While Stephen King is often remembered as the king of scares, the master’s horror books are anchored in deeply emotional human relationships. From classics like Carrie to new successes like Outsider, King’s most beloved stories chill us to the bones because they deal with real trauma, social exclusion, and loneliness. The nightmarish images King evokes wouldn’t hit us so hard if they were not manifestations of real demons that hunt us all every day. With Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, King puts horror on the back burner to tell a coming-of-age story about morality and friendship. There are still supernatural elements sprinkled all over Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, but the novel is more concerned with the interior universe of its protagonist, Craig, than with ghost stories.
The very nature of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone imposes some serious challenges for a movie adaptation. While Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is a memorable story that forces us to confront the ugly things we sometimes wish for other people, the novella is a slow burner with no significant payoff. As such, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is not exactly cinematic, specifically for viewers looking for a new spooky experience. While there’s enough dread in Craig’s story, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone still leans more heavily into drama than horror. And it’s precisely in this somewhat uncomfortable position that Netflix’s adaptation of the novella stands. That’s because Netflix’s movie is a faithful adaptation of the original work, with all its limitations. And while writer and director John Lee Hancock is an experienced filmmaker, we can’t help but feel that some of the magic got lost in the translation from written text to film.
Netflix’s Mr. Harrigan’s Phone stars Jaeden Martell as Craig, a kid who gets hired by the reclusive billionaire Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland) to read books out loud to him three times per week. In his old age, Mr. Harrigan cannot trust his eyes for reading anymore, which leads him to employ Craig under his service. Martell, already a horror expert after It and The Lodge, knows how to bring a teenager to life, with all the confusion and ambition that surround us all at an early age. As for Sutherland, his version of Mr. Harrigan is the perfect portrait of a cut-throat capitalist, a man who doesn’t hesitate even for a second to destroy other people if that gets him what he wants. For almost one hour, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone explores the bond between these two characters and how an unlikely friendship is born from their fateful meeting.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is at its peak when it lets its cast flex their dramatic muscles to create a touching story of found family. Besides that, once the titular phone is introduced and Craig begins to teach Mr. Harrigan about the wonder of the modern world, the movie is also highly successful in unraveling the complex relationships we forge with technology. While smartphones are wondrous tools of communication that literally put the world in the palm of our hands, they also tend to absorb our attention and alienate us from the outside world. Moreover, smartphones are symbols of status capable of recreating the rules of social interaction, especially for teenagers entering high school. Finally, as a somewhat period piece set in the early 2000s, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is also a curious study of a time not so long ago when smartphones were not yet essential everyday tools.
While it’s fascinating to watch Mr. Harrigan’s Phone as a drama about generation differences, things get a little messier when the supernatural outlines of King’s story start to show up in the movie. As promised by every marketing piece for Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, Mr. Harrigan will die at some point, and Craig will keep somewhat connected with his old friend’s ghost through their smartphones. However, this connection doesn’t take the spotlight, as Mr. Harrigan’s Phone remains a coming-of-age story even when spirits cross into the living world. And that’s when the by-the-books approach of Netflix’s adaptation fails to capture the tension of King’s novel.
When Craig first suspects Mr. Harrigan might still be around, the supernatural elements are underplayed as a series of coincidences. It takes a tragedy for Craig to reach out to his old friend, with dire consequences for the living. Nonetheless, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is originally a meditation on growing up with the weight of death hanging over your head and about how dark thoughts could have horrible repercussions if we ever had the power to make them a reality. But these reflections just work better in a book than in a movie because a story based on internal turmoil does not translate so well into images. So, once Mr. Harrigan gets out of the picture and Craig loses his partner, keeping the story going without hiccups is challenging, even for an actor such as Martell. That’s aggravated by how the supernatural promise gets in the way of the audience enjoying the coming-of-age story, especially because Mr. Harrigan’s Phone will never become as scary as horror-fiends hope.
Despite its flaws, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone remains a careful adaptation of one of King’s most touching stories to date. And while there are not many frights in this horror movie, it remains a solid entry of Netflix’s enviable collection of King’s adaptations. Even if a less faithful adaptation could make the story fit best the film format, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is still worth a watch for those willing to ponder mortality, morality, and how there’s no absolute good or evil.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone debuts on Netflix on October 5. Check out the movie’s trailer below: