[2008-04-21] Frank Darabont strikes out

Directors making adaptations of Stephen King's works have a remarkably poor batting average. For every home run like The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me, there are half-a-dozen strikes like Maximum Overdrive, Desperation, 1408, Needful Things, The Mangler, The Lawnmower Man, and the television miniseries version of It. Granted, the league includes some famous players like Stanley Kubrick, but all-in-all, if you're thinking about shelling out some dough to go see the new King adaptation, the stats are against you.

Kubrick, who never did anything twice, was really just a ringer, brought in for one game. The team's slugger is Frank Darabont, who hit it out of the park with The Shawshank Redemption and at least got a line drive with The Green Mile, which is why I was expecting great things when previews for his adaptation of The Mist first started rolling in theaters about a year ago. I've read most of King's oeuvre, and The Mist stands out in my mind, among his short fiction, as a strong story with an interesting premise, well-conceived and executed with technical near-brilliance. And given Darabont's record, which is still WAY above average for a King director thanks to the The Shawshank Redemption, I was excited about the possibility of somebody taking a great King story and doing it up right, for once, for the silver screen.

Suffice to say I was let down, and perhaps moreso than if The Mist had made the same kinds of mistakes that routinely plague King adaptations. As it is, Darabont's The Mist has joined the ranks of those near-greats that could've been classics if somebody had just let me rewrite the last five minutes of the movie before releasing it to theaters. Other notable members of this list include Michael Mann's Heat, with its apologetic Dostoyevskian wrap-up, and Christian Duguay's Screamers, which would've been a pretty cool adaptation of Phil Dick's Second Variety if some bone-head hadn't thought to tack on a ridiculous or-DID-they ending involving a menacing mechanical Teddy Bear. This kind of last-minute failure is especially disappointing, like a long drive that looks like it might be going over and then plops into an outfielder's mitt just shy of the fence. I always imagine that the director's authentic ending was unpopular with focus groups and was taken out by the studio, who then replaced it with the crappy one that I had to watch. Who knows what really happens, though.

Which is not to say that The Mist is perfect right up until the end. God knows it has other flaws, most notably Marcia Gay Harden's performance as Mrs. Carmody. Doubtless it's a difficult part, and the writing for her character could've been better, but the woman who comes across onscreen is totally unbelievable as a charismatic cult leader. No matter how bad things in the store have gotten, it's hard to see how anybody could see her as anything but an annoying nutcase, and that she somehow has "followers" a couple of days into the crisis seems completely implausible. To its credit, the movie anticipates our incredulity and attempts a Judo throw, using the momentum of our disbelief to try and make a point about how thin the line is that separates civilized people from blood-worshipping primates, and suggesting that we're all just in denial about how realistic Mrs. Carmody's character might actually be. I'm still not persuaded, but I appreciate that they made the effort, and I can forgive, because they tried.

The ending, however...well, that was a dealbreaker for me. Be advised I'm going to talk about the details now, so if you're concerned about spoilage you should probably stop reading.

King's original short story, like much of his fiction from that era, ends on a note of sour hope. The horror of the store behind them, Drayton and his son and his replacement wife drive off through the Mist in search of escape and come upon the Megacreature, which is a monster so large that only its feet and legs are visible and its body is lost in the misty sky. This is a very nice moment for me, the point at which horrific awe is transmuted into a kind of existential beauty. The Megacreature is final proof against the idea which Mrs. Carmody represents--that the Mist is some kind of actively evil force which has been visited upon the Earth as punishment. When we see the massive feet of the Megacreature sinking into the concrete of the abandoned highway, we have a moment which is akin to Mersault's epiphany at the end of L'etranger, in which we realize that the Mist, like the Universe itself, is not actively evil and does not hate us. That it does not love us is evident to anyone who has ever suffered deeply, but that it does not hate us, well, that realization can come as a relief in the aftermath of profound trauma. The Megacreature ambles on slowly through the fog, bellowing mournfully like a foghorn, sublimely indifferent to the tiny bipeds who suffer and scurry about its massive feet.

All this Darabont's movie handles with elán, which is very much to his credit. He fails, unsurprisingly, when he deviates from King's original design. The ending of the short story finds Drayton and his family running low on fuel after driving endlessly through the Mist and witnessing its horrors and revelations. Just as Drayton begins to seriously consider the unthinkable, the car's radio picks up a faint radio transmission from a distant city, and Drayton realizes that the Mist has not completely consumed the Earth, that there are other survivors, and that if he holds out and keeps his head together, he and the people he loves might still just make it to safety. He's realistic, and he knows they don't have much of a chance. But they have one, and he's certain now that it's real, and he can hope for it, and that's all he needs to keep going. And thus King leaves him, with a note of faint hope that is just enough to keep him from pulling the trigger.

This idea that hope keeps us alive was the principle theme of The Shawshank Redemption, both the written and cinematic versions, and it is nearly inconceivable to me that Darabont somehow missed it when he was adapting The Mist. So how he managed to produce the baleful ending which made it to theaters is something of a mystery for me. In that ending, Drayton and his loved ones drive through the Mist, after confronting the Megacreature, until the car runs out of gas. With nowhere to go, no supplies, and hopeless of survival outside the car, the occupants of Drayton's car agree to commit suicide. Unfortunately there are only four bullets for five souls, so Drayton must "work something out" on his own after killing everyone he still cares about, including his young son, whose protection has been his principle motivation throughout the film. The camera, thankfully, does not actually show Drayton pulling the trigger, just the exterior of the car and four bright flashes and four loud bangs. We then cut back to the interior, to discover Drayton screaming incoherently, his mouth around the gun, repeatedly pulling the trigger, which each time clicks impotently on an empty chamber. There's no going back from this point; even if Drayton somehow escapes the Mist, he will not survive the trauma of killing his only child. At this point it's only a question of how long it will take him to find some way to destroy himself. He opens the car door and stumbles out, and hears the bellowing of something approaching through the Mist. He staggers towards the sound, waiting for the creature to take him, and of course after a few anxious moments it's revealed that the sound is coming from an M1 tank rolling towards him down the road, at the head of a column of very human infantry who are clearing the Mist and its creatures before them. He is saved, but of course it is too late and he is doomed anyway. There's no going back from what he's done.

This is probably the bleakest ending imaginable, and it's also hugely unsatisfying for the audience. It rather spoils the preceding story, transforming it from a valiant struggle for survival into a cruelly macabre joke. It's not so much horrifying as sickening and tiresome, and it betrays a kind of bitter contempt for the audience: You bothered to pay attention? To suspend belief and get involved in the story? To care about the characters? Well, screw you, 'cuz they're dead. For no reason. Life's a bitch ain't it? Ha-freaking-ha. In short, it is a terrible dramatic choice, and not, I imagine, how Darabont originally intended to do things.

Early in the film, after the storm strikes but before the Mist rolls in, while Drayton and his son and his neighbor are en route to the store where the main action takes place, the neighbor is flipping through radio stations in the car and discovers that "the local station's off the air, but Portland's still broadcasting," or words to that effect. This observation serves no real point in the story as is, but in the original King version, where the distant radio broadcast is the final beacon of hope, it is crucial set-up info. That it survives in the theatrical version suggests to me that the film was begun with King's original ending in mind, and later changed to incorporate the here's-piss-in-your-face version that saw final cut.

I do have a theory about why the unfortunate change was made, and it goes like this: Darabont wanted to stick with King's original ending, in which the ultimate fate of Drayton and family is unresolved, but in which we are left with the faint hope of distant Portland to cling to. The studio, the focus groups, the test marketers, and/or some other evil mustache-twirling Hollywood skallywags nixed that version, in which we never really find out if Our Heroes live or die, as too unconventional and "artsy" for the genre. Darabont rebelled, and, given an imperative to resolve the protagonists' fates one way or the other, chose to destroy them all in the bleakest and most painful way imaginable rather than compromise with a conventional "happy Hollywood" ending in which everyone escapes more-or-less unscathed. I don't know if that's what really happened or not, but it's the only scenario that makes much sense to me.

Even so, I think it was the wrong decision. I, for one, would've preferred the happy Hollywood scenario to the Jonestown approach. It could have been done tastefully, to minimize the cheese factor, with lots of haunting shots of the Mist, and its aftermath, and the bizarrely inhuman faces of the soldiers in their gas masks reflected over the child's wide eyes in the blood-spattered windows of Drayton's car. What bothers me most about Darabont's ending, however, is the sense that he did it just to be unconventional and unexpected, and just to shock: Surely he wouldn't dare to actually kill the kid, would he? But he would, actually, regardless of the consequences for the overall quality of the film, and he would do so, it almost seems, just because someone dared him. Which is too bad for him, and too bad for us, and too bad, ultimately, for The Mist, which could've been one for the ages. So it goes.

last modified 2008-04-21