Please be aware that I spoil both the film and the book quite spectacularly - don't read on if you haven't seen/read them. The film in particular is something I wouldn't want to ruin for anyone.
Adapted From: 'The Mist' in Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn
Written and Directed By: Frank Darabont
The writer-director combination of Stephen King and Frank Darabont is one of the most famous pairings of an author and film-maker, the sheer synchronicity of their works and styles yielding some spectacular results. The Shawshank Redemption, taken from a short story in King's Different Seasons collection (which we'll be returning to this week with Stand By Me) currently sits pretty at the number one spot on IMDB'S Top 250. The Green Mile is equally beloved by those who have seen it, despite its ability to make anyone cry buckets at the mere mention of John Coffey.
The Mist then is the lesser known of the three, arriving in 2007 and slowly building up an army of fans. In fact, mention it on social media to a bunch of film buffs and immediately watch the love-in begin. It's a simple tale: a group of survivors are forced to band together when an almighty storm brings with it a mysterious mist that slowly engulfs their surroundings. Urgent warnings are shouted: there is something in the mist and so it proves as Lovecraftian horrors begin feeding on anyone brave enough to venture beyond the supermarket that protects the remains of a small community.
Darabont builds on King's story, teasing out smaller themes and threads that run through the novella to produce something that is both highly critical yet strangely optimistic about humanity. Very little of the book remains unchanged in the transfer from page to screen as Darabont recognises the skill of King's storytelling and the sheer power that this story possesses. Any changes that are made are to enhance the latent thematics already at work within King's tale. It's an adaptation of the best kind; one which takes the source material and embellishes just enough for it to realise its full potential.
The Mist is written in first person, telling the story from protagonist, David Drayton's perspective. Through this, the focus is on David's struggle to keep his son, Bill, safe from both the creatures lurking in the mist and the people inside. Led by that most common of King's creations, the Christian religious extremist, Mrs Carmody, the community in the supermarket begin regressing to a more primal state, one where fire, brimstone and blood sacrifices are the order of the day. Though she is brought more into focus as the novella develops, Mrs Carmody is more of a background figure, noticeable more by her lurid yellow pantsuit than her sermons for the most part. However, Darabont realises the potential that this character has for more obvious thematic exploration and uses the fantastic performance of Marcia Gay Harden to place Mrs Carmody practically front and centre.
Through Mrs Carmody, Darabont explores just how close we are as a society to breaking down completely and returning to tribalistic states of fear-mongering, Old Testament vengeance and a very Catholic need for atonement. Her increasingly dishevelled appearance even maps on to the decaying state of the community within the supermarket. Mrs Carmody's speeches run throughout the film, the shift from the novella's David-led perspective to a more universal one on screen allows us to see more of her, hear her mutterings alone in the dark and her commentary on specific events such as birdlike creatures getting into the supermarket. She advocates expiation or atonement and slowly convinces her increasing set of followers that the mist is God's punishment for mankind's hubristic sins. Darabont uses Project Arrowhead, a local army base at which scientific experimentation is rumoured to occur, to provide Carmody with a tangible example for her theories.
In the novella, Arrowhead is mentioned several times, but is never explicitly linked to the mist outside of David's mind; he posits as one of the theories and the suicides of two soldiers stationed at the base hint that he is correct, but it is left to the reader to make that link should they wish to. The film makes that connection much more explicit through the military policeman that they find in the expedition to the pharmacy (which does occur in the book, but without the MP) and the addition of Private Jessup, a local boy now soldier stationed at the base in question. When speaking to the MP, he repeatedly states that he is sorry and references Project Arrowhead. Returning to the supermarket, the expedition members try to question the senior soldiers, only to find they have committed suicide. Overheard by a Carmody acolyte, Jessup is hauled in front of her and interrogated, revealing there had been talk of scientists creating a trans-dimensional portal that allowed the mist and the creatures through.
It is here that the main theme of Darabont's adaptation is crystallised; humans are inherently awful. Instead of believing that Jessup doesn't know all that much, Carmody whips her followers into a frenzy, singling out the private as the one responsible for their current crisis. He becomes their sacrifice, stabbed and locked outside the supermarket to be carried away by a giant scorpion-like creature. Prior to this, those who have decided to flee the market discuss humanity's capacity for violence, with characters like Ollie and David stating repeatedly that Carmody will bring about destruction and go after them, whilst Amanda tries desperately to plead that humanity is inherently good. The sacrifice of Private Jessup disproves her point quite spectacularly. Society has broken.
How the film and the novella (though from a less extreme situation) deal with this breakdown as at once both different and similar, a prism through which the idea of hope is focused. For the novella, hope is something that King repeats throughout David's narration, particularly in relation to his son. Their story ends with David describing their refuge inside a Howard Johnson's, scribbling down what has happened to him and his fellow survivors. It's uncertain by its very nature, but importantly ends on the word "hope." David wants to keep hope alive for his son, to remain positive and believe that the radio message they received yields results. The reader is left with that hope for them; we want to believe that they will find sanctuary.
Darabont takes an altogether tack, building on a brief moment that occurs during the escape by the few remaining rational survivors. David has Amanda's gun, left with him after the death of previous gun-possessor, Ollie Weeks. He checks how many bullets are in the gun, acknowledging that there is enough for him to give a compassionate release to those with him, including his son, and decides he can sort himself out with something else. It's a desolate moment, but it is just that; a fleeting thought that is ultimately left behind by David's determination to remain hopeful. Darabont makes more of this by having David kill the survivors when their gas runs out in one of the bleak film endings in history.
Had it just ended there, it wouldn't have remained within the thematic work that both Darabont and King endeavour to weave through their respective takes on the story. Darabont gives the moment a deep irony with the arrival of the army just a few short moments after David has shot the survivors and his son and they watch him as he howls with grief. It's compounded by seeing a woman, who had fled the supermarket after the mist descended to almost certain death, safe with the children she had run to protect. Like King's ending, Darabont's preaches hope; had David held on just a few moments longer, they would have been safe. Instead, despair, the dominant feeling preached by Carmody, wins. Although conveying the message in vastly different way, Darabont ends his own story as King does, with the importance of hope.
As an adaptation, Darabont's The Mist is one of the very best. Recognising the innate power of King's storytelling and selectively expanding key moments to elevate tension, the film builds the same themes and ideas into its structure whilst having the freedom to change plot details in order to fit with the cinematic version. The ending is the classic example, a change that feels like a massive departure from King's text but is in fact operating at the same thematic level. King himself praised Darabont's ending: "[it] is such a jolt!" It's an ending that has proved divisive amongst audiences, but that it's a shock never seems much in doubt. The real power lies in everything that has gone before, a world in which society crumbles to the point of primitive factions, a scary prospect and one which will always feel scarily possible.