A quick note before we begin in earnest: this evening I'll be discussing various plot points in the movie version of Hearts in Atlantis, so you may want to consider skipping this entry if you haven't seen the movie but still plan to. I know it's been out for several years now and most people that want to see it have already done so, but I wanted to mention that right up front, just in case. One of my more unpleasant Internet experiences caused me to learn which major Star Wars character was killed off in the novel Vector Prime before I had gotten around to reading it; it was in a forum that I did not expect to contain spoilers, and no warnings were given beforehand. As a result, I usually try to give notice about stuff like that. Sometimes I forget, but I try. At any rate, I doubt anything I mention tonight will be earth-shattering, but you never know. I may get on a roll.
First off, the acting wasn't all that great. Granted, a couple of the main characters were children, and I never expect great performances from child actors. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised, but it's best if you don't put your hopes too high. I didn't think the actors portraying Bobby Garfield and Carol Gerber (Anton Yelchin and Mika Boorem, respectively) were too bad, but they didn't blow me away either. That was fine. I was most disappointed in Hope Davis, who gave us a very weak Liz Garfield. She never made me believe what she was saying or doing, and I just think her character was too soft. In the book, her harshness was a major motivating factor in Bobby's character development, and I felt like the movie missed out on that. I will say that Anthony Hopkins did a great job as Ted Brautigan. Of course, I expected a lot from Hopkins, because he's great. That wasn't how I pictured Brautigan (I actually picture him looking a lot like James Whitmore), and sometimes that can be a hard thing to get past in a movie that's been made from a book, but Hopkins made it a breeze.
On a similar note...I really like David Morse (who is making a living from Stephen King films--this one, plus The Green Mile and The Langoliers), but I don't think he's the actor I would have cast as the adult version of Bobby Garfield. I don't have an alternative in mind, but it wouldn't have been him. Then again, the way his character appeared in the book and in the movie were two different things. Morse served the purpose well enough for the movie role, but I pictured the adult Bobby as being harder, more guarded, more run-down by life (and definitely bald).
Another thing that's nagging at me is the question of why Bobby turned out to be a photographer? In the book he was a carpenter. I can't think of a great reason for either one of these eventual professions to be relevant to the overall story, but if it isn't relevant either way, why not leave it as it is? I'm not sure. Given that young Bobby was seen looking through prisms several times, which later plays into his photography, I'm guessing that there was something to it. If so, I haven't quite figured out what it is.
Of course, there are always plot differences between movie and book versions of a story. Another fairly large one is that, in the movie, Bobby returns to his hometown to learn that Carol Gerber has died in the meantime. In the book, Bobby returns home thinking she's dead, but finding out later that she's alive and came back to town just to see him. This is something that had to change, though. The aims of the book and the movie are totally different. The main point of the book lies in the years after their shared childhood, so it's necessary in that version for them to come together at the end to bring out that point and provide closure to the story. The main point of the book is in the difference between "then" and "now," so having a reunion with Carol would only prolong the story unnecessarily. Instead Bobby meets her daughter and enjoys a momentary reminiscence and reflection on those days, and that's it.
One thing I was very interested to see was how (or if) they justified the title of the movie. It was the name of the book, which was named for the second story within. The story the movie was based on, though, was the first, which was titled "Low Men in Yellow Coats." In the second story, the lost city of Atlantis was a reference to the innocence of a generation before Vietnam swept it away; the "Hearts" portion of the title referred to both the standard conceit of the human heart as the seat of emotion (especially love) as well as the actual card game of Hearts. This story was related to "Low Men" only in that it featured the character of Carol Gerber, now several years older and in college, and some of that story's backstory took place in the first story. At any rate, the movie did attempt to justify the title, and I think it did so in a way that Mr. King probably didn't totally object to. In the movie, childhood itself is Atlantis, and broken hearts abound toward the end, as Liz's betrayal of Ted leads to his separation from Bobby.
If they had chosen to title the movie differently, they couldn't have called it "Low Men in Yellow Coats" either, because the Low Men are gone from the story. In the book, these Low Men were otherworldly, not entirely human creatures who are tracking Ted for his abilities to "break" the beams that hold all of existence together in another dimension. This will make a limited amount of sense to anyone who reads the book in a vacuum, but King's "Constant Reader" will know that it ties Hearts in Atlantis to the major work of his career, the Dark Tower series. The filmmakers must have thought this detail would have confused casual moviegoers, so they took it out. The Low Men in yellow coats were replaced by Low Men in dark suits and hats, who turned out to be vaguely psychic FBI agents who wanted Ted (also a psychic) to aid in the fight against Communism. It's sad that King's movies don't all tie together the way so many of his books do, but the events of the books and the events of the movies, although similar in many cases, obviously take place in separate worlds.
Hearts in Atlantis is King's book about the Vietnam era, but it's also about the effects of time. The movie really can't say much about Vietnam without the stories that take place in the middle of the book, so it takes the second theme and runs with it. It's mostly about the magic and discovery of childhood, and the loss of innocence that inevitiably comes at some point. By telling the bulk of the story as a flashback from older Bobby, who appears only at the beginning and end of the film, it's also about how things change from childhood to adult. In fact, that's probably why they made Bobby a photographer. Once childhood is gone, the memories are like a photograph. You can look at it and perhaps feel an echo of the magic that surrounded you at that time, but you can never totally step back into it.
I enjoyed watching the film, but I wasn't as enthralled with it as I am with the book. As with most King books, this one evolves a great deal in the minds of the characters, and that doesn't always translate to film (one major reason why King's films frequently fall short of his books). In this book, as much as any other King book, the characters really jump off the page and start breathing, and that wasn't totally the case in the movie. The movie wasn't very alive, aside from the performance of Anthony Hopkins. I'm glad I saw it, though, because it did open up a little bit more of the book in its own way. A lot of movies based on books don't do that very well, or at all.