‘Tis the Halloween season, and few authors’ works are more fitting for the occasion in both book and movie form than Stephen King. I’ve reviewed King classics “The Shining” and “Carrie” previously in this space, and this year, I thought I’d take a look at a story I’ve been interested in for some time, “Pet Sematary.”
The book was published in 1983, with the film adaptation coming out in 1989. The story is about a doctor named Louis Creed, who moves to Maine with his wife, Rachel; two young children, Ellie and Gage; and Ellie’s cat, Church. Their new house is situated on a dangerous road on which trucks routinely whiz past. Around Thanksgiving, with his family out of town with Rachel’s parents, Louis gets a call from his neighbor, an old but strong man named Jud Crandall, who has found Church dead in his yard. Jud then leads Louis on a trek beyond the pet cemetery (named “Pet Sematary” by the children who first buried their pets there decades and decades ago) through the woods and swamp to an old Native American burial ground. After Louis buries his cat there, Church returns to the house, though a little clumsier and more vicious in his hunting than before his death and has a horrible stench about him.
In the spring, an even worse tragedy befalls the Creeds, as 2-year-old Gage wanders out onto the road and is killed by a passing truck. The family is crushed by the loss, and despite his own trepidations and against the warnings of Jud, Louis decides to send his family off for a while with the in-laws and dig up Gage’s body to bury him in the Micmac grounds. Rachel returns home after Ellie has a vision about Louis’ death, and Jud tries to stay up to stop him on his return from the graveyard, but the unknown power of the burial grounds keeps them from intervening. In the end, Gage returns as a monster, killing Jud and Rachel. Louis wakes up the next morning and realizes what he has done, and he proceeds to kill the undead Church and Gage. He then takes Rachel’s body to the burial grounds, thinking that bringing her back just a day after her death will prevent her from being tainted like Gage.
The climax to this story is slightly different between the two versions. Both include Rachel coming home to Louis, who bided the time playing Solitaire in the kitchen, and cooing to him, “Darling.” The book ends with that ambiguous line, leaving it to the readers to decide what happened next. The movie goes on: Rachel and Louis engage in a very deep kiss while Rachel reaches for a kitchen knife on the table. As she raises it, the screen cuts to black, but the audience hears a stabbing noise and Louis crying out.
It’s far from the only change, though a lot of the events and details remain the same (that the two stay largely consistent isn’t that surprising; King himself wrote the screenplay). Jud’s wife, Norma, isn’t in the movie at all. Her battle with horrible arthritis and later death help lay the groundwork for the death motif throughout the book. Louis saves her from a heart attack early in the book, which puts Jud in his debt, leading him to think resurrecting Church might be a good idea. Young Ellie has her first dealing with death through Norma’s close scare and her eventual passing; she asks questions that set up several characters’ feelings on the subject, the most significant being her parents’ differing stances on talking about death. The movie gets around this by replacing Norma’s death with that of their housemaid Missy Dandridge, a character in passing in the book. The film version gives her a serious case of depression that ends in her hanging herself. It services the plot just fine, but it takes away some of the connection between Jud and Louis that becomes so important by the end.
One other character whose role changes in the movie is Victor Pascow, a college student who dies on Louis’ first day at his new job. His spirit gives Louis warnings early on about the Indian cemetery, but after that, he only reappears as secondhand tellings in Ellie’s foretelling dreams. In the film, his ghost becomes an active player in the supernatural fight against the evils of the cemetery, as Pascow appears by Rachel’s side on her hurried trip home, whispering helpful hints and influencing events to help her however he can. He also shows up at the end in an effort to stop Louis from resurrecting Rachel. The scenes would feel hokey in book form (though plenty of hokey moments arise frequently through many of King’s works, anyway), and the way they are played provides a little light relief from the dark situation.
The movie hurries through the first half of the book’s story in order to spend more time on the Gage storyline, and though that takes away from some of the character development, it doesn’t ruin the horror and tragedy of the ending. Both versions are good examples of the extent grief can crush a person’s reasoning and spirit. The climax of the movie I actually found more impactful than the book’s, but for the overall journey, King’s original is the more enticing and engaging of the two.