“The Lawnmower Man” Redefines the Term ‘Loosely Adapted’

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Note: This review is based on the Director’s Cut of the film.

As pointed out in the kick-off to this Filmmaker of the Month Series on The Spool, Stephen King adaptations are a wild bunch. Some are straight from King’s typewriter to the screen, others are recognizable outlines that transcend the books. Some King adaptations, however, aren’t even adaptations at all.

To talk about what the film Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man is, it’s important to set the record straight on what it isn’t. What this flick isn’t, specifically and legally, is a Stephen King adaptation.

Back in 1975, King published the short story The Lawnmower Man between the covers of Cavalier Magazine. Clocking in at roughly eight pages, the tale concerns a man named Harold who hires a lawn and garden service which is owned and operated by the pagan god Pan. Pan’s employee (a satyr) controls a lawnmower with his mind, rolls around the grass naked, and ultimately kills Harold for reasons which are largely unimportant. That’s it. That’s the story.

Fast-forward to the freewheeling nineties, Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema had a twinkle in their eye and the rights to a smattering of King’s lesser-known works. Enter director Brett Leonard and his writing partner Gimel Everett and their fresh take on the sensation sweeping the nation: Virtual Reality. 

The Lawnmower Man

Leonard and Everett pitch their script Cyber God to New Line who accept the premise with a few caveats: Call it Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man and somehow make that work within the existing screenplay. (Savvy readers might recognize a similar tactic with any Hellraiser entry past part four.)

The film Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man gives as an alternate-reality view of the early 1990s where Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is an employee of the undefined yet totally sinister for sinister’s sake Virtual Space Industries, running experiments involving neurotropic drugs, the absolutely real and not at all made up science of cyber-learning, and a Judge Dredd-armored murder chimpanzee. 

The goal of these experiments is to turn the chimp into a killing machine for the army because these maniacs want the chimps to blow everything up. The chimp escapes, kills a guard, and is hunted down and murdered by the worst marksmen on the planet at the shed of locally famous, developmentally disabled Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), our titular Lawnmower Man.

Larry finding himself without a chimp to turn into an army murder-machine sets his sights on Fahey’s Jobe. In the absolute creepiest of all possible ways Larry asserts that he has some fun games in his basement that will make Jobe smarter, but please don’t tell anyone what we’re doing down there. It’s a secret.

What this flick isn’t, specifically and legally, is a Stephen King adaptation.

This film is true 90’s thriller cyber-pulp through and through, for better or for worse. Ripped from the pages Flowers for Algernon, Fahey is the (unconfirmed) archetype for the Simple Jack subplot of Tropic Thunder, with a slight boyish charm outweighed by an inept and cartoonish portrayal of a developmentally disabled man. 

Bronson relishes every chance he has to swill scotch, smoke indoors, and give captain’s log-style monologues as his Frankenstein’s Algernon spirals out of control. 

We also meet a smattering of “hey, that guy!” character actors from decades past – Geoffrey Lewis as the owner/operator of the landscaping outfit employing Jobe drinks up every scene he’s in as a stereotypical Irish-accented alcoholic. Lewis’s brother, Jeremy Slate, is Jobe’s abusive Priest father figure who does not have an Irish accent, but is an absolute bastard of an asshole. 

Dean Norris appears in a few key scenes as the mysterious Director of VSI delivering his lines in a cadence that would make one think he’d just learned to speak out loud.

What shines now, exponentially more so than in 1992, is the production design and psychedelic CGI used to represent virtual reality. Much like how the machinery of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome grows creepier as the technology becomes more outdated and foreign to a modern audience, The Lawnmower Man’s visual style has taken on a new life as a distinct, virtual hell world controlled and manipulated by Fahey.

The scenes of CGI-bubbled carnage is both representative of the time and nightmarishly transcendent of the limited technology used by Angel Studios to give the VR scenes their signature look. Angel Studios would later perfect their 3D imaging and reemerge as Rockstar San Diego, a game studio responsible for such hits as Grand Theft Auto III and Red Dead Redemption.

Experimenting on Jobe, much like our dearly departed chimpanzee war machine, turns out to be a very bad idea. As Jobe becomes smarter he gains psychic abilities outside the VR training simulation which he uses to punish those who have wronged him and his friends. 

In addition to his real-world Carrie-esque powers, Jobe gains absolute control over the virtual worlds inside a ludicrous Vitruvian Man-style chamber that houses VSI’s VR cyberspace. This culminates in Fahey’s physical body hilariously withering away like a pouch in a Juicero and Jobe becoming a pure Cyber God.  

All of this, of course, is decidedly not centered around a naked Pan-employed satyr eating grass and killing a client.

King’s issues with Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining are well documented, but King didn’t quite have the clout or the bankroll in 1980 to really deal with the situation the way he may have liked. Taking New Line Cinema to court soon after the release, King and his lawyers claimed that due to the completely unrecognizable thrust of the story in the film, King’s name should be excised from the title, all subsequent marketing materials, and every copy of the newly released video cassettes.

Two different judges agreed. New Line Cinema did not.

King, suspicious that New Line had not followed through with their end of the legally binding barging, hired a team of private investigators who discovered copies of Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man across the country in stark violation of the lawsuit. 

A judge slapped New Line Cinema with contempt of court, diverting all film profits from May of 1993 to King himself, as well as fines of $10,000 a day until the offending VHS covers were changed. While no final sum has been disclosed, King has stated he was very happy with the outcome.

Legal proceedings aside, The Lawnmower Man contains all the hallmarks of a 90s thriller – gratuitous sex scenes both IRL and in VR, totalitarian guards who couldn’t shoot the broad side of a barn, strobe light-backed villain monologues, the aforementioned murder-chimp, and an unbelievably audacious final act. The Lawnmower Man is an ambitious not-quite failure that almost dared King to sue from moment one, but is still worth a watch if you love aged computer graphics and shlocky cheese.

But, hey, at least Jobe kills someone with a lawnmower.

The Lawnmower Man Trailer:

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