Man’s love affair with the automobile has been well documented, George Lucas’ American Graffiti is practically a love letter to the American automobile, but there is also the dark side, the obsession that can push one over the brink and into madness. That is the key theme that runs through Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine and because it’s a Stephen King story there may be something going on beyond simple obsession. In this horror story we are treated to the wonderful horror trope of inanimate objects acting and movie around on their own; in the case of Christine it’s an automobile coming to life, something we’ve seen before in episodes of The Twilight Zone and most famously the 1977 film The Car with James Brolin, but Stephen King brings a new level of horror with his offering.
The story has three protagonists; Arnie Cunningham, a hapless loser who was destined to be picked on since birth, Dennis Guilder his best friend and high school jock, and Leigh Cabot, the beautiful transfer student who finds herself in a love triangle with a car. The book opens with Arnie spotting a beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury and insisting that Dennis back up so he can take a look at it. The car in question is Christine and it is owned by Roland D. LeBay, foul-mouthed curmudgeon who thinks the worlds is full of “Shitters” and he soaks Arnie for $250 dollars, despite Dennis’s urgings not to buy this piece of crap.
Arnie’s overbearing mother is furious with the purchase and so Arnie is forced to keep the car at a local a do-it-yourself auto-repair facility run by a nasty piece of work called Will Darnell. The car is repaired bit-by-bit, yet in a very haphazard fashion, and more interesting though is the fact that as the car improves so does Arnie. His acne riddled complexion clears up, he becomes more confident and self-assured, and he surprises everyone by dating Leigh Cabot, the new girl at school who had shot down all previous high school suitors. The cloud on the horizon is school bully Buddy Repperton and his gang of toadies, who do their best to make Arnie’s life miserable, and keeping them off his friend’s back seems like a full-time job to Dennis. When Buddy is kicked out of school for pulling a knife on Arnie he vows revenge, and when Arnie is once again denied home driveway privileges, forcing him to keep Christine at the airport’s long term parking area, Buddy finds this the perfect opportunity for revenge.
The car is basically destroyed by the delinquents, but Christine isn’t the only thing destroyed as the trauma of the event causes Arnie to push Leigh away. Their relationship had already been under a bit of strain when Leigh almost died choking on a hamburger while inside Christine, only saved when a hitchhiker pulled her out of the car and performed the Heimlich maneuver on her, but after this Leigh refused to ride in Christine as she believed it was trying to kill her. Though things were not looking all that great for Arnie it becomes even worse for those who cross him; as Buddy and his cronies soon learn. As the body count rises Dennis and Leigh are thrown together as they try to understand what exactly is going on, and their burgeoning love could push Arnie completely over the edge.
The novel Christine is a blend of horror and mystery; for most of the book it’s never clear just what power the car has and how it’s affecting Arnie and it’s up to Dennis and Leigh to find out. We the reader get clues such as the odometer going backward, which seems to reverse any damage the car takes, Arnie himself starts to develop acidic personality traits that very much mirror those of the late Roland D. LeBay, who died shortly after Arnie purchased Christine, and he even starts to wear a back brace as LeBay did. That Arnie seems to have no memory as to how he hurt his back at first could be taken as part of Lebay’s possession of Arnie, but later we learn that in a fugue state Arnie had been pushing the decrepit car around Darnell’s yard so that the odometer could move backward and thus begin the healing process. Dennis finds out from Lebay’s brother that Roland’s daughter choked to death inside Christine, and that his despondent wife later killed herself in the car through carbon monoxide poisoning. This mystery element, plus a whole lot more, is completely missing in John Carpenter’s 1683 movie adaptation.
The movie Christine went into production even before the book was published, which goes to show you how popular Stephen King was at the time, but with Salem’s Lot producer Richard Kobritz involved one could expect many changes from the source material. Enter director John Carpenter. After disappointing box office returns from his remake of The Thing Carpenter took Christine on as simply a paying gig with no personal stake in it, worse is the fact that he wasn’t even much of a fan of the book, “It just wasn’t very frightening. But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.” That is not a great attitude to have when entering into a project with, and to me, it looked like he removed every frightening moment from the book in the process.
The film begins with Christine moving down the assembly line of a Detroit, Michigan factory in 1957 and we are quickly shown just how evil the car really is as even before it’s off the line it’s car’s hood slams down on a worker’s hand, and then later another factory employee is found dead in the front seat after he flicked ashes on her seats. Why is Christine a killer car? Did Satan pop an evil spirit inside her seat covers when no one was looking? George Thurgood’s song is our only answer.
The book doesn’t outright state how Roland LeBay turned a Plymouth Fury into a machine of death, but as Dennis and Leigh, played by John Stockwell and Alexandra Paul in the movie, investigate they learn things like LeBay having placed his child inside the car as she was dying, possibly as some form of sacrifice, and they start to wonder if Roland’s wife may not actually have committed suicide but that Roland more likely murdered her in the car.
One huge element that is missing from the movie is the ghosts. During most of the car’s stalking/killing scenes, the victims would catch glimpses of LeBay’s rotting corpse or the spirits of his wife and daughter inside the car. After Christine has racked up a few kills it begins to collect souls/passengers; so eventually Buddy Repperton and his gang can be seen inside the car. Sadly none of this made it into the movie. Instead, Carpenter wanted to keep the audience guessing as to what was driving Christine by having the windows blacked out so you would be wondering if Arnie was inside the car or not.
This was clearly not the case in the book as Christine always waited until Arnie (Keith Gordon) was out of town, giving him an airtight alibi, before taking out his enemies. The movie tried to have it both ways. When Christine returned to Darnell’s garage, after running down Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) during a fiery confrontation, Darnell (Robert Prosky) approached the burnt-up car and was shocked to find it empty, but during the final battle when Christine crashed into Darnell’s office we get Arnie’s body flying through the windshield. When dealing with the supernatural it’s very important to set up rules, and then stick to them, if the audience can’t figure out what’s going then there is a good chance they will become disinterested.
One of the biggest changes from book to screen is in the character of Roland LeBay who in the book was a vile and disgusting character spouting off such bon mots as, “Nothing smells better than a new car, except maybe pussy.” He generally hated the world and everyone in it, calling anyone he didn’t like a “Shitter.” Arnie buys the car from Roland and after Roland dies Arnie is slowly possessed by the man and starts using the same phrases and acting like a total creep. Toward the end Arnie tries to fight free, but like Jack Torrance in The Shining, he fails. Now in the movie, Roland LeBay is already dead when Arnie spotted the rusted hulk that is Christine, and it’s the brother George LeBay (Robert Blossom) who sells him the car. George later tells Dennis that his brother, like his wife, had also committed suicide in that car, and this makes no fucking sense because later in the movie when Arnie starts calling people “Shitter” he is now imitating George LeBay, not the dead brother who we never meet in the movie. In the book, George is a nice man who advises Dennis to get his friend to junk Christine as soon as possible. The mashing/mixing up of these two characters is beyond stupid and seems like a change made just for the sake of change.
A truly bizarre aspect of the movie is that studio insisted on a hard “R” rating but instead of including the gore and violence found in the book John Carpenter kept the deaths in his movie almost blood free and in its place, the script was liberally sprinkled with obscenities. Now the blue language depicted in this film may be fairly accurate as to how some high school kids talk but that the director of Halloween would choose to tone down the violence and replace it with cursing I found rather odd.
Speaking of Christine’s kills; the death of Moochie (Malcolm Danare) in the book is especially violent, with Christine running him down and then repeatedly driving back and forth over the bloody body, while in the movie Moochie gets trapped in a loading dock and crushed…very slowly. Visually speaking the sight of Christine tearing its sides off as it forces itself into the dock, a space that is clearly too small for it to fit in, is brilliant, but it’s also the first case of “Too Dumb to Live” in this movie.
Moochie doesn’t think to climb onto Christine’s hood but instead stands still while the slow-moving car crushes him.
Buddy Repperton flees from the Christine, who is engulfed in flames, by running down the middle of the road.
Darnell, for completely inexplicable reasons, climbs into the burnt husk of Christine and is crushed to death against the wheel as the seat jacks forward.
This last death is easily the lamest, not only is the idea of a guy voluntarily plopping his ass down inside a car that is covered in soot and ash beyond idiotic, but the book’s killing of Darnell was much more cinematic. In the book Christine plows through Darnell’s house like a panzer tank, tearing through the living room until it can grind Darnell’s body beneath her wheels. I’m assuming that this death was beyond the movie’s budget and so we were cheated out of one of the best kills in the book. Movie Christine even has a lower-body count than in the book; the movie ends with Arnie’s body being catapulted through Christine’s windshield during the final battle but in the book, it was the corpse of Arnie’s father that falls out. During this final battle between Christine and Dennis, the book has Arnie and his mother driving to a college interview, giving Arnie another perfect alibi, but instead both Arnie and his mother die when the spirit of Roland LeBay tries to take control of Arnie once Christine is destroyed, and their car veers into oncoming traffic. This was most likely cut out because they had abandoned the possession of Arnie by LeBay and just went with Christine being an evil influence.
Another major change is in the character of Detective Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton), in both the book and the movie he is the State Detective investigating the deaths of Buddy Repperton and his gang, and he is sure that Arnie is somehow involved but is unable to prove it, the car only killing when Arnie is out of town in the book makes this more believable, but the big thing missing from the movie is Arnie being arrested for illegally transporting cigarettes for Darnell. In the movie, Darnell is just an asshole but in the book, he’s a crook with connections to the mob. It’s the danger of Darnell exposing Christine’s abilities which causes the car to go after him in the book. Another change is that Detective Junkins is killed off by Christine in the book, another threat being taken care of, while he is alive and well at the end of the movie.
It’s not just the changes that Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Philips made in the translating the book to screen that bug me, it’s more that we never really get a chance to care for the main characters. Keith Gordon is a fine actor but his transformation from nerd to a crazy person involved nothing more than a wardrobe change and bugging his eyes out occasionally, we never get a good look inside his head. The love story between Arnie and Leigh comes out of the blue and vanishes just as fast, with no groundwork laid, and the movie completely ditches the burgeoning love between Leigh and Dennis that grows while they investigate the history of Christine.
Christine is an excellent horror novel chock full of thrills and scares while John Carpenter’s movie has none of this, and the blame rests solely on the studio for hiring a man who clearly didn’t have any interest in the subject matter. The movie is only really memorable for the scenes of the car regenerating, something that Carpenter originally wasn’t even going to include, but even with those cool moments, it’s not enough to make this movie anything more than a rather dull affair.
John Carpenter’s talent as a director is the only reason this film isn’t as a bad as the typical Stephen King movie adaptation, it’s only a shame that he didn’t go into the film with more heart.