Doing Hearts in Atlantis
Produced by Castle Rock Entertainment
Directed by Scott Hicks
Screenplay by William Goldman from Stephen King’s novel
Released by Warner Brothers

I went to see director Scott Hicks’ Hearts in Atlantis not having read the Stephen King novel on which it is based. The little I knew of King’s other fiction was not encouraging. I expected another excursion into bump-in-the-night territory—not my favorite place to visit. To my surprise, the film turned out to be a moving portrayal of a happenstance but deeply felt father-son relationship. This, in large part, is due to Anthony Hopkins’ transcendent portrayal of the mysterious Ted Brautigan, a 66-year-old man who befriends Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin), a fatherless boy of 11.

Although Bobby is the protagonist, it is the knighted Welshman who raises the film far above screenwriter William Goldman’s middling adaptation. (I speak with authority. The film made me curious enough to read King’s novel afterward. While it isn’t Tolstoy, it is an unexpectedly worthy meditation on our mortal condition.) Whether deliberately or not, the film acknowledges its debt to Hopkins by having Bobby quote him. This happens just after the lad gives his friend Carol (Mika Boorem) an impulsive peck on the lips. Having made the briefest essay at prepubescent romance, Bobby assesses the results with words Hopkins’ character spoke to him earlier concerning one’s first oscular moment: “It will be the kiss by which all others in our lives will be judged and found wanting.” Puzzled by such eloquence, Carol merely wrinkles her nose, and Bobby sighs, “It sounded better when Ted said it.” No one will disagree. When Hopkins delivered this observation, it seemed exquisitely luminous. With his middle distance gaze and effortless basso profundo, he gave King’s sentence all the force of an incontestable first principle in the science of love—momentarily, at least. Only afterward, free of Hopkins’ spell, do we regain our wits and recognize this for the grade-B bologna it is. Remember that first bumbling attempt to put a lip lock on a member of the opposite sex? If you’re like me, you’ll cringe at the notion of using the experience as the yardstick to assess all subsequent smooching. Doing so would be as reasonable as judging your driving competence by how well you handled a stick-shift in your first frazzled hour at the wheel. Only an actor of Hopkins’ consummate wizardry could make us believe otherwise, and that is why he is perfect for this film.

For once, the uncanny Hopkins is typecast. He plays an aging man with the preternatural ability to read minds and then bestow this gift on those he touches. This conceit perfectly mirrors what Hopkins has been doing for over 40 years, entering into his roles so thoroughly that we are convinced we know his characters personally. At one point, Ted tells Bobby, “I pass on a window into other peoples’ minds.” I couldn’t help thinking, yes, you certainly do. There’s Captain Bligh, Hannibal Lector, C.S. Lewis, and Titus Andronicus. He even made us believe he was Richard Nixon with an English accent. Every role he plays is a window into another soul. How he does it is as mysterious as Ted’s psychic eavesdropping.

The story Hopkins is serving here has been shaped from “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” the first of the five loosely connected narratives that make up King’s novel, each meant to be a meditation on America’s “loss of innocence” during the 1960’s. (Why do people suppose we had more innocence to lose in that decade than any other? What about the 1860’s or the 19?0’s? Or, for that matter, this very moment?) It’s a tale of a boy forced by circumstances to face adult issues prematurely and finding help in the person of the mysteriously gifted Ted, a stranger who enters his life apparently by chance and seemingly from nowhere.

We meet Bobby in 1960 on his 11th birthday. For a present, his mother gives him an adult library card instead of the bicycle he had hoped for. He is painfully aware that her choice has been dictated by her stinginess. The card is free. Bobby’s father had died when he was three, leaving his mother extravagantly aggrieved by life’s unfairness. She has developed into a shrewish cheapskate. “Your father left me with nothing but a stack of unpaid bills and a lapsed insurance policy,” she automatically snaps whenever she spies a request for money looming on the horizon.

Bobby finds this puzzling. His mother doesn’t hesitate to buy fancy clothing for herself. And there are other things he doesn’t understand. She frequently stays late at her secretarial job in a local real-estate office on the pretext of having work to do for her loutish boss. When she is home in the evening, she receives calls at odd hours that alternately delight and depress her. Although he feigns indifference, Bobby is keenly aware that all is not as it seems.

The adult library card signals Bobby’s need to gain some access to grown-up mysteries. Within minutes of receiving it, he meets Ted, who will become his mentor, directing him to the books most likely to open his eyes to realities just beyond his ken. In effect, Ted becomes Bobby’s adult library card incarnate, his living passport from innocence to experience. He will prepare Bobby to deal with a world in which good does not necessarily prevail but, nevertheless, commands the loyalty of those who aspire to nobility. The novel makes much more of Ted’s literary mentoring than does the film, especially his discussion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which King uses to introduce his central theme; the unavoidable struggle between civilized decency and savage bullying that underlies so much of adult experience. Although scanting the literary chat, the film also puts this issue front and center. Bobby and Carol are tormented—viciously, at times—by a group of older boys against whom they are virtually defenseless. Parallel to this, Bobby’s motlier—increasingly desperate for economic security—dangerously compromises herself with her crude boss on a business trip she should not have agreed to take.

Ted understands these predicaments, and not just because he can read minds. He has his own bullies at his back—the low men who are pursuing him, presumably for his psychic powers. (That’s low in the Dickensian sense, he explains.) In the novel, these pursuers have a provenance in the standard science-fiction conceit of a parallel universe. They stand for bullying forces of all sorts, power abusers—official or freelance—who take for granted that they have the right to impose their will on others. Here, the film deviates tendentiously and irresponsibly from the novel. While King leaves these low men eerily and suggestively vague, Goldman has taken the astonishing liberty of injecting his own politics into the plot. As Ted worries about the low men in the film, we are given close-ups of newspaper articles. “FBI Announces New Measures to Apprehend Red Infiltrators,” bellows one tabloid headline; another seeks to calm its readers: “Hoover Denies FBI Is Recruiting Psychics in Battle Against Communism.” Without saying it directly, the film leads the audience to believe that Ted had once been held captive by the FBI and is now on the ideological lam. Goldman and Hicks probably think their unwarranted interpolation merely makes King’s conceit more accessible to a film audience that demands realism. Such is reality for Hollywood filmmakers: FBI, evil; communists, misunderstood. Old habits die hard. It’s probably nothing more serious than vaguely leftish artists mindlessly falling into line with what they assume to be political righteousness. Ironically, they have only managed to expose their naïveté, especially in the aftermath of September 11. I only wish King would blow the whistle on them for appropriating his text in the cause of their stale and thoroughly discredited notions.

Despite these narrative and ideological flaws, however, this film has its merits. It exhibits powerful acting and eloquent visual design. Hope Davis excels as the mother, breaking from her usual turn as the sweet, demure girl-next-door. She plays a thoroughly unlikable mom—scheming, manipulative, whiny, and enormously self-centered—and she does it so well that some reviewers have expressed dismay. How could she allow herself to be so unpleasant? This is called acting, very fine acting at that. The film’s direction is also admirable. Working with children is risky, but Hicks has elicited some very natural performances from his young actors, especially Mika Boorem, who never seems to be performing at all. As Bobby, Alton Yelchin has been saddled with some nearly impossible lines. Nevertheless, he does well, especially in his scenes with Hopkins. Hicks’ cinematography is also impressive. He shoots many interior scenes from Bobby’s point of view. We see what the boy sees: separate rooms stretched across the screen divided by dark walls, each revealing only a portion of its contents through a partially opened door. Adults move back and forth—visible one moment, occluded the next. Simple as they are, these compositions ingeniously express the boy’s fleeting, fragmentary view of the troubling adult world that surrounds him.

There is a Wordsworthian ambivalence in King’s imagination, which is probably why he has gravitated toward fantasy and horror. These are genres that typically allegorize childhood confusion by placing sheltered innocence in the context of unpredictable and monstrous treachery. In Hearts in Atlantis, King has muted and softened this strategy, but it underlies his plot at every turn. While Ted carefully gives Bobby measured access to a disturbing adult world, he sometimes suggests it would be preferable to stay innocent. At one point, watching the children absorbed in their play, he muses that, “when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness you think you’re living a magical place, in Atlantis; then we grow up and our hearts break in two.” The novel’s conclusion corrects this romantic nostalgia for glorified youth with an episode that’s not in the film. We meet Bobby as an adult of 50 and find that he has acquired “that sense of the world as a thin veneer stretched over something else, something both brighter and darker.” A little vaguely, perhaps, but King seems to be reaching for the exhilaration that comes with a tragic sense of life, a mature vision that comprehends the full arc of our mortality.

In last month’s column, I mentioned Edmund McNally, my cousin Elizabeth’s husband. At the time I wrote, he had gone missing in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Although we held onto some slender hope in the days immediately following September 11, we had to accept his loss. His funeral was held three weeks ago. Then, last week, we learned his remains had been discovered and he was given a burial service.

While no one knows for sure the full circumstances of Ed’s demise, we do know this: He was in the same building in 1993 when terrorists attempted to bring it down with a truck bomb. At that time, Ed joined his colleagues in escaping down a stairwell. Before he did, however, he stopped to gather a huge computer drive in his remarkably strong arms. Fearing it might contain irreplaceable information, he carried this machine down 97 floors to street level. Subsequently—and no doubt not coincidentally—his firm put him in charge of evacuation procedures in case of another such incident. I mention this because many people from Ed’s floor did escape the building’s collapse. One lady reports she last saw Ed helping others on their way to safety. What must have happened next is this: The second plane hit his building, the south tower, trapping him along with so many others in the resulting conflagration. We’ll never know how many people became heroes that day, but I am convinced Ed was one of them.

Ed would have been 41 this month. He leaves his wife, his three daughters, and hundreds of friends and family members behind.