Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a Stephen King fanbois. I don’t deny it. Hell, I adamantly defend it, but I also happen to be a big fan of Kubrick’s The Shining. As mentioned in other posts, I believe that the novel of The Shining was mostly unfilmable, especially in its time. What Kubrick did was discover the essence of that story and render that to the screen. On my seventh viewing, I finally got it and now it’s one of my favorite movies. I even shared The Shining with my kids – but not without one of those long-winded introductions they love so much.
I’m also a fan of David Lynch’s Dune. And, once again, I’ve reported in other posts how disappointed I was when I watched the movie the first time. And, just as with The Shining, it took some time and many viewings to get that Lynch had done the same thing Kubrick had. He took an essentially unfilmable work of fiction and gave us his impression of it.
My central thesis when it comes to complex stories like Dune and The Shining, is that you can’t capture the whole thing in a single two hour movie, so the director creates an impression of his reading of the story instead. And I would argue that’s a totally valid way of presenting the source material… in some cases.
Which brings me to what I believe is the greatest horror novel of all time: Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This fascinating, vivid and complex story has more layers and distorted perceptions than your personal reality can hold. It’s also a brilliant character study stuffed inside a nearly perfect Gothic novel. And what’s more: It was eminently filmable.
I still clearly remember when the movie was announced because the casting was so perfect. Although the book’s protagonist is young, the most important characters driving the story are elderly. So when I heard Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal had been cast in those pivotal roles, I felt assured we were going to get a top quality movie out of the process.
I’m not sure who didn’t get it, whether it was the writer Lawrence D. Cohen or the director John Irvin, but, seeing as how Cohen was responsible for two clunky adaptations of Stephen King novels (It and The Tommyknockers)*, I have to assume he was the one who turned this multifaceted gem into a smear of dried oatmeal.
Using what I imagine to be a sledgehammer on his keyboard, he managed to deftly remove all of the layering, all of the history, all of the nuance, all of the allusions to the monsters of supernatural literature from the story. He even changed the nature of the beast tormenting the Chowder Society into… a ghost. I guess the irony in the book’s title eluded him.
Whoever’s fault it was, they didn’t distill the book down to its essence and give us their impression of it. They turned it into a standard Hollywood horror movie and inserted the character names from the book. As a result, the movie stunk and the wider world of readers who could have been drawn into Straub’s other work remained on the sidelines.
The book is highly recommended. The movie, you should avoid.
* I know Cohen also wrote the script for Carrie, which is not a bad movie, but keep in mind that the novel is pretty much single faceted. It couldn’t have been much of a challenge to turn that one into a screenplay.