Book Vs. Film: The Mist

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Novella: "The Mist," Stephen King, 1980

Film: The Mist, directed by Frank Darabont, 2007

Back when I was in my early teens, and reading Stephen King not only scared the shit out of me, but frequently gave me nightmares afterward, one thing really bugged me about his writing: the things he never explained. Take short stories like "The Raft" or "Grey Matter": Monsters show up. Bad things happen. People die. And you never find out why. To young-version-of-me, that felt like cheating. Surely in the real world, things never just happened for no reason, so how could people tolerate that in stories?

Then I grew up and found out that in the real world, things happen without pat, precise explanations all the time. And these days, I tend to appreciate stories with that kind of ambiguity. If done wrong–if the writer clearly has no idea why a character did something, except to make a story work–it can feel like narrative laziness. But in a case like Stephen King's novella "The Mist," it feels more like sophistication. We don't always get answers in life–even if they're out there, we don't necessarily have the perspective or access to them, and sometimes we just have to work with what we have. "The Mist" is another one of those King classics where things just happen, and it isn't clear why. And that's part of what makes it scary.

That's also one of the three main differences between King's story and the currently-in-theaters adaptation written and directed by Frank Darabont. There are a whole lot of little alterations between the two versions, but they largely boil down into three categories. 1) The movie fills in the novella's blanks, spelling out everything it left ambiguous. Particularly in the ending. 2) Mrs. Carmody–the batshit-loony religious crazy played by Marcia Gay Harden in the film–is handled very differently in the film than she is in the book, which leads to a major shift in emphasis. And 3) the film skips the setup as much as possible, and jumps straight to the action. That last one is the simplest thing to cover, so rather than starting with the ending and ending with the beginning, let's take those three things in reverse order:

3) The film skips straight to the action.

One of the things I like most about King–and I consider myself a big fan, even though I feel like he hit a turning point around Rose Madder and has been heading downhill since, with only a few exceptions–is his portrayal of real life. Most of my favorite Stephen King (Wizard And Glass excepted) involves normal people dealing with circumstances just before or as they're turning abnormal: Eddie's life of crime in Drawing Of The Three before Roland turns up, The Stand before most of the world is dead of superflu, Tommyknockers and It and Needful Things when people are living out their lives pre-supernatural interference, and so forth. I just really enjoy the detailed, yarn-spinning, natural way King draws normal life. And "The Mist" is an excellent example. My copy of the novella–in a battered copy of the short-story anthology Skeleton Crew–is 130 pages long, and the first monster doesn't show up until 46 pages in. (Incidentally, if you're thinking about reading "The Mist," I highly recommend buying Skeleton Crew rather than the plumped-up movie-edition book pictured above. Crew is only a buck more, and you get a bunch more terrific early King stories, particularly "The Raft," "The Jaunt," and possibly my favorite King short story ever, "Survivor Type." But I digress.)

At any rate, the novella is a slow-burn, ramp-up story that introduces the characters, describes the setting, lets them interact for a while, and builds up a hefty amount of foreshadowing, in part via a ridiculous dream that protagonist David Drayton (played by, urgh, Thomas Jane in the film) has about God tromping around the area of his lakeside Maine home, stamping everything flat. As God steps on things, they burst into flame, leaving a smoke that hangs over everything… like, omigod, a mist. The next morning, after a horrific thunderstorm, when Drayton first sees an unnaturally bright mist coming across the lake in an eerily straight-edged line, and his son Billy asks what it is, Drayton's first impulse is to say "God."

But that silliness aside, the book takes its time in creating a normal reality, so readers will know what that looks like before it gets interrupted by supernatural creepiness. Which leads to passages like this, as Drayton works to clear a storm-fallen tree from his road, and his hated neighbor Brent comes by:

 

I drank some beer, set the can down carefully on a rock, and got the chainsaw going again. About twenty minutes later, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and turned, expecting to see Billy again. Instead it was Brent Norton. I turned off the chainsaw.

He didn't look the way Norton usually looks. He looked hot and tired and unhappy, and a little bewildered.

"Hi, Brent," I said. Our last words had been hard ones, and I was a little unsure how to proceed. I had a funny feeling that he had been standing behind me for the last five minutes or so, clearing his throat decorously under the chainsaw's aggressive roar. I hadn't gotten a really good look at him this summer. He had lost weight, but it didn't look good. It should have, because he had been carrying around an extra twenty pounds, but it didn't. His wife had died the previous November. Cancer. Aggie Bibber told Steffy that. Aggie was our resident necrologist. Every neighborhood has one. From the casual way Norton had of ragging his wife and belittling her (doing it with the contemptuous ease of a veteran matador inserting banderillas in an old bull's lumbering body), I would have guessed he'd be glad to have her gone. If asked, I might even have speculated that he'd show up this summer with a girl twenty years younger than he was, and a silly my-cock-has-died-and-gone-to-heaven grin on his face. But instead of the silly grin, there was only a new batch of age lines, and the weight had come off in all the wrong places, leaving sags and folds and dewlaps that told their own story. For one passing moment, I wanted only to lead Norton to a patch of sun and sit him beside one of the fallen trees with my can of beer in his hand, and do a charcoal sketch of him.

 

In the novella, Brent Norton and Drayton have a fairly complicated relationship; Norton is a rich lawyer, a "summer person" who only lives on the Maine lake seasonally, while Drayton and his family are locals. Norton sued Drayton over a property-line dispute in the past, and lost the case, and still believes it's largely because the year-round residents all side together against out-of-towners. Even after the storm damage eases the tensions between them, Brent is an ass–he drinks too much and too fast, he ogles Drayton's wife, he swears like a sailor in front of Drayton's 6-year-old son Billy, and he's generally just off-putting.

By contrast, the film skips through all this normal-life stuff in a few bare minutes, and it does so pretty poorly, via the kind of "conversations" where two characters tell each other things they both already know for the audience's benefit. The dialogue is clunky, the scene shifts are clunky, and the overall sense is that Darabont knows his audience doesn't care–they just want to see some CGI monsters come out of an evil mist, posthaste, and he seems almost embarrassed to be wasting their time by even letting them know that Drayton kinda doesn't like Norton. (Played, incidentally, by Andre Braugher, whose thankless "first I'm a dick, then I'm an idiot, then I die horribly" role makes it really, really hard to miss that it's the only significant role played by a black actor.) The movie tries to cram a sense of their history together into a very brief exchange, and in the process makes Brent a much flatter character, basically just a generic dude destined for a quick dickish, idiotic execution. But who cares what his motivation or character is, or what his relationship with Drayton is like, right? It's a horror movie, so it's really just about how many people die, and how messily, right?

Actually, no. Which brings us to:

2) Mrs. Carmody is handled very differently in the film than she is in the book.

What I enjoyed most about "The Mist"–and what Darabont mostly seems to get, though he does still go pretty heavily Hollywood-horror-movie with The Mist–is that the story is more about people than about monsters. Specifically, it's about how easily people turn into monsters when they feel trapped, when they have to deal with more than they can handle, and particularly when someone else is willing to shoulder the burden of the monstrous decision-making. In the book, a bunch of people are trapped in a grocery store when a supernatural mist full of killer creatures descends on their town, and as they grow increasingly scared and desperate, the local crazy, Mrs. Carmody, starts ranting about Armageddon and getting them so worked up that by the end, they're perfectly ready to grab little Billy Drayton and turn him into a blood sacrifice to make the monsters go away.

In the film, that happens too, but it's a longer and more visible process, with more stops along the way. The movie winds up emphasizing Mrs. Carmody far more than the book. Here's one theory why: In the novella, which is written in first person from Drayton's perspective, readers are trapped inside his head, which is an increasingly frightening place as he gets increasingly frightened. But Darabont can only go so deep in showing us where Drayton is mentally, especially since he's trying to put up a brave front for his son and the people around him. So in the movie, viewers are instead trapped in the place they can actually see: the grocery store. And in the grocery store, the big threat isn't abstract fear, it's Mrs. Carmody.

In the novella, she periodically howls about approaching death and the end times, but until she suddenly becomes a force to be reckoned with at the story's climax, she's mostly a Whack-A-Mole threat: She pops up, kicks in her line about Star Wormwood or The Beast or whatever, then drops offstage again. King periodically lets readers know not to forget her, by mentioning where she's quietly sitting, or who she's off in a corner talking to, but for most of the story, she isn't front and center.

Whereas in the film… well, it's easier to take this point by point:

• In the novella, she's much less a judgmental Christian wacko, and much more an all-purpose generalist wacko. She runs an antique store full of oddities, she dispenses folk remedies ("It was said she could find water with an applewood stick, that she could charm warts, and sell you a cream that would fade freckles to shadows of their former selves. I had even heard that Mrs. Carmody could be seen about your love life; that if you were having the bedroom miseries, she could give you a drink that would put the ram back in your rod."), and she tells gothic tales of horror about wolves and "the black spring of 1888." She's basically a soothsaying old witch. Whereas in the film, she's a cracked fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist who specifically says things like "What's the matter with you? Don't you believe in GOD?" when people resist her claims that they need to start choosing up victims. I think Darabont is trying to make a specific point about fundamentalist politics in America these days, and how unnerving it can be to see major, life-or-death decisions being made based on convictions that you may not share. People have complained that she's far too cartoony in the film, but honestly, she's more like a real person in the film than she was in the book. And I think Harden's performance helps a lot.

• In the novella, Mrs. Carmody is also more of an eye-rolling nutjob (King refers to her as a "gore-crow," and talks about how all the death and blood has finally let her come into her own) and less of a hypocritical bitch. Her line in the movie to the effect of "If I ever want a friend like you, I'll just have myself a little squat and shit one out" isn't in the book. Neither is most of her other name-calling from the film. I think this is mostly there to make the audience frustrated and helpless over how simultaneously self-righteous and viciously hateful she is. Again, this feels political to me–an attack on how people can claim to be Christians and simultaneously call for everyone who disagrees with them to die, die, die. Ann Coulter comes specifically to mind.

• The novella doesn't contain the scene where Mrs. Carmody goes off and prays by herself, asking God to help her lead the people in the grocery store, and save whatever few might be saveable, "even though most will swim in the lake of fire." In retrospect, I think this was a really smart scene to add: It makes her more a dangerous, deluded three-dimensional person, rather than a generic villain. From a narrative perspective, it's worth proving that she exists offscreen, when no one is looking at her. (Which novella-Carmody doesn't seem to do.) From a personal perspective, the scene is partly about showing what a fanatic she is–she's already pretty much judged all the people around her and decided on God's behalf that they're unworthy–and partially about showing that she really does believe the things she says. She doesn't necessarily just want attention or power; she's the same creepy, Bible-thumping fanatic even when no one's watching her. And she's utterly convinced that everything she says is gospel truth straight from God, which makes her even scarier.

• The novella doesn't contain the scene where the killer bug lands on her, doesn't sting her, and flies away after she prays. I'm not entirely sure what that scene was about; it seems a little like it's there to help justify the mob's later belief in her as an arbiter of God's will. Or maybe just in the hope that the audience will catch its collective breath, hoping against hope that she's about to die.

• The third soldier, his relationship with the checkout girl, her death by poisonous bug, and his torture and "sacrifice" to the mist-monsters at the hands of the mob are all inventions of the film. In part, I think this whole plotline serves to up the body count, and to further erase some plot ambiguities, which I'll get to in a minute. But it also underlines the threat Mrs. Carmody poses. In the book, the point where she whips the crowd up into a frenzy and they go after Billy Drayton is the first time it's really clear how dangerous she and they are. In the film, by the time they decide to kill Billy, they've already got one corpse on the tally sheet: the soldier they stab and shove, weeping and bloody, outside for the monsters to eat.

I think that her much-increased presence in the film has one major interesting effect, whether intended or not. In King's novella, ultimately, the monsters are the big threat, and "Mother Carmody" and her increasingly violent band of followers are just the force that drives Drayton, his son, and a few desperate evacuees to face that threat head-on. In the movie, it feels far more like Mrs. Carmody and her fellow humans are the threat, and the monsters and the mist are just the plot contrivance that forces David and company to stay in proximity to that threat as long as they do.

1) The movie fills in the novella's blanks, spelling out everything it left ambiguous.

This one's pretty simple:

• In the novella, it's never clear precisely where the mist and the monsters come from. Drayton has heard about a local military experiment called The Arrowhead Project, and when things go wrong in the area, it comes to his mind again. There's a brief dialogue where another local guy says some ominous things about how they're messing about with "different atoms" over there, and there's a little theorizing about how something must have gone wrong with the project in the storm. And when the mist descends, two soldiers from the Arrowhead Project's military base are in the store, and they sneak off and commit suicide, leading Drayton to further speculate that the military is responsible. But that's all we know. Whereas in the film, the business with the first two soldiers is more or less the same, but there's the third soldier, who at Mrs. Carmody's instigation, is grabbed, stabbed, and questioned, and he delivers a complete (though brief) explanation of what's going on: The Arrowhead Project was apparently experimenting with opening windows to different worlds and/or dimensions, and clearly something went wrong, and a door opened instead.

• The novella never spells out what happens to Drayton's wife: After escaping the supermarket, he tries to go back for her, but finds the rural road to his home blocked with fallen trees. In the end, he has to cry and give up and move on. The film, on the other hand, makes a point of showing us her spiderwebbed corpse, making it clear not only that she's dead, but exactly how she died.

• Finally, there's the ending. Whoo, that ending. The novella ends on a minorly positive but wide-open note, with Drayton, his son, and a few surviving refugees traveling south in his truck, hoping to find the edge of the mist and other survivors. The story ends like this: Flipping stations on the radio, he thinks he maybe heard "one single word… through some minute shift in the dampening mist, an infinitesimal break that immediately closed again." Because of the mist, he can't get any radio station for long, but he's clinging to the idea that he heard that word. "I'm going to bed now. But first I'm going to kiss my son and whisper two words in his ear. Against the dreams that may come, you know. Two words that sound a bit alike. One of them is Hartford. The other is hope."

(I never liked that ending. "Hartford" and "hope" sound nothing alike as far as I'm concerned. Maybe it's a Maine pronunciation thing.)

The movie ends… differently. Stephen King himself has apparently said that anyone who reveals it should be strung up, but I choose to assume that a) he was talking against springing the ending on people without warning, and b) that he hasn't actually set up lynch mobs for the purpose, so I'm relatively safe. Still, if you haven't seen the movie, and you're ever planning to, I'd skip on down to "What the book does better." Still here? Okay, here's how the film ends: Drayton, escapes the supermarket and makes it to the truck with his son Billy, a local woman named Amanda Dumfries, and sixtysomething, tough-as-nails third-grade teacher Mrs. Reppler, plus a fourth escapee who wasn't in the book, an old man who makes the group feel weirdly like a double date. They drive off together, checking on Drayton's wife Steff and encountering a giant monster that doesn't notice them. Eventually, they run out of gas. They give each other some meaningful looks and nods, and then Drayton shoots them all to death, starting with his son, who wakes up just in time to see the gun pointed at his face and register horror before Darabont cuts away to an exterior view of the truck. Unfortunately, Drayton only has four bullets, which doesn't leave one for him. So he gets out of the truck and goes rambling through the mist, screaming for something to come get him and get it over with already. Instead, what comes out of the mist is the military, with tanks, trucks, and flamethrowers, and the mist clears to reveal an organized Army operation burning down the shriveled remnants of mist-creatures, gathering up human refugees, and generally putting things in order. Drayton, realizing there was no need for him to kill his son and his surviving friends, screams in despair and drops to his knees by the truck. The end.

More than anything, the ending reminded me of a New Twilight Zone episode I saw way back when, in which a woman is beaten and raped by a man who follows her and breaks into her house. Afterward, her meek husband vows revenge. As he takes her home from the hospital, she points at a man and says "That's him, it was him, he's the man who attacked me." So the husband parks his car, follows the man to his own car in a parking garage, and with great effort and terror, manages to strangle the guy to death. Then he returns to his wife in the car and they resume driving–and she points out the next man she sees, and says "That's him, that's the man who attacked me!" And the next, and the next, and the next… There's that same sense of lurching despair and realization, but also the sheer unpleasant knowledge that if he'd just waited, y'know, another 60 seconds, he would have noticed that she had lost it, and he could have avoided murdering a complete innocent.

Which is why the ending of Darabont's version of The Mist didn't really work for me. The problem isn't that it tosses ambiguity out the window, or that it's so unremittingly bleak that it's almost comically manipulative. It's that the timing seems off. After they run out of gas, Drayton seems awful damn eager to whip out his gun. Do they wait until they're hungry, or thirsty, or it's dark and horrible creatures have found the car, or until someone has to pee and risk getting eaten by stepping out of the truck? Nope, it's "Whoops, outta gas," then kaboom, straight to the mass murder. Which is why the mist clearing 60 seconds later feels cheap to me, and why the ending made me roll my eyes more than weep copious tears. That said, I thought it was beautifully shot. A lot of The Mist looks a little cheesy, what with all the CGI beasties, but the shots of people actually walking around in the mist, with no visibility to speak of, are eerie and fairly beautiful, and that last shot, as the mist is clearing and the military is marching along burning down everything that moves, was pretty terrific.

I was surprised to find, when I was re-reading "The Mist," that Darabont didn't actually make up this ending out of whole cloth: It was presumably inspired by a line in the book where Drayton manages to salvage a gun, and he checks the ammo, noting that there are three bullets left. "There were four of us in the Scout, but if push came right down to shove, I'd find some other way out for myself." Yeah, David, apparently you would–about 10 seconds after push and shove reluctantly entered the same room and glanced bashfully at each other.

At any rate, there are a bunch more differences between the book and the film, but they're largely cosmetic: In the novella, for instance, Drayton has a stress-induced, back-room quickie with Amanda Dumfries. The whole thing takes a couple of paragraphs, and isn't meant to be particularly sexy; it's just the kind of desperate thing people under sentence of death might do, and then it's over with. The film likely cuts that bit because on film, it'd likely seem more exploitative, and without Drayton's guilty mental acknowledgement that they're just using each other for stress relief, it's easy to misread the scene in various ways, as something more significant to the characters or the story. The film also has more gross-out moments; the whole Alien-like sequence with the MP in the pharmacy exploding in a shower of hatching baby spiders isn't in the novella at all, and the fight with the bug-things and the bird-things is much shorter and simpler and less chaotic in King's version.

Essentially, overall, The Mist isn't a bad adaptation; it makes a lot of alterations, but they're largely in service to making the story slightly more current, more relevant, more dynamic, and more streamlined, albeit clumsily so. Still, I really could have done without Thomas "One Worm To Kill The World" Jane in the lead.

What the book does better: It expands on the world Drayton and his family live in, and builds a slow, deliberate sense of dread. It also gives the characters some depth. And it presents a David Drayton who seems like a relatively nice guy under normal circumstances, whereas Thomas Jane just comes across as a twitchy freak.

What the film does better: Mostly just gives a viscerality to the action that the book can't match. It's hard to write a fight scene or a sudden shock that has the impact of people actually bleeding and screaming onscreen. Though I like the film version of Mrs. Carmody better than the book version, as well. She seems more like people who actually exist in the real world, and less like a fever dream of a mad old witch.

Petty little altered detail: In the novella, the tentacles that come in through the loading dock and nab the bagboy are basically squid tentacles. In the film, they're far more alien-looking, and they're packed with long, sharp, jet-black spines. Initially, I thought that was pretty ridiculous: soft, squishy tentacles full of pointy claws? But I wound up thinking Darabont really knew what he was doing. There was something really deeply unsettling about all those spines hovering gently, delicately in the air near people's eyes, not to mention the way the spines slid in and out of the tentacles. It made them look even more unearthly, and it really emphasized the way pretty much everything about the creatures in the mist was unknown. Also, huge sharp pointy spines inches from people's soft unprotected faces.

Does the film version "get" the book? Yes. Darabont tends to push too hard, by adding more action, more fights, more monsters, more gore, more more more, but at the same time, he captures the novella's human dynamics, and he makes it into a pretty creepy thrill ride.

Book, film, neither, or both? Inevitably, the book is better: more nuanced, more detailed, more patient, less artificially agonizing in the end. But the film is still one of the more accurate King adaptations out there.

Next time on Book Vs. Film:

Bumped back, but still coming soon:

More Book vs. Film