2017’s been a good year for Stephen King fans. Not only have we seen the recent release of a film adaptation of The Dark Tower, widely considered King’s masterpiece, but shortly we’ll be experiencing what will surely be one of the more terrifying Stephen King adaptations: It, based on the 1986 horror novel of the same name. Between these, and the passing of legendary horror director George A. Romero in July, it seems prudent to discuss one of King’s more underrated works that didn’t quite make it to the big screen: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
Way back in 2005, production for the film adaptation of King’s 1999 novel ground to a halt. With Romero having penned the script and being attached to direct, this was a little-known, but still disappointing, blow to those that could see the potential. Rumours for casting included big names such as Dakota Fanning, as well as Jodie Foster. But unfortunately, the script for Tom Gordon was buried, and to this day remains on the back-burner – most likely permanently, as Romero is no longer with us to keep the project alive.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon differs in terms of tone from other Stephen King stories, which perhaps is what makes it so fascinating. With an overarching theme of man versus nature, and a 9-year-old girl as our protagonist, it doesn’t adhere to what we think of as King’s usual bag of terrifying tropes. It’s a lot more subtle than that. Dubbed a psychological horror novel, Tom Gordon follows the story of Trisha McFarland, who, while out walking with her mother and brother in the Appalachian forest in North America, leaves the path and finds herself completely and hopelessly lost in the woods. As she struggles to survive with the meagre food supplies her mother had packed for her, Trisha stumbles deeper and deeper into the woods, eventually succumbing to hallucinations and a deep-seated fear that she’s being followed by a terrifying “God of the Lost”. Trisha’s only reprieve and connection to the world is the radio she has with her, allowing her to imagine herself in the company of her favourite baseball player – Tom Gordon.
If that doesn’t sound like a great film, then nothing does.
With its themes of loneliness, isolation, and survival, one can certainly see why George “father of the zombie movie” Romero might have been drawn to the subject matter; and in fact why he’s been drawn to a lot of Stephen King stories. After all, who’s more isolated and keen to survive than someone living through a zombie apocalypse?
Back in 2005, when asked by Empire magazine about his adaptation of From a Buick 8 (another King novel), Romero stated, “There’s no ink on paper. I have no idea if that’s first, or if Tom Gordon’s first. It’s all about who writes the first cheque. I like ‘em, I wrote screenplays for both of ‘em and I’m very comfortable with where they sit right now. But it’s all about which one gets going first.”
It’s easy to see, with this in mind, why Tom Gordon never got off the ground despite the fact that it had a finished screenplay. Romero was notorious for penning any script he had a slight interest in, and then not doing anything with it. This wasn’t the first time that Romero has been attached to an unrealised project and, more specifically, a Stephen King adaptation – he was also attached to direct and pen films such as Pet Semetary and The Stand, which, with Romero’s reputation for satirical horror films and overarching social commentary, could only have been iconic.
However, much like many a talented director, it’s almost as if Romero had too many ideas and too little time. Again, this wasn’t the first time Romero and King had collaborated. Previously, they had worked together on Creepshow (1982), an anthology of tongue-in-cheek horror stories. From there they moved on to Tales from the Dark Side (1983) and The Dark Half (1993). However, all of these adaptations differ quite considerably from the subject matter of Tom Gordon. Could Romero pull off the intricacies of a psychological horror novel such as this?
The short answer is yes. Let’s remember that most of Stephen King’s stories are inherently about the battle between good and evil. The Dark Tower series, Cujo, even Carrie (where the struggle is both internal and external) are all examples of stories that follow this theme. And Tom Gordon is no different. Man versus nature, child versus imagined evil: the basic concepts that interweave Stephen King’s texts are clear, yet the characterisation is complex. The ending alone is incredibly ambiguous – does Trisha die? The past-tense title would suggest that she does, but there’s a school of thought that she survives, and merely drifts off to sleep. We’ll never really know for sure – maybe King himself doesn’t even know. But Romero’s previous films are a testament to the fact that this was definitely not outside his scope as a director. After all, the best zombie films are about the ultimate battle between good and evil, while still maintaining the complexity that the antagonists (the zombies) are also the victims. Add to this the scathing satire that interjects his films, and there’s no doubt that Romero would have made something fantastic out of the source text.
But why, then, didn’t the film get made? For starters, the novel of Tom Gordon largely follows the story of Trisha, with just a few flashes of her parents struggle to find her. While it’s written in the third person, it’s essentially an internal monologue, something that would be incredibly difficult to translate to film. Romero likely would have fleshed out the role of her parents to keep the film engaging – but they’re not who the story is about. Romero himself summed up his thoughts on the matter in an interview with The Telegraph back in 2013, when he stated that “if you try to do the book faithfully, there’s no room for adults. And so, there’s no star that you can sell. And so, you can’t spend that much money, unless Ang Lee wanted to do it. Tom Gordon is just as ‘unmakeable’ by Hollywood standards as Life of Pi.”
Ultimately then, this one sounds like just a sad case of studio wariness denying us an interesting piece of work. After all, if Lee could pull off Life of Pi, there’s no reason – with a little injection of cash – that Romero couldn’t have delivered his own weird masterpiece with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.