Wednesday 26 October 2011

Nightmares and Dreamscapes - Battleground (2006)


Original Transmission Date: 12/06/2006

The Stephen King short story Battleground remains one of my favourite pieces from the worlds leading writer of dark fiction. I first read it at the age of fifteen and its ingenious narrative and rapier sharp construction left a lasting impression on me. It was first published in the September 1972 edition of Cavalier, and then in the wake of the tremendous success of Carrie (1974) Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Shining (1977) was anthologised in King’s first collection of short stories Night Shift (1978). For my money this still remains King’s most original and consistent collection of tales. The decision to include Battleground as a part of TNT’s anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes left me both excited and worried. In the past television’s treatment of King’s works had gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. The first mini-series to be based on his work was Salem’s Lot, which aired in November 1979. In many ways this was as good as it got. Since Tobe Hooper’s memorable and chilling effort, small screen adaptations of King have struggled to live up to this early benchmark. Amongst the very worst of King’s mini-series adaptations include such abominated trash as The Tommyknockers (1993), The Langoliers (1995) and Rose Red (2002). The made for television movie hasn’t fared much better with stinking offal such as Sometimes They Come Back (1991), Trucks (2000), and Desperation (2006). How would the first anthology series based on King’s work fare?

The decision to make Battleground the curtain raiser for this short lived 2006 series would be unsurprising for anyone who has watched it. Battleground is a quantum leap ahead of the other seven episodes. With perhaps only The Road Virus Heads North offering serious competition. The narrative is anchored by a convincing and impressive display from William Hurt who plays the mysterious hitman Jason Renshaw. The teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson is not interested in indulging with back story or in petty moralising, but simply recounting the action and events of an unlikely fight for survival. The assassination of toy manufacturer Hans Morris (Bruce Spence) in downtown Dallas raises questions the teleplay deftly avoids. We never discover why an inventor of toys would be a target of a hitman, but the facial expression of Morris before he meets his maker suggests he might do. Renshaw’s efficiency in elimination is imposingly conveyed, and for the briefest moments as he looks upon Morris’ toys we think his cold heart might be thawing…the reality is that he collects mementos from each kill, and is merely mulling over which one to take! A shot later in the film shows his trophy cabinet full of items, suggesting that Morris is one of perhaps thirty to have lost their lives at Renshaw’s trigger finger.

Renshaw is humourless and unapproachable, a man of habit and precision. The sleek minimalism of his high rise penthouse apartment in San Francisco a testament to this. He is unusually dependant on technology, and his living space is a tribute to modern technological convenience - he even has an indoor pool! It is also an illustration of his outstanding success and reliability in the occupation of murder. But another profession that specialises in dishing out death is the army. Even toy soldiers are gifted in this area as he soon discovers. How Renshaw is identified as the killer of Hans Morris and so easily located is never explained, and while this may be a narrative weakness, it can be forgiven due to the incursion of the supernatural. Hints are dropped about the relationship between Morris and his mother, who is the chief provider of ideas, and clearly has a productive relationship with supernatural forces. To Renshaw’s credit he gets over the shock at being faced by a platoon of animated toy soldiers very rapidly, but this may well have something to do with pinprick bullets peppering his skin, and the missiles fired by several helicopters. What follows is a tremendous battle of wits, a generous wedge of well constructed suspense, and a type of pure visual storytelling that completely eschews dialogue.

That Battleground contains no dialogue at all is an interesting innovation that allows the story to flow without any kind of distraction. This gives the episode a style and feel that is exceedingly uncommon in television. It works very well with the cinematography of John Stokes, which makes use of muted colours; an ambience of coldness and alienation is created that offsets the absurdity of the central premise. One never questions the setting, despite the fact that Battleground was shot in Melbourne, Australia, so the filmmakers deserve credit for maintaining the illusion throughout. One of the best sequences is a queasy moment which involves Renshaw having to negotiate the ledge outside his apartment, a moment which offers a distant echo to one of the more sadistic stories in Cat’s Eye (1985). The only aspect of the show which isn’t lifted from the short story is Renshaw’s brutal encounter in an elevator, with a soldier looking suspiciously like John Rambo. A fine addendum to the source material, which ends with a typically cruel twist. In conclusion one would have to say Battleground is easily one of Stephen King’s best moments on the small screen. It offered an impressive start to Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which it was never likely to maintain.

© Shaun Anderson 2011

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