I know that Stephen King is pretty much considered a god in the literary world, but I’ve never been that big a fan. Growing up, I could never quite figure out why that was—I don’t like horror, but with the exception of It, none of his works ever truly scared me. Instead, they were the perfect amount of macabre and creepy that I normally enjoy. The Stand, The Secret Window, and even The Langoliers were all things I loved—they had fun adventures, interesting premises, and neat twists to keep me engaged. I read and watched all three of these, and loved them at the time. But none of his stories truly stuck with me after experiencing them—and the more I thought about it, the more I hated the narratives and the characters.
I think the biggest problem with these works is that they ended up using tropes that really didn’t age well over time. This is especially true for 1995’s The Langoliers—the story has a fascinating premise, but the characters are all walking stereotypes, the worldbuilding is almost non-existent, and the more I thought about the plot, the less it made sense.
The Langoliers originally appeared in Stephen King’s 1990 collection of novellas Four past Midnight, and was later turned into a film in 1995—and with all the time travel stories I’ve been engaging with recently, I found myself thinking about this old fave from a while ago. I do remember that the movie (a two-part miniseries) is almost entirely accurate to the novella, which I was pleasantly surprised by in my youth. Unfortunately, it was rewatching the movie that really put into perspective how bad the story actually is.
The plot of the movie goes as follows: ten people wake up on a commercial airliner only to find that all the other passengers have mysteriously disappeared. They manage to make an emergency landing at an airport in Maine—because where else would they land in a Stephen King story?—that’s abandoned despite its well-kept appearance. It turns out that their plane managed to get sent back in time midflight, and anyone who was awake when passing through the time portal thing was killed. Things in the not-too-distant past are quite awful too—the food is stale, the gasoline they need to refuel the plane might not actually work, and there are a bunch of monsters called langoliers that eat everything. The characters do manage to escape the langoliers and wind up about ten minutes into the future, where they conveniently wait for the present to catch up with them and the day is saved—I have no idea how any of this works at all, even though I’ve spent literally years thinking about it. Kingdom Hearts makes more sense. Why do you need to be asleep in order to time travel? Why do the characters know what the langoliers are and why are they so quickly able to figure out what is happening, despite experiencing something no one else has ever experienced before? And probably most confusing of all, how exactly does the present catch up to the future?
None of these questions are answered, and while these problems are enough to ruin a story, what really kills it for me are the characters. Two characters in particular stand out. We’ve got Dinah, a young blind girl who has psychic powers for no explained reason at all. Then there’s Craig Toomey, a mentally unstable man suffering from what is clearly a severe case of OCD, only made worse by childhood abuse. Naturally, he is the asshole villain character.
What I’m trying to say here is that The Langoliers is really ableist.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having a neuroatypical villain or a disabled protagonist with powers. When written well, these characters can be very interesting and be great representation. The problem with The Langoliers is how it others both Dinah and Craig and what role their disabilities play in the story. Let’s start with Craig—he has problems getting along with the other survivors, has a nervous breakdown, spends a good portion of the story shredding paper into tiny strips in order to calm down, stabs Dinah, and then is tricked into being bait for the langoliers to eat. And they eat him slowly, from the legs up. Craig is over and over again reduced to his illness, and then villainized and punished for it. I understand that there are mentally ill people who use their illness as an excuse to be assholes, but constantly presenting us as horrible people because we’re mentally ill is not accurate to reality. We are ill, not inherently evil, yet this type of portrayal over and over again normalizes a belief that we are dangerous. I wouldn’t have minded Craig’s portrayal, or even Dinah’s for that matter, had the story gone about them differently.
Compare Craig to someone like Wilson Fisk from the first season of Daredevil. Fisk is the main antagonist, and though Daredevil never specifically tells us that he is autistic or obsessive-compulsive, the narrative most definitely takes the time to call attention to the fact that he is neuroatypical. We see how this informs his character and affects how he interacts with other people, but never does the story use Fisk’s mental state as a reason to villainize him. Instead, it does the opposite and attempts to humanize him by showing us how he struggles in social interactions. This was one of the reasons Fisk was such a good villain—he was sympathetic and relatable, and we could see where he was coming from while still recognizing why he was in the wrong. That’s literally all a story has to do to avoid being ableist with a mentally ill villain—villainize the character without othering them for their illness. Instead, we’ve got Craig, who is such a walking offensive stereotype that I actually felt embarrassed for the story.
Dinah’s character is sadly not that much better. While she’s thankfully not villainized, she is presented as a paragon of virtue, and her psychic abilities due to her blindness set her apart from all the other characters as well. Like Craig, she’s othered, albeit for different reasons. I certainly don’t mind disabled heroes—Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a particular favorite of mine—but the difference between someone like Toph and Dinah is that Toph’s blindness is not the cause of her special earthbending powers. Rather, they simply change the way she interacts with the world, which in turn affects her earthbending. This allows her character to be a lot more complex and believable—she’s not special because she’s blind. Instead, she’s learned to work with her blindness in order to succeed. Unfortunately, Dinah is just a psychic who happens to be blind. We’re not even given a reason why she has these powers, and are only left to conclude that her disability is their cause. She’s just special. In this way, she is presented as “different” for the sake of being different. It does not matter that the story hails her as a hero—it others her for it as well. As a result, Dinah is first and foremost a plot device long before she is a character with a developed personality. And the lack of backstory we get for her certainly doesn’t help.
Looking back, The Langoliers is a hilariously bad story at best and an insultingly awful story at worst. Stephen King has produced a lot of well-written works in his time, and this is sadly not one of them. The story relies too much on annoying clichés and offensive stereotypes. It turns mental illness and physical disabilities into a lazy writing crutch, and unfortunately that is true for both the movie and the novella. I can safely say that it’s one work of fiction everyone can gladly skip.