Book Versus Film
If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure to encounter one book, two films, three empty graves and foreshadowing to make you weep. Let’s bury Stephen King’s Pet Sematary in that ancient MicMac ground, and see what rises victorious.
Grab your shovel, take my hand, and tread carefully: there are spoilers everywhere…
Eulogy: Story & Characters
Louis Creed moves his family to sleepy Ludlow for a quieter life. Their new home borders a road populated by speeding trucks, and the nearby woods harbour a graveyard where kids bury their pets: the “pet sematary”. But beyondthatlies anotherburial ground, and whatever is laid to rest there does not rest for long.
After their cat is run over, Louis witnesses first-hand the power of that ancient ground. But even as he wonders if a human could be buried up there, a tragedy threatens to tear his family apart…
The book is told from Louis’s third-person viewpoint, apart from some scenes towards the end. Wife Rachel inherits that King favourite, the childhood trauma: here it’s elder sister Zelda, who died from spinal meningitis when Rachel was eight. This gave her a death phobia guaranteed to cause sparks when 5-year-old daughter Ellie realises her beloved cat Church must one day die. Finally, 21-month-old son Gage completes one of King’s most endearing families.
Two other central characters are Jud and Norma Crandall, who live over that road. Jud is a fount of local knowledge concerning places to bury pets, especially pets you don’t want to stay buried, and becomes a father figure to Louis. The paternal relationship is a key theme – between Jud and Louis, then Louis and Gage – and is the book’s emotional core.
Interestingly, there is no human antagonist. The closest is Rachel’s father, Irwin, but even he gets a redemption. Instead, the evil is the MicMac cemetery beyond the pet sematary, abandoned since the Wendigo (a Native American myth) ‘soured’ the ground.
First Exhumation: The Book
Did you ever hear about the book so scary its author refused to publish it …?
The history of Pet Sematary is worthy of its own book, if not for the fact most of it appears in the book. A man (let’s call him Stephen) takes a job that necessitates moving his family into a new home, alongside a road where trucks have a bloodthirst for pets. Soon, the daughter (let’s call her Naomi) is distraught by the premature death of her cat. Her younger brother (let’s call him Owen) has an even closer brush with death: during a day kite-flying with dad the toddler stumbles towards the road, almost into the path of –
Sound familiar? Oh, and in the nearby woods there’s a place where victims of that road were buried. I’m sure you can guess its name.
At times, this is less a work of fiction and more a glimpse into the misfortunes of the family King in the late 70s. Whilst crossing that road himself, King wondered what would happen if his daughter’s cat had come back – and then, what if a personcame back? – and by the time he’d reached the other side, Pet Sematary was born.
When the story demanded a tragic turn of events, however, the idea lost its appeal. Still, he finished it, reread it, then locked it in a drawer. Had it not been practically wrestled from him by publishers Doubleday, it’d most likely still be there. King said it took him to places he had no wish to revisit.
Pet Sematary contains the DNA of two horror classics. The first is W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, a 1902 short story that is a warning to the curious about tampering with fate. An enchanted object grants three wishes, but these exact a heavy cost (think Aladdin by Blumhouse Productions). The MicMac ground replaces the paw, and the wishes are the three occasions Louis buries something there.
The second influence is more recent: it’s The Shining. Ellie’s prophetic dreams (not about Redrum the undead horse, sadly), escalate as she senses her father in danger. Rachel, having taken Ellie across country to her parents’ house, hurries back home – and this mercy dash, where fate blocks her at every turn, brilliantly recreates Halloran’s rescue mission to the Overlook Hotel.
Those final chapters, when we don’t know what will happen, are the most suspenseful. But prior to that King delights in drip-feeding spoilers, crafting astonishing levels of dread precisely because we know what’s coming: from learning Norma will die in ten weeks, or a day kite-flying is the last time Louis is happy, to that devastating sentence just beyond the halfway point.
Really, the moment Jud and Louis give Church a tenth life, we should have expected it. But nothing prepares us for: “And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously.” As the Creeds go about their lives, unaware their future is on a collision course with a truck that recalls Thomas Hardy’s Imminent Will fashioning an iceberg for the Titanic, the world’s foremost horror author has never been so heart-breaking.
And it gets worse. Whilst we’re spared Gage’s death, the chapters showing the family’s grief are harrowing – until, miraculously, we’re told Gage didn’t die. He grew up, became an Olympic-winning swimmer, and for three blissful, deceitful pages we’re fooled. But this isn’t a cruel trick; King teases a future where Gage lives, so we’ll be desperate for it to be true, and so we’ll support whatever Louis does next.
Despite King refusing to do publicity, Pet Sematary shifted 600,000 hardcover copies upon release in 1983. King said the story “spirals down into darkness” – a metaphor that manifests several times, including the pet sematary’s layout – and it’s this hopelessness that scared him so much he locked it away. But, like that ancient ground, it keeps luring him back. King wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film and ensured the production didn’t stray from it (or from Maine); and, when the remake was greenlit, the ‘twist’ was put to him for his blessing. Which brings us nicely to the films …
Second Exhumation: The 1989 Film
Director Mary Lambert received the script whilst editing her video to Madonna’s Like A Prayer. What appealed to her was that, whilst many horror films are about death, Pet Semataryis about learningabout death. Lambert jokes she was hired due to knowing the Ramones, one of King’s favourite bands. She persuaded them to write the end-credits song, and also talked King into doing his memorable cameo at a funeral.
Story-wise, apart from assimilating some secondary characters (and having one commit suicide), the biggest departure is the ending. The studio insisted this be more gratuitous. It resolves a question unanswered in the novel, but that aside, Lambert’s main change is tonal. To offset the unremitting story she adds humour, through Victor Pascow’s ghost. His scenes with Rachel recall dead friend Jack from An American Werewolf in London. Otherwise, it’s an extremely faithful adaptation.
And therein lies the problem. Without an omniscient voiceover there’s no way to telegraph what’s coming, nor recreate the dread used so effectively in the book. This leaves suspense to drive a story that, most of the time, is easy to predict. King probably realised this, hence why he used our foreknowledge to his advantage. Faced with the same problem, however, the film struggles to genuinely scare.
That’s not to say it isn’t effective. The first shock – Louis’s midnight stroll to the pet sematary wasn’t a dream – is brilliantly handled (better than in the remake); likewise, the build-up to Gage’s death is superb, culminating in a wide-shot of Louis running for his son as the truck hurtles into view. The boy playing Gage, Miko Hughes, hadn’t even turned three at the time, but he’s terrific. He would waddle away with the acting honours too, if not for Herman Munster himself as Jud. Lambert made Fred Gwynne her first choice, despite him being too young (his black hair was dyed white) and he gives a performance so indelible it casts a Frankenstein’s Monster-sized shadow over the role. Wisely, 2019’s Jud, John Lithgow, plays him completely differently.
Full use is made of the beautiful countryside, especially the trek to the MicMac ground. Lambert dragged her crew all over Maine to convey the feeling of a long journey, and it works. The mountaintop burial ground looks terrific, as does the pet sematary, at least when that blue light isn’t shining through the deadfall. The largely practical effects – from mirror-angled light making Church’s eyes glow, to torching a real house (and a full-size façade for a second inferno) – ensure we rarely question what we’re seeing. Okay, the dummy used as evil Gage looks like Chucky, but holding that against a film 30 years old would be, in Gage’s dying words, “no fair”.
There is one aspect where the film absolutely wins, though, and her name is Zelda. I say ‘her’, but Lambert cannily cast actor Andrew Hubatsek, believing a guy would bring an ‘otherness’ to the role. She wasn’t wrong, as the directors of the remake will testify…
Third Exhumation: The 2019 Film
I blame Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Recent Stephen King adaptations were mostly for television until 2017’s It: Chapter 1 became the highest-grossing horror of all time, sending studios scurrying through their back catalogues. But could this resurrection beat the MicMac curse, by keeping its soul?
Directors Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer got the gig thanks to 2014 horror Starry Eyes. Both loved Lambert’s original, especially Zelda, and they couldn’t wait to remind us that “sometimes dead is better” – a tagline shared by both films. However, this does leave one very undead elephant in the room…
When Paramount Pictures announced the new Pet Sematary towards the end of 2017, the project had already spent seven years gathering moss. A slew of genre remakes, reboots and reimaginings had catapulted cinemagoers’ patience beyond breaking point, so this was greeted with little enthusiasm. When we already have a faithful adaptation, why bother? It’s a good question, and Matt Greenberg’s 2010 screenplay provided a good answer: suppose it isn’t Gage who dies, but Ellie…?
It’s one thing for a toddler still learning to walk becoming the walking undead, but when it’s a kid old enough to understand what dead is, and its consequences on her place within the family, that lesson about death is now shared between the living andthe dead. With a new script by Jeff Buhler (Greenberg gets a ‘screen story’ credit) and photography swapping Maine for Montreal – though both films share the same real graveyard: Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, if you’re down that way – the directors created something that’s respectful to King’s book, reverential to Lambert’s film, yet still its own movie.
The differences are immediate: Jud’s introduction to the Creeds comes through Ellie (there’s surprisingly little warmth between him and Louis), and at last we see Norma, even if only as a tormenting vision. Her almost complete excision from both films means Jud shows Louis the burial ground to spare Ellie the facts of death, rather than repaying him for saving Norma’s life. Though quicker, replacing gratitude with contrivance is one mistake both films make.
Where material gets dropped (Louis and Irwin fighting) something omitted last time appears instead (the Wendigo finally shows up… in a book), but it’s all a preamble to that twist, and the uncharted territory which follows. Disgruntled fans were told dead Gage was too difficult to realise, but I suspect smoke and mirrors among the mist and gravestones: Not only is an older child better able to process what’s happened, she’s less likely to provoke laughter when seen dragging adults away… Which brings us to the ending. Both of them.
The directors always had two endings: one that stayed closer to the book, and another that went darker. Both were tested, and the winner was the second one. It works well, ensuring audiences don’t know what’s coming, and leading to an unsettling final image of three dead Creeds, plus cat, approaching their one surviving relative – although an ambiguous opening scene is here revealed as the actual finale, reframing everything else as a flashback. And that (redone) Ramones song still plays us out.
Once again, a talented cast keeps things grounded. Jason Clarke digs deeper depths as Louis, but the star this time is JetéLaurence as Ellie. If she’s sweet as the girl who loves her cat, she’s a revelation after following him back from the grave. Speaking of fatal felines, the British Shorthair has morphed into a (what else!) Maine Coon, and this kitty is frighteningly good. Maybe it’s the droopy eye, but Church could fell a rabid St Bernard. One pleasing tweak is Rachel gets more to do, and Amy Seimetz (who was EIGHT when she read the book) makes the most of these new opportunities.
Lambert’s film is slow-paced, and the editing occasionally jars, but the most oft-quoted criticism is it’s not scary enough. Whilst not unfair, that’s because it follows a book which eschews easy frights for something deeper. When we consider other 1989 horrors – almost entirely sequels, including more Freddy, Jason and Michael – quality was rare. There were exceptions, such as Society and (ironically, a sequel) The Exorcist III, but honestly, it’s a miracle Pet Sematary turned out so well. We got a character piece, more in tune with today’s elevated horror – Get Out, Hereditary– and whilst a chunk of that was the script, Lambert deserves most of the credit. Oh, and 30 years on, it’s still the most successful female-directed, R-rated horror at the box office.
The latest film plays with expectations, such as Gage heading towards the road, and some of the imagery is striking – the masked kids procession that featured prominently in the advertising; sadly their only scene, despite the trailers offering more – and naturally Zelda promises nightmares for a whole new generation (can you spot her hiding in the poster below?) But, most remarkably, the ending is somehow bleaker than the novel.
Pet Sematary is about mortality. On our proximity to death, Louis says “We’re all close. All the time”and it’s the ways we try to cheat that where the horror lies – which both films capture well. The first, in sticking to King’s script, is more faithful; the second, in throwing that curveball, is creepier. But does either film tell it better than the book?
The key difference comes in how the story is told. King’s remarkable use of omniscient author is a gamble that pays off handsomely. Without this, either film could have won – but the foreshadowing sets it above not just the films, but most of King’s other work. Pet Sematary is not a story so scary it should never have been published, but it is an experience you will not forget. And so, the book wins.
Nick Jackson was once run over by a car. He survived. He’s the author of several short stories, some a lot scarier than others, as well as numerous Book V Film comparisons for Lucy, including The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs. He has no idea why Ellie is short for Eileen in the book, Ellen in the first film and Eleanor in the remake, but he does know Zelda is hiding to the left of Rachel in the last 2019 film poster. And he hopes you always look both ways when crossing the road.