From Book to Screen: Christine
Welcome back to the Stephen King Book to Screen Series. Last time, we wrapped up the final adapted work from King’s novella collection Different Seasons. We get back on the road as we cover another one of King’s famous and definitive takes on a haunted object. So slick back your hair, throw on that letterman jacket, and crank up Chuck Berry as we go cruising in Christine!
Christine came out in April 1983 (and is the only first-edition King novel I own, if you’re wondering.) In 1982 he had released his final original Bachman novel, his first Dark Tower novel, and the aforementioned novella collection. That meant that King fans had gone since 1981’s Cujo without a proper dose of horror. Christine is awash in 50s nostalgia, a running theme of King’s work. Part and parcel with that theme is King’s love of cars. Several vintage cars had been featured in his books, but in his return to pure horror King dedicated an entire novel to the subject, and in particular to an evil 1958 Plymouth Fury.
The idea began gestating back in 1978 when King’s Pinto, which he bought with the advance from Carrie, was reaching its death. Whimsically wishing that the odometer could run backwards and revive his car, King thought it would make a great short story. Somehow during the writing, Christine evolved from a short story into King’s longest novel to date apart from The Stand. Written in the 80s while King was hooked on coke and booze, it was the epitome an era when nobody was telling King to tone it down.
Not that his fans complained. It sold 303,000 copies in its first year and King raked in the money, having recently dictated his payment schedule like few authors could. He even sold the film rights prior to publishing, meaning the movie adaptation was out by December of the same year. Critics lambasted the book, though, and it is often cited as the epitome of everything wrong with King’s writing.
Christine was the first of several stories set in rural Pennsylvania. While King largely sticks to his native Maine, he has also used western PA several times, perhaps as a result of visiting the area to work on Creepshow (more on that in a future article). Christine‘s story is simple enough: a nerdy teenager buys a junk car against his controlling parent’s wishes, and it begins to mysteriously improve in condition while the protagonist’s looks begin to improve as well. His friend Dennis suspects something is off, but he drops out of the book for the middle third.
Christine is awash in some shoddy writing choices. It jarringly cuts from first person to third person in the middle when Dennis gets injured in football. The characterizations undergo abrupt changes, and the book is full of teen angst and adolescent sexual tension. Many of the chapters wander around aimlessly. The novel struggles to find a path and ends up walking rather than cruising to the end.
Still, there are parts that remind us of King’s potential for greatness. His characterizations, when they work, do tap into something genuine. The feeling of being an acne-ridden teen boy left behind by one’s peers is captured well, and it is relatable to a certain crowd. And while the book gets overly gory with the car kills, there is a great atmospheric quality to some of them. The haunting of the car leads to some pretty creepy moments.
As far as literary value goes, Christine may be a bit lacking. But for fans of hack and slash and King’s style, this is a fun, pulpy horror novel, even if it does drag on.
As mentioned earlier, the film adaptation of Christine was one of the quickest turn-arounds from book to screen out there. The book released in April 1983, and the film was in cinemas in December of the same year. Producer Richard Kobritz, who had worked on the original Salem’s Lot miniseries, became a working friend of King and was immediately attracted to Christine when he received a manuscript prior to publishing. He immediately worked to find a director and selected John Carpenter. Carpenter was originally unavailable due to working on Firestarter and The Ninja, but production delays freed him up. Unfortunately, Carpenter was less than enthused, and he agreed to direct mostly because the critical backlash against The Thing left him in need of “a job.”
Carpenter did not find the novel scary, and though it was not a personal project for him, he did work to make some changes from the source material. Whereas the novel makes it clear that a ghost of a former owner is haunting the car, Carpenter changed it so the car was haunted from its creation. Several deaths were changed as well to make them more cinematic. Despite the car being a 1958 Plymouth Fury, the real-life rarity of that make and model necessitated the use of Plymouth Belvederes and Savoys.
Christine debuted at #4 at the box office and ended its theatrical run after seven weeks. Though it never made huge money, it finished with $21 million on a budget of $10 million, making it a moderate success for the studio. Unlike the novel, the film attracted mixed to positive reviews and has become something of a cult classic. Roger Ebert gave it a 3-star review, and it has been celebrated for its 50s nostalgia.
Indeed, the film does a good job of capturing a love of the 50s in the 80s. From the shiny red design of the car to the leather jackets and all-American high school characters, Christine is evocative of the period. Carpenter’s film is never really properly scary, but it does capture a sense of fun with the car mowing people down and blasting 50s classics like “I Wonder Why” and “Keep A-Knockin’.” Keith Gordon never genuinely looks like the total weirdo that Arnie is described as in the novel; actors cast as ugly characters rarely pull it off since they are, after all, actors. Gordon, John Stockwell, and Alexandra Paul are merely adequate in their roles.
Still, Carpenter’s direction is strong enough that Christine manages to be a fun and entertaining picture. It cuts the fat from King’s book and leaves it with the basic character arcs. Some of the nuance of Arnie’s conflicts with his parents and his sense of jealousy of his best friend, the football jock, is left out, but the reward is that the film doesn’t meander as much. And it does capture some fun little pieces of dialogue from King’s book, as well as some neat effects for the car repairing itself back into shape. Christine isn’t earth-shaking, but it’s more than just a lazy adaptation.
Christine is a fine enough adaptation of a weaker King novel. It may be worth remaking if a director and screenwriter can get to the heart of what does work in Christine without hanging onto the weaknesses of King’s writing. But really, Carpenter’s take on the book is good enough that no new version is needed. There is a plethora of new King adaptations in the works, but Christine isn’t among them. Carpenter’s can stand as the definitive take on this novel, since fans of the book will likely enjoy it, and non-King fans can appreciate it as a better-than-average 80s horror flick.
- Ranked #1,931 globally
- 4667 users have ranked it
- Wins 39% of match-ups
- 2 people have it at #1
- 12/91 on the Stephen King filter
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.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Stand By Me (1986)
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- Christine (1983)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Cujo (1983)
- The Shining (1980)
- Apt Pupil (1998)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Firestarter (1984)
- The Dark Tower (2017)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)