A decent enough King adaptation
Before we had smartphones, life was incredibly dull. We had no way to document what we had just had for dinner, we had nothing to look at when sitting at the back of a bus, and we had no way to understand our friends’ most innermost thoughts. These were dark times indeed!
I’m being sarcastic, of course. While smartphones can be a useful addition to our lives, they can also be a menace. They can distract us from the beauty of the world around us, cause us to waste time when we should be doing something more productive, and they can give us a false sense of self-worth when we rely on social media for approval.
Phone addiction is a real thing and it’s something we need to face up to. Author Stephen King already warned us about the dangers of smartphone dependency in his 2006 novel Cell (and the subsequent movie) and in his short story, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, which was published in the anthology If It Bleeds; he further warned us about the dangers of our miniature screens.
John Lee Hancock’s adaptation of that story, currently streaming on Netflix, attempts to demonstrate King’s themes. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, for example, we are introduced to a high school cafeteria where the students are segregated not by their social standing or personal interests but by their phones. In one corner of the room sit the Samsung kids, while in another area of the hall sit the iPhone owners, and there are several other phone-related groups, with each student sitting glued to their screens instead of having actual face time with the people situated around them.
One student is Craig (Jaeden Martell), who begins his first few weeks at high school without a phone. He feels as if he is missing out as a consequence but when he is later given an iPhone as a Christmas present by his widowed dad, he starts to wish he had never been given such a device in the first place. This isn’t because he succumbs to phone addiction or online bullying but because the elderly gentleman that he befriended several years earlier – and kindly gifted a phone to – starts to send him messages.
These texts would appear to be quite harmless but as Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), the gentleman in question, is now dead, Craig’s life is upended when he realises the deceased fellow is communicating with him from beyond the grave. Not only that, but the ghost of Harrigan (or whatever he has now become) is also wreaking vengeance on the people that have upset Craig.
How is Harrigan doing this? Well, the movie doesn’t really explore this aspect of the plot. This might be disappointing if you’re expecting a fully-fleshed-out ghost story as director Hancock has given us a movie that is quite abstract in nature, with a bigger focus on Craig’s bond with Harrigan and subsequent grief than out-and-out horror.
As such, this isn’t a movie laced with bloody scenes of vengeful terror or jump scares to make us drop our phones in fright. While it does touch on the supernatural, the writers of the movie are more interested in themes of loneliness, friendship, and the evils of technology.
It doesn’t particularly matter that the film isn’t scary as this is more a character piece about a troubled young teen and his friendship with the elderly billionaire of the title. However, for a film that hinges on the premise that Harrigan can cause bad things to happen while lying six feet under, the film could have been a little more horrific. Horror fans are going to be disappointed with this one unless they lower their expectations in preparation for a movie that is far less gruesome than most King adaptations.
Martell, who is no stranger to the world of Stephen King after taking a lead role in It: Chapter 1, is perfectly believable as the sensitive young boy whose life takes a strange turn after his elderly friend dies. Sutherland gives a believable performance too as the crotchety old man who has a seemingly dark past – this is never fully explored – and who forms an unlikely bond with Craig after he hires the young lad to read for him. Together, the two actors do much to paper over the weaknesses in the script, such as the occasional plothole and lack of a decent resolution.
Despite the lack of any real horror, the movie still manages to engage throughout most of its runtime. This is partly because of Hancock’s atmospheric direction which draws us into the small-town world of Craig and his friends and partly because of the emotional screenplay that encourages sympathy for the bewildered teen. There are times when not a lot happens on screen but the performances help to maintain interest regardless, so the movie can rarely be considered boring
Mr Harrigan’s Phone isn’t the best Stephen King adaptation that you will ever see and it won’t ever be considered a classic. But it raises some interesting points about our reliance on technology, especially during a scene when Harrigan becomes alarmed at his own phone use, and it ‘feels’ like a Stephen King story even if it’s all rather bloodless.
I liked it and you might like it too, provided you can put down your phone for a while and immerse yourself in the mysterious events that take place on screen. You won’t have nightmares after watching but you might be inspired to read King’s original short story to see how it compares to Hancock’s surprisingly tender tale.
Read More: Mr Harrigan’s Phone Ending Explained
Verdict - 7/10