FANGORIA is presenting an upcoming Stephen King series at the Plaza Theater in Atlanta. We're kicking off the 1983 trio with a Cujo screening September 16 at 9:30 pm featuring a special pre-recorded Q&A introduction with stuntman and Cujo double Gary Morgan. Diving into the many book-to-film adaptations of 1983 (from King and beyond) feels pretty fitting as we head into our King on screen series.
The very first feature-length horror movie was an adaptation: 1911’s Dante’s Inferno, a 71-minute take on Dante’s Divine Comedy. And it certainly didn’t stop there; the genre was largely built on adapting the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Phantom of the Opera in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Flash forward to the modern day, and it’s no different; a quick glance at the highest-grossing horror films of all time will look familiar to any good librarian, as box office titans like The Exorcist, It, and I Am Legend all lived in a novelist’s head long before they were turned over to Hollywood.
Usually, it’s a fairly even mix of adaptations and originals; indeed, that list of top grossers is mixed with originals like Scream, The Sixth Sense, and (name a movie James Wan produced). However, this wasn’t the case in 1983, when an overwhelming number of the horror movies we remember and still love today sported the phrase “based on the novel” somewhere in their credits. Genre faves like Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine, The Hunger, The Entity, Of Unknown Origin, The Keep, and Something Wicked This Way Comes all began life on the page, and a few of the exceptions, such as Psycho II and Jaws 3D, were both sequels to films that were based on bestsellers. There were some originals, of course, such as Sleepaway Camp and Videodrome (plus the wide release of The Evil Dead, retitled from 1981 when it premiered as, heh, The BOOK of the Dead), but they were consistently overshadowed at the box office by their more literary oriented peers.
The other unusual thing about this batch is that they were largely faithful to their respective sources. Now, by “faithful,” I don’t mean that every single line has been recreated, as that would be ridiculous. There will always be some streamlining unless it’s a very short book, so this or that scene might be missing, and maybe two characters have become one. But if the soul of the text is left intact, and the majority of the scenes in the film can be traced back to the page, then to me, it’s “faithful”—your definition may differ, of course. But we can all agree that there was nothing like the radical departures seen in certain other adaptations of the era; 1981’s The Wolfen departed greatly from Whitley Streiber’s original text (Streiber would have better luck here, as we’ll see in a bit), and 1982’s The Beast Within barely resembled Edward Levy’s novel at all. That wasn’t the case for most of these 1983 releases; 90-95% of the scenes in each film can easily be recognized as being taken directly from the novel that inspired them, in some cases even recreating conversations verbatim. But they all made at least one notable change that— shockingly enough—usually ended up being for the better, and occasionally even with the blessing of that novel’s author.
Which is as good a place as any to note that you’re a maniac if you think the one major diversion Cujo the movie made from Cujo the book was a bad call. The story is well-known even if you haven’t seen or read it: a woman named Donna (Dee Wallace) and her four-year-old son Tad (Danny Pintauro) take the family car to an out-of-the-way mechanic and get trapped inside it by his rabid dog. The movie follows the book pretty close to the letter for the first 95% (again, minus the necessary streamlining— King’s novel checks in with other characters far more frequently than the movie has time for), but book readers were probably/hopefully relieved when Teague showed some mercy and kept poor “Tadder” alive, instead of killing him via dehydration as King did. Even King himself has said Teague and co. corrected something he got wrong, and he’s certainly not one to mince words when it comes to filmmakers making changes to his material that he disagrees with. Audiences seemingly agreed; Cujo was the (sorry) top dog at the box office among the three King films released that year.
David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone is, like Cujo, faithful to the parts it kept, but the script by Jeffrey Boam made one key change to what the title referred to. In the book, Johnny Smith’s brain is damaged to the extent of leaving a “dead zone,” and he also later learns he has a brain tumor, but the movie drops the tumor angle and repurposes the title to refer to blank spots in Johnny’s visions, suggesting nothing is set in stone. This not only presents a more hopeful view of his visions and his place within them but also changes his death at the end into a true sacrifice (in the book, he was going to die of his tumor anyway), which cements the tragedy of the story. But it’s otherwise nothing a fan could really complain about (King loved this one too, for the record), retaining all the major parts— catching the serial killer, tutoring a rich kid and saving his life, stopping the political rise of Greg Stillson— and losing none of its power. It is, to date, one of the best King adaptations and sort of an under-appreciated gem in Cronenberg’s filmography as well.
The final part of this “King trilogy” was Christine, the rights to which were snatched up by producers before it was even published; in fact, the film only started shooting within a week or so of the day it hit shelves. But as it turns out, despite the fact that they started making it before there were any real fans of it to anger, the big change here was met with more mixed feelings than the others, as Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips opted to change the very source of Christine’s menace. King’s novel chalked it up to the ghost of its former owner, Roland LeBay, with his ghoulish specter communicating with Arnie when the teen was driving and even appearing to others during his crimes. Instead of dealing with that, Carpenter’s film opens on a new scene (one of the very few in the film with no book counterpart) of Christine being built, showing that it was somehow evil from the beginning as it murders one of the auto workers putting the finishing touches on her. Carpenter also ultimately shows Arnie as the one driving the car during its murderous actions, though he wasn’t necessarily behind the wheel for ALL of them (in the book, he is completely innocent of these murders). Sure, the idea of a car being “born bad” is kind of goofy, but on the other hand, if the makeup or performance of Lebay’s ghost wasn’t up to snuff, the whole thing would fall apart. Carpenter’s simplified choice allowed him to instantly get the “why” out of the way and focus on the trio of young leads heading toward the inevitable tragic conclusion. However, Carpenter’s take admittedly traded away the novel’s sad tone to focus on the suspense. King’s version is heartbreaking at times, depicting the crumbling friendship between two lifelong pals, which the film mostly skirts over.
Tony Scott’s debut film The Hunger, is the opposite: the movie is actually more melancholy and meditative than Whitley Strieber’s 1981 source novel. The story is the same in both: a pair of immortal vampire-like beings, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) are living their normal life of occasionally murdering younger folks to drink their blood and prolong their existence, but John is finding himself growing weaker, needing to feed more often and finding it not having as much effect— he is aging what seems like years in a matter of hours. This comes to a head in a scene that doesn’t exist in the novel, in which Bowie— already almost unrecognizable under old age makeup, with further stages to come— asks to see a doctor named Sarah (Susan Sarandon) who is making breakthroughs on the idea of slowing down the aging process, feeling she can help him. But she writes him off as a quack and ignores him throughout the day, only to be startled to see he is telling the truth when he finally gives up and storms out, looking a decade older than when he arrived.
It’s fair to assume that this dramatic addition was the sort of thing that attracted Bowie’s attention in the first place. Except for the end, which was changed at the insistence of the producers (Sarandon still hasn’t gotten over it; she rants about it on the commentary track, recorded over twenty years later), everything else in the film is pretty much in sync with Strieber’s novel... except for John. In the book, he actually survives until near the end of the story, angrily trying to get revenge on Miriam for casting him off so quickly and moving on to a new lover as soon as he shows signs of weakness. It’s hard to imagine Bowie smashing through walls and climbing out of shallow graves as his book counterpart does, so it stands to reason that if the script hadn’t altered the character to be a more tragic figure, Bowie would have politely passed on the project, and it’d be a far less interesting movie to boot.
The tradition continued with some other less heralded releases as well. Of Unknown Origin changed only two things from Chauncey Parker’s book: the title (Parker’s title was The Visitor), and the addition of humor that made it stand out from other “Jaws but with a ____” titles of the era. For The Entity, author Frank De Felitta adapted his own overlong text, jettisoning much of the Sneiderman character’s battles over funding to keep the focus on Barbara Hershey’s haunted Carla. As for The Keep and Something Wicked This Way Comes, it’s hard to count them as “barely changed” as both films were heavily reworked in post-production to the extent that even their directors no longer wanted much to do with the finished product, let alone the original authors. But if you read Paul Wilson’s The Keep, Mann’s film will make a lot more sense - it’s actually quite faithful to his text, it’s just missing half of it from all of the re-editing. And original author Ray Bradbury eventually admitted that Something Wicked… was a “decently nice” movie, so that’s gotta count for something.
Adaptations are a tricky beast, no matter what. It is almost impossible to translate every line and every character for the screen, and the very detail or minor character that a filmmaker opted to excise might be the thing that made a reader fall in love with the book in the first place. And, of course, you’re always dealing with preconceived notions of what the characters look and sound like, which will likely never match the casting (most agree Bill Skarsgård was a terrific Pennywise, but there’s zero chance anyone ever pictured him in the role before whoever had the idea to cast him). Even if you ignore the fans of the original material who might be angry that someone had the wrong hair color, there’s the simple matter that movies and books are two different mediums, so what works well on the page can’t always work on screen, and vice versa. But these films— all curiously released within months of each other— have all risen above whatever alterations they offered from their origins and continue to be appreciated and loved today. All hail the class of 1983!