Five Talking Points on Stephen King's 'The Mist' in Movie and Novella
1. Mrs. Carmody: Homeopath or Church-lady?
Perhaps the most drastically modified character between the film and the book. Those changes are all the more distinct for how visually striking her character would have been if she had been faithfully rendered.
[Mrs. Carmody] sailed into the supermarket decked out in an amazing canary yellow pantsuit. A purse that looked the size of a small Samsonite suitcase was slung over one forearm. (Kindle loc 472)
In the faded, dismal light she was witchlike in her blazing canary pants, her bright rayon blouse, her armloads of clacking junk jewelry—copper, tortoise-shell, adamantine—and her thyroidal purse. Her parchment face was grooved with strong vertical lines. Her frizzy gray hair was yanked flat with three horn combs and twisted in the back. Her mouth was a line of knotted rope. (loc 1174)
It's interesting to imagine how The Mist would have been a different movie if Marcia Harden had confidently strolled into the frame looking more like an elderly (in her 70s) Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. She would have immediately cemented herself in the audiences memories as we wondered just what place she is going to have in this story. I think that is the very reason that Director Frank Darabont chose to subdue Harden's look.
A vividly written character in text leaves an impression, but that image can be carefully crafted by narrators who can qualify in a way that the brutally objective movie camera cannot. King paints an image of Carmody that is qualified with the descriptor "witchlike" (a word associated with her through the novel on five different occasions). Whereas readers can immediately understand how they are supposed to feel about Miss Carmody's appearance- to directly translate her character into it's cinematic equivalent would have given her a more stylistic and even possibly cartoonish appearance than Darabont might have felt comfortable injecting into his otherwise realism centered style.
Appearances aside, there is also the divergence between King's portrayal of Mrs. Carmody as a homeopathic quack with a touch of the darkly supernatural about herself:
Her group began to murmur with her, to rock back and forth unconsciously, like true believers at a tent revival. Their eyes were shiny and blank. They were under her spell. (loc 2053)
The allusion between Mrs. Carmody casting "spells" and being a "witch" shouldn't be missed.
It occurred to me that most of us looked that way. But not Mrs. Carmody. Mrs. Carmody looked younger somehow, and more vital. As if she had come into her own. As if… as if she were thriving on it. (loc 1832)
[Mrs. Carmody's] voice was cracking and hoarse now, but still full of power. And it occurred to me that it was the mist that had given her that power—the power to cloud men’s minds, to make a particularly apt pun—just as it had taken away the sun’s power from the rest of us. Before, she had been nothing but a mildly eccentric old woman with an antiques store in a town that was lousy with antiques stores. Nothing but an old woman with a few stuffed animals in the back room and a reputation for... folk medicine. (loc 2085)
King's Carmody does not quote scripture, nor does is she even mentioned as having a Bible. Compare that with Darabont's Carmody who pulls out a Bible and starts reading Revelations 15-16.
Darabont's Carmody says that those in the supermarket are:
...being punished for going against the will of God, for going against his forbidden rules of old. Walking on the moon, yes, yes, or splitting his atoms, or stem cells and abortions and destroying the secrets of life that only God above has any right to.1
Just like that we've lumped being pro-life with being against the space program. Nothing like that line appears anywhere in King's novella.
Darabont's Carmody also has the (exclusively in the film) bathroom prayer scene:
Let me help these people. Let me preach your word. Let me shine your light. Because they’re not all bad. They can’t all be bad. Some of them can be saved can’t they? Yes. Some can be brought to heaven’s holy gates through your grace. I have to believe that though I know that most will swim in the lake of fire forever. If I can save a few, even one, then my life will have counted for something. I will have ‘pulled my weight’ I will have earned my place at your side. I will have served your purpose here on this earth… (interrupted) 2
What begins earnestly enough slides quickly into self righteousness, and then a bizarre works-based salvation. It's something that sounds very "Christian" in the verbage- but any sincere orthodox Christian would know that all people are "bad" (infected with sin), herself included. Neither can anyone "earn" their salvation or "pull any of their own weight". The tab is paid by Christ alone.
While we might be forgiven in thinking that King's Carmody is a wolf in sheep's clothing, someone who invokes the name of God solely as a means to her own ends- Darabont's Carmody is an unambiguous caricature of evangelical Christianity.
2. The Affair
Remember the scene were Thomas Jane (playing David Drayton) and Laurie Holden (playing Amanda Dunfrey) have passionate end-of-the-world sex in the manager's office of the supermarket?
We went up the narrow flight of stairs and into the office. It was empty, as she had said. And there was a lock on the door. I turned it. In the darkness she was nothing but a shape. I put my arms out, touched her, and pulled her to me. She was trembling. We went down on the floor, first kneeling, kissing, and I cupped one firm breast and could feel the quick thudding of her heart through her sweatshirt... And my erection was enormous. We lay down then, and she said, “Love me, David. Make me warm.” When she came, she dug into my back with her nails and called me by a name that wasn’t mine. I didn’t mind. It made us about even. (loc 1683)
If you are surprised that that didn't make it into what was already an R rated movie, we're in the same boat. Insofar as the character development of David Drayton goes it's one of the most fascinatingly complex parts of the book. Cut off from his wife who he thinks might be dead, but unable to keep out the waves of memories that range from their first meeting to sex on their honeymoon, Drayton succumbs to his desire for Dumfries. He is humanized through it though, and instead of being repelled by it- the understanding of his motive (the physical need to just be intimate with anyone even if it can't be his wife in the face of what could very well be impending death) makes us draw closer. A flawed hero is much closer to home than the unattainable and stainless archetype "good guy", especially if that flawed hero is someone who is struggling with his own faults.
But while the book can give us momentary insights in Drayton's frame of mind whereby we can confirm that he isn't really all that bad of a guy (he really does still love his wife and desperately want to get back to her). The medium of cinema has limitations. Without the benefit of recurring flashback memories of his wife (which would only interrupt the narrative) Drayton the adulterer cannot also be Drayton the hero. And so Darabont is forced to paint our Drayton as that very stainless archetypal "good guy". It makes for decent enough cinema- if it does make Drayton at times feel like he is a bit "paint by numbers".
There is one vestige of the Drayton-Dumfries affair in the film though. If you blinked you might miss it entirely.
The glance that is shared in the film just a few second before the mist rolls in is more than just a casual look. To anyone watching the scene over again there is something unmistakably romantic in the exchange. In the book the first sense of romantic attraction only occurs after the bug-pterodactyl scene.
I looked over at Amanda. I was developing an uncomfortably strong feeling for her— uncomfortable but not exactly unpleasant. Her eyes were an incredible brilliant green… for a while I had kept an eye on her to see if she was going to take out a pair of contact lenses, but apparently the color was true. I wanted to make love to her. My wife was at home, maybe alive, more probably dead, alone either way, and I loved her; I wanted to get Billy and me back to her more than anything, but I also wanted to screw this lady named Amanda Dumfries. I tried to tell myself it was just the situation we were in, and maybe it was, but that didn’t change the wanting. (loc 1561)
So whereas King's Drayton is under extenuating circumstances that make his character's adultery somewhat understandable- Darabont's Drayton looks like he'd like to take Dumfries into the manager's office mist or no mist. So in a way Darabont's Drayton is more of a scoundrel than King's Drayton- even though it's the latter who actually has the affair.
3. Ollie, Darabont and King on: Religion and Politics
There are a few moments where Toby Jones (playing Ollie Weeks) gets dialogue that was only expressed in the novel through Drayton's stream of thought. This makes him a great candidate for channeling the film's central theme. A profound moment for Darabont's Ollie is his part in the backroom discussion over Mrs. Carmody:
As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion? 3
Articulated thus we have what appears to be a little heavy-handed didactic on Darabont's part. It's interesting that throughout King's novel no such line or even sentiment appears. There is the recognition that Mrs. Carmody's group is the "single largest political force" but there is never a sweeping condemnation of "politics and religion" as evils in and of themselves.
It's worth noting that in a 2007 joint interview with Popentertainment's Brad Balfour 4 on the subject of the film, King at first refused to answer any questions directly addressing the "politics and religion" angle at first, but then softened up as the interview went on:
I have nothing against religion, in spite of my upbringing. But what happens is, religion cross-pollinates with politics. If you've seen The Mist, you know that in some ways there are political parties that develop in the course of this thing. These political parties will spontaneously develop, which is what happens any time there is a crisis situation. The one thing that The Mist adds — it adds religion to an already volatile mix.
In the short documentary film "When Darkness Came: The Making of 'the Mist'" 5 King says:
This movie has echoes of political and religious situations that we find ourselves in now and it raises a lot of interesting topics that have been debated in the press and the current events over the last couple of years and all of those things obviously played a part when Frank got around to writing the screenplay and directing the movie, casting the movie, which is a part of direction. But they aren't for me to say other than for me to say that he and I share some political convictions. As to what they are, a viewer who comes to the movie with an open mind and a clear eye will see that for themselves.
For those unfamiliar with Stephen King's religious views, he disavows organized religion after having grown up Methodist but still describes himself as "christian" in an unaffiliated-nondenominational sense.
Darabont provides even more insight in the Balfour interview:
...and it's not necessarily a religious thing, it's political. It's what I'm finding wonderful and fascinating about watching this movie with an audience that people really get to hate her. I'm thinking, does this even supersede what the story provides? I think maybe it does. I think what's happening is, people are sick to death of extremists, they're sick of the manipulation of extremists, of whatever path, whatever weapon they use, whether its religion or politics, or hijackings, or whatever.
King's comments aside, it's interesting to note that his own portrayal of David Drayton is at times implicitly (and at others explicitly) religious.
There's a Christian allusion embedded within Drayton's stream of thought:
One of his followers murmured agreement, but another quietly slipped away. Now there was Norton and four others. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. Christ Himself could only find twelve. (loc 1327)
The fact that Drayton even prays when brought to his weakest point:
I think I prayed. I prayed to God that Stephanie was alive and that He wouldn’t take my adultery out on her. I prayed to God to let me get Billy to safety because he had been through so much. (loc 2235)
And even a forshadowing dream the night of the thunderstorm before the mist:
I had a dream that I saw God walking across Harrison on the far side of the lake, a God so gigantic that above the waist He was lost in a clear blue sky. In the dream I could hear the rending crack and splinter of breaking trees as God stamped the woods into the shape of His footsteps. He was circling the lake, coming toward the Bridgton side, toward us, and all the houses and cottages and summer places were bursting into purple-white flame like lightning, and soon the smoke covered everything. The smoke covered everything like a mist. (loc 152)
Though we have "God" capitalized as a proper noun, we also have the indefinite article when referring to him.
The contrast becomes even clearer when you look at the characters of the film and try to guess their religious orientation from their comments. Ollie becomes explicitly secularist and everyone else who joins him becomes implicitly secularist as well. That's a far cry from the muted (though still present) religion of King's Drayton.
Perhaps the only stand in that Darabont for that more orthodox Christianity is the figure of the Brian Libby (playing the "Biker") who shortly before leaving out the front door retorts to Mrs. Carmody:
Hey, Crazy lady, I believe in God too, I just don’t think he’s the bloodthirsty asshole that you make him out to be. 6
Bearing in mind that King's novella was originally written in 1980, and the film was produced in 2007, I think that it's fair to say post 9/11 awareness of religious extremism brought out the shift in focus on religion and politics that can be seen from the novella to the movie.
Andre Braugher (who plays Brent Norton) in the making of documentary puts it better than anyone else:
There comes a moment in the screenplay where you have to slay the novel. You just can't throw the novel up on the screen, it just doesn't work. I felt quite clearly that Frank had in a certain way slain the novel by delving into things, expanding things, that brings us much more presently into the horror.
4. The Soldiers
In King's book there are two unnamed soldiers who manage to quickly hang themselves after the first night, presumably because they know that the mist was caused by the ever mysterious Arrowhead Project.
In the film we are treated to four soldiers: Morales, Donaldson, Jessup, and the Military Policeman. While Morales and Donaldson follow along the novel pretty closely but hang themselves on the second night (apparently needing more confirmation that the mist is actually the result of the Arrowhead project), Jessup and the MP are cut from whole cloth.
Jessup's relationship with Sally the cashier serves to give background to secondary characters so we can then become infuriated at their deaths. It also gives the story it's fleeting glimpse of a romantic angle. The presence of the MP who screams that he's "sorry" moments before his gruesome death and Jessup gives Darabont a way to "show" instead of "tell" us about the Arrowhead project. King introduces the idea through the memory of both a realtor's offhand comments and town gossip- but Darabont because of his medium can't afford clumsy flashbacks.
Overall I think that Darabont's insertion of the soldiers is a smooth addition that audiences wouldn't be able to guess at all wasn't included in the source material. The scene where Mrs. Carmody orders that Jessup be sacrificed to the monsters outside provides a wonderfully dynamic scene where the audience becomes fully aware of what Mrs. Carmody and her followers are actually capable of.
5. The Ending
Yes, we all know that the ending is quite possibly the biggest difference between the book and the movie. And yes, apparently after Darabont created his ending Stephen King wrote him and said that he wished he had thought of that ending. Yes, with all of that granted and in mind- there are still some serious pros and cons to each ending.
Sure, the tanks coming out of the mist are cool, and we get the whole "hurrah for humanity turning back the tide" but at the same time even as we find this "strong" (in Darabont's own words) ending we lose something from the original. For those of you haven't read the book, the novel ends in a Howard Johnson's restaurant as David Drayton just keeps driving with no end in sight. It's just David, Billy, Mrs. Reppler and Amanda. They don't get the closure of finding David's wife that they get in the film. David wants to run the last quarter mile past the fallen trees blocking the road to his house, but at the last second he decides against it.
That ambiguity for his wife, and even the uncertainty of what is going to happen to them puts a different spin on the closing lines of the novel where David whispers the words "hope" and "Hartford" into his sleeping son's ear. The latter being a word that he though he heard momentarily on a radio.
As the novel ends we are left with the portrait of a still very desperate man clinging to all of the hope he has in spite of the odds because there is nothing else he can do. He maintains hope in what very well might be a hopeless world. As the film ends we are left with a man who has given up on hope after having given it his "best shot". He throws the towel in when but for the want of a minute more all of his wishes would have been answered. These are two very different characters.
In the film the woman who wandered off to see to her children ends up being somehow saved. Leaving aside the issues of plot problems, (it's as if the creatures in the mist arbitrarily pick whomever to violently dismember while completely ignoring others) how does her survival change the story? Perhaps we are meant to see her survival and rescue as a proper miracle within the horror. It's difficult to speculate with only that one shot of her with her children to go on, but it completely changes the tempo and meaning of her monologue that she delivers to the store patrons and staff before marching out to what we can reasonably expect is her death.
She stopped talking and just looked at us. I imagine that we must have looked like nothing but a bank of merciless eyes to her right then, not human beings at all, just eyes. “Isn’t anyone going to help me?” she screamed. Her lips began to tremble. “Won’t… won’t anybody here see a lady home?” No one replied. People shuffled their feet. She looked from face to face with her own broken face... (loc 716)
Just as much as Darabont gives Ollie that central line which really ties the didactic theme behind the film all together. I think that this is that equivalent line within King's novel. It's such a powerful part of the novel that when you see it in the film it's brought in almost word for word.
...The fat local man took a hesitant half-step forward and his wife jerked him back with one quick tug, her hand clapped over his wrist like a manacle. “You?” the blond woman asked Ollie. He shook his head. “You?” she said to Bud. He put his hand over the Texas Instruments calculator on the counter and made no reply. “You?” she said to Norton, and Norton began to say something in his big lawyer’s voice, something about how no one should go off half-cocked, and… and she dismissed him and Norton just trailed off. “You?” she said to me, and I picked Billy up again and held him in my arms like a shield to ward off her terrible broken face. (loc 719)
She is not just asking for help getting home to her children here, she is convicting each one of them for failing to do for her what any of them would hope for were they placed in her position.
“I hope you all rot in hell,” she said. She didn’t scream it. Her voice was dead tired. (loc 725)
This is her sentence upon them, which seems prophetic given hindsight knowledge of what is about to happen.
She went to the OUT door and pulled it open, using both hands. I wanted to say something to her, call her back, but my mouth was too dry. “Aw, lady, listen—” the teenage kid who had shouted at Mrs. Carmody began. He held her arm. She looked down at his hand and he let her go, shamefaced. She slipped out into the fog. (loc 725)
The way that she exits seems almost trance-like. As if through her exit so begins the descent of the small band of survivors trapped inside the supermarket. This is society and civilization and decency itself walking literally through the "OUT" door, never to return.
We watched her go and no one said anything. We watched the fog overlay her and make her insubstantial, not a human being anymore but a pencil-ink sketch of a human being done on the world’s whitest paper, and no one said anything.For a moment it was like the letters of the KEEP RIGHT sign that had seemed to float on nothingness; her arms and legs and pallid blond hair were all gone and only the misty remnants of her red summer dress remained, seeming to dance in white limbo. Then her dress was gone, too, and no one said anything. (loc 727)
That is quite possibly my favorite descriptive part of the novel. King describes in dialogue that gushes and groans in the way that it drags out that particular moment of her fading into the newly arrived mist. Later we realize that she was almost certainly walking to her death like a lamb to the slaughter.
How does that change now when the woman who in a way embodied common decency and the right and good thing to do is now found out not to have walked to her death- but to have survived instead? It raises the question- if anyone had chosen to go along with her at her beckon, would they have survived as well? Was surviving the supermarket really just as easy as doing the good and decent thing and helping see a lady in need home?
In that way Darabont does make his own ending somewhat more optimistic- even as it makes David in many ways the biggest loser by an almost capricious twist of fate.
Footnotes and Source Material
1. Timemarker in the film: 1:32:10
2. Time 39:20
3. Time 1:13:30
6. Time 51:10