The chances of your writing being adapted for the screen increase greatly when you are an author as prolific as Stephen King. His works have been adapted for not only the big screen but for television (as series, mini-series, and made for television films) and as stage productions. When I say “Stephen King adaptation,” works like The Shining, It, Carrie, and Shawshank Redemption probably come to mind. But because so many of his works have been adapted, there are just as many that rarely get discussed, or only get mentioned on “Worst of” lists. In this edition of “In Defense of,” I am defending one of those adaptations that is not just generally hated, it is hated by its own director, who just happens to be Stephen King. So let’s rev our engines and prepare to learn the reasons why Maximum Overdrive deserves a second look.
It Improves on the Short Story
I love that King allows his audience to fill in a lot of descriptive details. We might know a character has acne, or is overweight, or has stringy hair, but many of the details are left up to the reader, so that there are multiple versions of Andy Dufresne and Carrie White and Jack Torrance all floating around in the imaginations of King’s Constant Readers. But after reading “Trucks,” the short story that Maximum Overdrive is based on, I found myself hoping for more description. The story is lean, which is not a bad thing, but when I have a small group of characters stuck at a truck stop and forced to pump gas for the rest of their lives, I want more connection with them. I don’t feel connected to any of them when reading “Trucks.”
But I do feel connected to the colorful characters in Maximum Overdrive. Above all else, I think what “Trucks” is missing is Yeardley Smith. Her role as Connie, a young newlywed forced to take refuge at the Stop, is my favorite. I was hoping there would be an equivalent in the short story (which I only just recently read), but there isn’t. There is definitely a character I think inspired Connie, but there is no Connie, at least not a character as memorable as Smith’s portrayal of Connie.
The characters in the story that are most developed are the trucks, which I can assume was one of King’s main points. These trucks are not just vehicles run amok. They have come to life, are beings just as much as those confined within the Truck Stop, yet perhaps even more so, as they are clearly in charge. Sometimes seeing the monster ruins or weakens a film. It is often what lurks in the shadows, what is only mentioned, that draws the biggest chills. In the case of Maximum Overdrive, though, seeing the trucks adds another level of personality to them. This is illustrated most clearly by the “Happy Toyz” truck. Its evil goblin face appears to mock the captives, though it never actually changes expression during the film.
The other improvement is the all-out electronic war shown in the film. In “Trucks,” the protagonist is concerned when he hears that a bus also seemed to go on a killing spree, and when a bulldozer and a pickup join the tractor trailers in holding the truck stop patrons captive. In Maximum Overdrive it seems that almost anything that is a machine can and will try to kill, which amps up the tension and most definitely brings me to my next point.
It has a Killer Opening
The opening sequence is one of my favorite of any horror movie openings. It sets up the film by showing us just how chaotic things can be when there are major mechanical malfunctions everywhere. Of course, these malfunctions aren’t just run-of-the-mill shut downs. Some of the issues are comical, but most of the mechanical issues have potential to result in major carnage. One of the first hints at something awry is a bank sign that replaces the temperature with a large “FUCK YOU.” At the same bank is an ATM that bears the message “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.” And of course the mystified “asshole” is Stephen King. Things get much more serious when a moveable bridge lifts up at the wrong time, sending passengers and produce flying and showing some of the earliest deaths in the film. But the great opening doesn’t stop once the credits finish rolling.
My favorite parts of the establishing scenes are when we follow Deke to the truck stop. His coach is clobbered by flying soda cans (which manages to be both comical and frightening) and a teammate is flattened by a steamroller (which was unfortunately edited from the original vision, so instead of a gruesome death scene the steamroller leaves no blood anywhere after it rolls over the victim). Deke rides his bike away from the bizarre occurrences, only to find that there is a path of death and destruction all around him. It is through Deke’s journey to the stop that we see just how widespread the problem is.
Not since Simon and Garfunkel and The Graduate has a better group and movie soundtrack/score pairing existed. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good orchestral (or at least instrumental) horror score, but not every film needs one. Some films are scarier with a lack of music and some just need a good dose of classic rock (though perhaps at the time AC/DC music wasn’t yet classified as such). My love for the opening scene would probably not be the same if one of these other musical options had been used. Not only does the music just seem right for the film, but the opening number “Who Made Who” is the perfect theme for the entire film. Other great AC/DC tunes like “Hells Bells,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” make for a great soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive and make many of the scenes that much more memorable.
Though Stephen King might have been under the influence through filming, and there is an unnecessary tacked on explanation of the strange phenomenon, both of which might be some of the film’s more talked about points, Maximum Overdrive is far from the worst King adaptation, and if you watch it or give it a second chance, you might just find that it is an incredibly entertaining horror film that deserves more credit than it gets.