As perfectly evidenced by dozens and dozens of movies and TV programs, the works of Stephen King often translate incredibly well through the adaptation process. The author’s verbose style and the scale of his storytelling can certainly create challenges, but what King ultimately does best is craft tales of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances that require extraordinary action, and they are more often than not very cinematic. Thus, his imagination has inspired and allowed filmmakers to create some of the best thrillers, dramas, horrors and more that audiences have watched and enjoyed in the last half-century.
To the credit of John Lee Hancock, the writer and director of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, this is a history that seems to be respected by the new Netflix movie. It is based on the novella of the same name that was published in the 2020 collection If It Bleeds, and Stephen King’s Constant Readers will find that the vast majority of what the author put on the page is brought to life in the streaming release. But here’s the rub: Mr. Harrigan’s Phone isn’t actually one of King’s more cinematic stories, and the lack of action taken to fix that fact has problematic results. Namely, it’s a dull and lagging feature that tries to be both a coming-of-age drama and a supernatural horror film, and it ends up failing to make an emotional impact with either genre.
Jaeden Martell, best known for Andy Muschietti’s IT (a.k.a. the most successful Stephen King adaptation of all time), stars as Craig: a teenager from an incredibly small town in Maine who spends years of his adolescence developing a bond with his aging, wealthy, and reclusive neighbor, Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland). Having impressed with his oratory skills while doing a reading at Sunday church services when he was younger, the protagonist is hired by the former businessman to read novels and do spot chores around his house, and while doing so, they form what could be called a cold friendship.
As a token of this friendship, Harrigan regularly sends Craig lottery tickets on special occasions and holidays, and when one of the scratchers wins the teen $10,000, he feels obligated to share some of the winnings with his employer. It being the year 2007, he decides to purchase Mr. Harrigan an iPhone – a new device that has just hit the market – and while Harrigan initially dismisses the technology, he ends up becoming fascinated by its capabilities.
Setting all of this up takes about half the runtime of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone – and then the film shifts as the titular character dies. Craig surreptitiously puts his employer/friend’s iPhone in his coffin, and in his grief, he calls it in hopes of staying connected to Harrigan. The end result of this is spooky communication from beyond the grave, which is then tied to a mystery-lite narrative that never gains any momentum and doesn’t really end up going anywhere.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone wants to be a powerful coming-of-age story, but finds issues with authenticity and chemistry.
With its structure, it’s the intention of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone to first develop the relationship between the two principal characters before peeling back layers in the back half of the story, but in this effort, the movie is never able to quite do what it wants. Driven by voice over narration, there is a lot more telling than showing when it comes to the bond between Craig and Harrigan, and it’s never something the audience feels. As they sit together in stagnant scenes in the latter’s home, the former reading classic literature, showing off smart phone apps, and sharing personal troubles, a proper chemistry between Jaden Martell and Donald Sutherland never coalesces, and it ends up tanking everything that the film tries to do after its first 45 minutes of setup.
On beyond this key relationship, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone struggles to be the coming-of-age drama it wants to be because it never manages to establish a realistic depiction of teenage life. Instead, it just inflates tropes that feel tired and don’t feel natural in any way – such as school cliques wholly defined by smart phone brands, a bully (Cyrus Arnold) who demands that Craig shine his shoes, and the sweet and lovely teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who acts as the protagonist’s protector. The elements from Stephen King’s novella work on the page, but they are rote and awkward in adaptation.
Despite it being a Stephen King adaptation, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone struggles to figure out its voice as a horror movie.
Rough as the coming-of-age material is, the horror side of the film doesn’t help things. The aforementioned lack of chemistry between Jaden Martell and Donald Sutherland has the unfortunate side effect of limiting the authenticity of Craig’s grief, which in turn undermines the plotting. The lead character continues to turn to his dead friend when things get rough for him, and horrible things end up happening as a result, but without the strong emotional component, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is unable to inspire investment from the audience. People die, Craig does some investigating… and then the movie just kind of peters out. It’s narrative material that comes straight from Stephen King, but it just doesn’t properly translate across mediums.
Between Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game, Zak Hilditch's 1922 and Vincenzo Natali's In The Tall Grass, Netflix has had a solid record when it comes to Stephen King adaptations, but Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the streaming service’s first whiff. It’s competently made and it has proper intentions with and respect for the source material, but it makes for a surprisingly dull cinematic experience and will be a disappointment for King fans excited to have a new movie out just in time for Halloween.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.