Bright Lights Film Journal

Hollywood’s Nightmare, Not Ours: On The Mist, Story (1980) and Film (2007)

Director Frank Barabont hijacks — and sinks — Stephen King’s powerful allegory of political oppression

There are few works of weird fiction by living authors that have garnered as much respect and reverence as Stephen King’s “The Mist.” Its careful plotting and atmosphere of mounting dread accumulating through small, horrific details and shocking moments of revelation made it an instant classic when it appeared in 1980.

“The Mist” appeared as the lead-off story in editor Kirby McCauley’s landmark anthology of original horror stories by living writers, Dark Forces. The anthology itself contained works by older and newer authors in the genre, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Karl Edward Wagner, from Russell Kirk to Lisa Tuttle. But for readers like myself, teenagers just coming into a historical understanding of the field, it was King’s story that packed the wallop.

The story itself harkens to Night of the Living Dead (1968): a group of accidental survivors of a great disaster struggle for survival in a small-town Maine supermarket. Outside, the world is enveloped in mist. Within the mist are an endless and contradictory variety of different and hungry Lovecraftian beasties. The survivors fight off some minor beasties. But then majorities in the market succumb to religious hysteria of the Jerry Falwell variety, and decide their future survival depends upon a human sacrifice. King’s heroes fight their way to the parking lot, and those who make it to the vehicle head south in hopes of finding survivors.

Where did the mist come from? A few characters offer a few opinions, but King pushes the reader past them in a hurry. He wants to concentrate on shocks necessary to illustrate that great theme of many of his bitterest and most devastating early works: You Can’t Win.

Indeed, “The Mist” comes at the end of King’s first full decade of writing, and it is a powerful summation of a decade’s reading, writing, and plain hard work. It is also perfect. The unresolved nature of the story, the unexplained origins of the mist, the cornucopia of monsters, remain with the reader long after the story is finished.

The finest dramatization of “The Mist” was done as an audio book by Tom Lopez of ZBS Audio in the early 1980s. But saying the Lopez version is an audio book hardly does justice to this electronic masterpiece. It was recorded in 3-D Binaural Sound that perfectly matched the subject matter.

In filming “The Mist,” director Frank Darabont treads hallowed ground, and does not tread lightly. If there was ever a movie adaptation more violently at odds with its source material, and with the sympathy and patience of its audience, no record remains. In its last ten minutes, it turns the tables on King, King’s readers, and Darabont’s own audience. We are both assaulted and insulted by the empyrean vulgarity of a tiresome and disingenuous cleverness.

Darabont has made his reputation on recreating the feel of Old Hollywood bathos: the kind of thing Frank Capra’s colleagues detested about his work when he was still making the movies. And because the Hollywood commercial machine always returns to old meals for fresh nourishment, Darabont is trusted again and again with resources he will squander creating (on their own terms) detestable and dishonest products.

In King’s story, the world (for all we know) has ended in mist. A few survivors drive slowly south, sometimes seeing and sometimes hearing the passage of gigantic and unknowable creatures around them. As in novels like Road Work (1974) and The Stand (1978) he captures emotions and mental states related to the revolutionary upheavals of a period when U.S. imperialism was in retreat and workers and their oppressed allies around the world were taking full advantage of the fact to fight for their liberation. “The Mist” is, at the risk of being politically reductive, a reading of the world by a frightened and stampeded middle class groping for “shelter from the storm.” When King wrote it, President Jimmy Carter was whipping-up new war hysteria over U.S. “losses” of Iran, Grenada, and Nicaragua, and the prospective loss of El Salvador.

Frank Darabont has made his version of “The Mist” in a country whose working people are told they are being given saviors from terrorism and financial ruin. So far, we have found that the saviors themselves, whether from Texas or Chicago, are supreme terrorists: depression, unemployment, assaults on democratic rights, and seething race hatred are the monsters they have unleashed at home and abroad. In the face of all this, Darabont actually permits the rescue of his little world and a few of its characters from the mist. And who is the savior? The U.S. Army. I am not sure how this conclusion will play in countries that have experienced, or expect to experience, the tender mercies of Washington’s war machine. Hopefully, the print will be unceremoniously burned for its heat value..