Old, distinguished men in elegant attire sip their brandy and tell ghost stories. A mysterious woman unbound by time haunts successive generations of boys and men. The deadly consequences of secrets buried long ago are only just beginning to surface. All this and more make up Ghost Story, a novel by Peter Straub and then later a film by John Irvin.
In past reviews when I have compared a book to a movie, I have used a pseudo-ratio to show how books benefit from a structural advantage. I call this the “200 page/2 hour reel” ratio. Simply stated, there is more opportunity for story and character development in a book than a film. A film based on a book is often forced to take shortcuts, usually to the detriment of the story. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for a film to lay out all of the plot points of a story-heavy book such as Ghost Story unless we allow for a nine-hour film. (I guess that’s where a television mini-series comes to “the rescue.” Ah but this often backfires. But this is a subject for another article.) What does one do about such a dilemma? Let’s ask Lawrence D Cohen, the screenwriter for Ghost Story.
Cohen is a masterful screenwriter who first “came to prominence” for penning the screenplay for the 1976 film Carrie, a fine film based on a book by Stephen King. In Ghost Story, just like with Carrie, he skillfully paves the road that leads from the book to the movie. Cohen and Director John Irvin know the limitations of the film medium and wisely do not attempt to exceed them. They carefully carve out a simpler yet equally fulfilling story from Peter Straub’s behemoth book. It has been suggested that film critic Roger Ebert prefers the film to the book. If this is so, I might just agree with him. Mind you, I said “might!”
As I alluded to earlier, Ghost Story is a long book. Both in scope as well as style, it owes a lot to Stephen King, from its epic quality of plot intricacies to its focus on small town characters and their foibles. In particular, Ghost Story bears a strong resemblance to Salem’s Lot. Hank Wagner from darkecho.com describes this similarity quite well, presenting quotes from Peter Straub himself to back up his claims:
Numerous readings reveal how much the book owes to Salem’s Lot. Straub has publicly acknowledged this debt, stating that “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters. Besides the large canvas I also wanted a certain largeness of effect. I had been imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained. Reading Salem’s Lot, I realized that the idea was self defeating.” On reflection, the debt to Salem’s Lot is obvious. Both feature small towns under siege from the supernatural. In both, the terror escalates until the towns are threatened with destruction — Jerusalem’s Lot is consumed by purifying fire, while Milburn is decimated. In each, a writer’s arrival in town seems to trigger disaster. Both writers strike up alliances with young teenagers whose lives are ruined by the terror, Ben Mears with Mark Petrie and Don Wanderly with Peter Barnes. Both forge an almost parental bond with their young allies, replacing those lost parents. In both, the evil lives on — Ben and Mark end up on the run, while Don, after ending the threat of Eva, presumably goes off to face her evil aunt.
I would only add one more similarity – both novels feature a house that is a home or former home to the evil presences of these books. In fact, I need to make this addition, for these reviews are part of the Haunted House themed project and therefore, the stories I review must include a haunted house, even though most of the action in these stories take place outside these houses. (For the record, I have found Salem’s Lot and Ghost Story on sites that list haunted house films and literature – so there!) But here is the take away – the story is too broad to settle on in with just a few characters at one location at a specific point in time.
Like with Stephen King’s The Stand and It, there are multiple characters with story lines that encompass more than a few pages. While the primary characters consist of the five old men that tell ghost stories (Collectively known as “The Chowder Society”), the writer/nephew of one of these men (Don Wanderly), and the “ghost” in her many incarnations, there are so many others – the promiscuous wife of one of the old men, the drunk plow driver, the cantankerous sheriff, thrill seeking teenagers, and on and on it goes. The story takes place in a snowy town in New York, but the book takes readers across the country as a large chuck of one of the plots (there are a few) unfolds in California. Oh yes, the town of Milburn has the obligatory haunted house. In fact there are several! The evil goes where it wants – haunting several abodes and businesses, including a movie theater that continuously runs the film “The Night of the Living Dead.” Several of the townsfolk fall prey to the evil. They become possessed, they become the objects of their worst nightmares; they die. And it doesn’t help matters any that a series of snowstorms shuts down the town. The people of Milburn are besieged on all fronts by so many forces.
I say, if you like Stephen King’s epic and character-heavy novels, then it is highly likely that you will enjoy Ghost Story as well. I know I did.
Now, how does one turn all this into a movie? By focusing on one central plot and abandoning the side stories. By letting go of most of the characters and centering only on a handful. And this work well, with a large part of the success coming from the suburb cast:
It was the final film for Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas. Melvyn Douglas has so far appeared in two other haunted house movies that I have reviewed. (See The Old, Dark House and The Changeling. Although I did not mention him in these articles.)
The film focus in on one plot – a young woman (as a ghost or whatever evil form you call it) returns from the dead to seek revenge on the four old men (Astaire, Douglas, Fairbanks and Houseman) who had killed her when they were young. This plot line occurs in the book as well but it is much more complicated. Normally when I do a book vs. movie review, I make a bullet-point list outlining the differences within each medium. I feel that is unnecessary here as I have already honed in on the most significant difference. Once that difference is understood and accepted (and accept it I do), an inventory of the nitty-gritty components of such a variance becomes pointless (In more ways than one: meaningless and “no bullet-points.” Get it?) The story that is portrayed is done with great care. It is better to minimize one’s focus to achieve a clear vision than to try and maximize the field of vision, only to achieve a blurry and unwatchable product.
As great as the book is, I find myself preferring the film (Or, I “might” prefer it to the book, as I said earlier). At times during my reading, I found myself lost in the tangled trails of plot. Yes, these trails do untangle and eventually lead you where you want to go, but still, it was a tedious experience at times. The film is straight forward and satisfying.
Not that I am against the complex – by no means. I enjoy books of great breadth and depth.
Perhaps such a comparison is unfair. It’s like comparing a plate of apples to a gourmet meal. It’s just that, as much as great as a gourmet meal is , sometimes I just want apples.
Thank you for reading this article. I invite you to check out my latest book: The House Sitter
– A writer haunted a house with his own stories.