"The Dead Zone" is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and I have taught it a couple of times in class because of the way in which the series of events persuade Johnny Smith to do what he does at the end. It is also one of the best Stephen King books to recommend to people who do not like Stephen King books (i.e., monsters and scary things). The 1983 movie version of "The Dead Zone" was one of my least favorite Stephen King movies, mainly because I thought the casting of Christopher Walken as Johnny was a mistake; Johnny has to be more of an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, and nobody can ever mistake Walken for ordinary. Anyhow, the idea of turning "The Dead Zone" into a television series instantly appealed to me, because the premise of the character and the episodic nature of the novel, both lent themselves to such an adaptation.
The premise is fairly simple. Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) is a high school teacher who has some minor psychic abilities as a result of a childhood accident. One night, after a fun date with his fiancé, Sarah (Nicole de Boer), Johnny is in a car accident. He wakes up six years later to find his perfect life is gone and that now, when he touches someone, he gets intense psychic images that serve as warnings of back things happening. With great power comes great responsibility and Johnny tries to use his gift to help.
There are some problems with this movie that serves as the pilot for "The Dead Zone" television series, but creators Michael and Shawn Piller come up with several significant changes from the novel that serve as a solid foundation for the first season and beyond. This television pilot is actually the first two episodes thrown together (for distribution as a movie if the series was not sold), with the first hour devoted to establishing Johnny's new situation and the second to the serial killer story from the novel. The main problem is that there are several instances where things get a bit rushed: Johnny wakes up in the hospital and Dr. Tran (Rick Tae) IMMEDIATELY tells him that he has been in a coma for six years. Dr. Tran wants to wait to tell Johnny that his mother died and his fiancé got married during those six years, but the whole six years of your life gone in an instance he hits this guy with right away. Similarly, in terms of everything that Sarah has to tell him he picks up on in flash when he touches her and even the wall that exists between Johnny and Sarah's husband Walt Bannerman (Chris Bruno) does not last long in the second hour of the show. Also, if you want to have fun nitpicking, Johnny would have known about O.J. Fortunately, while the serial killer plot gets resolved in the second hour, as dictated by the USA network, the series did go on to take its time with Greg Stillson.
What outweighs these problems are some of the changes the brothers Piller made in the elements of the novel. First, on their fun date Johnny and Sarah produced a child, which gives the characters an unavoidable link and another aspect to the new love triangle. Second, related to that, is the idea to back Sarah's husband Sheriff Bannerman (this raises a question: will Johnny warn Walt about Cujo?), which adds another layer of complexity to the love triangle because Walt the husband and Bannerman the sheriff have different relationships with Johnny under different circumstances. Third, Johnny's parents are now out of the picture and in their place is the Reverend Gene Purdy (David Ogden Stiers), the beneficiary of Vera Smith's money and a powerful figure with a continuing interest in Johnny, an interest that exists on multiple levels and cannot really be pinned down. Fourth, Johnny Smith now has a sidekick, Bruce Lewis (John L. Adams), his physical therapist, and the first true believer. This allows the writers to give Johnny someone to talk to instead of finding ways to get Johnny to think out loud all of the time.
Fifth, picking up from the theatrical version, when Johnny has his visions we see him there, in the setting. An extension of this, taken from the novel, is that Johnny unconsciously mimics the person he is seeing, talking their language. This works very well with the subplot involving Dr. Tran, who is the updated version of Dr. Weizak (a nice move, both in terms of the updating and in terms of the new resolution to the question of Tran's mother). This also provides the director to come up with some stunning set pieces as everyone freezes and Johnny walks through the moment paying attention to the details (it looks like he is walking through a Matrix-like CGI shot, but it is simply done for the most part). But there are some equally impressive effects created during Johnny's visions by cutting back and forth between now and then, or by doing reverse shots from two different locations. Consequently, "The Dead Zone" has a visual style that makes for some nice examples of creativity in filming a television show.
The second hour does a nice job of establishing the rules of the game here in terms of how Johnny gets flashes of the future, but that it is a future that can be changed: you taken one moment out of the string of life and everything changes. This becomes a very workable premise for a television series, with the story of a real life superhero, on to which we throw all the interpersonal angst of Johnny's relationships. It would have been nice to have seen what this show would have done if they had been allowed to take their time with these initial story threads, but being rushed by the network seems a small price to pay if it means getting the series on the air. As a TV pilot this 2002 version of "The Dead Zone" is not perfect, but it does a very good job of establishing a solid foundation for a pretty good television series.
Final Note: If you pick up the first season of "The Dead Zone" on DVD you get the TV pilot as the first two episodes, but you do not get the commentary (which is split in half) that appears on this particular DVD.