Stephen King’s Desperation
As I’ve been watching the television series Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, I was struck by how hit and miss the series was. Granted, it was a hit and miss collection, but some stories that worked well on the page didn’t translate especially well to the small screen. Which stands in stark contrast to the adaptation of his book, Desperation. The problem could simply be a matter of scale: sometimes it’s easier to whittle a novel down to a three hour television movie than stretch a short story out to an hour. Mick Garris and Steve Weber must have it in their contracts that they are obligated to be a part of every Stephen King adaptation. However, like most Stephen King productions, the movie starts out great and then fades (in this case, the fade begins once Ron Perlman’s over the top hamming exits the movie).
In terms of plot, the story is fairly straight forward: Desperation, Nevada is a small, rural town run by an insane sheriff, Collie Etragian (Ron Perlman). The sheriff has lured in and trapped passing tourists, terrorizing them, as part of his homicidal spree. Ordinarily, this would be the standard escape from the madman thrill ride, however, King decides to do a deliberate meditation on the age old idea of spirituality as a means to defeat evil. This trick is troublesome to pull off: you don’t want the characters pontifications to get in the way of the atmosphere/story. It doesn’t quite work here either, but it does give us plenty of fodder to mull over.
“Faith isn’t just believing in God, but believing God is sane.” –Davey
One of the captured tourists is a young boy, David “Davey” (bringing to mind the old Davey and Goliath cartoon) Carver, who had recently come into a special relationship with God. The nature of his faith is fleshed out more (and better) in the book. In the television movie, Davey’s faith is presented as a bargaining sort of faith, one barely tested. His friend was dying, Davey prays, and a miracle happens and his friend is healed. “Heal my friend and I’ll do your will” - which isn’t the sort of relationship I would want to have with anyone - plays to how too many relate to God: as some sort of cosmic genie to be bartered with. However, the main theme is how that faith is tested and sustained, not the most common plot to be found in a horror movie.
Davey: “Why are you here?”
Pie: “For the same reason we all are: to love God and serve him.”
Davey: “What am I supposed to do?”
We have choices. We have regrets. “Good old free will” as Davey puts it. Our faith can be inwardly focused, about ourselves, our walks, getting our butt into heaven; where spiritual growth is defined by how deep/vast your Bible knowledge is, how active you are in church related activities and how many people you had led to Christ. Or our spiritual journeys can be outwardly focused, about being a blessing to others. This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, but too often this is how it plays out. Ideally, like Davey, we ought to be moved to action, to love others because we are so loved - a faith that reaches beyond ourselves into the lives of those around us.
Mary: “So, what’s the plan?”
Davey: “We do what God tells us to do ... we ought to pray.”
We often wrestle with the problem of evil, whether it is in the form of nature going awry or in the form of the evil we do to one another (though not as often, we face people possessed by extra-dimensional evil). So the issue that people of faith have to deal with (and the most asked question people “outside” of that faith have for them) is trying to figure out God’s will in the face of evil: how God allows evil, senseless violence, to land on the innocent. So most times, my best theological answer to many questions is “I don’t know,” but the questions are worth struggling with and working through. Honestly, what answer would satisfy you? That is why I question the value of such exercises a lot of the time and choose to tread the road of mystery. Some things can’t be taught, they have to be lived. No amount speculation will comfort those truly suffering (nor will the most rational or well framed argument win an “unbeliever”). Some questions have no answers, at least not here and not now.
Yet, He seems to bring people together to do good in the face of evil. There seems to be a plan that we can’t always see. In the shadow of the big showdown with the ultimate evil, the band of survivors recite the Lord’s Prayer. The power of prayer in the face of evil serves to calm them as they seek God’s will; to maintain communication with Him which in itself draws them closer to Him. To trust in Him even when they don’t understand His ways.
Our faith gives us hope, and in light of that hope, we act. We draw near to the suffering, continue to ask “why?”, and then act in compassion. That is our response to how could God allow this: be the arms of God in comforting the victims of suffering.
Davey: Sometimes God is cruel.
John Edward Marinville: What good is he then? He wants us to love him and serve him, right?
In the last couple hundred years, the image of God as both good and severe, a God that fit readily into our (Old Testament kind of) paradigm, was gradually replaced with that of a one-dimensional, only-good God. The whole God = Love, as in Love is the only dimension of who He is, has its own set of problems. So of course people couldn’t reconcile how a supposedly good God allowed horrible things to happen, especially to the most innocent among us.
We forget that God is also holy. And, like Aslan, the lion from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, we need the occasional reminder that there is a (righteous) fearful element to holiness. “Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God” (Romans 11:22a, The Message version).
That said, the reality is that God is also love, even in the face of tragedy. Sometimes faith seems crazy. The movie does little more than toss out platitudes, never truly engaging the topic of faith in light of evil. However, as Stephen King’s theme alludes to, we are either in a state of faith or a state of Desperation. And Desperation is no where to be.
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