The Mist by Stephen King, collected in Skeleton Crew (1985)
It can be painful to see a favorite book come to the big screen. You have constructed this perfect world of the story in your mind, and it is very likely that someone else’s vision won’t match yours. This is especially likely when you are a fan of Stephen King, whose page-turners — which can be perfectly believable and terrifying in the reader’s head — all too often become silly and cringe-inducing when translated to the big screen.
There have been many exceptions, of course, most of them based on King’s earlier works and adapted by very able directors. Brian de Palma‘s Carrie comes to mind, as does David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and Misery. More recently, Frank Darabont has proven that he knows how to handle King material, with incredible adaptations of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. So Darabont seemed a worthwhile choice to attempt to adapt a long-time fan favorite, The Mist, despite the fact that this would be his first outing into King’s trademarked gore-filled, over-the-top horror territory.
The Mist has been a long time coming to the screen. The novella was first published in the collection Skeleton Crew, and it remains one of the most beloved of King’s works. It is not a particularly easy choice for adaptation, since the plot involves dimensional holes and Lovecraftian creatures that may be best left to the imagination because, let’s face it, once realized, they could look pretty silly.
On the other hand, the plot is perfectly suited to film, contained and tense. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds are appropriate. A group of people in a small town are trapped in a grocery store by the sudden onset of a thick mist that contains a completely unexplainable, terrifying threat. When Billy, one of the young characters, begs his father not to “let the monsters get me,” he sums up the button that is being pushed: The mist contains our worst childhood nightmares made real, and there really does seem to be no way out.
Under the strain, the small civilization inside the grocery store breaks down rapidly. The characters quickly revert to denial, petty arguments and superstition in the face of the inexplicable. A religious maniac who always seemed nutty suddenly becomes persuasive and gradually builds up a following. The number of people who manage to retain their common sense become the minority and, as a result, under threat. The ongoing human drama is interspersed with attacks from the monsters outside to keep the tension high.
For the vast majority of the film, Darabont remains faithful to the source text. The creatures in the mist are alien and a little cartoonish but not silly-looking. Scares and gore are both believable but not too much. Darabont does interject some editorial comments through his characters’ mouths, but otherwise the characters are true to form.
Until the end. Darabont has changed the ending. According to interviews, King approved of the new ending (this is the same guy who was disappointed with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining). Apparently, Darabont wanted something definitive, not an ambiguous ending like in the original novella. This is where I think fans of the novella will seriously balk. I know I did, but I generally love the ambiguous ending whenever it appears (including in The Birds). I like being asked to supply my ideas of what happened to the characters. Darabont’s ending is not only very different from the original and definitely not ambiguous, but it is also seriously disturbing and depressing. He has taken a risk, and I think by doing so, he has probably alienated most readers who loved the original novella and waited so long to see it come to film.
I don’t only dislike the film’s ending because it’s different, though. I dislike it because I believe it is seriously out of character, counter to everything that was established during the movie. Oh yes, I get the ironic twist, the culmination of the theme that people behave so radically differently under extreme circumstances that their actions should fall outside the bounds of their everyday behavior. But still, I didn’t buy these actions from these people. It’s hard to say more without totally giving away the ending, so I won’t. I’ll just say that this fan was extremely disappointed, especially since the rest of the film was so good and so right on.
And that’s the risk we take when we go to the movies to see someone else’s imagining of a favorite book: that we will be disappointed, and that the film version will somehow taint our memory of the beloved text. I suspect that many people who have not read the original novella will love The Mist. It is a terrific movie. But I think I won’t be the only fan to feel that the new ending ruined it.