It’s kind of a kick to see beloved children’s literature brought to life onscreen. Granted, it may be far-fetched to call vintage Stephen King “children’s literature,” but that’s exactly what it was for many Gen-Xers, who devoured his paperbacks on porches whenever school was out. What mesmerizes us as kids and teenagers, though, often loses its luster as we get older. King and I parted ways some time in the mid-90s and haven’t been able to rekindle our comfortable old terms since then. But his early short stories and novellas and Bachman books still have nostalgic teeth, and The Mist, because of its inherent cinematic potential, is the one King tale I’ve been waiting to see onscreen since puberty. Throw in Frank Darabont — who breathed life into The Shawshank Redemption adaptation despite its Hollywood nuts and bolts — and there was no way I was missing this popcorner.
For the uninitiated, The Mist takes place in a small Maine community recovering from a violent summer storm. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) stops into the local supermarket for supplies, accompanied by his young son and his asshole neighbor (who comes off less assholish onscreen thanks to Andre Braugher’s three-dimensional take on the Norton character). When a thick fog engulfs the store, the parking lot, and the world for as far as the eye can see, horror happens. It happens outside the supermarket, where people are devoured by marvels only partially apprehended, and it happens inside among the cornered collection of strangers, where human nature kicks in, Hobbesian platitudes gush, and the old trope of Who’re The Real Monsters? plays out in fine enough form.
While the novella’s opening pages only makes suggestions about the beasties’ origins, Darabont hammers us right off with an indubitable cause; army vehicles and soldiers are much more prominent in the movie’s opening moments than they are in the book’s, erasing the slow build and crushing out any sense of mystery about the teratogenous wherefores (fans of horror know that government research labs are almost always to blame for the zombies and giant moles that plague us). That utter sense of senselessness for a good part of the narrative is what injects King’s novella with its darkest shot of horror, and seeing the camo so lime-lit right off the bat in the film steals that from us.
The adaptation fumbles early on with this, I think, and it fumbles right at the film’s conclusion with its tacked-on O. Henry ending (I can’t say more without spoiler-ing, but insert my G.O.B.-ian Come ON! here). King’s on record stating that he prefers Darabont’s ending to his own — but this is the man who prefers the made-for-TV version of The Shining over Kubrick’s, and who has claimed that Hitchcock’s ambivalent endings are “weak”, as if he can’t see a difference between structure and theme. I’ll take Kubrick’s and Hitchcock’s authority on film theory over King’s (and Darabont’s) any day. The only good thing about the emotion-porn conclusion — complete with Dead Can Dance caterwauling — is that it didn’t go the way of the test-audience wrap-up. And, to be fair, it’s bound to work for viewers who don’t mind a bit of sweaty, clumsy manipulation from time to time (I say this as someone who, by nature, just prefers a more subtle lover’s touch).
But these are minor complaints that can’t sink an overall effective little monster movie (and besides, when it comes down to it, faithfulness to source has nothing to do with a movie’s quality). Everything sandwiched between Darabont’s bookends works as it should. Unless you’re the type of viewer who can’t forgive alterations between source and film, or who requires Originality! to light your fire, The Mist connects the genre dots and draws up a decent nightmare. Few of Darabont’s changes offend, and — not that it matters — the novella itself never really brought much new to what Lovecraft began, aside from King’s mundane-becomes-monstrous signature and his dependable Maine-life portraits. Darabont wisely erased King’s most indulgent weak-spot (David and Amanda’s uglies-bumpage up in the manager’s office), and added a few zingers that seemed to satisfy the cheese-craving audience around me. Most importantly for our purposes, Darabont’s creatures are squeam-inducing and acid-taut in design, his gore is minimal but intense, and his muted use of music reflects the hollow silence of a deep fog. Seeing King’s grocery-store grand guignol come alive — like the famous scenes in the loading dock and pharmacy — was a trip I suspect can be enjoyed by both idolaters of the original story and those with no previous King experience.
All’s well with the performances, too. Thomas Jane grinds it as the helpless father and husband who’s honest about his terror but determined to protect his son from the mist-fiends. He’s only as wooden as an average male thirtysomething would be in that situation, frozen partly by fright and partly by the social convention that insists men of his age, in such a situation, take the stoic lead. The locals — always colorful stock types in a King story — are brought to life accordingly: Frances Sternhagen takes on the old-lady schoolteacher role, spraying many-legged skittlers with bug repellant while comforting her ex-students with her classroom associations; Toby Jones is a perfect Ollie Weeks, the mild-mannered supermarket clerk who rises to the occasion; and Marcia Gay Harden is the fanatic Mrs. Carmody realized up to the ceiling.
Mrs. Carmody gradually works her way into the center of the story, and Darabont uses her as a touchstone for the theme he chose to amplify: the old Science vs. Religion rivalry. Religion, as it’s embodied in the vile Mrs. Carmody and her pungent biblical rhapsodizing, comes off badly — but so does science. It’s science that let the Frankenstein monsters loose in the first place, and those science-monsters encroach on the town wrapped in a mist — the world’s oldest metaphor for ignorance and blindness. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from this film (if there’s anything to take away apart from a few good scares and shudders), but I do wonder if it’s any accident that The Mist finally made it to the screen in the Bush era, as science finds itself fighting to keep its position as the philosophical default after a hundred years of supremacy in the US. No — that’s probably a stretch on my part. But it is timely, and it adds that membrane of cultural relevance we expect in our monster movies, and which we’ve been aware of since the creature features of the 1950s played politics with their thinly disguised red scares. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on November 24, 2007.)