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Thursday, January 27

The Mist vs. The Mist – King vs. Darabont

When you see a movie that’s based on a book do you prefer to read the book first, or see the movie first?

It’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure I‘ve figured out yet. I thought I preferred reading the book first, but after seeing The Mist last night I’m not so sure.

Let me back up a minute. Last weekend I found myself at our local Bowling Alley/Kids Fun Center for a chunk of Saturday morning. You see, they have this deal where you can pay a reduced rate for a wrist band and kids can play unlimited times on the indoor rides and attractions (laser tag, bumper cars, skating, etc.).  So I took my son and one of his friends. My wife was at work so I had some time to kill there while the boys were off doing their thing. I grabbed a copy of Stephen King’s “Skeleton Crew” I’d picked up at Goodwill the week before for a buck and took it with me, figuring there were much worse ways to spend a Saturday morning than with Stephen King.

I’ve read plenty of Stephen King books in the past, but mostly his novels (sharing a name with one of the main characters in The Stand made reading that one a necessity). Haven’t read much of his short story stuff, which is interesting because in general I’m a much bigger fan of short stories than novels. There’s a real art to the short story. You have less time to build convincing characters and the story is distilled to fewer pages - It isn’t as easy as it seems. Those that can do it well are real craftsmen. Of course The Mist, being a novella, is kind of a hybrid. Its 134 pages long, right in between novel and short story length.

Anyway, I ordered a soda from the snack bar and settled onto one of the benches there with The Skeleton Crew, and plowed into the first story, THE MIST. I kind of had a general idea of the story, but for some reason my mind’s eye conjured Carpenter’s The Fog. This is something different entirely, although they share the element of fog cover. What’s IN the fog bank is way different, however.
Written in 1980, this was Stephen King in his prime. It seems to me King was writing good old fashioned pulp stories back then, channeling the work of writers the likes of Lovecraft , Ashton -Smith, and Kuttner. His stories were full of terror and creativity and had a real spark of energy about them. They were good old fashioned monster stories, tales of things that go bump in the night… and the water… and the fog. I think he’s more concerned with being a WRITER nowadays, and that is too bad. I understand it’s natural to grow as a storyteller and your work has to change to accommodate your own evolving personality and interests. I mean, after all a writer’s material is deep down a reflection of his or her own inner self in some way, right? Otherwise what makes them choose that specific story to write?  And I also get that every artist strives to perfect their craft, to get better technically over time. But for my money the greatest writers in the world wrote for Weird Tales magazine, and I love nothing better than a good old-fashioned E.C. Comics style scare. And that’s what Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew delivers. Matter of fact it’s full of pulp references and one of the characters is even named Ambrose, perhaps a nod to writer Ambrose Bierce?

After reading the Mist I decided it would be fun to watch the movie version and see how they adapted it.

Warning - From here on out there will be spoilers, just in case you haven’t seen the movie or read the book you might wanna do so first. 

The movie was written and directed by Frank Darabont, and made in 2007. Darabont had previously adapted the King books THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE. Most recently he wrote and directed the TV series The Walking Dead.

The general set-up for The Mist is the same; the day after a huge storm a mysterious fog bank rolls into a small town, trapping a group of townsfolk in a supermarket. The mist is so think it obscures vision beyond a few feet. There are things in the mist – terrible things not of this world. Slithering, tearing, hungry things. David Drayton and his son Billy are the central characters, and they are among the ones trapped in this supermarket. David left his wife (and Billy’s mom) Stephanie at home while they made a quick run to the store for supplies. They brought next door neighbor Brent Norton along with them, as his car was smashed in the storm and he needed a few things as well.

This is where the discrepancies between book and movie begin. There was way less time spent on David and Stephanie’s relationship in the movie – in fact there was next to none at all. I found their relationship an essential ingredient in the book that built a gnawing sense of unease in the back of my mind the entire time I was reading it. Perhaps this is because I’m a married man of 16 years, but the idea of my wife home alone in danger with no way to get back to her makes me crazy. Stephanie is on screen probably no more than five minutes in the movie. This is way too little time for the audience to get to know her or feel any sympathy for her, or to feel the depth of her relationship with David. Without that sense of urgency to get back to her the ordeal at the supermarket loses much of its impact.

Score : +1 King
Another discrepancy is with next door neighbor Brent. The relationship between the two men in the book is much more contentious. They’d had a property dispute that drug out into a nasty court case, and had barely spoken to one another for years. The fact they mended fences over the common threat of the storm damage adds another interesting element to the story, another element missing from the film. Brent is also played by a black man. I found this an interesting choice of casting, and in fact really like the actor they chose for the role (Andre Braugher). It wasn’t the way I envisioned Brent while reading the story, but Braugher pulls off the role really well – I just wish they’d given him a bit more of the dramatic impact he has in the book… let him be a bit more of an ass.

Score : Even

Once at the store the mist rolls in and the movie follows the book pretty closely for this chunk of the film. With the story still fresh on my mind it was easy to see just how much of the dialogue was lifted straight from King. The first creature we get a look at, the slithering tentacles at the loading dock, are amazing. Menacing and frightening they look just like something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. Darabont even makes the tentacles more menacing by having them open up, like a flower stem, revealing rows of flesh-rending teeth.

Score: +1 Darabont

When David and the other men who witnessed those tentacles inform the rest of the folks in the store what just happened there is disbelief. Brent and a group of men decide to leave while the getting is good, to make their way to safety elsewhere. In the book we know they don’t make it. We are witness to their deaths in the mist. In the movie they walk off in the mist and are never heard from again. Did they make it? Were they killed? We don’t know.

Score: Even

 David is a pretty crappy parent in this movie. That is another thing I was struck with while watching it. He is constantly pawning his son off on various women in the store while putting himself in danger, potentially leaving Billy an orphan. This is something else that I, as a parent, was bugged with. He did this same thing in the book but at least there we were privy to his thoughts and know he was torn by these actions. The movie doesn’t have time to spend on this so he comes off as a shallow, crappy dad who barely thinks of his own son’s welfare over his own intentions.

Score: +1 King

The trip next door to the drugstore reveals another differing element between the two versions – In the movie they spell out for you the cause of the mist, whereas in the book it’s only hinted at. Hollywood has a tendency to dumb things down, and I was bummed that they did this here. A man is wounded and needs painkillers and antibiotics. There is a drugstore next door, so a small group decides to make a quick run there, grab what they need and return as quickly as possible. In the drugstore they run into a soldier on his deathbed who tells them that the mist was all the military’s fault. In the book it is hinted that perhaps the Arrowhead project, run at the nearby military base, was responsible for the catastrophe. That perhaps they somehow opened a portal to another dimension and things entered our world. But that’s only one man’s theory – the truth is left vague, and I like it that way. Maybe that’s how it happened. Or maybe this was just a freaky force of nature, an unnatural or supernatural occurrence of some sort. The characters didn’t know and we were forced to use our imagination. Imagine that.

 Round 6
Score: +1 King

Another major difference is the relationship between David and Amanda. Amanda is a young woman trapped in the store that David becomes a bit friendly with. In fact, in the book version they have a late night rendezvous, getting together in a locked manager’s office while everyone is asleep. It’s an impulse decision for David, and one he feels guilt for the following day. But it is an honest reaction, a decision made out of stress, and danger, and hopelessness. For both of them it is a way to get their minds off and cope with the horrors they’ve seen. In the movie they left this relationship out, and I am actually glad. They didn’t have time to properly build David’s relationship with his own wife; if they introduce this element to the movie it would have made him seem like an even bigger prick, an even worse parent, and a terrible husband. Once again we’re privy to David’s thoughts in the book, and we know that despite his infidelity David still loves his wife first and foremost and it’s a mistake he made under duress. This would not have come across in the movie, so the decision to keep their relationship plutonic is a good one.

 Round 7
SCORE: +1 Darabont

And then there’s Mrs. Carmody. In both versions she is an extremist; a rabble rouser who gets the townspeople worked up and proclaims this as the end of times. The thing that I found different, almost diametrically so, was her motivation. The book portrays her as a witchy woman, a crazy old maid who spreads gossip and rumors and superstitious stories. She’s the exact type of woman who would never set foot in a church, as she’s more likely to believe in spells and potions as the power of prayer. She’s the town nut. In the movie she’s a Jesus freak, a religious zealot who believes judgment day has arrived. In both versions she convinces the townsfolk, little by little, that the only way to appease the things in the mist is with a blood sacrifice. I buy this from the witch, but not the zealot. Darabont really locked in on this character and emphasized her much more than in the book. I’d personally like to have seen less of her and more of David’s wife Stephanie.

Changing Mrs. Carmody into a bible-thumping religious zealot feels like a political statement to me, a thinly disguised slam on the moral majority.  I know nothing about Frank Darabont personally, or his political leanings. But this shift in perspective is too sharp to be un-thought out. This movie was made in 2007, at the end of Bush’s presidency. His popularity was at an all time low, and it seems like Darabont took a chance to make a statement. That is personally a pet peeve of mine. Not that I mind a jab at the religious right – God knows they’ve more than earned it. But keep your politics out of my monster movies, thank you.

 Round 8
Score: +1 King

The special effects in this film are really well done. The mist looks good and the scenes in it play well. The creatures are well designed and the animation good. The aforementioned tentacles, my favorite creature in the book, were awesome and even scarier looking than the King version. And the gore in the movie is amped up – including a scene of a man who went out into the mist with a rope tied around his waist and returned a severed half-corpse.

 Round 9
Score: +1 Darabont

Eventually David and a small group of folks decide to leave the store. They realize they have to escape Mrs. Carmody and her growing band of believers. As bad as things are out there, staying in the store has become unbearable, and possibly unsafe. On the way out there is a confrontation between Carmody’s folks and David’s wherein Mrs. Carmody starts demanding a blood sacrifice and screams to “get the boy!”  Mrs. Carmody is killed in both versions, and the group uses the confusion to make good their escape. Not all make it – things in the mist pick off some along the way. But several do make it, among them David, Amanda and Billy.

Round 10
Score: Even

David heads home.  In the book he can’t make it to the house because trees have fallen along the drive, completely blocking his path. He dares not go outside as there are far too many hungry things in the mist.

In the film David is able to drive up to the house and finds his wife dead. She has been cocooned up in a spider web like the victims in the drugstore.  In the book David couldn’t get to Stephanie and doesn’t know if she’s alive or dead, therefore assuming the worst. He has to think of Billy now and be a responsible parent. But doubt would always be lingering in the back of his mind. Was she still alive? Did I make the right choice? Was she waiting for me to save her? The movie spells everything out for you, and that’s a shame.

 Round 11
Score: +1 King

The book ends with David and company holed up in a hotel. They’re planning to try to drive to another town, where hopefully the mist hasn’t spread. The ending is left vague. They’re alive for the moment, and that’s what counts. It’s a bit on a non-ending, which really bothers a lot of folks. I don’t mind the open-endedness, but I have to wonder where King would have gone with this if he had written a conclusion.

In the movie the group leaves the house and shortly thereafter runs out of gas. They are stranded in the mist, surrounded by horrors. They pause to contemplate the gravity of the situation… then David pulls out a gun and murders everyone in the car, his own son included! I don’t know about you, but the last goddamn thing I’d ever do would be hurt my own children, regardless of the situation. I’d try to survive, to wait things out, to make it to some kind of shelter, to do the hokey-pokey…. Something – anything. But murder? My own son? Naw, ain’t happening, and I don’t buy that David would do this either. David then turns the gun on himself but has run out of bullets…

Then, worst of all, comes the ultimate pisser, a craptastic velveta-covered slap in the face – seconds after David’s multiple murder/attempted suicide the military comes marching onto the scene, tanks rolling and flamethrowers and weapons firing, clearing the creatures away... why even the fog begins lifting. If only David had waited a couple more minutes! Nooooooooo!

 Round 12
Score: +1 King

 Ladies and Gentlemen. Your judges have reached a unanimous decision. Your winner, by a score of 6 to 3 and 3 rounds undecided is...

Stephen King novella.

 Not that Darabont got everything wrong. As mentioned before, I do feel changing the relationship between David and Amanda was the right move. The movie had added gore, which was really well done, and very effective. And I really liked the choice of actor for Brent. But that ending was unforgivable.

But this is where I get back to my original question – do you prefer to read the book first, or see the movie? The book is inevitably going to be a better version. It’s the original, the inspiration, the template for which the copy was made. In my mind it’s like a photocopier– the copy will always be inferior to the original, and it’s rare this isn’t true.

But if you see the movie first you have those actor’s faces and mannerisms and speech patterns in the back of your mind the whole time, so it kind of spoils the reading experience.   It’s a no win solution. Each should, honestly, be taken on its own merits and not compared, but that is just human nature. Guess I’ll have to think about this one for a while.


  1. I read "The Mist" in 1985 or 1986 as a high school kid and dreamt of the movie version for decades. And what mostly kills this movie for me is that final, mean-spirited, good-for-nothing twist. Darabont's ending fails because he was so obviously just trying to outdo King's original ending, so that people who'd read the story would be surprised too.

    Now, I know mainstream audiences don't like their movies open-ended like King ended his story, but what was great about it was how overpowering the mist and the things in it were. How could mankind hope to find against that... thing... that towered over the survivors in both versions? Darabont says: coupla flamethrowers, no biggie. King says: nobody knows.

    My dream/nightmare ending? Leave the survivors alive, hoping to get to the source of the radio broadcast... then have the camera pull back to reveal the entire planet Earth enveloped in mist.

  2. Well, I would have to generally agree with you on preferring the novella to the movie. The big sticking point for me is the ending as well. What a loser! He would rather kill everyone and himself than fight to survive another day? I'd prefer a vague ending with a grain of hope than what we got. It really puts a damper on a pretty fun monster movie.

  3. Agreed guys. I just don't buy this crap ending at all. I like the way the book ended - they barely escaped and are headed to try and go somewhere, anywhere that's away from that damn mist. But will they find anyplace, or has the whole world, as you mentioned, Will, been enveloped by the mist. The audience is left to wonder...

    King has said in interviews and panels that he liked this ending. BUT I bet that's cause he wanted it to do well in theaters - those panels i saw were before the movie came out. I suspect deep down he cringed the first time he read that Darabont script, or saw it on the screen, whichever came first.

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