Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Christine


The chosen narration and prose style of a novel can make or break your experience with it.  Christine is broken by the fact that the first and third acts are narrated by Dennis Guilder, an immature, horny teen at the time the novel is set but a supposedly more mature twenty two while he's narrating.  He's just dreadful; referring to his girlfriend as "the cheerleader" rather than by her name, and constantly telling us how he was trying to get in her pants.  Even the female lead Leigh, who he thinks of far more highly, gets analyzed up and down her entire body.  It's sleazy and disgusting. I couldn't stand this little slime ball which is problematic when he's the hero of our story.

The story itself is a good and interesting one, of a man so obsessed with his car that he finds a way to return from the grave and be with her again.  At least that's the clear story of the novel.  In the movie, Christine starts off evil right off the assembly line, making it seem that original owner Roland Lebay was simply in the same position as young Arnie before him.  Both men are in love with the car, and she loves them right back, to the point that she refuses to share.

It seems obvious to me that the best way to tell this story is from Arnie's perspective, first as he falls in love with the car, then his surprise to find she is able to fix herself, and his growing horror as she becomes vengeful and begins to kill for him, and the fight for control as Lebay possesses him.  But King decided to go with a more detached perspective, spending more time following Dennis and the other characters rather than ever getting in Arnie's head, and John Carpenter follows that same idea with the film.

I should probably make a point here to admit my bias.  John Carpenter is a legendary director of horror, and this was no doubt another instance of King putting his film into what he believed were capable hands.  The problem here is me, in that I really don't like Carpenter's style and pacing.  Both Halloween and The Thing move way too slowly for my tastes, and what others call his mastery of suspense I call tedium.  So while I felt this movie moved way too slowly, I'm not going to judge it too harshly, because other people probably feel very different.

As an adaptation, he actually followed the pacing very closely, giving us plenty of time to get to know these characters before the horror plays out.  Some scenes get moved around or combined together, but it's all in a way that makes logical sense.  He also improved a couple moments.  By having Christine lock Arnie out of the car while Leigh is choking, he looks like a little less of an asshole when he doesn't save her.  I also think Will Darnell's death is greatly improved, as the idea of a car bashing into someone's home to crush them is just a little too far-fetched.  I'll also give him credit for improving on Moochie's death scene, effectively using suspense and a building sense of dread rather than the gore King describes in the book.  When he's filming an actual horror scene, he's fantastic.  It's just the slow pacing of the scenes in between that drive me nuts.

The effects in the film are also really impressive.  We see Christine fix herself multiple times, and it always looks natural.  I was particularly impressed with the gas station scene, where they drive her around while she's on fire.  That could not have been an easy stunt to pull off.  In the moments where Christine is driving herself, her windows are pitch black, which was a logical choice to hide the stunt driver inside,but it's never so distracting to take you out of the moment. 

I felt like her big death scene was a little more suspenseful in the book than the way it plays out on screen.  I particularly liked the way the ghosts of Lebay's wife and child appear in an attempt to distract Dennis from destroying her.  It was a little disappointing to not see it also happen in the film, but there was something about watching her being crushed by that bulldozer that was pretty satisfying.

The appearance of the ghosts simply wouldn't have made sense in this version, because Lebay's presence is downplayed severely as compared to the book.  In the novel we get lots of growing evidence that Lebay is taking over Arnie's body, that he clearly somehow set all this up from the beginning as a way of living on and keeping Christine forever.  In the film, the only hint we get is that Lebay's brother and Arnie both use the term shitter.  Leigh tells Dennis that Arnie isn't acting like himself, but since Arnie acts like a jerk for most of the time we see him, it's a little harder to tell that.  It's only in the scene with Dennis and Arnie alone in the car after that conversation that things become clearer.

I feel like making Christine "bad to the bone" from the moment she was born was a mistake on their part.  I really like the idea that Lebay was an asshole filled with so much hate that he somehow managed to perform black magic without even fully understanding it.  That that kind of hate could live on past the grave and desire to continue to get revenge on the people he didn't like.  The movie goes so far as to contradict that by telling us that Lebay tried to give up Christine, but she came back two weeks later.  That doesn't sound like the same guy to me at all.

If you can look past this glaring error, it's not a bad adaptation.  And if you enjoy Carpenter as a director, you'll probably enjoy the film.

5 comments:

  1. +JMJ+

    Our opinions on these are so different! =D I remember watching the movie and thinking it was too cheesy to be scary, though I didn't mind it moving slowly. I do agree, however, that Arnie's development (or rather, Lebay's takeover) isn't handled as smoothly here as in the original story. What the movie does play up that the book (as far as I recall) does not is Arnie's own attraction to Christine, which is almost sexual.

    And having the windows be pitch black during the kills adds some nice ambiguity to the story. The first time I watched it, I was very open to the possibility that Arnie (or someone acting through his body) was carrying out the murders himself. So when I read the novel many years later, I was surprised by the ghosts! I do love them, though.

    And may I confess that really liked Dennis as a narrator? LOL! I don't recall him being so sleazy, but I'll bet I'll notice if I do a reread.

    You've probably heard me say this a million times, but I always want to bring it up when people are discussing Christine, so here I go again . . . When I was finished reading, I felt two things: fear that a car would find a way to kill me that night, although I lived on the twenty-second floor of a building . . . and sadness that Dennis and Leigh weren't real people and I couldn't stalk them on Facebook or something. The power of these emotions, which I didn't even feel creeping up on me, was the first time I really saw what a great writer Stephen King is.

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    1. I didn't remember the part about being afraid of a car attacking you, but I did remember you saying you wanted to "keep in touch" with the characters. :) I wouldn't mind having Leigh as a friend, but yeah, unfortunately Dennis rubbed me the wrong way. I think it was one of those things where the first time one of his comments popped up, it annoyed me, and therefore every resurgence made it worse and worse. I'd compare it to dealing with moody Harry Potter in some of the later books, a character whose personality traits get in the way of fully enjoying what's happening in the story.

      I can see how some parts of the movie could come off cheesy, though I think he handled "killer car" as best you could. Better than King himself did on Maximum Overdrive!

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  2. As someone who's only known the film, all this stuff about Lebay and possession is new to me, and frankly, I think it works better without. It's like the ghosts of the Shining specifically possessing Jack. I find it more interesting when the object of evil (here, the car, there, the hotel), are more a corrupting influence, where instead of sidelining the existing personality and slipping in a new one, they instead twist what's already there. We see this with Arnie gaining confidence and strength to stand up to his bullies, but it also gives him ego and bloodthirst, and I saw "shitter" as more a word he picked up from the old man than a hint of possession. As Enbrethiliel pointed out, the blackening of the windows adds a great sense of ambiguity as to whether it actually is Christine herself seeking revenge, or if Arnie is behind the wheel. I feel the telling moment is in the final scene when a light finally shines through the window and there he is.

    It's well established by now that you and I differ on the style and pacing of Carpenter. I love the guy, and this is one of my favorites from him. :)

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    1. For me, having it be Christine corrupting/possessing Arnie and not Lebay begs the question of just how Christine came to be evil to begin with, what happened on the assembly line to make her that way.

      But seeing as how Carpenter had zero interest in explain why Michael Myers killed or how he didn't die, I'm sure he's not interested in explaining what makes a car evil either. :)

      Honestly, the car being possessed and corrupting Arnie does work, I just personally really love the idea of accidental black magic fueled by hate.

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    2. And I think that's the point of the assembly line scene, to say some things aren't made evil, they're just born that way. :)

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