Frank Darabont Drops the Ball

Yup, that's mist, all rightFirst, Frank Darabont made a reasonably good movie out of Stephen King’s excellent, then- uncharacteristic novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” — even if he couldn’t resist wrapping up the author’s ambiguous, hopeful ending with a grace note of its convict pals meeting on that faraway beach.

Then he kinda botched “The Green Mile” by playing every one of its nutbar notions — like Sam Rockwell’s rootin-tootin psychopath and Michael Clarke Duncan’s simpering Magic Negro — straight. Also, it was three hours long.

And then he made “The Majestic”, which revealed that his tendency towards gauzy golden uplift wasn’t just limited to the world of Stephen King: Frank Darabont wanted to be Frank Capra.

For his hubris, he was crucified: “The Majestic” was savaged by critics and tanked at the box-office. And rightly so, by the way; it’s a terrible movie, and it does reveal Darabont’s manipulative calculations for the devices they are.

Now, Darabont has regrouped and retreated to King territory for “The Mist”, a serious — and seriously grim — adaptation of a 1980 novella that ranks with the writer’s best work.

As I said in my Metro review last week, most of Darabont’s movie is a perfect translation of the story, with dialogue and certain striking images — like a monstrous tentacle squeezing a large bag of dog food until it bursts, and the hellish flight of a flaming bird-creature down the aisle of an otherwise ordinary department store — taken straight out from King’s text.

There are even a couple of shots that very nearly replicate the visuals my 12-year-old mind invented when I first read the story in 1981 — right down to the camera angle.

But there are a couple of things that work against the story, too. Mark Isham’s musical score, with its rumbling choral accompaniment, is a little too heavy for the film, and much as I admire Marcia Gay Harden’s pugnacity as the death-screaming zealot Mrs. Carmody, hers is a character who’s almost impossible to play, even given the present-day realities of religious fundamentalism in America.

Still, if you ignore the heaviness of the portents, “The Mist” is a great warts-and-all King picture. The Maine-land dialogue doesn’t creak the way it did in “Dreamcatcher”; the pop-cultural references and “ayuhs” hadn’t yet overwhelmed King’s characters when he wrote this one. And the story is one of the author’s best, lean and controlled and almost perfectly balanced between external and internal terror.

But then there are those last five minutes.

The story ends in creepy ambiguity, with our narrator and a handful of companions driving off into the mist, chasing an incoherent radio message that may lead to safety. It’s an uncertain ending — King’s narrator even apologizes for the lack of closure in the final paragraphs — but the very last word of the story is “hope”.

I don’t remember the very last words of Darabont’s film, because by that point I was boiling over with fury. Darabont has provided his audience with closure, in the most unfair and preposterous fashion.

Having been pilloried for the schmaltzy, artificial uplift of “The Majestic” — and rightly so; that movie’s atrociously gooey — Darabont goes entirely the other way with “The Mist”, with an ending that sells out the characters and the material for a cheap, downbeat “oh, snap!” moment that, if I’m reading it right, winds up validating the actions of the movie’s most wrong-headed characters, and flips King the bird with both hands.

Amazingly, King has come out in support of Darabont’s ending … but what’s the guy gonna do? Darabont’s “Shawshank” did more to nudge him out of the horror ghetto and into Serious Author territory than any of King’s own books ever did, and standing up against him now might seem like the cranking of a genre author. Or maybe King really does approve of it, in which case someone might want to check for pods under the bed at Casa Steve.

Me, well, I should have seen it coming. That grace note Darabont inserted at the end of “Shawshank” was an early sign that Frank don’t like the ambiguity — though I did respect the fact that, if you’d stopped the film a heartbeat before the credits roll, you’d miss the reveal and leave with King’s ending. Likewise, if you get up and bolt out of “The Mist” after a certain striking CGI image, well, that’s King’s story in a nutshell.

Except that there’s already been some tweaking, with respect to the fate of David Drayton’s wife. King left it unknown in the novella (Drayton is plagued with a feeling that his wife, along with everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be in the supermarket when the mist arrived, has surely been consumed by whatever lurks inside, but we never learn her fate), but Darabont provides us with the info. From there, it was perhaps a tiny emotional hop for the director to get his characters over to the film’s ultimate ending.

Which, as I may have mentioned, does not work.

Oh, and not only does the ending not work, but it ain’t King. King’s characters are fighters; they rail and rage against their circumstances, even when it makes them look like fools, but they do not go for the ending Darabont has forced upon them — and King’s stories certainly do not pull one last twist on the characters the way Darabont’s version of “The Mist” does.

No, indeed. And if one were being particularly uncharitable — which, today, one absolutely is — one might even suggest that the ending of “The Mist” is the result of nothing other than naked calculation: If Darabont’s imagined audience of critics and punters didn’t go for the uplift of “The Majestic”, then maybe the bleak, hopeless ending of “The Mist” will get him back in their good graces. Because those are the only choices, right?

2 thoughts on “Frank Darabont Drops the Ball”

  1. To this day, I do not understand why “The Green Mile” gets slagged so much by a lot of critics. The length? Sure, perhaps the material would have been better served as a miniseries on HBO or Showtime. Beyond that, I think most of the elements work just fine.

    I’ve seen it twice, and while it may not be a masterpiece, it does take that ever so rare stab at making an effective fairy tale for adults. It’s no “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but it doesn’t go completely off the rails like “Lady In The Water”.

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