Book vs. Movie: Pet Sematary (1989)

I could write an entire series of these articles just about the million Stephen King adaptations that horror fans have been inundated with since the late 70’s. I don’t know of any other author whose work has been such a gold mine for Hollywood; they churn out the movies almost as fast as King writes the books and the result is a handful of great films, some mediocre ones, and a bunch that just absolutely suck. What makes a book to movie adaptation successful, in my opinion, is honoring the original material. While there are limitations when undergoing any adaptation of a literary work (especially considering the sheer length of King’s books) and everything cannot make it onto the screen, the filmmakers should try their best to preserve the overall integrity or the “spirit” of the novel. We all remember The Lawnmower Man, a travesty of a film that had nothing to do with King’s story; they slapped his name on it to boost their profit (King sued to have his name removed from the project). There are plenty of bad Stephen King movies I could bitch and moan about, and I will get to those in time, but today I want to talk about one of the better representations of his work to come down to Hollywood pipeline.

The original Pet Sematary (1989) was pretty faithful to the novel on which it was based, primarily because King wrote the screenplay himself. It was definitely one of the better films to come from one of his novels: Fred Gwynne’s portrayal of Jud Crandal alone makes the movie worth seeing. The main problem is, it just hasn’t aged well. It feels dated in a way that the novel doesn’t, and I can understand why some people feel that the upcoming remake was warranted. But, let’s not forget that the original is still a terrific movie. While the main plot follows the path carved out by King carved out by King in his novel, there are some differences that any fan of the original novel can’t help but notice.

In the book, Jud has a wife: a sweet grandmotherly lady named Norma. She and Jud both become close to the Creed family and the death of her character becomes the catalyst for Ellie’s introduction and tepid acceptance of the existence of death, as well as Rachel’s unburdening, finally opening up about the awful truth of the death of her sister Zelda. In the movie, Norma’s death is supplanted by the suicide of the housekeeper, Missy Dandridge, a character who also in the original novel, but who is quite different in the screen version (in the book she was young and vivacious; in the movie, she was mopey and a bit of a Debbie Downer). I’m not sure why King decided to remove Norma from the story, except maybe to make the script more concise. The closeness of Norma to both Jud and the Creeds make her death much more impactful than the hanging of Missy Dandridge in the film. Norma also has her own part to play in the backstory involving Timmy Baterman, albeit a small part. I always felt like the audience was missing out by not getting a chance to meet Norma.

One of the things that I find noticeably absent from the movie that makes the book so much scarier is the psychological torment Louis goes through starting with Gage’s death. This is the kind of thing that is almost impossible to represent in movies, a character’s thought processes and fantasies. In the book we get to be a fly on the wall in Dr. Creed’s mind as he kicks around the idea of burying Gage in the Mic Mac burial ground; we also get to follow along the more painful track of his imagining Gage not dying at all and watching his son become a champion swimmer and graduate from high school. It’s heartbreaking, really, and in the book the reader is privy to all that internal torment one can only imagine if they have never lost a child or any close family member. This psychological stream of consciousness writing also lets us understand just how the powers behind the dark magic of the spoiled burial ground grab hold of people and make resisting the allure of a promised resurrection, even though the outcome is certain to be horrific, an impossibility. This isn’t the fault of King or anyone who had a hand in making the movie; that internal aspect of character development (or fragmentation) are only really possible within the pages of a book. Louis, as portrayed in the movie, has a rather flat affect that does suggest his mind is cutting ties with logic and reality as the rest of the world knows it, but we never get to see just how deep he slides down the slope into insanity.

With the trailer of the remake finally out, a lot of people have been excited because it looks like we may get to see more of something that was glossed over in the original movie: the Wendigo. In the book, this creature is the explanation given for the “ground turning sour” at the Mic Mac burial ground. According to the legend, if you are touched by the Wendigo, you develop a taste for human flesh. The most tense, surreal, off-putting scenes in the book occur when Jud and Louis (or later, Just Louis) climb over the deadfall at the Pet Sematary and head deep in the woods to the cursed grounds. Jud, as he was instructed when he was a boy, tells Louis not to speak back to anything if it spoke to him; he offers flimsy explanations for things Louis might hear (loons) or see (St. Elmo’s Fire). But it’s clear there is something powerful and evil at work in these woods. The original movie does little with the treks to the burial ground. I wish they could have slowed these scenes down and really fucked with the audience. I wish the movie would have spent more time on the backstory and legend of the Pet Sematary and what lay beyond. It’s one of the things that make the book feel timeless, like a fable or dark fairy tale.

I still enjoy this movie. I watched the DVD the other day to refresh my memory for this article and it still gives me the creeps. It’s funny to think that a book King hid in a drawer because he thought nobody would ever publish it or read it has such a lasting legacy. I praise the movie for keeping King’s original novel intact, but I am looking forward to the remake, even with the changes we already know have been made to the story. My feeling is, if they’re going to remake a movie that was already pretty awesome, they need to branch out and do something creative with it. Stay tuned for my next article in this series where I’ll be talking about another Stephen King classic and the movie it inspired: ‘Salem’s Lot.

About Brian White 31 Articles
I am a lifelong horror junkie, musician, and writer. I recently published my first collection of poetry, Shadow Land, which is available on Amazon. I'm 38 years old and I live in Canton, Ohio.