Book vs. Film vs. Film: 'Trucks' vs. 'Maximum Overdrive' vs. 'Trucks'
It's safe to call 2017 "The Year of the King," in that the master of horror Stephen King is all over the place. There are two major cinematic adaptations of his work on the way—The Dark Tower and It; there's a new TV show with co-producer J.J. Abrams called Castle Rock, which is set in King's fictional town of the same name; and the author has already published two new fictional works, co-written with his son Owen and Cemetery Dance founder Richard Chizmar, respectively.
And since this is King's year, what better time to look back over his previous work. So let's talk about the time he adapted his own short story "Trucks" (from the excellent Night Shift collection) into the so-bad-it's-good, AC/DC-scored gore fest called Maximum Overdrive. And while we're at it, let's also look at the subsequent TV movie version of the same narrative, named after its literary predecessor, and see which among the two works the best (and if you're familiar with all three, you probably know where this is going).
Let us begin...
The Story: "Trucks"
If you've only ever seen Maximum Overdrive and never read "Trucks"—which, in addition to appearing in Night Shift was first published in Cavalier Magazine in 1973—you might think this is one of King's more comical tales. But in fact, it is actually quite bleak. King takes an ostensibly corny concept—trucks of all shapes and sizes becoming sentient and taking over the world—and manages to make it serious and rather horrifying. He accomplishes this by first investing the reader in reality before dropping us into the realm of the supernatural. He holds off the reveal that these machines are operating themselves for several paragraphs, focusing first on the characters holed up in a truck stop diner. The author also begins the story in media res, with the trucks having already killed several people in the parking lot—leaving their grotesque bodies in full view of the survivors—and driven a salesman, Snodgrass, to the brink of insanity. King even shows Snodgrass bolting out the diner, nearly making a clean escape but ultimately getting struck by a semi and launched horribly into the air before disappearing into a drainage ditch, all before the big reveal.
The plot following the death of the salesman focuses on the remaining survivors—the unnamed narrator, a young male and female couple (the boy's name is Jerry), a trucker, and an old "counterman." They make what little inroads they can toward survival, but ultimately figure the best they can do is simply wait until the trucks run out of gas. However, this proves false when one semi bleats out a morse code message on its horn, demanding that the people inside the diner refuel their tanks, or else suffer deadly consequences. At first the group keeps waiting, believing the demand to be a bluff. However, a bulldozer rolls into the truck stop and begins demolishing the building. They fight back with Molotov cocktails, and while the bulldozer is destroyed, so is Jerry and the trucker. The group realizes resistance is futile, and so the narrator volunteers to refuel the trucks first. He does so for hours, with a line of trucks, he surmises, "backed up all the way to the turnpike, maybe further..." An oil tanker even arrives to refill the pumps, so that the forced fueling can continue indefinitely.
One of the most important lines in King's tale comes from the "girlfriend" character, who says of the trucks, "We made them...They can't." And another, said by the narrator when the group attempts to guess what caused this apocalypse: "Maybe they're mad." Not as in insane, but angry—angry, we can infer, at being used for so many decades. (Another credit to King is his refusal to reveal how the machines gained sentience; they simply did, leaving this stranded band of everyday Joes [and one Jane] to wonder at the horror outside the diner windows.) The point here seems to be "we reap what we sow," in that we did indeed make these machines as both an extension of and a means of extending the industrial revolution, and now that they have minds, they very much can do what they please. King is right on the money in his exploration of how royally fucked we'd all be if trucks (and, as the end of the story reveals, other vehicles) gained sentience, with the final so-terrifying-it's-funny bit of irony being that we ultimately fucked ourselves.
King nails this point on the head in the final paragraphs of the story. The narrator wonders if the remaining group still might be able to get away and hide out in the woods and the swamps. But then he realizes:
So much of the world is paved now. Even the playgrounds are paved. And for the fields and marshes and deep woods there are tanks, half-tracks, flatbeds equipped with lasers, masers, heat-seeing radar. And little by little, they can make it into the world they want.
I can see great convoys of trucks filling the Okefenokee Swamp with sand, the bulldozers ripping through the national parks and wildlands, grading the earth flat, stamping it into one great flat plain. And then the hot-top trucks arriving...
And if I close my eyes I can see the production lines in Detroit and Dearborn and Youngstown and Mackinac, new trucks being put together by blue-collars who no longer even punch a clock but only drop and are replaced.
King states that "Trucks" was a kind of cautionary tale about our reliance upon mechanization and technology, but the story seems more focused on showcasing the horror of a mechanized world where the machines inexplicably gain intelligence and agency, rather than a Terminator-esque warning about technology run amok. But whatever allegorical aims King did have with his story, he threw all such notions out the window when he agreed to step behind the camera...
The Theatrical Film: 'Maximum Overdrive'
King was, to use the technical term, hot shit back in 1986. He had hit novels and hit movies based on his novels, and perhaps because of this, the decision was made to allow King to write and direct his own film. He chose "Trucks" as his source material, and more or less stuck to the same premise—machines coming to life and killing people—as well as the basic plot. He did, however, make a few key changes, namely that all machines gain murderous sentience at once (though a few don't for no particular reason), the cast of characters increases to arguably too many, and one character—the diner's owner—just happens to have a cache of military weapons in his basement, allowing the group (lead by Emilio Estevez) to retaliate with EXTREME FORCE! Also, the humans win in the end, and AC/DC did the soundtrack, giving us "Who Made Who," "You Shook Me All Night Long," and "Hells Bells" in the process.
But perhaps the biggest change lies in the tone of the film, which is decidedly comedic and over the top—a far cry from the simple tale of claustrophobic and near-cosmic horror seen in "Trucks." King revealed no pretensions about Maximum Overdrive upon its release, stating in an interview:
This is a moron movie...You check your brains at the box office and you come out 96 minutes later and pick them up again. People say, 'How'd you like the movie,' and you can't say much. It's not like The Big Chill or 2001.
And he's right. The movie is loaded with dark humor and near-obscene levels of violence (though not as much as the uncut version, which King apparently only screened once for his friend George Romero, who disliked it immensely because it made him sick to his stomach). It's a campy junk food gross-out-o-rama, and it honestly works well when you do as King instructs and check your brain at the door before viewing. Shit blows up, a guy's face falls off, little leaguers get smooshed by a steam roller while a vending machine racks their coach in the nuts with a soda can, our president's second wife Marla Maples plays a corpse, and damn, doesn't that toy company semi truck look badass:
Now, such thirteen-year-old-boy praises notwithstanding, let me be clear: this is a bad movie. It is chock full of plot holes, bad acting, bad dialogue, and general stupidity (King fully admits he was "coked out of his mind" during production and didn't have a clue how to make a movie). But it's one of those it's-so-bad-it's-good kind of movies—a thing you can watch with your friends and riff on MST3K-style. It is the yang to "Trucks'" yin, and the autonomous machines are the only smart thing about it. No, it will not move you, and you will not learn a damn thing from watching it, but you will have a good time, that much is guaranteed.
But the question does remain: is it possible to make a more serious film out of this narrative, one that retains the simplicity of King's original short story?
The answer is yes, but the filmmakers behind the next movie we're going to talk about certainly didn't do that.
The TV Movie: 'Trucks'
I'm not going to waste much of my time and yours on this 1997 TV movie. The story's more or less the same, and it features just about as many characters as Maximum Overdrive. But while there are ostensibly too many characters in King's film, they're at least cartoonish enough to engage our attention span for the hour and a half we have to spend with them. In the case of Trucks, everyone is just so boringly cut from the character trope cloth—the brooding teen, the doting teen, the grieving widower, the formerly-abused-woman-trying-to-make-a-new-life-in-her-old-hometown-and-doing pretty-okay-until-all-the-horror-goes-down, the conspiracy-theorizing hippie, etc. Moreover, all these characters have BACKSTORIES! that guide every decision they make, but which are ultimately just pointless, given the film attempts to recreate King's bleak ending (for instance, the grieving widower, played by Timmothy Busfield, won't let his doting teen son out of his sight because his wife was killed in Detroit and he moved his son out to the middle of nowhere to be safe, but he has to learn to let his son run free and I'm nodding off now, how about you?).
Also, there are like five different attempts to explain how the trucks got all smarty-pants on humanity (Was it a gas cloud, aliens, the government?), all of which are handily delivered to the characters and the audience by a TV set in the diner that, I shit you not, magically switches itself on and tunes in to a news reporter who just happens to be talking about the very thing the characters "need" to know at that particular time, then switches itself off when the exposition is no longer "needed" (which, of course, was never needed in the first place).
There are a few comically gory scenes that seem to have been added in after the fact, likely for the unrated home rental version, and while you laugh your ass off at a tiny toy truck pummeling a mailman to death (yeah, a toy truck, because that makes sense), it isn't enough to escalate the film into Maximum Overdrive's ridiculously campy echelon. If you have someone you trust around to watch it with, it makes the viewing experience that much better—my wife and I had a pretty good time making fun of it—but you'll still wish you had your time back by the end of it.
Overall, just steer clear. I watched it for you and it was a snooze fest. You're welcome.
Just watch the toy truck/mailman scene. It's worthwhile:
Any fans of Maximum Overdrive out there? Have you read King's original story as well? What are your thoughts on the source material vs. what King did with it? Have you seen Trucks? I feel your pain.
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