Book vs. Movie: Salem’s Lot

Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s second novel and has had two made-for-tv movie adaptations, one released in 1979 and the other in 2004. I’m only going to be discussing the more well-known 1979 version, which was directed by Tobe Hooper. (The 2004 movie was, in my humble opinion, abysmal).

The novel is a sort of re-imagining of Stoker’s Dracula (the original title was The Second Coming), replacing the thriving metropolis of London in the late 19th century with a small town in an isolated corner of Maine in the 1970’s. In many ways, Salem’s Lot is more gothic in its conventions and execution than Dracula. In Dracula, the industrial west with all its technological advancements shines like a beacon, eliminating the shadows in which creatures like the Count thrive, and he is indeed thwarted, sent scrambling back to the mountainous Romanian wilds before the book’s climax. In Salem’s Lot, Barlow (our stand-in for Count Dracula) finds the repressed rural American environment an invigorating one, a fertile ground for the propagation of his species; even though he, like Dracula, is destroyed, it is not by modern means, it is through ancient faith and luck. But it matters little, for his evil has taken root and spread quickly, like a wildfire, eclipsing all life in the town.

The movie is not a terrible adaptation but, as can be expected, there are some fairly drastic changes to the original story, and being as it was broadcast on network TV, there is none of the blood and guts one would expect from a Stephen King movie.
I can understand cutting some things down for time constraints and editing for network standards, but nitpicky bookworm that I am, the differences bother me. This movie may not be as popular or fondly remembered as some of King’s other cinematic outings, which is strange because Salem’s Lot remains one of his top selling books, and while I do think it hasn’t aged all that well, it was still enjoyable to watch.

I’m going to start off with my biggest beef with the movie version: Barlow. I get what Tobe Hooper and crew were going for, they wanted more of a Count Orlock vibe, but Barlow in the book was very much like the original Dracula: he was articulate, he could appear as either a young man or and old aristocrat, he was cunning and a worthy adversary for Ben and his band of vampire hunters. In the movie, Barlow is mute and seen very little and Straker takes on a much bigger role as a result, which negatively impacts both characters. Straker, in the book, is cool and lithe, with the air of a Bond villain and he radiates menace from his place on the edges of the story, half hidden in shadows. In the movie, he is much too visible to be any sort of frightening figure and they try too hard to make him come across as scary, which falls flat. Movie Barlow’s appearance is a bit chilling; I will admit he scared me as a kid, but now with his blue skin and languid manner, he seems like an extra wandered away from the set of Dawn of the Dead and in front of Hooper’s cameras and they decided to just roll with it. Maybe Romero’s influence, along with the glut of Dracula movies in the 70s, had something to do with the change: Drac was played out, ghouls were in.

For a made for TV movie from the 70’s, the special effects are admirable, especially the vampires floating outside the windows in a shifting cloak of fog, their eyes glowing a silvery-yellow. This is very true to the spirit of the book, particularly in the scene where Danny Glick comes begging for admittance at Mark’s window. This is one of the things the movie does right: it preserves the gothic feel of the novel, with the dilapidated Marsten house looming over the town and the Grand Guinol inspired musical score, lingering shots of the full moon, and hungry vampires floating ethereally in the night.

While they omitted some characters entirely, Father Callahan is present in the movie, but in a greatly reduced capacity. This was a huge mistake. He is one of the best characters in the novel and he serves as a fitting adversary for Barlow and also as a commentary for the spiritual/social malaise most of the country (especially the rural areas) was in during the post-Vietnam recession 1970s. Like Barlow represents the evils of the old world coming to the new (and being welcomed, albeit subconsciously), Callahan was the visage of an ancient religion trying to find its place in what many consider to be a Godless age. Maybe it’s all a little heavy for a horror movie, but King had much to say in the book about the power of faith and the struggle between the forces of good and evil (which goes back to when I talked about the novel honoring gothic conventions). In the movie, Callahan feels like a tacked-on character, almost an afterthought.

Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think they missed the boat by cutting or changing some of the book’s scariest sequences, particularly the abduction of Ralphie Glick in the woods. They really could have dragged this scene out and used the shadows and tricks of noise to amp up the suspense. I also found myself wishing they explored the history of Hubie Marsten and his house in greater detail; they skim over the mythos in the film, but in the book the Marsten house is very heavily featured. Something else that occurs to me is that all of the very dark humor King interjected into the novel is absent from the movie.

I definitely prefer the book (that is often the case with me), but I want to stress that this isn’t a bad movie. It’s relatively faithful to the main plot points of the novel and it has its own charming quality. I don’t think the movie is on Hulu or Netflix, but it is available for streaming on Vudu, so check it out. And also check out the book if you get the chance.

Next up for Book vs. Movie: Exorcist III vs. Legion

About Brian White 24 Articles
I am a lifelong horror junkie, musician, and writer. I'm in the process of publishing my first book of poetry as well as writing my first novel. I'm 38 years old and I live in Canton, Ohio.