“I thought it would be a funny short story – a kind of American Graffiti. Instead, a fairly long novel came out, a supernatural tale about girlfriends, boyfriends, and Christine.” = Stephen King
Haunted car blah blah blah. Teenagers blah blah. You know what this one is about.
Oy vey, where to start with this one? After being so positive about King until this point, this book is the first sour note, from shifting narration styles to its paper-thin allegory of a plot to its characters who may as well just have adjectives for names.
The narrative shifts are a massive issue here, as the first and third parts of the book are narrated by Dennis, Arnie’s best friend. But the middle portion is all third person because Dennis is injured for plot elongating reasons and it really shows. When I first picked up the book I assumed we’d get all three lead characters’ perspectives: Leigh, Arnie, and Dennis. But we just get Dennis twice, and as a narrator, he’s not an interesting character. Being the jock-with-brains archetype who has a few girlfriends throughout the book and gets along with his parents, he’s the good guy. Except he isn’t, because he gives the girls he’s involved with just mean little nicknames or physical descriptions. This means our “typical guy” is a dickhead.
But the other characters are no better drawn either. In Leigh Cabot we have the pretty-girl-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-pretty trope, which is so fucking annoying here as I know King is better than this lazy character type. Leigh – like the other character – has no edge, no bravery of Bev Marsh, no strength of will like Wendy Torrence, no fully realised personality of Franny Goldsmith. She’s the girlfriend who eventually gets together with the best friend because how else would we have a third act in this story? She’s emotionally abused by Arnie and physically attacked by the car on several occasions, but still hangs around so she can get together with Dennis toward the end. I will give King some credit with how the Dennis and Leigh thing works out. It plays as being so profound and bonding when they band together kill the demon car, but eventually it fades because they have literally nothing in common.
Arnie is…. Arnie is like a character who wandered out of Riverdale (old school Archie comics version, not new sexy CW version). He’s a very 1950’s stereotype of a nerd with his taped glasses, acne-scarred face and squeaky voice. He moves from this to be being the stereotypical “cool guy,” which means he gets a girlfriend and treats her like shit. He’s like evil Fonzie… well a MORE evil Fonzie (if you are or know Henry Winkler, can you please comment below if The Fonz was possessed by an evil spirit in his motor cycle?). Regardless, Arnie’s transformation is from dweeb to evil old man who’s sort of cool for a while, and there is no in-between. If Dennis is meant to represent what Arnie should aspire to, then maybe just burn the society this book presents to the ground and start again?
The plot about teenage rebellion is a very tired and hacky one. We are presented with the idea that as soon as a bit of responsibility appears, he becomes an obsessed monster who everyone recognises as being this way, but no one does anything about. If maybe Arnie’s parents has spoken to him, gotten him therapy, or towards the end had him forcibly sectioned this may have been avoided. But we have the transformation I described earlier, along with the lazy narrative shifts. It’s so obvious where the story is going from reading a very short plot description. The ending is something that a lot of people take King to task for, but I haven’t…. until now. What happened? Leigh and Dennis destroy the evil car and Arnie drives off the road somewhere upstate? Why was Roland LeBay so bonded to the car, because from the story it sounds like the car was evil when LeBay bought it brand new. Did something happen in the factory to make it evil? (This point I will expand on in the discussion of the film.)
IT – Surprise fucking surprise I reference this one again. When Belch Huggins picks up Henry Bowers from the mental asylum, he’s driving Christine (or a very similar 1958 Plymouth Fury).
John Carpenter does what he can with this one. I’ll say up front I’m a huge Carpenter fan and this was his comeback gig after The Thing tanked. The physical effects at play here are great and the way he shoots it, you believe that car is alive. Bill Phillips’s screenplay makes some very welcome additions to the story, especially the prologue scene which is something I think should have been included in the book. It also softens Arnie’s transformation in a weird old man, which worked on the page but on film would’ve been odd and not come across properly. Phillips also tones down Dennis from narrator to supporting character, which makes a lot of sense. He can’t completely fix the story as it’s still an allegory.
The performances are less forgiving of the material. Keith Gordon plays it so broad as the nerd character that he’s in danger of becoming the side of a barn at times. While in the day this may have been an acceptable performances, it has not aged well. It’s like if Spiderman wasn’t bitten by a spider but possessed by a car. His look remind me a lot the nerd character from Robot Chicken
The interplay between Dennis and Arnie in the film really helps sell their childhood friendship and how it translates to teenagedom. Carpenter’s filmmaking goes beyond the archetype and speaks to character relationships through framing and blocking. Dennis is always framed as speaking with different friends and Arnie is framed between them alone. The friends barely acknowledge Arnie, but neither he nor Dennis address his outsider status. In an early hallway scene we see how Arnie is almost coming between Dennis and his other, “cooler” friends.
Some of the actors playing teenagers are stretching the suspension of disbelief. The actor playing Buddy was only in his early 20’s when he made the film, but he looks like he’s laying low from the wife and the mortgage company in a high school. The rest of the actors were all roughly 21, but they look way older than their years. I know this is a real nitpicking point, but when Michael J. Fox played Marty McFly, he looked the right age to be in high school, despite that it was only 2 years after this film. These 18-going-on-25 high schoolers are distracting, especially when you consider the attitudes at play in the story are extremely teenaged.
The key difference comes in the ending. In the book, Arnie is a long way away when Leigh and Dennis fight Christine for the final time. This ending speaks more to them fighting Roland LeBay, as he is symbolic of the evil in the car. LeBay is the one behind all of the hate Arnie feels. LeBay is the villain of the story because his hate is what drove him (pun intended ?) away from his family and is driving (puns don’t stop) Arnie away from his friends and family. The literal transformation of Arnie is a very on the nose way of showing the hate gripping him.
Whereas in the film, the car is just possessed because it’s possessed. LeBay’s role has been toned down to being dead before the story begins and his brother being the old coot that sells Arnie the car. In the end, it shows that Arnie is the one who has been transformed by the car to hate everyone around him. In this case the evil force is never explained, but we get a more satisfying ending in that it’s Arnie going after Leigh and Dennis. Arnie is ultimately responsible for his own destruction, not some ghost (?) forcing him off the road. It brings the analogy full circle in a much more satisfying way than in the book.
Overall, I preferred the film. While the story isn’t great, the film has all the footnotes of the book with less of the things that annoyed me.
Next Time: DO YOU CARE ABOUT HOW THE FUCK CEREAL IS ADVERTISED? NO? WELL GET READY FOR 100 PAGES OF THAT, POINTLESS FAMILY DRAMA, AND A DRAWN OUT CONCEPT THAT WOULDN’T HAVE FILLED A COCKTAIL NAPKIN. (Editor’s note: I really kind of enjoy this version of Dan. I got the real-time reactions to the next selection. You are in for a treat.)