For a long time, I believed King’s own adaptation of The Shining, a rambling, cheesy TV movie starring that guy from Wings and Rebecca De Mornay, was the bottom of the King barrel. After discovering the three-hour TV movie The Langoliers was on streaming, however, I found out firsthand what a truly terrible King adaptation looked like.
Briefly, The Langoliers is about an airplane that gets sucked back in time and the unfortunate few passengers who fall back in time along with it. Instead of being able to watch the Gettysburg Address firsthand or ask Moses out for a beer, the past is a barren place quickly dissolving. When the passengers land the plane in the Bangor, Maine airport, they figure all this out through deduction and a blind girl who has some pale comparison of the shining. One of the passengers (Balki from Perfect Strangers, in the movie) goes crazy and kills the blind girl and the black guy before the Langoliers get him. What are the Langoliers?
Evil Pac-Men who devour the world as it slips into the past. The Langoliers are the plot device that get the passengers back on the plane. The Langoliers are the stupid story Balki’s dad told him when he was a kid and being bad. “The Langoliers will get you,” Balki’s dad told him when Balki wasn’t good enough at school or whatever. “Watch out for the Langoliers.” Then Balki grew up to be a corrupt businessman and then the plane he was on fell back in time and he gets eaten by the Langoliers. Are you terrified yet? Or confused? It doesn’t really matter. The whole story is dumb.
Written during King’s famed “verbal diarrhea” period from the mid-80’s to the early 00’s, The Langoliers must have been an exercise in patience for any King fan when it was released in 1990. Due to overwhelming demand (?), it was made into a TV movie in 1995. I cannot imagine sitting through this with ads. It must’ve been 5 or 6 hours. Long pointless scenes of people looking out the plane window, arguing with each other about what might be happening, looking distraught, punctuated by ads for trucks and sofas and fax machines. Now that I type that out, I realize The Langoliers must have been trying to make the viewer acutely aware of precious time slipping away. It was about time, but it was also made to kill time. How very meta.
You can’t blame the makers of The Langoliers for the awful special effects. It was clearly a low-budget affair. What you can blame them for is the creatively bankrupt cinematography and direction. When 95% of your movie is close-ups and the rest is an empty plane and airport, you’ve made some poor artistic choices. I’m sure Terrence Malick could have done something interesting with this script, but even an unseasoned director should have attempted more than what I saw, if only to relieve the tedium.
I do not believe The Shining is the worst King adaptation. It is not even second- or third-worst. The Langoliers, on the other hand, is so unbelievably bad I wonder if Stephen King blocked it from his memory so that he can continue writing without crippling self-doubt. If anything, it is proof that successful writers need editors just as much, if not more, than unknown or new writers. Sitting in silence for three hours would have been more rewarding than watching this existentially blank movie.