This might seem odd, but Pet Sematary is a weird book to adapt.
Now, that might not seem too obvious a concept since it has so throughly penetrated the public consciousness as a horror classic, but upon reading the classic novel it is not like that at all.
The original novel written in 1983/84, is, to be generous, deliberately paced. It is a novel shy of 400 pages that spends very little of its time on any actual horror. The novel spends most of the time with the Creed family, and the patriarch/protagonist Louis Creed himself. The novel also acts more like a meditation on death than a scary zombie book. To have that make sense the plot in most basic terms is: Creed family moves in and learns about the cemetery. They visit the cemetery, then one of Louis’s patients die and he learns about the barrier created by dead fall. Months later, when Louis’s family is away, the cat is killed so they resurrect it. The family thinks he’s a little off, but then months pass and then the son dies. Louis decides to bring him back and 50 pages later the book is over.
The novel spends lots of time on the details of the world. Backstories are given either through chapter long monologues, or as just information through the text with plenty of real world details to make the story feel plausible and character driven. The only problem is that it does lend itself real well to horrors abound. It is more tense, but even then that’s a stretch. If anything the novel is more of a Twilight Zone episodes made into a novel.
The 1989 movie adaption on the other hand is a faithful yet schlocky version of the story. Written by Stephen King himself, and directed by Mary Lambert the first movie adaption is basically the book with minor adaptational changes. It has the same general plot and story structure, but condensed, making it paradoxically better and worse than the novel.
Some of the condensing means cutting characters like the other nurses and doctors Louis works with at the college clinic. They did not add anything to the narrative other than realism and provide an extra viewpoint at the end of the novel. Connected to that is cuts Jud’s wife, whose only roll was to die and gave it to a character only mentioned by name, but never introduced to, Missy Dandridge. It also cuts a lot of the exposition that takes pages and pages of a chapter down to a couple lines and puts it on screen.
It overall just cleans some of the story up.
However some of that condensing does lead to problems. Major one being pacing. An example to best illustrate is the death of Steve Pascow. In the book it comes at the end of introducing the clinic characters as a big jumpstart. The movie does something similar by just cutting to Pascow dying. Only it has now weight to it. He’s brought in, fives exposition, then dies. Though the plot points are the same the rushed nature of it gives the event no significance. This holds true for Gage’s funeral. The book spends chapters on getting it organized and the tension between Louis and Rachel’s father while here it just jumps to the funeral and Louis being accosted by Mr Goldman. This continues to Gage eventually being dug up. It takes a chapter or two to break into the cemetery, dig him up, and leave, while it’s just a simple fence hop. Those moments take out the grit, determination, and effort that makes those moments impactful.
Even though it is faithful, there are still some really strange changes that are made to make the story more cinematic, but also less interesting. The biggest of these is that when animals come back, they are more dumb than angry. This goes for the only person brought back before the film. In the book he too was dumb, and could reveal deep, mean secrets to people. A horror that goes deeper than being a zombie. The movie makes the first revived human just a zombie, and Gage be a cliche creepy kid over a demonic entity inside him.
To repeat, those changes do not harm the film at all. They work just fine to get across how dangerous using the cemetery is, but raises questions. The biggest of which is a conflicting topic. The animals coming back dumb makes Jud and Louis feel more comfortable to use it, but takes away the scare factor; while in the movie has it make less sense since they can see how dangerous the things brought back to life are. The book sort of has an explanation, but either way there is some combination that would make it work out that’s not nailed down.
With all that said it is hard, again, not to mention just how B-horror the film is. The acting from everyone is not great. I mean when you can make Stephen King feel like he fits in with the cast normally there is a problem, and it goes for very creepy but silly looks. A ghost with just half his skull open, and being sassy is ridiculous, and, the fact they kept the killer toddler in as the main threat at the end is admirable, even as it ends up looking like Chucky. This schlock does harm the ending by making it far more explicit than the unsettling “Oh Henry” of the novel.
The 2019 remake by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and written by Jeff Buhler with story by Matt Greenberg is a full on adaptation. The movie makes massive (I mean the story isn’t big so all changes are kind of small, but in context) changes to the structure and plot events of the story. Maybe it’s because of, or perhaps in spite of it also makes it the best version of this story (until the end). It is also the one with clearly the most scenes removed. There are flashbacks that are clearly scenes we were supposed to have seen but never got until the flashback, on top of that Norma, Jud’s wife, is referenced once, and then brought back at the end with an accusation that feels like something we should have learned and did not (there is no accusation in the book, she just dies of a heart attack).
Out of the numerous changes made the two most substantial (again, aside from the end) all focus around Rachel, Louis’s wife. Rachel, in the books, has no real character to her outside of hating death, nagging, and having sex with Louis. This movie positions her as a second protagonist that works with Louis to help solve the problems and totally shake up the climax of the movie. This works (until the climax) of making Louis and Rachel feel like an actual parental unit, and makes Louis far more likable a guy than in the book where he was just kind of a jerk, yet no one seemed to notice. Either way it is a strong improvement.
The other side of that improvement is that aside from now being more apart of the main plot with burying Church she needs her own plot so they push the grief of her dead sister far harder than in the book or other film. This gives the story more of a haunted house feel since Rachel is now seeing things that aren’t there. That kind of defeats the purpose of possessed animals. Basically it’s doing too much, but in the end it works.
There are many other changes, but they seem crafted around making Pet Sematary fit the current popular horror model of doing research, and jump scares, and being very self serious. Normally these are problems, but that makes the movie feel more like what I imagine the tone for the book was supposed to be, instead of the far more accurate 1989 version.
All of this, however, has been dancing around the biggest departure this film makes. Instead of Gage, the baby, dying from a truck it is instead older sister Ellie (it’s odd that every version makes Ellie short for a different name) who is killed. The accident is utterly ridiculous, but did jolt me awake. From there Louis bringing her back does occur, but instead the movie keeps going after that. From their Ellie seems far more motivated by something other than pure evil. It makes her killing Jud and her own mother far more interesting. Unfortunately she wants a family and so the movie ends with Ellie and Rachel killing Louis and turning him as well before finally turning on the secure Gage.
This ending feels like it totally missed the point of the story. Pet Sematary is a cautionary tale. This movie is kind of that, but had the same issues the 1989 one had when it comes to reasoning out why someone would use the cemetery if it makes whatever comes back angry. Furthermore it now compounds and adds questions since if a human comes back they seem fairly normal, just far more murder-y. It gives the resurrected a drive that breaks the story since that was not what was being thematically built up to. It does get away with it a little since Jud doesn’t say if anyone was brought back before, but it’s still odd.
Something else that’s odd is how even 30 years later they can’t make small children attacking adults look scary. The 89 version looks like a Chucky doll while the 2019 version looks like Ellie is playing around on someone’s back over killing them. It does not make them threatening either, just silly. It did make me laugh audibly when Zombie Ellie tried to through a temper tantrum while being restrained. just ridiculous.
In the end it does not feel like any of the versions, book or movies, feel exactly right. The book is slow and filled with exposition. The 89 movie is faster paced but a tonal mess, and the 2019 version botches the ending by trying and twist it like it did everything else. It is all just weird. So very, very weird (but I can’t believe the 2019 version actually mentioned the Wendigo. I thought I would get to bring that up as some big twist only the books had. I imagine Stephen King left it out the screenplay to keep that a treat for the just the book readers).
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