No Hollywood Ending
Ever love a movie except for its ending? For me, that movie is The Mist. It’s an adaptation of my all-time favourite Stephen King story of the same name, from the 1980 anthology Dark Forces (but better known as part of the short story collection The Skeleton Crew). I love the spooky, imaginative tale so much that I interviewed the director of the movie adaptation for a cover story on the movie, when it came out in 2007. And I’m a fan of Frank Darabont’s horror projects in general: his other King adaptations: The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption; his scripts for The Blob remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Fly II; plus, he’s the guy who brought The Walking Dead to T.V. And I love The Mist, right up until he departs radically from the book with a new ending.
Earlier this week, the L.A. Times ran a piece on a screening of the movie at the Hero Complex Film Festival in Hollywood, with both Darabont and star Thomas Jane in attendance. They discussed the “angry, bleak” ending of the movie, which (SPOILER ALERT) has Jane’s character, along with his young son and some other survivors, driving off into the monster-filled mist, having escaped the mayhem at the grocery store where other survivors had turned on each other. This part is essentially the same as the book.
The novella, however, ends with the travellers driving through the mist and finding shelter for the night:
There is a restaurant here, a typical HoJo
restaurant with a dining room and a long, horseshoe- shaped lunch counter. I
am going to leave these pages on the counter and perhaps someday someone will
find them and read them.
The movie, on the other hand, sees our hero, David, his son, Billy, and three other survivors drive to David’s house, where they find his wife dead in a spider web. They continue driving but run out of gas on the highway, just as a huge monster (so big it has other creatures circling it) passes in front of them. They immediately decide to kill themselves, with David shooting everyone in the SUV, including his son. He doesn’t have a bullet for himself, though, and starts screaming. Seconds later, a military convoy arrives through fog with a truck full of survivors. Swallowed by the irony, David falls to his knees and loses his mind as military men look on.
In the Times piece, Darabont describes sending the ending to King, telling the author that he would change the end if he didn’t approve. But he did and, as Darabont recalls, “thought that every generation there be a movie that dares not give audiences what they want.”
It is an amazingly ballsy, non-Hollywood ending, but it’s also complete B.S. for several reasons. A) Given the circumstances, why would you be so stupid as to run out of gas in the middle of the highway? You wouldn’t find a gas station or shelter long before that? B) You wouldn’t consider any other options before immediately defaulting to suicide within moments of running out of gas – especially since you just spent the last 90 minutes of the movie fighting for the survival of your friends and your son?!? You wouldn’t at least wait a few hours, just to see if an opportunity for escape presented itself?
Now, it’s easy to say, “Well idiot, is that any more likely than a mist full of monsters?” but it comes down to a film’s internal logic. We believe that this world exists, and within it our heroes, up to this point, have acted like one would expect most humans to: logically and reasonably if scared as hell. Screenwriting gurus have long pointed out that action stems from character, and if your characters break, well, character, you lose your audience. You see it all the time in movies: the hero suddenly develops a formerly unseen ability that gets him or her out of a jam, or they make an illogical decision in order to get to the next plot point. We want – no need – to believe in the struggles of our heroes, but the deal is that they need to allow us to believe in them.
But even all this doesn’t irritate me as much as the fact that this new ending goes against the theme of the movie, which is ambiguity – something that’s laid out very clearly by the title of the movie: The Mist! A mist is a fog, something that brings with it a lack of clarity, which is why the uncertain ending of the novella is prefect. There is no resolution, just grim hope. It’s more courageous to give your audience an uncertain ending than a grim but false one. John Sayles got it right with his 1999 film Limbo, which ends with its heroes stranded on a foggy island as a plane comes in for a landing, but they don’t know if the people in the plane are there to rescue them or kill them because they’ve uncovered their crimes, hence the title. (Given this re-edited ending of the film, done by a fan, I'm not the only one who wished the film hewed more closely to the printed story, either.)
You’re probably wondering how I can count The Mist as one of my favourite horror movies if the ending is such a problem. Well, there’s an easy fix... I just hit the stop button when our heroes make their escape into uncertainty.
Sometimes no resolution is the best ending, but most of us don’t like that in our stories – perhaps it’s out natural curiosity, or that we desire so much to see our heroes all the way through their journeys. But I’d rather imagine the possible outcomes than to think that the protagonist I’ve followed so closely for 90 minutes suddenly acts so out of character that I just want to leave him in the fog.