I try to stay away from “the book was better” debates. Luckily, George Romero's The Dark Half doesn’t force us to say the book is better. The book isn’t better, but the movie isn’t either.
Don’t get me wrong. The Dark Half is a solid Stephen King adaptation, maybe right in the middle of the rankings. But it has some of the same flaws as Stephen King's novel, mainly that the core concept of duality is more powerful than the ways that King, and then Romero, try to tell that story.
The Dark Half is reminiscent of other King works, yet it goes deeper into one of his more fascinating offshoots: the pseudonymous Richard Bachman books. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is an author of literary fiction (I was disappointed the name is pronounced “Thad” and not “Tad”) who has been secretly writing grimy, sadistic pulp under the pen name George Stark. When a scumbag threatens to “unmask” him, Beaumont decides with his wife (Amy Madigan) to “kill off” Stark instead. They do a cheesy People magazine piece announcing Hutton is the writer behind Stark, with a fake tombstone and everything. But then George Stark appears in the flesh and starts murdering everyone associated with the People story. The police (Michael Rooker as Castle Rock Sheriff Pangborn) suspect Hutton, because his fingerprints are at every crime scene because he and George Stark are the same person even though Stark isn’t real. Doppleganger Doppledanger ensues.
George Stark isn’t helping. In the book, Stark is completely physically dissimilar from Thad Beaumont. He’s this huge, ferocious bear of a man. For the movie - and in 1992, before CGI might have helped the cause - they cast Timothy Hutton as both. Hutton’s not bad as Stark, exactly. He’s just not physically threatening. So it just feels like this nice, if intense, guy play-acting the villain.
The other thing is the sparrows. The book makes great use of huge flocks of sparrows as unsettling sideshow to Thad Beaumont’s “Dark Half”, the twin he absorbed in the womb who later manifests as George Stark in Beaumont’s mind when he writes a “George Stark” novel, and then as a person. But in the movie it just felt like an extraneous detail. Sure, lots of birds is scary. In a movie about scary birds. In this movie, I think the duality of the character is what you've got to focus on. I feel like a hack studio executive, but my note is, “too many birds!”
I’m thinking through George Romero’s career, and The Dark Half has to got to be pretty much his biggest commercial opportunity. He’s adapting a bestselling novel from the most popular writer of the time for a major studio. If it had been more successful, who knows what other Romero movies we could have had? The Dark Half is fine, particularly for fans of Romero or King, but there’s much better of both.