights to Stephen King novels are a valuable commodity. King is famously friendly toward student filmmakers, habitually granting them adaptation rights to his short stories for $1. (His website even has a list of stories that are still available, and a form to fill out for those who want to claim one.) But rights to his novels are in a different league. And even if my friend had somehow secured the rights, The Long Walk’s logistical problems go far beyond finding a handful of teenage actors and some fake guns.
Brief summary: The Long Walk is set entirely within the confines of an annual future-America competition in which 100 teenage boys—all of them volunteers, chosen by national lottery—set out walking together. Anyone who drops below four miles per hour is warned, then warned again after 30 seconds. Anyone who slips below the minimum speed after three warnings is shot to death. The walk continues until there’s only one survivor left, and that survivor receives “The Prize”—whatever he wants for the rest of his life. The exact parameters of The Prize are never clear: Much like the Immortals in The Highlander, also competing for something called The Prize, the Long Walkers are mostly in it for the abstract idea of being The Winner. They largely seem to enter the Walk for abstract teenage-boy reasons—pride, curiosity, excitement, fame, the unconscious conviction that they’re immortal—and then have to come to terms with the fact that death is real, and either they or everyone else around them is on the chopping block. Then all of them are driven by the need to survive and come out on top. There can be only one.
Of all King’s novels, The Long Walk is the most elegant in its simplicity. There are no elaborate side stories, and only one timeline, one event, one point-of-view character. That simplicity spins up into amazing tension, because there’s very little relief from the steadily increasing, plodding desperation among the competitors. It’s riveting material, one of King’s best, but it’s never been adapted, for any number of reasons: It’s an internal book, often caught up in the headspace of protagonist Ray Garraty, a 16-year-old who often acts on instinct, and doesn’t understand his motivations or himself particularly well. It’s repetitive: hundreds of miles of determined staggering, as one boy after another falters and dies. It’s grueling and depressing, with a downbeat ending to rival Brazil or Limbo.
But it’s still begging for adaptation. The Long Walk is one of five books published under King’s Richard Bachman pen name while Bachman’s identity was still a secret. Two of the others, The Running Man and Thinner, have already been adapted to film, the former as a giddily stupid Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, and the latter as a cheesy object lesson in how a bad fat-suit effect can torpedo a would-be thriller. But while both films have their moments—The Running Man through over-the-top one-liners and a hilarious performance from Richard Dawson, more or less playing himself, and Thinner via the apt casting of Joe Mantegna as the protagonist’s mobbed-up buddy—neither gets at what makes the Bachman books so strong, The Long Walk in particular. King grounds much of his work in mundane, realistic detail, making even the most fantastical concepts seem plausible, but the Bachman books go further. Only Thinner features a supernatural element. Rage, Roadwork, The Running Man, and particularly The Long Walk are all fundamentally plausible. The latter two take place in malevolent dystopias, but they’re malevolent dystopias that could theoretically arise, and that get at real, recognizable aspects of human fascination with other people’s suffering. None of these books features magic or monsters.
Instead, all five of them are about character exploration, audience anticipation, and the exhausted terror that comes with a sense of slowly approaching but seemingly unavoidable doom. The Long Walk in particular is a terrific character piece, a smart psychological exploration of the many different ways people deal with the prospect of death, and the selfless and selfish things they do under the gun. It’s particularly smart about finding ways to add variability and nuance to that repetitive experience. Also, it’s absolutely terrifying.
So it’s worth the risks involved in putting it on film. And there are a number of ways to do it. Given the difficulty of making an expensive blockbuster out of such a narrow story with such a grim ending, the most plausible way would be a low-budget indie approach. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Paranoid Park, and Gerry (especially the lattermost, given its emphasis on tired young people, endlessly walking to survive) are good models in terms of approach: It’d be possible to shoot the movie more impressionistically, turning on Ray Garraty’s subjective experience. Keeping the focus smaller and using sound and motion to suggest the scale of the mobs who turn out for the Long Walk would keep the budget down, and make it possible for filmmakers to make it on their own terms, and preserve the ending. The visually subjective approach would also make it easier to deal with the logistics of the many onscreen deaths, pretty much the only necessary special effects in the film.
But imagining for a moment that King’s name and the prospect of a bloodthirstier version of Hunger Games could be leveraged into a more significant budget, the same story could readily be approached with an eye toward spectacle. Garraty’s background and the small amount of available information about America’s current regime and the Long Walk’s history could be opened up with flashbacks, or contemporary cutaways to characters like Garraty’s mother and girlfriend, to vary the monotony of the Walk. Seen full on, those miles and miles of eager spectators, cheering for blood, would make compelling visuals, opening up the screen and strengthening the story’s scathing look at voyeurism—and as with the book, giving a sense of narrative build, as the crowds grow larger and more intense and intimidating over time. The novel does have a handful of action segments, which King downplays by filtering them through Garraty’s exhaustion and inability to process them, but with a bigger-budget approach, they could be expanded without altering the story, simply by letting the camera witness them instead of relying on Garraty’s point of view. And a special-effects budget, whether practical or CGI, would certainly help with the gory details of contestant after contestant being shot to death.
As to the problem of The Long Walk being a fairly internal book, that’s an issue adaptations have always faced, but this one has a structure that allows simple fixes: Garraty spends much of the story talking to his fellow Walkers, or listening to them talk. Any information about himself or his past, or his mental state or opinion, could be suggested or stated via dialogue; there’s no need to rely on voiceover or inner monologues. Virtually anything his character wants to say about himself can be handled relatively naturally, given the environment, where everyone’s trying to kill time and distract themselves while counting down the hours. That said, a great deal of the dialogue in The Long Walk is about varying the pages, so one day of walking doesn’t seem too much like the next. Making the story visual could just as well mean dropping a lot of the dialogue, and taking a more Terrence Malick-like approach, conveying character through images and tone, rather than chatter. A leaner, more personal look at the story could just as well drop a lot of the getting-to-know-you talk, and focus, again, on the Walkers’ subjective experience.
With either approach, though, the focus would still need to be on casting the right actors to bring across the characters’ vulnerability and humanity—or in some cases, their grating cruelty. I’ll leave fantasy casting for the comments section to hash out, since I’m too much of a fan of casting unknowns and letting them own their roles, rather than casting for recognition and hoping that star power will put butts in seats. Besides, the perfect cast in this case would be young men in the 16-to-22 range (depending on how young they play), and the perfect cast right at this moment might be too old a year or so from now. All that said, another current Stephen King adaptation, CBS’ serial Under The Dome, at least suggests a model for what Garraty might look like: Colin Ford, who stars as home-alone farm kid Joe McAlister, is currently about the right age, and suggests the right combination of sensitivity and doggedness.
For years, Frank Darabont has held the film rights to The Long Walk, and has held it up as a someday-project. (“I’ll get there eventually. Just like I finally got there with The Mist,” he said in 2007.) He’s talked about his vision briefly in interviews, saying he envisions the film with a loose documentary feel, and that he’s thought a lot about the problems inherent in shooting an entire movie with handheld cameras, given that the characters are constantly, relentlessly in motion. But even though Darabont’s career has revolved around adapting King’s work, including writing and directing The Mist, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption (which was nominated for seven Oscars, and still tops IMDB’s user-voted Top 250 list), it’s still hard to imagine him making this film. His Mist is pure adrenaline-fueled horror movie; his Shawshank and Green Mile are both sentimental melodramas. (For that matter, so is his only non-King-adaptation feature film, The Majestic.) He’s never directed anything like The Long Walk, and his propensity toward mawkishness isn’t tremendously promising.
But whether he’s going to make it himself or pass the baton while he works on other projects, like his Fahrenheit 451 adaptation, the film version is overdue. The Long Walk was remarkably prescient about reality-TV-style competitions, and has plenty to say about the shameful urge to gawp over people doing embarrassing or dangerous things for personal gain and slight fame. But the reality-TV boom has been going on so long that commentary on it currently feels dated. Similarly, Hunger Games mania suggests a significant audience for a well-crafted story about teenagers competing for their lives, but the window to take advantage of that mania is fading. The immense success of CBS’ TV series Under The Dome has raised King’s profile again, while making it clear that there’s still a significant audience hungry for adaptations of his work. But unless the network makes good on its wearying suggestion that it might try to extend the series and keep it going for years, that window will close soon as well.
Then again, maybe a Long Walk unburdened by attachment to current trends would be better. The fact that it’s so simple, so absorbed in personality rather than period detail, makes the book still seem timeless after more than 30 years. Maybe it’ll still look just as timeless in another decade. But hopefully we won’t have to wait that long.