Pet Sematary Continues Stephen King’s Hit-or-Miss Streak

Film adaptations of his novels are still reliably unreliable.

Movies Features Stephen King
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<i>Pet Sematary</i> Continues Stephen King&#8217;s Hit-or-Miss Streak

Note: This article features some spoilers for Pet Sematary that have sort of already been revealed by overzealous trailers.

The old used bookstore in my town has a basket of buttons from old political campaigns, the occasional four-legged creature wandering unattended, and one section labeled “Stephen King” in the same way it has a section labeled “Romance.” In the minds of the people who actually read books, the man is a genre unto himself, dominating the field through some magical combination of knowing exactly how to tap into the fears lurking at the margins of modern Americana, being supernaturally prolific, and being a pretty good writer actually. With pop culture nostalgia taking aim at the 1980s, it makes sense that you’d see renewed interest in adapting works from one of his most fertile artistic periods.

With It, The Dark Tower, and now Pet Sematary, two things are clear: We’re in for more King adaptations, even as they remain frustratingly hit-or-miss.

Pet Sematary isn’t worth your “dead is better” quips.

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You’ve already heard every single play on how this movie “should’ve stayed buried” or how “dead is better” (even our own reviewer couldn’t resist ending on the film’s tagline). It probably doesn’t deserve that degree of razzing. It was a competent but totally predictable and uninteresting treatment of what, by all accounts, is a pretty unsettling book.

Like a lot of King’s best work, the premise of Pet Sematary is pretty simple: Big-city doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves out to the country with his wife, two kids and a cat. When the cat meets its end under the wheels of a truck on the 60-mile-an-hour road right next to the property, Louis’ neighbor (a grizzled John Lithgow) shows him a twisted black landscape beyond the edge of his property. When the dead are buried in the soil there, they rise again. But, as tales as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” have been telling us, they come back Wrong. Of course it’s only a matter of time before one of Louis’ children ends up in the road at the same time as those heedless trucks, and we all know what he’s going to do when that happens.

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s choices in adapting the story fall apart in ways that often make little sense. An entire digression sees us relive the childhood fears of Louis’ wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), which centers chiefly on her revulsion toward a sibling with a spinal issue—turning a completely non-evil, non-supernatural medical condition into something to be feared. There’s no particular reason to go off on this tangent, nor does it make any sense that Louis starts seeing weird visions of a young man he failed to save from death who comes to him in his nightmares, either warning him away from the “sour ground” or beckoning him there, all according to whatever will sound most foreboding in that particular scene. Some of these phantasmal visits come to him before any of his family members have died, so there’s actually no good reason the spirit should be visiting him.

There’s also been some noise made about how the movie changed a major plot point in the middle and then subsequently changed the ending (spoilers: daughter Ellie dies rather than the toddler son). That matters less than the fact the changes don’t do anything in service of grappling with the deeper questions inherent in parental grief. Instead, we’re getting a resolutely surface-level story in a de-saturated color palette.

If there’s any praise to be had, it’s for Jeté Laurence, who plays Louis’ daughter and who sells her zombie-hood pretty effectively. If we’d spent more screen time with her before she went full-on murderer, it would have more deeply explored the story’s ideas.

Childe Roland to The Dark Tower came, in just one movie.

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If there was ever going to be a shot at the kind of decade-long tentpole film franchise for King, that opportunity pretty clearly came and went with 2017’s The Dark Tower, one of the most disappointing movies of that year if, like me, you were invested in the eight-book series on which it was based. Pet Sematary is a perfect example of a boring or facile adaptation of King’s work, but The Dark Tower is a full-on betrayal of nearly all of its source’s core principles, starting with the fact that in a mere 95 minutes it dispenses with a story it originally took thousands of pages to tell.

Stephen King  conceived The Dark Tower as a kind of fantasy-horror Spaghetti Western, his first attempt as a professional writer to tackle the epic. It occupies a special place in the heart of fans, coming as it did after decades of languishing between the fourth book and the three which concluded the series. King was spurred to complete it in part because he survived a near-fatal accident. Even accepting that a few hundred of those pages here and there could’ve probably been trimmed down (this is King we’re talking about), there was still so much left on the cutting-room floor, even if you restrict the scope to just what this movie wants to cover.

The story of The Dark Tower in the books follows the gunslinger Roland, a stoic amalgamation of Clint Eastwood and an Arthurian knight. He seeks to find and protect the eponymous tower, which is a sort of nexus of time and space. The journey sees him do unspeakable things in the name of continuing on his quest, detouring in all sorts of ways as more heroes fall in with him and learn about the collapse of his world. It’s bleak, ponderous, filled with episodes that sound utterly batshit when explained to somebody out of context, and the movie is not at all interested in any of it.

Enumerating this film’s transgressions would take a whole book, but just starting with the fact that Roland (an utterly wasted Idris Elba) is on some bullshit about not wanting to quest for the tower sets the tone for the whole thing. Dragging himself through a dying world long after he’s lost is pretty much the core of Roland’s character in the books. The fact the entire story is tidied up in one movie and Roland manages it without any sacrifice are probably indicators that the studio realized they’d been sitting on the rights to this thing for roughly a thousand years and needed to just get it off their plate.

The stories of bitter behind-the-scenes squabbling have been documented, but what’s most baffling about the whole affair is apparently that King himself had a relatively large amount of sway during the whole thing. Why, one wants to know, did he let any part of this slide? Quite on the contrary, he was publicly cheering on the adaptation, which some fans took to indicate it would actually be pretty good.

Literally none of the substance of that tweet made it into the movie. Roland never physically visits the tower. The Crimson King is mentioned only in graffiti and never even crosses the lips of the film’s villain, Walter. The Horn of Eld might show up poking out of Roland’s backpack, I think? But it never comes into play in any case. The idea of it being the last time around—that we are seeing another “cycle” of Roland’s story in which he does not abandon that horn, heavily implied by the strange ending of the books—is nowhere in evidence in the final cut of the film.

King has almost always been publicly and cheerily deferential toward other artists, with the ongoing exception of the late Stanley Kubrick, whose adaptation of The Shining King made no secret of hating. The Overlook Hotel, the famous setting of that movie, still managed to find its way into a cameo in The Dark Tower. One wonders if that detail just flew by him.

There is a way to do It right.

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These two stumbles are all the more frustrating because we just had a stellar adaptation of It, which came out of nowhere to blow away the box office the very same year The Dark Tower flopped hard. As Paste’s own Jim Vorel pointed out, the film’s success is somewhat less surprising when you consider it was a good movie with good performances. I’ll add that the filmmakers also approached the adaptation in smart ways.

It is nearly as ungainly a story as The Dark Tower based just on its page count. In many ways, we still don’t know whether the adaptation is a true success because the upcoming Chapter Two will conclude the story. In the book, which takes place across two periods of time separated by three decades, King sets up parallels between the past and present narratives. The filmmakers decided that wasn’t the way to go, and instead told the “past” chapter continuously, casting relative unknowns in the roles of the child protagonists and ending it at a natural point. It took some liberties with the source material (including shifting the setting out of the ’50s and into the ’80s). Some, like making Bev a damsel in distress and robbing Mike (the only black protagonist) of his scholarly role do ring false, but none of the changes contradict the motivations or underlying themes from the book. The terrible and uncanny nature of its villain remains intact, but some of the writer’s off-putting digressions are tastefully left out in favor of a tighter runtime.

It’s pretty clear that studios who hold rights to King’s works are hoping that this success kicked off more interest in adaptations like Pet Sematary. The bulk of King adaptations of his earlier work are all old enough now that they qualify for a modern-day remake, and the man’s typewriter has continued churning out novels in recent years. It’s worth it to remind studio executives that his source material has never been an ironclad guarantee of financial or critical success. For every The Shining or Carrie there’s a Dreamcatcher or… Carrie.

If studios are following the strategy of simply relying on the source material without actually taking the time and effort to consider how to interpret it for the screen, though, then King’s work is going to be less of a draw than they evidently hope it will be.


Kenneth Lowe deals in lead. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.

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