I don’t remember a lot about Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones,” the 1998 novel which A&E has adapted for a two-part miniseries airing Sunday and Monday night at 9, except for one part. The book’s main character is novelist Mike Noonan, who comes down with a crippling case of writer’s block after the sudden death of his wife Jo. The early sections of the book go on at length about Mike’s sudden inability to do the thing that’s made him a living and provided so much fulfillment, and it’s every bit as vivid and terrifying as the best sequences in King’s other books involving telekinetic prom queens, other-dimensional killer clowns and sentient, homicidal vintage cars. Admittedly, I’m a writer who’s grappled with the problem from time to time (and never as long or as deeply as Mike does), so I’m a biased observer, but those early passages were the best bits of new King prose I’d read in more than a decade.
But “Bag of Bones” isn’t really about Mike’s writer’s block; his problem is just the impetus to eventually get him to his family’s old lake house, where Jo spent a lot of time before she died, and where there are ghosts, curses and other more familiar horror tropes. It’s there where the book lost me, and though I read to the end, few of the details were still present in my head when I watched the A&E miniseries.
The miniseries was written by Matt Venne, and directed by Mick Garris, who’s carved a career for himself as the go-to man for adaptating King books for the small screen. (He’s previously been behind the camera for “The Stand,” “The Shining” remake and “Desperation,” among others.) In part because they’re condensing 500+ pages into a little under three hours (when you take the commercials away), in part because writer’s block isn’t an easy thing to depict visually, the TV version dispenses with that part of the story quickly so it can get Mike (played by Pierce Brosnan) to the haunted lake house, where he befriends stressed single mother Mattie Devore (Melissa George), runs afoul of her definitely evil and possibly insane father-in-law Max (veteran sitcom dad William Schallert) and begins having dreams of early 20th century blues singer Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose), whose death seems tied to whatever strange things are happening in and around the lake.
There’s at once a lot of story, in that Mike seems to be dealing with multiple ghosts (including that of Jo, played by Annabeth Gish), and yet not enough, in that certain lines, visual motifs and bits of information get repeated over and over. So does the catchphrase “custody has its responsibilities,” which never sounds remotely as ominous as it’s intended – though maybe that’s because it’s usually coming from the mouth of the absurdly eeeeevil Max Devore, and/or his assistant Rogette (Deobrah Grover), who comes across like Thelma Ritter after a zombie bite. Together, the duo (a wheelchair-bound octogenarian and his wicked gal Friday) are supposed to come across as menacing; instead they, like so much of the miniseries, are silly.
It also doesn’t help that the role, and story, don’t especially play to Brosnan’s skill set. There are long stretches of the story where Mike is on his own, crying, or yelling or trying to talk to the various ghosts, and it turns out that loudly emoting to thin air isn’t one of Brosnan’s strengths.
King famously figures out most of his stories as he goes along, which means his books often have great beginnings and forgettable or awkward endings. “Bag of Bones,” especially this adaptation of it, doesn’t have the benefit of the great start. It’s never clear what the story is really about, or how its many pieces fit together. It’s just a collection of creepy imagery, lots of screaming and the occasional musical number for Anika Noni Rose. Not that I mind getting to hear her sing; I’d just rather it was in the middle of a much more interesting story.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org