Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Castle Rock Companion - Cujo
I don't know why I never read Cujo as a kid, but I'm glad this project gave me the chance to go back and read it. Had I known that the main conflict of the story centered around a woman and her child trapped inside a car, I might have read it sooner. The strength of Gerald's Game is all about the main character being chained to a bed unable to move, and it's obvious to me now that Cujo was a precursor to that kind of story. King excels when he shows us the thought processes going on in people's heads, and this kind of claustrophobic setting is perfect for that. But you can't describe thought processes in a movie, so what do you do instead?
From the opening scene, they do a great job of handling that. There's no dialogue, but if you were ever afraid of the dark as a kid, you recognize what's going on in Tad's head immediately: Psyching yourself to turn off the light and looking over to your bed and feeling like it's so far away to safety. I can't tell you how many times I did similar things as a child. Partially it's the excellent camera work here that sells it, but I think Danny Pintauro as Tad also deserves some credit for pulling this off so well. He would go on to play the son in Who's the Boss not long after he made this film, and he's a pretty good child actor.
The book has Cujo bitten very early on, but I believe that is because King did his homework on how long it takes for rabies to set in. Since this is one of the rare books where he's dealing with a real threat rather than monsters or some form of science fiction, that kind of realism is essential, and while I'm by no means a rabies expert, from what I can tell he handled it accurately.
Of course he also writes from the perspective of Cujo himself at parts here, so I guess it's not 100% grounded in reality.
Once he's bitten you could easily get frustrated waiting for the action to happen, as King goes through a long set of events to explain just how Donna and Tad could be stuck here with no one to help them for quite some time. Of course in a modern telling this wouldn't really work, as Donna would have a cell phone on her and she would just call for help. I guess we'll see what they decide to do in the remake, if they ever release it.
The movie covers all the events of the book, just condensing them slightly to save us some time. Charity Camber contemplating divorce and introducing her son to her more well off sister is completely dropped, and that's logical. Her husband Joe dies pretty early on, so her indecision is kind of pointless. I understand what King was going for, as Charity ultimately decides to stay, and then she comes home to find that the choice has already been made for her, but it's also not essential to the core story.
The whole issue Vic faces with his ad company is largely condensed, and once again that's for the best. In the book it's an obvious macguffin to force Vic away from his family, but King also felt it necessary to really give it its own plot point and explore how it gets resolved, and to be quite honest, I just didn't care. Especially when his wife and child are trapped in a hot car with a rabid dog outside it, I really don't care how they're going to change their marketing approach for a cereal company.
Once again, the movie does a great job of showing us Donna's thought processes while in the car without having her say a word. Quick cuts that show us what Donna is looking at along with her actions give us pretty strong clues about what she's trying to accomplish and what's going on in her mind. The tension builds appropriately and it works pretty well.
I did find it a bit troubling that the two female characters in the book are weak willed women. Charity puts up with her husband's abuse because she thinks it's her lot in life, and Donna cheats on her husband because she's bored and feeling old. Even when she's trapped in the car, Donna frets about what her husband would be able to do and how men have it so much better. This is a recurring problem I see in King's earlier works, though I think he has made up for it in more recent novels.
I also have to admit that Donna's adultery is essential, as the Steve Kemp red herring does help to build up the drama and increase the tension. All you want is for these two to be rescued, but it makes absolute perfect sense that both Vic and the police would be following the possible kidnapping angle instead. Without it, things might get wrapped up just a little too neatly.
The ending of the book caught me off guard. You would think that after reading Pet Sematary, I would know that King would not hesitate to do something as tragic as kill a child if it served the story. But much like Donna, I found myself in denial at first, unable to believe he could really be gone. Her frantic attempts to revive him after going through so much to protect him absolutely break your heart.
I was however not the least bit surprised that the movie changed that. King himself wrote a screenplay for the film where he also saved Tad. These days, they wouldn't. Look at the ending of The Mist, after all. But in 1983, things had to be at least a little closer to happily ever after.
Overall I'd recommend both versions of this story, though both have their problems that prevent them from reaching greatness.
Since next Wednesday is Christmas and the following New Year's, Castle Rock Companion will take a two week break before returning as normal.