In light of the fact that it has a story by Stephen King, a screenplay by
William Goldman (The Stepford Wives, The Princess Bride, Memoirs of an Invisible
Man), and acting by Anthony Hopkins, Hearts in Atlantis is relatively
unremarkable. Still, it makes for a slightly better than average two hours in
It's the 1960s. Bobby Garfield lives with his mother near Bridgeport. (Given
King's standard operating procedure, I'll assume Bridgeport, Maine, though there
are Bridgeports in probably half of the states of the union.) His friends are
Carol and Sully. A mysterious stranger, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) comes
into town, rents the rooms upstairs, and vaguely magical things start happening.
But the mystical powers in Hearts in Atlantis take a backseat to a nostalgia-tinged
coming-of-age story and the mentor-pupil relationship between Bobby and Ted.
I've not read all of King's books. I'm not even sure that I could claim to
have read half of them. But I've read enough to put him on my list of all-time
great authors. I'd be the first to argue that King has a place in English lit
classes. He's not been trying to write The Great American Novel, and his "potboiler"
subject matter pretty much puts him out of the running. But you can find, in
his books, along with the killer clowns and ancient forces of malevolence, some
of the truest portraits of American life ever put to paper. His mirrored funhouse
stories would not have the power that they do, were it not for the fact that
his characters, and their relationships, are so real, so convincing.
It's surprising, then, that a movie which pushes the supernatural aside to
focus on the characters turns out to be a bit mediocre. Hearts in Atlantis
seems custom-made to ride the wave of commercial and critical success that
has greeted King's recent non-horror outings: The Shawshank Redemption
and The Green Mile. It's set in a bygone era. It's about friendship and
the human spirit. It's got an Oscar-winning actor. But it feels awful slight
next to its older cousins.
Stephen King has always mined his past in his stories. The magic of childhood
friendship is at the center of It and Stand by Me. But where the
bond of friendship in those works is built on specificity (nicknames, banter,
a slingshot in your back pocket, and frank discussions about Annette Funicello's
growing bust-line), the friendships of Hearts in Atlantis seem like vague
There are parts of Hearts in Atlantis that are classic King: Bobby's
obsession with a shiny Schwinn bike, a monopoly game on the porch, parts of
the carnival scene. There's even a passing reference to the Library Police.
But Bobby's childhood is too often characterized by a Hallmark card generic-ness,
like the scene where Bobby, Carol and Sully laugh and splash in the water on
an inner-tube, bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun.
Hearts in Atlantis has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the
first King film to be rated PG-13 instead of R. King's been a part of some very
effective TV projects (It, The Stand, Golden Years), so
I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of a non-R-rated King movie. Hearts
in Atlantis is pleasant, but toothless, like sitting on the porch-swing
with your grandpa in the early afternoon, drinking iced tea and watching the
hummingbirds gather around the feeder
but I digress.
Hearts in Atlantis probably could have gotten an even friendlier PG,
(SPOILERS. SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH) if it weren't for one thing: Bobby's mom
gets sexually assaulted. The way it's handled, it's almost a throwaway scene.
You'd think it'd be impossible for a rape to be a throwaway scene, but there
it is: a convenient dramatic device, a partial explanation for her betrayal
of Ted and her just-in-time-for-the-optimistic-ending semi-transformation from
self-centered absentee mom into sympathetic character. An event that should
alter the tone the film, but instead is a brief and jarring pit stop in the
Town of Real-Life Evil. And that pit stop is ultimately unnecessary. When you
try to imagine Bobby's mom's character arc without that scene, you realize that
the rape doesn't add enough to justify its inclusion. I've not read Hearts
in Atlantis, but I'll assume that the book's treatment of the rape was better
integrated and more emotionally honest.
Anthony Hopkins' performance as Ted, and his interaction with Bobby (Anton
Yelchin), helps keep Hearts in Atlantis from being a disappointment.
For a while, I was half-expecting Ted to break out some fava beans and a nice
Chianti, but he doesn't say "goody goody", not even once. The scenes
with Hopkins have the easy rhythm of playing cards on bicycle spokes.
Bobby and Carol are cute and mostly harmless. Sully, meanwhile, gets almost
no screen time. He's just another touchstone element in Bobby's "Norman
Rockwell in the Slum's of Maine" childhood.
By the end of movies and mini-series like The Shawshank Redemption,
The Stand, It, and Stand by Me, you felt like you knew
the characters. After just a few hours, they were old friends. But at the end
of Hearts in Atlantis, the characters you've met are only acquaintances.
Still, when Ted stares into the eyes of the neighborhood bully and crushes
his bravado with a few well-placed words, you too will believe in the power