There is actually an extremely complex and fiendishly difficult mathematical formula involving the cinematic versions of Stephen King's books. It is far too long and involved to print in its entirety here - but the simple version is this. For every good cinematic translation, we are bound to have four films of stunning ineptitude thrust upon us.
Yet during the last few years, as King's popularity has waned so the cinematic output has increased in quality. The talent that have been attracted to his work has increased. This means, for example, that a simple film made of one of his short stories can attract such talent as John Cusack and Samuel Jackson. But with one stunning adaptation already hitting cinema screens in 2007 (Darabont's The Mist) will 1408 adhere to the formula or will it break out and make the year a vintage cinematic one for Stephen King fans?
On the face of it, things look extremely promising. The talent is second to none. Cusack is an actor more than capable of capturing the attention, and Jackson as well is capable of producing great work. Putting the two together is one of the most promising, and unusual, pairing of recent years. More worrying, however, is the source material. King, despite misconceptions, is not a horror writer par se. Although dark and gory edges creep into his work frequently, his books are only as effective as they are due to his understanding and portrayal of character. He, perhaps more than any other writer, is able to make the reader truly care for the characters in his stories. And this is the aspect that is usually missed by the directors who bring his work to the screen.
The strange thing about choosing to adapt 1408 for the screen is that the source material is so thin. It is atypical King in many ways - there is no character development, not backstory. It is simple a narration of events. A man goes into a haunted room, events ensue, ending is reached quickly. It is like Stoker's The Judges House pared down to the absolute bare bones. It is effective, for certain, but if it is to be adapted for the cinema so much needs to be added that there is severe danger that it becomes one of those films that has the dreaded tagline inspired by in front of the credits.
Anyway, the beginning of the film finds Mike Enslin (John Cusack) drifting though his life. He has written a critically well received novel that failed to achieve best seller status so he now makes money by staying in haunted areas and writing books about them, debunking their stories and history. He is a cynic of the highest order, unhappy about the way he makes his money but unable to break free from the life.
When he hears about the haunted room 1408 in The Dolphin Hotel in New York, he is intrigued and pays a visit. The hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L Jackson) is desperate to persuade Mike to not stay in the room, saying that he does not want to have to “clean up the mess afterwards”. Mike insists however, seeing it as the perfect way to finish his latest book. Once Olin has given up, Mike moves into the room. All hell breaks loose, and in the process we learn a lot about Enslin's background and history. In the mayhem he even manages to achieve a form of redemption before the film reaches its downbeat climax.
As mentioned before, 1408 the story is just a very very simple haunted house story set in two rooms. In order to flesh it out for cinema viewing the filmmakers have added a back story for the main character that was non existent in the source story, and made that an integral part of the film. This, to me, is an act which takes it far too far beyond the original story as to make it almost pointless as an adaptation. Granted, the original story could not have been brought to the screen without some embellishment, but the writers have taken the source material and stretched it into a two hour plus film. This means that the movie almost sinks under its own sense of self importance.
Things are not all bad, though. Cusack (always a watcheable actor) puts in one of his finest performances here. He holds the screen on his own for long swathes of time, and he always manages to keep the viewer entranced by what his character is going through. The arc and development that the character does go through is, quite frankly, the stuff of soap opera - but Cusack manages to almost elevate it above this onto a new plain. That he doesn't quite succeed is certainly not to belittle his performance. Without Cusack at the center of the film, this would have been a turkey of the highest order. Even with its myriad faults, Cusack manages to keep the viewers interest right until the end.
Jackson has rather less to do, mainly due to the fact that despite his name is there above the credits, his role is merely a slightly extended cameo. As usual, he brings a kind of gravitas to his performance that again manages to elevate the source material - in the same way as Cusack, he does not condescend the material at any point. However, considering he has such a high billing I expected to see more of him. Any fan of acting will enjoy the scene that he and Cusack have together in the manager's office. The two go head to head in a well written scene that just drips quality. It is just such a shame that this quality isn't maintained throughout the rest of the film.
And that is perhaps the movies biggest problem. Whilst the first half hour is extremely promising indeed - the early scenes with Cusack and Jackson, the slow build up of atmosphere, the subtle scare effects during his first hour in the room - the film very quickly descends into this disappointment. The problem, I feel is twofold. First of all, the whole manifestation of the evil in the room becomes far too overblown and unrealistic. There are some extremely effective scares early in the film, which I will not spoil here. But by the time we find Enslin crawling around the heating ducts being pursued by a mummified corpse, or the moment he finds Olin in the back of his fridge - any sense of credibility or subtlety has long since disappeared.
In addition to the unsubtle scares - we have the aforementioned soap opera sub plots delving into Enslin's past. These are quite simply not needed and just serve to drag the whole enterprise down even more.
This IS a shame as the first half hour of the film, coupled with the top level talent above the credits, suggest the possibility of so much more. They suggest that the possibility of two great King adaptations in the same year is not the impossibility the formula suggests. Unfortunately, due to an overdeveloped sense of its own importance, coupled with the need to add more to the bare bones source, 1408 can only be recommended to those most hard core of King and/or Cusack fans. Others should give it a rental first before they decide whether a purchase is in order.
One final note, the version we get here is the extended director's cut version. I didn't catch the film on its cinematic release so am unaware of exactly what the differences are. IMDB does not list any alternate versions so at the moment I am not in a position to list exactly what the differences are. The ending is definitely different (the original theatrical ending is provided as an extra) but I do not know if there are any other differences.