John Dies at the End
Read this. Before you read this post any further, before you do anything else in your day, read that article. I’m not even joking when I say that it will change your life forever. It did mine.
I have no idea how I came upon that article in my college years, I only know that I’ve never seen the world in quite the same way at any time since. I later went on to read this, this, this, this, this, and this. Every single one of those articles hit me with the combination of soul-crushing honesty, mind-blowing revelation, and gut-busting hilarity that I would normally associate with Lewis Black or George Carlin.
As an agnostic, I don’t claim to follow any kind of Bible or holy book. But if I did, my holy book would be comprised of those articles. Jason Pargin, alias David Wong, is my prophet.
As such, I’m naturally the proud owner of “John Dies at the End,” a novel written by the man who calls himself Wong. It started back in 2001 as an open-ended series of episodes that Wong wrote and published online as a hobby. All the while, he claimed that his adventures with John were actually biographical. In 2007, the unthinkable happened: A company — name of Permuted Press — compiled the episodes into a single edited manuscript and published them in book form.
A short time later, the book was miraculously discovered by Don Coscarelli (more on him later), who loved the story so much that he bought the film rights. The book was then republished with additional material in 2009, this time by Thomas Dunne Books. They released a sequel three years later, titled “This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It.” I own a copy of that one, too.
So how is the book? I’ll put it to you this way: Imagine if Chuck Palahniuk wrote a novel while being haunted by Douglas Adams and possessed by Philip K. Dick. It’s a freakish and baffling paranormal tale that’s terrifying and awesomely funny at the same time. The first two pages alone are a work of demented satirical genius. In other words, there was absolutely no way this book was ever going to get made into a film. Yet such a movie did indeed get made.
How did this bugfuck little book get made into a movie? There are two reasons, and the first among them is Don Coscarelli. He’s the very definition of a cult filmmaker, scarcely known in the mainstream but highly respected in certain film circles. He’s best known for his Phantasm series, though he also directed The Beastmaster and an underrated little oddity called Bubba Ho-Tep. Put simply, he’s a man with decades of experience in indie horror filmmaking, known for crafting batshit films that are practically guaranteed to find an audience no matter how far removed they are from the mainstream.
In other words, he was absolutely the best possible man for the job.
Second is Paul Giamatti, who of course needs no introduction. Giamatti has brought so much talent to such a staggering variety of roles that he’s gained some degree of respect in just about every level of cinema culture. And for whatever reason, he wanted to see John Dies at the End get made. So he signed on as an executive producer, taking a supporting role in the bargain, and the whole thing snowballed from there.
Somehow, the project wound up with even more talent. Daniel Roebuck, a veteran character actor with a whopping 179 credits on IMDB, signed on. There was Glynn Turman, an alumnus of The Wire, Gremlins, and roughly 120 other projects in film and TV. Then came Doug Jones, known among film geeks as one of the most physically versatile performers working in Hollywood today. Even Clancy Brown — Clancy motherfucking Brown! — brought his charisma, his experience, and his legendary voice to this film.
In case it isn’t already obvious, this has been one of my most highly anticipated films for the past few years. I can’t begin to describe how badly I’ve been itching to see this film and spread the word about it. That said, I didn’t want to see it on VOD. I know this film has been out in various digital formats for a while now, but I didn’t want that to be my first experience with this film. No, I wanted to see this film on a big screen at Hollywood Theatre, surrounded by drunken horror geeks and cinephiles, the way I’m sure it was meant to be experienced. But that won’t happen until February 8th.
In the end, I caved and figured out a decent compromise: If the film was scheduled to start a limited theatrical release on January 25th, then that’s when I would see it first. And then I’d see it again at Hollywood Theatre later on.
I know I’m just stalling at this point, but this won’t be an easy review to write. For one thing, I’m not going to type out a plot synopsis of this drug-fueled interdimensional tale of cosmic entities and meat monsters. It would be futile for me to try writing it, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to read it. For another thing, I’m simply too close to the source material. Inevitably, I’m going to nitpick the film and point out all the ways that it’s different from and inferior to the book. To do that would be pointless, since the film’s audience is so relatively small that I’d bet you haven’t read it.
(Side note: If you do have a copy of the book on your shelf, know that you are awesome and I’m sincerely blessed to count you among my readers.)
I do have thoughts about the film as an objective and dispassionate critic, but I’ll save them for the next time when the hype has worn off. For now, please be patient as I indulge myself to geek out about the film and the book.
To no one’s surprise, a lot of stuff from the book didn’t make the cut and a ton of stuff got changed around. Some changes were rather innocuous: I get, for example, that the filmmakers had to switch the dog’s gender because they got stuck with a male dog, and it doesn’t really change the story all that much. Other changes were disappointing, but understandable: Of course they didn’t have the budget or the screen time for an arcade-style shoot-em-up through the abandoned mall. Other changes are just baffling: Korrok’s eye is flaming orange, though it’s described multiple times in the book as bright blue.
And then there are the changes that really took away from the story or eliminated some iconic part of it. The boom box is a great example: If they couldn’t afford to pay Whitesnake’s royalties, couldn’t they have played a recording of “Camel Holocaust” or something? That would have gotten the point across just fine.
Far more importantly, where were the shadow men? Their existence is a cornerstone of the book’s universe, and the film never even gave them a mention. Likewise, the entire premise hinges on David and John’s unique ability to see through the walls that civilization puts up to hide all the cosmic shit that actually controls everything. There was a bit of that in the movie, but nothing like the sight of Ronald McDonald gleefully eating his own intestines.
Also, I was sort of disappointed that the film completely did away with the notion of retroactively changing things. The idea that — as the second book so aptly puts it — three friends could enter an alley and only two would emerge from the other side, neither one with any memory of the third. That notion was certainly present in the first book (Todd Brinkmeyer, anyone?), but nowhere to be seen or heard of in this film.
The irony, of course, is that so many characters went missing in the course of adaptation. But I didn’t really mind that so much. I expected the film to suffer terribly for the lack of Jennifer Lopez (not the actress starring in Parker right now, but a character of the same name), but surprisingly, I never missed her. I’m much more ambivalent about “Big Jim” Sullivan, however. He may not have contributed much to the overall plot, and I can completely understand how his sculpting hobby didn’t make the film. On the other hand, it might have been very interesting to see his complicated dynamic with David, and Jim played an absolutely vital part where Amy was concerned.
That brings me to one of the movie’s crowning foul-ups: Amy Sullivan, who was given a new surname in this film because actress Fabianne Therese is not Irish. Of course, that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that her character was totally gutted. Oh, the film perfectly delivered the whole “girl in distress who you innately want to console” thing, but her romance arc with Dave was rushed to the point of making no sense. In the book, David felt conflicting attraction and guilt over his part in her unhappy childhood. Fuck if I knew how he felt toward her in the movie. The romance arc doesn’t even make sense on its own merit, since Amy and David spend maybe five minutes together before they’re a happy couple.
I was also very upset with the end of
Molly’s Bark Lee’s story arc, but I’m over that now. I was mostly upset because it’s going to cause so many headaches if and when Coscarelli films the sequel, but what are the chances of that happening, right?
I’ve got plenty of other complaints. The film shouldn’t have given us John’s full name and it sure as hell shouldn’t have given a name and a state to Undisclosed. Far worse, the film shouldn’t have brought in Doug freaking Jones to play Roger North in an augmented role, only to leave his character arc completely unresolved. Also, David and John spend the entire book collecting items that John instantly pulls out of his ass at the film’s climax? Bullshit!
But then I remember everything that this film did right.
First of all, the score kicks ass. Brian Tyler did an amazing job of composing music as scary and defiantly offbeat as the story itself. Secondly, though I have no idea how he did such a great job of it, Coscarelli really knew what he was doing when he put this cast together.
Angus Scrimm’s cameo as Father Shellnut was an inspired move that paid dividends so many times over. That goes double for Clancy Brown and everything he did as Dr. Marconi. Glynn Turman’s work was absolutely chilling, Paul Giamatti makes it abundantly clear that he gets the source material, and Daniel Roebuck’s performance felt so perfectly inhuman. Above all, special kudos are due to Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes. They were entrusted with the source material’s beating heart — with all of its vulnerability, humor, and grudging loyalty — and it’s a relief to say that the David/John relationship was adapted flawlessly. Phenomenal work.
For better or worse, it’s clear that Coscarelli decided to focus all of his attention and energy toward adapting a few key moments, rather than doing a shallow and half-assed job of breezing through the entire book. There are whole speeches and scenes in this book that are brought to the screen verbatim, presented in ways that will surely leave an impression on newcomers while making the fans proud. I was especially fond of the dream interpretation sequence, which is made all the more creepy because Robert Marley (yes, it’s an alias) looks directly into the camera through the whole monologue.
In general, the film’s more trippy aspects were adapted surprisingly well. I was honestly quite amazed how well the Soy Sauce trips were presented. That said, there are so many effects scenes — especially in Shit Narnia — when the film is quite violently held back by its own budgetary limitations. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out the continuity glitches in the editing, and not all of them were intentional.
I can’t wait to take a closer look at John Dies at the End as I enjoy it with an audience in front of a proper screen. Right now, however, I feel obligated to give a recommendation one way or another about the movie. It’s a difficult call, so I’ll simply fall back on the same piece of advice that I give about all of my favorite adaptations: It doesn’t matter if you read the book first or watch the movie first, but start today, and don’t you dare do one without the other.