Little known fact: I am the only literate member of The First Run crew, past or present. Call it a failing of the public school system or evidence of society’s decline but the fact remains that I am the only one on this motley crew who consistently reads for pleasure. So while Scalzo is by far the most passionate about art and film among us, Dave has forgotten more about gadgets and electronics than I will ever know and Espo…well, uh…run’s road races and obstacle courses, I guess…none of them are qualified to discuss the written word since they avoid it like the plague of nonsense shapes they are. Upon finishing my last novel, I thought “Hey! They made a movie of this! I should watch it!” And after watching it, I said to myself “Hey! Scalzo is always bugging me for stuff for his site so I should write articles so I should write about the two! Maybe that will shut him up!” So with that inner dialogue, I embark on this journey into well-worn territory knowing I will soon get in over my head….the first in a semi-regular feature, I hope. So in the words of a great man, buckle the fuck up for:
John Dies At The End - Book vs. Film
The novel was written by David Wong, the pseudonym for Cracked.com senior editor Jason Pargin. The book began life as a serial novel published on Wong’s website in which he used reader feedback to tweak the narrative as he went. 70,000 people had read the online version for free before Wong’s capitalistic instincts took over and it was removed.
Plot wise, the “hero” of our story is David Wong, who just happens to be the very same author of the book. Don’t stop to think about that too much or your skull might collapse under the weight of the novel-written-by-a-pseudonym-where-the-protagonist-is-the-pseudonym meta-ness. Dave lives in a non-descript, undisclosed mid-western American city working in what has to be one of the last video stores in the country. The framework of the novel is Dave telling the tale of how he and his best friend John (aka John Cheese, pseudonym of fellow Cracked.com writer Mark Leighty) came to be paranormal investigators extraordinaire and keepers of forbidden knowledge to reporter Arnie Blondestone (not a real person, as far as I can tell. You’re safe).
The story is broken into three major arcs or acts, connected by the retelling to Arnie. The first act details how Dave and John first came into contact with a drug called Soy Sauce, a black liquid that grants the user strange powers and blows the doors of perception so wide open Jim Morrison would have soiled himself. Dave, John and a group of friends face down a series of otherworldly threats with a showdown in the Luxor Las Vegas against the forces of darkness. The second act involves Dave and John confronting a possessed tv news personality and a fight through an abandoned mall that is explicitly and hilariously modeled after a level from a first person shooter. The final installment involves Dave and John’s search for a missing friend into a strange dimension.
Overall, the book is a fun blend of Lovecraftian horror and ridiculousness. The humor is often pitch black with a healthy dash of the ludicrous. Undisclosed is populated by souls who would fit right into an early Linklater film. Wong, while a decidedly unreliable narrator, is fun to root for and John’s over the top characterization juxtapose nicely with the often graphic and unsettling (in a good, horror novel kind of way) violence. The serial format genetics show in the novel and not everything hangs together at all times. There are some particularly egregious deus ex machina that are jarring, even for a cosmic horror-comedy hybrid but if you are willing to over look that, the prose is crisp and the story pops right along at a quick pace. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
That’s why I was pretty stoked to see the film adaption. Directed and adapted by Don Coscarelli, he of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep “fame”, I was hoping I would be in for a treat. What I got, however, was decidedly underwhelming as a Chunky bar. On the positives, Coscarelli brings a definite visual style to the film with a saturated color palette hemmed in by an ocean of moody darkness that seems to always exist just out of frame. He does an excellent job of setting angles and making normal things seem off, bringing the right amount of unease to the proceedings. However, the whole effort is brought to a screeching halt quickly by two issues: the acting and the adaption itself.
First, the acting is terrible. I guess I should have expected this going in given the budget of the film but the actors are just not up to the task. Chase Williamson plays Dave as a bug eyed, nasally schlub with annoying facial ticks. John makes out even worse as played by Rob Mayes. Mayes has that D-List attractiveness that is utterly non-descript and seems desperately out of place here. Imagine a stereotypical bro doing a Stifler impersonation and you get the idea. The lone acting bright spot is Paul Giamatti as Arnie, who is his usual excellent self in a mostly small part.
The bigger issue is the adaption choices made by Coscarelli. When I say this movie is adapted, I mean it has been heavily condensed and changed from the source material. Other than the riddle of the universe sequence and the prologue of the book, nothing makes it in unadulterated in some way. Normally, this type of thing doesn’t bother me but I think the film is betrayed by the narrative structure of the source. By creating three almost completely self contained episodes, author Wong created an adaption nightmare. As such, large swaths of the book are omitted entirely. The second episode is excised completely while the first and third are combined and reworked into a generally unsuccessful remainder, if you know the source. The big final twist of the book is completely absent which weakens the entire experience, in my opinion.
The book, in a landslide. This would be an instance where I would encourage you to watch the film first and then completely forget it before you pick up the superior novel.
- Matt Howell
Matt was once the co-host of the First Run podcast. He has since moved on to focus on parenting and other general skullduggery.
The film is available on Blu-Ray, DVD & Netflix Instant Viewing.