Exhaustive Proof That ‘The Happening’ Should Have Been a Radio Play

By  · Published on May 10th, 2013

Like any other type of art, the distinctions between good movies and bad movie are subjective. After all, one man’s nigh unwatchable stinkburger is one internet column’s entire reason for being; our two sugary scoops of raison d’être, if you will. And then there are those bad movies which only become bad when people commit the heinous offense of…looking at them. Take for example M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. No, seriously, take it. Take it far far away from us.

Shyamalan is a filmmaker known for his tricky third-act twists, and The Happening is no exception. Of course, the twist in The Happening was that Shyamalan’s brain was slowly leaking out of his ear canals the entire time he was directing; the leak caused by a direct smack on the head with the proverbial coo coo stick.

Since The Happening’s release, film pundits and those who don’t use words like pundit alike have been scratching their heads in a mixture of wonderment and disgust. Disgusterment. The prevailing question, for lack of a better writer hired to pen this column, was what happened with The Happening? During a recent conversation/bacon-ingestion with my good friend, and confirmed snarkplug, Will Goss of Film.com, the overly stilted nature of The Happening’s dialogue was dissected.

We began to wonder if perhaps the biggest problem with The Happening was merely the medium in which it was exhibited. In other words, was the film suffering from the fact that it was a film?

It became apparent that M. Night Shyamalan misjudged the true potential of his magnum hopeless, as it seemed like it would shine as a radio play. True, it’s an art form long considered dead, but then long-dead could also aptly describe Shyamalan’s credibility. Sorry, that joke was made with the understanding that we would be inserting audio files of rimshots directly into the articles from now on. Guess that didn’t happen.

At any rate, we decided to pose and test a very simple hypothesis.

Hypothesis: The Happening functions better as a radio play than as a movie.

Experiment: View The Happening without its visuals, listening only to the audio track.

Variables: Cool Ranch or Classic Nacho Cheese?

Conditions: Dimly-lit living room sofa. A laptop open in front of me to take notes and to view this suitably creepy image of a tree as my only visual.

Our mustache-twirling villain.

The Bone-Chilling Results:

01:04 – Without visuals, the creepy credit music is like the long lead-in to a classic radio drama. One could imagine a voice-over stating, “It’s the Hackney’s Shampoo Mystery Hour, brought to you by Hackney’s Medicated Shampoo for Split Ends. Hackney’s: When your endings need some work.”

03:18 – So here’s the opening scene. The ambient noise is very distinctive; people running, a dog barking, clearly a busy place. The rustling of trees and laughter of kids more than indicative of a park. The sound establishes the setting at least as well as do Shyamalan’s visuals. Great foley work here.

3:37 – A girl vapidly remarks to her friend, “I forgot where I am.” Her friend’s response is actually quite terrifying without the context the visuals provide: “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl.” What?! That’s where she currently is? She should run for her life! Run, stupid! Wait, is she the crippled girl? If so, I feel bad for calling her stupid…and for telling her to run.

03:50 – A distant scream is heard, as disembodied in audio form as it is in the actual film, but somehow more eerie. The friend notices and then notes, “that’s funny, those people look like they’re clawing at themselves. Is that blood?” The cold, distant manner in which the actress states this, on film, comes across as lifeless exposition. Does she actually find it funny? It’s hard to tell from her table read. In audio form, it sounds like she’s explaining plot elements that the audience is precluded from witnessing.

This actually brings us to the first overall characteristic of The Happening that makes it well-suited for radio play transformation: Shyamalan wrote this movie for blind toddlers. The characters explain nearly everything they do and see even if we, the sight-endowed audience can see those actions for ourselves. It’s the principal failure of the film’s direction. However, were this film to be consumed aurally instead of… with the ocular parts, that story force-feeding becomes a valuable tool.

04:29 – Clare, our first speaker, is suddenly unresponsive to her friend as the ominous music swells. With the line she finally mumbles out, “what page was I on…page,” we’ve retroactively established that she was reading a book and also that something is going awry in her brain cabinet.

04:48 – Wind howls, scary time music, fleshy stabbing sound. Somebody must be dead.

05:05 – Police sirens. A crisis looming.

05:12 – City noises and construction worker banter. Perfect for establishing a different location.

05:35 – We hear a crash. Since we can’t see anything, and assuming we hadn’t seen the film, we wouldn’t know what it was. But then a construction worker specifically states, “Christ, Mackenzie fell.” Again, visually this is cheesy because the workers all saw the guy fall, as did the audience, so verbally confirming that someone did indeed fall is unnecessary. However, this establishes for the listening audience that all future instances of that same sound are in fact other people falling. When we hear that sound again and again, it is horrifying (and horrifyingly effective)

06:44 – Moody music ceases, new person speaking, clearly a new location and new character. It becomes abundantly clear within seconds that he is a teacher; also abundantly clear is that he’s a total dork.

06:48 – Mark Wahlberg’s silly “what’s going on with the bees?” speech actually sounds slightly less silly when you can’t see that mental chasm of white noise that doubles for his facial expressions in this movie. I mean seriously, he looks perplexed and frustratingly detached the whole time. It’s as if someone had always just finished telling him, “I loved you in Good Will Hunting.”

09:45 – The principal informs the teachers that there has been a so-called terrorist attack in New York. He also establishes that an airborne chemical toxin was used and establishes the symptoms brought upon by what we later know are not terrorist devices, but instead weapons of grass destruction.

And so soon into proceedings, we reach another recurring element that allows for The Happening to function beautifully as a radio play. Nearly all of the characters on screen at any point in time are receiving information secondhand. This makes sense to a point, the confusion and panic of a global event yadda yadda yadda, but Shyamalan uses it so much that audiences watching the actual movie get bored with the constant barrage of exposition.

Orson Welles as Mark Wahlberg

11:07 – Established: John Leguizamo is another teacher, he likes statistics, he has a cellphone. He offers his mom’s house as a safe haven outside the city. We now know where our heroes will be going, i.e. the next progression of the plot, and we never have to see a thing.

11:55 – Through ham-fisted dialogue between Leguizamo and Wahlberg, we know that a girl named Alma is Wahlberg’s special lady friend and that they are having problems. Her supposed infidelity, which we later find out is a load of melodramatic codswallop, is telegraphed from the word go. Here, Leguizamo makes comments about her crying on her wedding day. This is followed in the next scene by the sound of a buzzing cellphone (or portable marital aide judging by the sound of it) that goes unanswered, and then later, once we figure out who owns the raucous cellphone (or, again, portable marital aide), we hear it answered and then immediately snapped closed once another man’s voice is briefly heard. Later still, we hear Alma answer it and tell the man on the other end to stop calling and refers to events that transpired between them. Again, Shyamalan beats us over the head with this subplot so hard that it works perfectly without visuals.

13:28 – Ah, the news reel. Long utilized as a quick way to deliver pertinent information to the audience when nuance is too time-consuming. In The Happening, the newscasts on TV function like glaring neon signposts telling us exactly how the film’s screenplay looked in skeletal form on that cocktail napkin. Again, the characters get their information secondhand so these newscasts amount to about 90% of the discovery factor in the movie. In this moment, a woman gives a textbook explanation of the brain’s self-preservation mechanism and how the neurotoxin from the rampant attacks shuts that down. We now know definitively, without seeing the woman at the beginning stab herself in the neck or the construction workers leaping to their doom, that the majority of the deaths in this film will be self-inflicted. Thanks, exposition machine!

14:00 – Just in case you thought Shyamalan was trusting you too much to make that aforementioned deduction, here’s Zooey Deschanel to reiterate it like a starry-eyed, doomsday-obsessed child, “it makes you kill yourself, just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil that could be invented.” Helpful if you’re only listening and not watching, but come on, Deschanel, who actually thought there was no more evil that could be invented?

Read on if you dare! And remember to drink delicious chocolate Ovaltine!

An exposition machine, posted without further explanation.

16:11 – The radio play version of The Happening is made exponentially better than the movie by our not having to see Deschanel’s tantrum gestures and vacant stares during the “these are our problems” exchange.

17:45 – Train sounds fade, crowd noises and tree rustling suggest we are in a different location. To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure exactly where that location was, but it did sound like vaguely like the park from the beginning. Minutes later, more secondhand info informs our heroes that Philadelphia was just attacked, and that it started in a park. At that point, after the fact, we know the location of that second park.

18:00 – The mass shooting scene. When the shooting starts, admittedly it’s not emphatically clear who is who, but given that we know we’re in a location apart from our heroes, and that the chatter is cordial, we can assume these are just more average folks. Plus, the first thing we hear is a gust of wind and more ominous music, which has already been established as a portent of doom. We also know from the copious amounts of news reel footage that the toxin is precluding people from resisting hurting themselves. Therefore the succession of sounds – *gunshot* **metal object dropped* *footsteps* *metal object picked up* *gunshot* – isn’t impossible to decipher.

19:17 – A blaring horn and clacking of rails, we’re back with our heroes on the train. If that wasn’t an enormous enough sound cue, within seconds, we hear Zooey tell the man on the phone that she’s on a train.

20:32 – Again, the radio version spares us a deadpan, expressionless line delivery from Wahlberg. “Another pahk?”

20:38 – Text message read-aloud (more secondhand info): we know Leguizamo’s wife is alive and where she’s going.

21:30 – We hear the train stop. If this wasn’t enough for the listening audience to know travel on this train had stalled, outside the train comes several less-than-subtle bits of dialogue from the extras expressing confusion as to the train’s stopping. This obtrusive background business will be another recurring theme. Again, needless and overbearing for a film, but works really well for the radio.

22:00 – The viewing audience saw the sign for town of Filbert when the train stopped, as did Wahlberg. But that doesn’t stop him from asking the conductor where they are. So now the conductor has audibly informed the listening audience of the same information. Wahlberg’s whiny retort, “why are you giving me one useless piece of information at a time,” is made even more hilarious considering 1) they seem to be delivering that info to the fictive radio audience and b) it’s information Wahlberg already had before he asked.

22:14 – “We lost contact with everyone,” has just as much impact without the visuals.

23:07 – Sound design once again lets us know of the location change. Honky-tonk music and clattering dishes are the international signal that you are in a diner…not unlike The International House of Pancakes. Leguizamo later encouraging his daughter to order the grilled cheese is further evidence of this fact. That place makes a mean grilled cheese.

“I’m talking to you on a phone right now!”

24:02 – During the mood ring scene, Shyamalan does not use an establishing shot to show us the ring on the little girl’s hand after Wahlberg explains to her what it is. That means Wahlberg must then say, “Ooh, it turned yellow,” because the audience doesn’t see it. You guessed it. Yet again the scene plays a bit stale visually, while being quite convenient for those tuning in to the radio version.

24:28 – From the dialogue, it’s clear a woman is showing Wahlberg a video on her phone. She tells him the video was taken at the Philadelphia Zoo. We hear several lion roars, flesh tearing, and then the people in the diner reacting in horror to the video. Clearly someone was killed by a lion. We don’t implicitly see the zookeeper offering his body willingly to be eaten, but we are still armed with the knowledge that people all over are killing themselves due to the toxin. Plus, this scene plays so much better aurally, when we don’t have to see the horrid CG that makes it appear as if the zookeeper were torn apart not by animals so much as SyFy Channel creations. Lionborgs? Hey, that’s a good one. Get me Melvin SyFy on the phone!

26:19 – More clunky exposition that simultaneously makes the movie a chore and benefits the radio show. “Whatever this is, it looks like it’s not occurring about 90 miles from here.” So now we know where everyone is scrambling to go. What we don’t know is how that one doofus in the diner knew about this completely arbitrary 90-mile shield. Where’s the Exposition Machine when you really need it?

27:25 – “There’s a car,” Deschanel says as we hear a car pull up. The man driving it then explains that he owns a plant nursery, what his exit plans are, and how he can help our heroes before he even states his name. His mouth is a leaky exposition delivery system.

27:56 – Leguizamo explains why he has to separate, leave his daughter with Wahlberg, and go find his wife. The explanation is so comprehensive that it even includes the reiterating of information he’s already given Wahlberg.

30:57 – The bizarre hot-dog-obsessed knuckle-dragger lays out the theory that plants are behind the events. We already had the wind pegged as a sign of doom, but this new info allows us to know that plants =b ad without enduring the moronic ominous camera pans to wholly innocuous-looking trees. He then begins talking to his own plants as if they were people, which we don’t have to infer because there immediately follows a line of dialogue to inform us he is indeed talking to the goddamn plants.

32:20 – Leguizamo’s death. The context clues are pretty clear-cut here, even though we don’t see it happen. He starts panicking about closing the vents and we hear the wind roaring (our go-to omen). Then there’s sad dramatic music, we hear the car stop, idle, and then speed up. Finally the car crashes abruptly. What isn’t clear, and what I had forgotten happens in the film, is that he survives the wreck and slits his wrists with a shard of glass. I’ll admit this doesn’t exactly work for a radio play, although the end result is the same. His death is still startling, just not as unsettling.

Researcher’s Note: It was at this point that staring at the image of an actual plant while listening became too frightening, so instead I switched to a picture of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant.

Our new mustache-twirling villain.

35:12 – Even the presence of the binoculars in the back of Hot Dog creep’s car is explained…FOR NO REASON! In any other movie, he would’ve just reached back and grabbed them, but again, The Happening was destined to be a radio play. Deschanel’s dialogue seconds later confirms for those listening at home that Wahlberg saw dead bodies when peering through the binoculars.

36:20 – “It’s the army, we’re safe!” So we know the military has turned up even though we, the radio audience, did not have the benefit of seeing the truck. Thanks for further explaining it with clumsy dialogue, Shyamalan. Oh, and let us not overlook the soldier who comes running up and just can’t wait to introduce himself and shoot his wad of convenient background info.

38:31 – Entire scene of the woman on the phone with her daughter not only verbally telegraphs everything that’s happening to the girl on the other end of the line, again secondhand info, but also delivers information to our heroes simultaneously. It’s pretty eerie to listen to, which is essentially all we do in the movie anyway. “I see in calculus.” Hey, I also know a little calculus: The Happening-(Beer²)=Pain

42:00 – Hot Dog Creep dropping some mad-convenient plant communication behavior knowledge.

42:57 – A parade of screenwriter sock puppets ancillary characters tell a crowd, and thus the radio audience, what’s going on and where everyone must go next. You wouldn’t even need a cartography degree to map our heroes’ progress. Or indeed even need to be able to see the movie.

44:55 – Wind picks up again, people argue, there’s a scream, and then the soldier chants “my firearm is my friend, it will not leave my side!” More wind, gunshots. Not a big mystery what happened, but Wahlberg then specifically mentions the toxin again, in case you forgot, and then someone else brays, “are those people killing themselves?” At what point does Shyamalan just appear from behind the camera and shout the plot details at us with a megaphone?

“But how will the audience know you’re carrying a satchel if you don’t say that you’re carrying a satchel?”

47:45 – The infamous wind chase. Wahlberg says, “we’ve got to stay ahead of the wind”, and we hear more wind, and then running. As the running is occurring, he says “here it comes,” and Deschanel tells the kid, “don’t you let go of my hand.” Here’s the thing, this is the second most idiotic visual in the film, so given that the audio provides us all the relevant information, and our imaginations fill in the rest, this scene is actually loads more effective, that is to say somewhat effective, when you can’t see them running from the steadily-advancing nothing. Radio play version continues to triumph.

50:55 – “There’s a house over there! Come on!” So we know they found shelter.

52:01 – And now we arrive at the number one dopiest scene in the entire film: Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic plant. If you were only listening to the audio, and if you had never seen this moment of supreme embarrassment before, you might think, like the rational sane person you are, that Wahlberg was talking to a person. But fear not, once he’s done humiliating himself, the “he” referring to both the character and the actor, there is a line of dialogue that has him expressing in no uncertain terms, “I’m talking to a plastic plant.” Thank Plant God we weren’t shorted this triumphant face-palm in the radio version…or is it face-ficus?

54:35 – The lawnmower death. This is the one of the few scenes that really fails without the imagery. We hear the mower, we hear the dramatic music, and finally the sounds of flesh ripping, but based only on that, it’s hard to create a visual blueprint of what went down. You’ve got me there, Shyamalan. If only Zooey Deschanel had been watching this happen so she could have let the question, “is that guy mowing himself?” plop out of her word portal.

56:04 – They find another radio in the middle of nowhere to deliver more exposition. Wonder if it’s tuned to W-DUM.

56:48 – The “completely superfluous bottle of cough syrup” speech is still just a completely superfluous “completely superfluous bottle of cough syrup” speech.

58:10 – The kids are describing to Wahlberg the house that he’s standing next to. Who is that information for if not the audience listening at home? In fact, the whole subsequent exchange at the door with the crazy, gun-toting folks inside plays out exactly like a radio play; replete with Wahlberg screaming out the name of one of the kids who gets shot as if it’s his own brother…despite the fact that they had only just met.

61:15 – Based solely on audio, we don’t automatically know the location of the TV providing yet more newscast exposition at his moment, but when the reporter is done talking, dramatic music rises and then fades into Deschanel saying, “this house has no power.” The news reel here actually serves as a radio-drama-esque scene break before the audio cue becomes a sort of transition back to “rejoining our heroes,” who are now clearly at a new location. When we went back afterward and watched the visuals that accompany this exposition, it is indeed a non-sequitur cutaway montage. The visuals are therefore, yet again, not imperative.

63:28 – New character introduced as Wahlberg investigates the new house. “You lost? You must be. There ain’t nothing around here for miles. I suppose the kind thing for me to do is to offer you supper.” We learn pretty much all we need to know about the new character and the new location in just a few sentences. Why she asks if he’s eying her lemon drink is beyond me. Perhaps it’s the real mystery of the movie.

64:48 – Why does she explain the spring house and the speaking tube unsolicited? Whether you have the visuals or not, the desperate foreshadowing is a bit cumbersome, no?

69:00 – A lot of the “dead air” created by the next few minutes comes from Wahlberg wandering around the house and then there’s a completely unnecessary outburst from Mrs. Jones. It wouldn’t play well over the radio, but at least it’s really awkward and ill-conceived on screen.

71:08 – We know something has gone wrong with Mrs. Jones when we hear her mumbling the first line of The Lord’s Prayer over and over again, and then comes the telltale gust of wind. The audio of her trying to get into the house after Wahlberg locks the door (all unmistakably communicated by the sound design) is pretty unsettling. The ensuing orientation of characters is a little tough to make out without visuals, but then it becomes clear Wahlberg is talking to Deschanel through the previously mentioned speaking tube, which tells us exactly where they each are. This also helps us keep our bearings during their next big conversation.

80:00 – Going from the anticlimactic climax to the cautiously optimistic epilogue is just as jarring and befuddling without visuals as it is with them. I mean the literal climax is that nothing happens.

82:44 – Twist stinger. Once again, the newscast exposition sets us up the notion that the event, the happening, will reoccur. Smash cut to “the twist.” The spoken French clearly lets us know we’re in France, and in a busy area, and then comes the scream and the wind. Not hard to put those pieces together.

Incredibly Scientific Conclusion

With very few exceptions, the bulk of The Happening naturally lends itself to being presented as a radio drama, and in many instances actually improves without its imagery. Our study has shown that there are two elements of the film’s ending that can’t be communicated without the visuals.

First, is the exceedingly tacked-on note about Deschanel being knocked up. And finally, we do miss The Last Airbender backpack the little girl is wearing, presumably to remind us that the only thing worse than The Happening is the movie M. Night made after The Happening.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.