Why New Line is Adapting Stephen King's The Long Walk

Welcome back to Drunk on Writing, and the ninth episode of the Stephen King Dissection series. Or should I say, the second episode of the Richard Bachman series? Because today, we’re talking The Long Walk, a book I’d never really heard of before this year, but which is now, easily, my favorite Stephen King novel yet.

Yeah, you read right.

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The Book

You might be surprised to hear The Long Walk, despite being King’s seventh publication, was actually the first book he ever wrote. He apparently started it his freshman year at the University of Maine—that is, 1966 or so. And of course you know what else was going in 1966, something we’ve mentioned now the last few episodes?

The Vietnam War. Which, despite never being namedropped a single time in The Long Walk, has everything to do with the story.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself? Let’s start at the beginning.

As it says right there on the cover, The Long Walk is “a novel of chilling, macabre possibility” “in a future America” where “the marathon is the ultimate sports competition.

Which is true, given, as noted in the book, “over two billion dollars gets bet on the Long Walk every year.” So, what is the Long Walk?

Basically, on an annual basis, 100 boys—200 if you include the backups—sign up for this… long walk. They get no breaks, they can’t drop below four miles an hour, they only get what they can carry with them, a once-a-day restock of food that doesn’t sound appealing in the least, and all the water they can drink. They don’t even get bathroom breaks, just need to drop trow in the middle of the road.

Why would someone sign up for this? Well, we don’t ever really get to find out. We don’t get to know any of the boys’ motivations really, other than the fact there’s a prize at the end of the road: all your wishes fulfilled, whether it’s money, gold, schooling, help for a sick or dying family member, etc.

This why, though, is one of the main questions left for the reader after putting this book down. King even addresses it throughout the story. For instance, right when I started really wondering about why someone would sign up, there was this little line:

The whole Walk seemed nothing but one looming question mark. [Garraty] told himself that a thing like this must have some deep meaning. Surely it was so. A thing like this must provide an answer to every question….

But it doesn’t. We don’t get answers. Probably because they aren’t so simple, so cut and dry. Why would so many young men sign up for the Vietnam War? Why did we allow them to go to a whole other country most people here had probably never heard of before then to die?

Well, I had much the same line of questions about The Long Walk. After all, why would the government not just support a competition like this, but actually condone it? A competition in which 99 of the 100 young men who go into it are summarily executed?

That’s right, every loser, from number 100 to number 2 is killed. There’s only one winner. And as our main character, Garraty, points out as they’re discussing the potential pot of gold at the end of this path, "no doctor in the world could revive you with a transfusion of twenties or fifties."

Is it really worth it? Surely there’s got to be a better way? Again, we don’t get any answers.

And what’s so poignant about The Long Walk is that the finality of it is communicated almost from the get-go, but, especially now, today, there’s an expectation that it won’t go down like that. As a reader, I thought to myself, there’ll be a way out. There’ll be a revolution. More than one will live. These characters we’re getting to know, these young boys with their dreams and their loves and their fears, they’ll be ok, somehow.

But it doesn’t happen. This isn’t The Hunger Games. This isn’t Battle Royale. This is The Long Walk, and it plays into our expectations by doing exactly what it says it will: 99 boys die, one lives.

Or does he? How can you live after watching friends not just die, but kill themselves, walk themselves to death, shred their humanity, try in vain to break free, to give up, beg for their lives, beg for just a minute’s rest as you lose all track of time and reality?

These men, these boys, these kids, even if they win, they’re never going home again.

I think it’s safe to say you can see how this is an allegory for the Vietnam War.

And King does even more than that to drive home the similarities. It’s in the way he builds the camaraderie. The way he reminds us again and again, just like Lieutenant Dan did in Forrest Gump, that you’ve got to take care of your feet. The way King evokes the comforting feeling of huddling together in the dark, in the rain, in the ever-changing weather and endlessly surprising terrain to keep warm, to keep alive. The way he makes readers root for every character to help each other, to keep each other fighting, to break the rules to do it if they have to.

And, horribly, in the way the main characters deal with the conflict. Collectively, they go through the entire range of emotions, from isolation:

…because it doesn't matter if you pass the time of day with someone or not; in the end, you're alone.

To desperate fear:

"It's a fake," McVries said, his voice trembling. "There's no winner, no Prize. They take the last guy out behind a barn somewhere and shoot him too."

To questioning God:

"Why'd I have to get sick? I was going good, I really was. Odds on favorite. Even when I'm tired I like to walk. Look at folks, smell the air . . . why? Is it God? Did God do it to me?"

To simply wanting nothing more than to live and love again:

I love you, Jan, he thought. He wasn't dumb, and he knew she had become more to him than she actually was. She had turned into a life symbol. A shield against the sudden death that came from the halftrack.

To sheer defensive ferocity:

"'He won't last much longer,' a woman in the front row said quite audibly.
'Your tits won't last much longer!' Garraty snapped at her, and the crowd cheered him."

And back to loneliness:

Garraty felt a sticky dryness in his throat. The thing was, he wanted to be touched. Queer, not queer, that didn't seem to matter now that they were all busy dying.

But I think the best thing here is how deaths are handled. Some are more important than others, some are more graphic, more barbaric. But some pass under the radar, some—people the main character doesn’t really know for instance—if they pass, it’s a footnote or less. A statistic.

And I think because of this, while The Long Walk was especially written as a commentary on Vietnam, it also works as a microcosm commentary on life. Coming together, banding together in society not just for its betterment but for the betterment of ourselves, all while knowing full well we’re all here for ourselves, for our families, and, cynical as it may be, despite coming in and out of contact with friends, family, loved ones, in the end, we’re going out alone, we face death alone, even if we’re surrounded by it at all times.

And that sort of knowledge, it can hurt. As King wrote,

[It hurts] in the worst, rupturing way, knowing there would be no more you but the universe would roll on just the same, unharmed and unhampered.

It’s a bit fatalistic, and yes, seems to be just the sort of thing an 18 year old author would be thinking. Especially in the face of an unending war where thousands are dying or being otherwise destroyed to no avail.

…I really wish this didn’t still hold up as well as it does.

The Adaptations

There hasn’t been an adaptation of The Long Walk. Yet. So, why did I insert an Adaptations segment here? First, because one seems to be coming and second, because, well, there’s an actual long walk.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Frank Darabont—who you might remember did that short film based on Night Shift’s “The Woman in the Room,” but would also go on to direct The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist, all which we’ll talk about another time—he held the film rights for The Long Walk for years, but wasn’t ever able to get a movie off the ground.

But I guess the rights recently lapsed and just this past April, New Line Cinema announced they’re working with James Vanderbilt to bring the book to screen. No, not the guy from Dawson’s Creek. Vanderbilt has apparently produced a number of films, directed 2015’s Truth, which I never saw, but also has writing credits for The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel.

And Independence Day: Resurgence. So… yeah. We’ll see how this goes, if it ever does.

But there’s a different kind of adaptation, which I think probably thankfully, is something of a first for me: a real-life adaptation.

Marathon March, formerly Fotrally, was directly inspired by King’s novel and takes its name from an alternate title for The Long Walk. It’s an annual event started in 2009, when only 2 people participated, but this year, when the walk started on June 29, 248 had signed up.

Sadly, no one from the US—we’re a driving culture, I get it—but I got to root for one woman from Canada while I watched the live updates.

Go North America!

Sadly, she bowed out at 9 hours, 33 minutes. Which is still insane, but only 162nd place. This year’s winner,who was also the winner from last year, Richard Andersson, as well as the first runner-up, walked for 87 hours. Just over three and a half days. Not bad.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but Marathon March isn’t as cruel as the story. No one’s shot. No one has to squat on the road if they don’t want to. And they don’t have to go until they’re nothing but walking corpses. They get support every six hours, including food and beverages, and there’s a porta potty rolling along behind the racers—even though using them is limited to one minute per hour, distributed as each racer sees fit, and it is ok to go by the roadside. Yes, that’s in the rules.

You know, I thought about maybe trying it, but by the time I looked, the 2018 marathon was full.

…eh, who’m I kidding?

Closing Notes

I’ve read a number of books, fiction and non, about war—the effects of war, the costs of war, the causes of war. I even did a Dissection on one, The Monuments Men, last year, though very few people watched it. Great book. A lot of them are. But they rarely hit me, you know? I can take myself out of them, look on them like I’m watching from afar, this bystander to history.

But with The Long Walk, King really—well, put me in the character’s shoes. His run down shoes that don’t even exist by the end of the story. And it really shined a different light on the Vietnam war, made me really feel it, even if the story wasn’t even placed there, even if in the end it really had nothing to do with it.

That’s the power of great writing. And I hope, if and when we see an adaptation of this tale, it’s equally as powerful. Now, I will say, I don’t think it should reflect the Vietnam war. It should reflect something more current, perhaps something that still needs a light shined on it. I’ll stop there. Though I will note, in the next video, when we talk the next Stephen King book, The Dead Zone, oh we’re going there, believe me!

Next time: The Dead Zone!