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Pet Sematary (2019) Review: How Does it Compare to Stephen King’s 1983 Novel?

Article by Gemma Nicholls April 24, 2019

Spoilers ahead. One of Stephen King’s most popular works, Pet Sematary was first published in 1983. Now – 36 years later – the second film adaptation has arrived, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. After seeing the advertisement on the side of a bus, I was extremely excited for the new movie, however there seemed to be a wild change in the plot – the wrong child dies.

Pet Sematary delves into the horrors and aftermath of losing a child, and what happens when the barrier between life and death can be crossed over (which is shown by a very witty use of symbolism in the story). In the novel, Louis and Rachel Creed move to Maine with their young children: five-year-old Ellie and two-year-old Gage, and they quickly discover they live near both a creepy cemetery where children bury their pets and a busy road where trucks like to drive way too fast. Louis builds up a nice friendship with their neighbour Jud Crandall who helps him bury Ellie’s cat in a secret burial ground above the Pet Sematary. When the cat comes back to life the next morning, Jud has some obvious explaining to do.

The real horror picks up though when Gage runs into the path of a speeding lorry. Rachel and Ellie can’t cope, and Louis decides to bury him in the same place as the cat to bring him back to life. During the height of Louis’s downward spiral, Gage comes back and kills both Jud and Rachel. An insanity-driven Louis then kills Gage and brings Rachel back to life – because that seemed like a good idea to him.

The moment Ellie comes back from the dead after Louis buried her in the Pet Sematary.

In the new film, however, many of the subplots have been changed or completely scrapped. Jud’s (John Lithgow) wife, Norma, who plays a big part in the novel, is nowhere to be seen in the film. Jud and Louis’s (Jason Clarke) friendship is practically non-existent – they appear to be mere acquaintances at most. The tension between Louis and Rachel’s (Amy Seimetz) father, Irwin Goldman (Frank Schorpion) was barely touched upon, despite it being mentioned fruitfully in the book.

Whilst these subplots may not have made the cut due to lack of time – it’s near impossible to fit all the happenings of a 400-page book into an hour and a half –  the real question is: why did they change almost all the details of the story? At first, Ellie (Jete Laurence) dying instead of Gage (Hugo Lavoie) seems like a very unnecessary change to the viewer, however when you delve deeper and ponder over it for a little while, it becomes more obvious what the creators were trying to achieve. By using the older child, the audience is seeing a fully developed character dying instead of a two-year-old with limited vocabulary and presence. The impact of Gage’s death would have been more like the death of the cat instead of Ellie, which probably would have fallen flat. Also, the older actress would’ve been better qualified at acting as a dead child than a toddler, and might’ve even been less traumatised.

The change was made by scriptwriter Matt Greenberg, but both directors also welcomed it. In an interview, Widmyer said: “Ellie’s the one asking questions to her dad about mortality, what happens after we die, and why cats die before people do. We love exploring those questions again when she comes back at the end of the movie.”

Perhaps the most chilling shot of the film, a zombified version of Church the cat.

Another major change from the novel was the ending. Instead of Louis’s insanity convincing him that if he buried Rachel in the burial ground straight away she wouldn’t be evil like dead-Gage, the film shows Ellie killing Rachel and them both killing Louis, ending with the three zombies walking ambiguously towards the car that Gage is in. Perhaps they wanted to make the ending more ambiguous and open-ended, or maybe they thought a group of zombies walking towards a young child was scarier. Either way, it makes for a very chilling ending.

King wrote Pet Sematary in third person, closely following Louis and his decline in mental stability. This meant that the reader was drip-fed his downfall slowly, throughout the whole novel. This in itself was the main focus of the horror, however it’s very hard to show internal conflict in a film. Instead, they decided to add terror with cheap jump scares, mostly of loud trucks driving by the house.

With Pet Sematary receiving high praise from critics and the approval from King himself, it’s undeniable that Kolsch and Widmyer have made an enjoyably terrifying film. My main thought would be that if you’re a fan of horror and haven’t read the book, then you’ll love the movie. If you’ve read the book, you may be disappointed with the changes and shortcuts they made. I guess the saying is true – the book is (almost) always better than the movie.

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