At the height of Stephen King's popularity, he would publish a book and a film studio would immediately snatch the rights up. Cujo was published in 1981 and the film came out in 1983, an incredibly quick turnaround.
Yet the two King books that immediately precede Cujo do not have film adaptations at all. One is a non-fiction evaluation of the horror genre as it stood in 1981, Danse Macabre, which tried to answer a repeated question from fans: why do people like horror? Being an extended essay, it will likely never provide the foundation for a feature film. The other book, Roadwork, was published in 1981 as well and was King's way of coping with his mother's slow death from cancer. The novel follows a man who has lost his son and faces a disintegrating marriage. The final nail in the coffin is that his house is scheduled to be paved over for highway construction. Like many of the novels King published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, Roadwork explores the darker parts of human nature in existential ways. A good director could probably create something pretty deranged from the book, but nothing is currently pending.
Now we turn our attention to the most famed animal in horror history: Cujo!
The first printing of Cujo was 350,000 copies and it quickly became a bestseller. Despite a fairly morose ending, its popularity and standing in pop culture has held strong. King says he can't remember writing the novel at all; cocaine was behind the wheel for this one. He does remember what helped inspire the novel, though. King had gone to see a country mechanic for help with an older motorcycle he owned and it broke down en route. The next person who came along was a man with a huge St. Bernard. One dog bite later and King had his inspiration. He was also inspired to set the novel in a very enclosed, tight space, and his own Ford Pinto became the inspiration for the primary situation of the book — a mother and child locked for days in a Pinto while the rabies-infected Cujo stalks them. A rural setting made this terrible situation possible.
Of course, since this is King, there are hints that more than rabies plagues Cujo. King very directly leans on characters and imagery from the earlier story The Dead Zone, also set in Castle Rock. Sheriff Bannerman appears in both books as well as Frank Dodd, the killer from The Dead Zone. The family in Cujo lives in the old house where Dodd lived, and their son Tad feels the evil presence of Dodd at night. There is some indication that Dodd is influencing the mind of Cujo as well, though King is subtle enough about it to avoid hokeyness. King writes from the dog's perspective several times in order to convey the increasing madness of the animal, and some readers have complained that this is too cheesy. It works for me, though.
Cujo is not a great literary masterpiece, but it is a tight, tense novel. The beginning verges on soap opera territory with infidelity and a subplot about a husband's advertising company facing scandal due to a cereal that's dyeing children's bowels. Once the novel moves past the setup and Cujo starts bumping people off, though, the tension ramps up until Tad and Donna Trenton are stuck in a Pinto at the mercy of the murderous St. Bernard. This is where King excels, and the final third of the novel features some strong horror writing. The novel does indeed end in tragedy, and proves too harsh for some readers. Even so, King felt it was the only ending that fit. Cujo is also unique among King's novels for having no chapters; it simply uses page breaks when the perspective switches.
Strengths and weaknesses of the novel aside, it is the film adaptation that makes Cujo a household name today.
Debuting in August 1983, the film was a moderate success. It took in about $21 million at the box office, finishing fourth among horror films for the year. Critical reviews were mixed, and justifiably so. Cujo doesn't have a lot of depth to its characters. Donna Trenton's infidelity to her husband Vic is handled even more soapily than the novel, partly due to Dee Wallace's over-the-top performance. Wallace veers between stunning sincerity and B-movie camp. After she gets trapped with her son, Wallace settles well enough into the role of terrified mother, but she's overshadowed by child actor Danny Pintauro, who captures the terror of a young boy very well. His hysterics are terrifying and ring true.
The actual dog does a great job as well. His trainers get him to act convincingly ferocious. The makeup work is superb, with longs strips of saliva and dried blood on the dog's maw that are convincing. Cujo looks like a hell beast, and that is undoubtedly what gives him his current status as a pop culture figure. Interestingly, the trailers for Cujo played on the fear of the unknown — it wasn't spelled out that the monster at the center of the story was a dog.
Director Lewis Teague's success with this film led to him directing Cat's Eye immediately afterward. While Teague's work is nowhere close to genius, he does do well with certain sequences. The film closely follows the book, and an early scene in which Tad is afraid of a monster in his closest is handled well. Teague convincingly captures childish fear with long shots, camera angles, and great use of color.
Unfortunately, few other sequences stand out. Even the central stand-off between mother and son and Cujo is less tense and frightening than it could be. For novel readers, it's almost just knowing the ending that keeps the tension high, rather than anything the actual film does. That, and the great acting from humans and canine alike. Still, Cujo is successful enough that King calls it terrific and one of the best adaptations of his work. Leonard Maltin felt the film was genuinely frightening.
Had extended film universes been in the minds of movie studios in the early 1980s, this could have had great potential for a crossover with The Dead Zone. Sheriff Bannerman does show up in both films, but instead of being played by Tom Skerritt as in The Dead Zone, the unknown Sandy Ward takes the part. Cujo plays on the fears of Dodd's ghost as well, though this is largely restricted to Tad having a vague premonition of the horror to come rather than detecting a latent, preexisting presence. A shame.
Cujo may be far from the best book or film of King's, but it's a must-see anyway. King fans have surely seen it already, and pop culture aficionados, but more general audiences may still get something out of the horror scattered throughout. If you can handle an inconsistent Dee Wallace performance, even the shallow drama at the beginning of the movie might hold some interest. The subtext of King's themes aren't conveyed by Teague here, and the film's ending is less dark, so the novel remains stronger even though the movie is a very close adaptation. A remake wouldn't be unwelcome, but the current title for a pending one doesn't bring joy — it's C.U.J.O., standing for Canine Unit Joint Operations. One can only wonder what exactly that means. Maybe the classic '80s movie is all we need after all.
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These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
Connor is an attorney residing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from West Virginia University and a JD from Villanova Law. He enjoys fancy foreign art films, Marvel films, and everything in between. Horror is his favorite genre though, if his Stephen King Book to Screen series is any indication.