35 Years Later, Cujo Remains a Scary, Shaky Stephen King Adaptation

Cujo

Lewis Teague's adaptation of Stephen King's Cujo turns thirty-five today, and is a perfect example of the thrills and pitfalls experienced by the average King film adaptation.

August marks 35 years since the release of the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Cujo. A modest hit at the box office, like Christine, released just four months later, Lewis Teague‘s adaptation of King’s 1981 novel is often overlooked when discussing King adaptations. After all, it lacks the artistry of The Shining, the idiocy of Maximum Overdrive, or the incomprehensibility of The Lawnmower Man. Like Christine, Cujo is a perfectly average, straightforward adaptation that serves as cinematic Chinese food, and stands as a reminder that translating a horror novel to the screen often means sacrificing character development and expository plot in favor of more scares.

For all of King’s faults as a writer (such as not knowing what to do with non-white characters), one skill he doesn’t get enough credit for is complex inner lives he creates for his characters. Given that the title character is a St. Bernard stricken with rabies, Cujo does this especially well, which is surprising since, according to King himself, he was so coked out at the time it was published that he doesn’t remember writing it.

That’s a shame, because it’s one of his most tightly paced stories, as fate and choices as meaningless as waiting to make a phone call propel richly drawn characters towards a gruesome tragedy, and an unexpected gut punch of an ending. It manages to be as gripping as the movie, despite the movie’s plot being pared down to its most basic elements.

King makes the interesting choice of not giving the novel a clear villain. As opposed to the Cujo of the movie, who comes off as a four-legged Jason Voorhees, relentless and unkillable, in the novel he’s just sick, as much a victim of circumstance as everybody else he encounters. If any shadow looms over the characters, it’s that of class inequity. Unspoken dissatisfaction, embarrassment, and resentment powers almost every interaction and decision, often to disastrous results.

Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace in the film), the troubled heroine, lives a life of boring, lonely privilege as a recent transplant to Castle Rock from New York City. Her husband, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), is an advertising executive, perhaps second to insider trading as the least trustworthy but still lucrative job. Vic’s agency is struggling after a cereal brand they represent causes an unfortunate gastric side effect in children, and much of his time is spent away from home trying to save it.

With their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) in preschool most of the day, this gives Donna ample time to bone local tennis pro Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), which Donna herself views as an almost laughable stereotype. When Donna decides to end the affair, Steve, the kind of guy who lives in his van and writes anti-capitalism poetry, bristles with rejection and anger, hating Vic for what he represents, and for having what Steve wants. This anger eventually leads to Steve committing an appalling act of vandalism on the Trentons’ home, and he later becomes a suspect in Donna and Tad’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, out in the sticks of Castle Rock lives Charity Camber (), who almost certainly has never rubbed elbows with a local tennis pro, or anything else for that matter. Charity’s husband is the ill-fated Joe (Ed Lauter), owner of Cujo and one of Stephen King’s signature Gruff Brutes. Charity quietly endures Joe occasionally smacking her around (while admitting only to herself that she sometimes enjoys sex with him), and accepts her lot in life, though she longs to give her preteen son, Brett, a chance to see “how decent people live.” Opportunity arises when she wins $5,000 in the lottery, an unthinkable sum for an auto mechanic’s wife, and enough that she can both take a trip with Brett to visit her sister in Connecticut, and buy Joe an expensive piece of equipment to bribe him into letting her go. He refuses initially, describing Charity’s sister and brother-in-law as “a couple of first class snots,” but eventually gives in. Joe’s not entirely wrong about his in-laws, as it turns out, as they both love showing off the trappings of their comfortable middle class lifestyle, much to Brett’s chagrin and Charity’s embarrassment. Though she initially contemplates divorcing Joe, Charity resigns herself to the hand that life has dealt her, hoping that Brett will be able to have the future that she won’t.

Unbeknownst to Charity, and Steve Kemp, and Vic, who is forced to devote his immediate attention to his job instead of his crumbling marriage, Donna is going on day two of being trapped in her car during a high summer heat wave, her son slowly dying of dehydration beside her and at the mercy of an enormous animal whose brain is ravaged with disease.

It’s a testament to King’s skills as a writer that the internal monologues of numerous supporting characters are at least as compelling to read as the horror that transpires at the Camber house. Cujo is probably the story referenced the most often in other stories set in Castle Rock, as an example of the bizarre tragedies that inflict the people who choose to stay there, and it’s also the story that best illustrates the distinct class lines that divide the town.

Donna mentions often that she doesn’t want to live a wealthy stay at home mother existence of Junior League meetings and Tupperware parties, but she’s hardly likely to hang out with Joe, who trades auto repair for dog food and eggs, either. She’s trapped and lonely because of her own innate, confusing snobbery.  On the flip side is Charity, who’s unhappy in her life with Joe, but chooses to remain because, well, that’s just how things were meant to work out for her. She’s trapped and lonely because of her own innate, confusing stubbornness. In the end, of course, they have a terrible, unforeseen event in common. Loss doesn’t recognize class, after all.

Much of this ultimately didn’t make it into the film adaptation of Cujo, not even Steve’s harrowing, sexually charged destruction of Donna and Vic’s belongings, a scene almost as hair-raising in its unthinking violence as Cujo’s attacks upon Donna’s car. Steve is rewritten as an old boyfriend from high school and disappears barely a quarter of a way into the movie, while Charity and Brett leave for their trip and are never seen or mentioned again. This is an understandable, albeit unfortunate, choice, because the book makes the chilling suggestion that if Donna hadn’t gone out to the Cambers’ home that day, she would have just encountered a different kind of monster in Steve, right there in the safety of her middle-class home.

Charity is simply a fascinating character, a woman who knows that her life is not one that anyone would choose (certainly not her sister), but she lives it with quiet strength and grace. She would fit in just as much in a Steinbeck novel as she does in a book about a killer dog. Hulu is doing a serviceable enough job of maintaining the spooky mythos of Castle Rock in the series of the same name, but it would be interesting to see a series or film that focuses more closely on the residents themselves, without the stereotypes and clownishness of Needful Things, just ordinary people trying to get by as best as they can in this sad, rotting little town. Readers obviously care about the residents of Castle Rock themselves, otherwise Stephen King wouldn’t be richer than God.

Cujo as a movie plays all the notes well, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of other King adaptations. But it still doesn’t fully understand the music.

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About Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is a writer and co-host of the Kill by Kill podcast, on which she coined the phrase "corpse juice." She writes about old TV, movies, pop culture, and very occasionally "Law & Order" at genaradcliffe.com.

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