books v film

Book v Film: The Mist

Today I want to look at one of my favourite writers and an adaptation of one of their novellas. I’d like to look at the adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’. The novella was released in 1985 in the collection ‘The skeleton Crew’, while the film came out in 2007.

In my opinion, the main things that changed when the novella got adapted were the atmosphere and tone of the story. I want to focus this blog on the elements that the director changed which I feel has effected these.

The most obvious in my opinion is the pacing, the novella, for all it is short at only 130 pages, is a slow burn. Everything in the novella takes time, the characters are introduced gently and given time to establish themselves before we get to the monsters (the first one doesn’t show up until the second third of the novella). King uses the first third of the story to foreshadow, build tension and most importantly make you care and connect with the characters.

The film jumps almost straight to the action, we get a brief introduction of our main character, his son and his neighbour all before we’re whisked away into the supermarket where the bulk of the film takes place. I understand that films will struggle with pacing compared to novels and novellas, they are a completely different medium so we struggle to spend time in our MC’s head, films also have a limited run time so it’s natural that they might cut some of the ‘fluff’ but the world and character building does suffer for it in my opinion.

The second element, and main element, that I feel changed the tone and atmosphere of the story was Mrs Carmody. She is handled quite differently in the film compared to the novella.

But before I go into what changed with this character and how it changed the tone of the film, I feel the need to clarify that the majority of King’s stories are not about monsters, spooks, or haunted cars. Even when on the surface they might seem like they are about these things they are actually about people, and often about how people are or can be monsters.

The Mist is about people, people who are trapped and afraid, they have no idea what is happening or why and this story shows how they react under that pressure. Especially when someone, who everyone knows is batshit mad, starts making the decisions. The story is about how we, as a species, can do horrendous things when we are scared, stressed, and feel threatened, how we can let other people do things that normally wouldn’t be seriously considered let alone actually allowed.

This is why the changes to Mrs Carmody had such an impact on the tone and atmosphere of the film.

In the novella Mrs Carmody is the local crazy lady who starts ranting about Armageddon and gets people so wound up and afraid (when they are already in a stressful situation) that they are 100% down with killing a kid if it will make the scary thing go away. There is no evidence (beyond her raving) that suggests that sacrificing a child would do anything other than kill a kid, but the people in the supermarket have slow burned their way to the point where they will consider anything.

In the film we reach the same end point, in that the supermarket peeps are down to sacrifice a child for … reasons. But it’s how we get there that has changed. The focus is so much more on Mrs Carmody than it is in the book and she’s so much more purposeful in her actions and deliberate in her thinking that it almost absolves the group as a whole of what they agree to do. In the film it’s Mrs. Carmody who is a threat, it’s Mrs Carmody who wants to kill the child. In the book she influences people, but she’s only doing what she’s always done, it’s not her that’s changed its everyone else. The responsibility is on everyone in the book. In the film it’s zeroed in on Mrs Carmody to the point where you forget that there’s a whole bunch of peeps down to murder this kid.

In the book the greatest threat (besides the mist monsters, though honestly you could replace the monsters with an inexplicably locked door and still get the same effect) is abstract fear, it’s the way people react to fear. In the film the biggest threat is hands down Mrs Carmody.

The film changes her from a general mad woman into a fundamentalist Christian, who preys to God to allow her to lead the people in the supermarket. Note I said lead, not save, she acknowledges that most of the people will burn and she seems malevolently happy about this (to further vilify her in my opinion). There’s also a part in the film where the monsters get into the supermarket and start killing people, but they pass over Mrs Carmody in a scene that gave me, ‘god spares the true believer’ vibes. I think this scene was added to absolve the group as a whole even more than the film was already doing. It literally gives people a reason to listen to Mrs Carmody, in a ‘look she’s right God protected her’ way. This is not touched on in the novella at all, as I said she’s the same mad woman that she’s always been, it’s the group that’s changed, the fear has driven them to breaking point so that they listen to someone they wouldn’t normally have entertained.

Lastly, the film has her do the whole ritual sacrifice thing to an adult solider before she moves on to the kid. This could have been done so that the leap to child murder seemed slightly more understandable, it’s difficult to go from zero to kid murder. But that takes away the whole point in my opinion, the real horror in this story is that this group of normally rational people are suddenly and inexplicably happy to kill this little boy.

Finally, the last main element that was changed and thus changed the tone and atmosphere of the film, the ending.

Before I go into this, I want to stress that this is major spoiler territory. Normally I wouldn’t give a warning here, because I’d assume if your reading a blog about how an adaptation changed between book to film I’d assume you came prepared for spoilers. But, in this instance, Stephen King himself has apparently said that anyone who reveals it should be strung up. So out of respect for Mr King, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS.

First major change is that the film really spells things out, best shown through the fact that we never really know what happened to our main character’s wife in the novella, we assume she died, she was left in a house with a massive hole in the wall so yeah she probably dead. But the film literally shows you her body as our small band of survivors drive out of the town after escaping the supermarket.

While as I said we can safely assume she died in the novella it’s not spelled out and it’s that atmosphere of uncertainty that gets taken away in the film. They touch on it early on in the film as well when they basically spell out where the mist comes from, in the novella we don’t know and the uncertainty heightens the tension.

The novella ends of a kind of positive note, or if not positive then at least a hopeful note with the group of survivors possibly hearing the word ‘hope’ on the radio and driving with hope to find a safe place.

The film … well the film is very different.

The small band escape the supermarket, drive off, see the dead wife and keep driving. There’s no potential message on the radio, there’s just never-ending mist. They can’t clear it, they run out of gas with no idea where they are. They are so hopeless that rather than let everyone be eaten by monsters our main character shoots them all, including his son. When he turns the gun on himself, he’s run out of bullets. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, he goes looking for death in the mist when the mist suddenly clears revealing the army, who are killing the monsters easily enough and looking after the refugees. Literally if he’d sat in the damn truck for a few minutes longer he wouldn’t have had to kill his son or his two friends. He falls to his knees in despair, the end.

In conclusion, they are actually both pretty good (save the ultra depressing ending to the film) if you watch the film in isolation then it’s a pretty stand up horror flick. But overall, the book is more nuanced, more detailed, more considerate in it’s depiction of fear and more patient, the slow burn is a big part of why this is effective.

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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