People might think stoicism in the face of hardship is admirable. Even honorable. Be that as it may, asking for help from time to time is good, too. After all, that’s why we have communities. We seek out others for not only companionship but for guidance when the going gets tough. In those especially trying moments of our lives, knowing you have someone’s support is priceless.
For the coastal town of Little Tall Island, however, that obliging sense of community is put to the test during a terrible blizzard in 1990. A number of residents fled to the mainland for shelter while others remained, hoping to brave the weather. The biggest concern so far is the potential loss of power. That is until an unknown visitor arrives unexpectedly. As most of the town is hunkering down at a local church, stragglers are confronted by the cryptic stranger named André Linoge (Colm Feore). He murders a local woman before he’s seized by Little Tall Island’s constable Michael Anderson (Tim Daly). As everyone scrambles to understand what’s happening amid the inclement weather, Linoge puts his master plan into motion. For he knows everyone’s deep, dark secrets. And what he aims to do next will make the Storm of the Century pale in comparison.
The miniseries was almost abandoned at ABC after 1988’s War and Remembrance, a sequel to the highly successful The Winds of War. The network ended up losing between thirty and forty million dollars on the project. So it was no wonder ABC was gun-shy about reviving the format. With the works of renowned author Stephen King doing so well on the big screen, ABC took a chance and adapted his novel It. Someone might deem going from theater to television is a backward move, but King actually prefers the miniseries route.
The two-night event in 1990 was both a critical and ratings success. This favorable outcome led to two more ABC miniseries based on King’s works — The Stand and a new version of The Shining. The former was a bonafide hit, whereas the more faithful adaptation of The Shining was widely dismissed as inferior to Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation.
“Made-for-TV movies have always had a bad rep […but] thanks to big budgets and special effects, the sky was the limit when it came to thinking outside the box.”
Inconsistent results notwithstanding, ABC continued to do business with Stephen King. Their next collaboration wasn’t based on an existing book or short, though. Storm of the Century was instead completely original and made exclusively for television. This wasn’t the first time the author had skipped the novel phase either; Mick Garris’ Sleepwalkers was made from an original King screenplay, too. Yet before filming on the new miniseries could commence, they needed to find the right director. So in his daughter Naomi’s restaurant in Portland, Maine, King made a deal with Craig R. Baxley (Rose Red), whose past work was generally of the action genre. The timing was perfect as Baxley was fearing he was becoming pigeonholed as a director.
With $35 million to spend and ABC’s blessing, Baxley and his crew started shooting in the spring of 1998. This was after King began writing the screenplay in late 1996. In addition to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Stephen’s inspiration for Storm of the Century came from witnessing firsthand how people reacted to the icy weather in Boston. With snow being so integral to the story, the filming location needed to be a frosty, white wonderland. They ended up splitting their time between Canada (Toronto and Winnipeg) and Southwest Harbor, Maine. The destinations were all wintry, but lots of fake snow — a mix of digital, food matter, and shredded polyethylene — was still necessary if they wanted to live up to the miniseries’ title.
Saints & Sinners
Stephen King envisioned a large cast of characters — from daycare attendants and deputies to clergymen and storekeepers — who reflected small-town life. Originally, there was going to be sixty speaking roles in the miniseries, but they wound up having around seventy-five. As for who he wanted to play Constable Michael Anderson, King wanted a Gary Cooper type of actor. An everyday man who “didn’t have all the answers.”
The part of Michael eventually landed in the lap of a familiar face to television viewers. Funnily enough, Tim Daly had auditioned for a role in The Stand; his Wings co-star Steven Weber also appeared in both ABC’s The Shining and another King adaptation titled Desperation. The supporting cast was considerably large, but a few of the major players included Jeffrey DeMunn (The Mist) as the irksome Town Manager Robbie Beals, Casey Siemaszko (Stand by Me) as Michael‘s right-hand man Alton “Hatch” Hatcher, and Becky Ann Baker (Jacob’s Ladder) as the town’s moral center Ursula Godsoe.
The higher-ups thought of Anthony Hopkins and Michelle Pfeiffer when casting, but producer Stephen King knew no actor of their standing would ever work in a TV miniseries. At least not back then. Nonetheless, they still needed someone for the villain André Linoge. King had hoped for someone whose previous body of work wouldn’t distract audiences. The malevolent character found his way to a Canadian actor who fit the cloak just right. King had first seen Colm Feore in the network’s 1998 miniseries Creature. Although Feore didn’t have a lot of lines in the Peter Benchley adaptation, he proved to be ideal as the dastardly wizard who threatens Little Tall Island.
A Story Fit For The Big Screen
Made-for-TV movies have always had a bad rep. But once upon a time, television was an important destination for urgent social issues like bigotry, drug use, and sex crimes. Weighty topics simply didn’t get the attention they deserved on the silver screen. Then came the eighties and nineties when fantasy and horror entered the mainstream like never before. Thanks to big budgets and special effects, the sky was the limit when it came to thinking outside the box.
Of course the miniseries is both a different yet similar beast. Feature films and TV-movies have comparable restrictions — namely content and production quality — but telling a story in a predetermined amount of episodes has its advantages. Stephen King intended for Storm of the Century to be a “novel for television.” No doubt there was some wariness over his ambition; King argued that in place of chapters, you have commercial breaks. And if you wanted to get people to come back after all those ads, you needed to make sure there was something worth coming back to.
“King’s miniseries are still the purest representations of his writing that we will ever experience on or off the tube.”
A benefit of an original miniseries was that there was nothing to compare it to. Meaning King was in charge of the only version of Storm of the Century available then and now. He wouldn’t have to deal with the rigmarole that comes with translating text to motion picture. Sure, King had to fight the censors on trivial matters like language. For instance, the line “This is gonna be one bad mother of a storm” was nearly cut because they found the use of the word “mother” to be too suggestive. Nevertheless, King’s miniseries’ are still the purest representations of his writing that we will ever experience on or off the tube.
Clocking a running time of four and a half hours, Storm of the Century has a luxury other King adaptations do not. There’s attention to pacing along with an understanding of what makes the characters tick. We get a real sense of what it’s like to live among these people. So never throughout the miniseries do we feel like small-town life is seized by plot-driven action. Baxley supplements King’s script with sustained, fretful silences that are just as significant as the scenes with dialogue.
It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn
Stephen King’s work can succumb to a level of iniquity that’s as shocking as it is resonating. To this day, some of his most disturbing writing has never been fashioned for film or television. Storm of the Century could only be as heinous as ABC allowed it to be, but that’s not to say the miniseries isn’t unsettling from time to time. The limitations of TV standards simply forced King and Baxley to get creative with how they conveyed dark themes.
One example is a startling scene between young lovebirds Kat (Julianne Nicholson) and Billy (Jeremy Jordan). Using his unfathomable ability to know and share everyone’s most intimate secrets, Linoge divulges to all that Kat had an abortion without telling Billy. The couple then engages in an unequivocally sad argument about that revelation. It goes on longer than necessary. On the other hand, that’s precisely why it stays with us.
“[Director Craig R.] Baxley supplements King’s script with sustained, fretful silences that are just as significant as the scenes with dialogue.”
Another moment that stands out is one that Debrah Farentino (Cellar Dweller) wanted the director to cut altogether because she found it to be excessive. In what could have been a throwaway exchange if it had been delivered another way, Farentino’s character tells her upstanding husband Michael to take the law into his own hands and kill Linoge. It seems tenuous on the surface; digging deeper, it’s provocative. Michael‘s wife Molly takes care of children for a living. And here she is, telling her righteous husband to commit a grievous crime. Her attempt to dissolve Michael‘s innate goodness is later contradicted in a telling instance; Molly‘s sudden obligation to take the moral high ground puts their son in immediate peril. King’s way with character development is again absolutely unrivaled when he’s at the helm.
Relating to the denouement, it’s a shame the conclusion of Storm of the Century isn’t spoken of with more frequency. The story echoes King’s other works that deal head-on with loss, but it diverges when it comes to how said loss is achieved. In the past, King’s younger protagonists learn just how ephemeral childhood is. Parents are robbed of their progeny by way of natural horrors, otherworldly monsters, and unspeakable acts carried out by humans. In Storm of the Century, however, the characters consciously surrender their own adulthood — they’re faced with the possibility of never seeing their children grow up. The parents affected finally make the biggest mistakes of their lives in a harrowing, no-win gamble. As always, King knows exactly how to toy with one’s emotions before utterly leaving you devastated.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Stephen King outdid himself when conceiving the nefarious André Linoge. Like all other tall, dark strangers who appear out of nowhere in a vulnerable community, the villain of Storm of the Century is oracular. We don’t even know what his repeated message of “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” means until the last act. After the fact, we’re still puzzled. In the meantime, he menaces the townsfolk by exposing their sins and influencing their inevitable corruption.
There’s only one instance of murder at the hands of Linoge in the story, and it’s done off screen. But his ability to kill isn’t what makes Linoge so terrifying. It’s really because he’s figured us out; he knows what we hide and how to dismantle all that we hold dear. He knows how much children matter. Which is why his ultimate demand is so horrifying when one remembers that like goodness, evil can be passed on.
“As always, King knows exactly how to toy with one’s emotions before utterly leaving you devastated.”
André Linoge wouldn’t be as successful as he was without the adroitness of Colm Feore. He could be written off as a Hannibal Lecter caricature, but Feore’s performance is more fine-drawn than that. He’s commanding. He’s unnerving. And believe it or not, he’s charismatic. One wouldn’t be so upset by Linoge if they weren’t so drawn to his portrayal.
As Storm of the Century‘s moral compass, Michael Anderson provides a voice for the viewers. On top of being the antithesis of Linoge and everything he stands for, Michael is the painful reminder that good rarely wins. Tim Daly’s trademark charm tapers off as his character’s predicament becomes increasingly dire. His conviction as Michael makes him the quintessential contrast to Feore’s Linoge. Together, they are the heaviest anchors in this heart-rending story set on a cold winter night.
Stephen King wrote Storm of the Century under the impression it wouldn’t be picked up. He assumed it would be too expensive to make, and above all, no network would want something that ends so dourly. So to his surprise, his saga of good versus evil entwined with a parable about making a grave sacrifice was adapted as faithfully as possible. King’s imagination is uncompromised; Baxter handles the script with the utmost care and attention.
It’s plainly obvious this miniseries was a passion project for everyone involved. But is it one of King’s best? Debatably not as it lacks the imagery and brio of his classics. Just the same, Storm of the Century is one of his more compelling works because of its unconventionality. It’s twisted without being depraved; it’s bold without any sort of inflation. Storm of the Century dares to challenge our notion of what’s right and wrong all the while pulling at the loose strings that hold communities together.
Now, if you’re looking for a story that will chill you to the bone, then hop a ferry to Little Tall Island. The sharp and unforgiving wind will guide you to one of Stephen King’s most underrated fables ever to see the cold light of day.