Why PET SEMATARY, and Most Book-to-Movie Adaptations, Need Major Changes

The new trailer for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was met with a bit of heat when it dropped this week.

Many devoted fans of the horror master had strong opinions about the new film’s decision to change a major story element from the book. In King’s 1983 novel, the Creed family lose their toddler son, Gage, when he steps in front of a truck on the dangerous road near their house. Grief-stricken, patriarch Lou buries his son in a nearby plot that has the mystical ability to resurrect. Gage is, indeed, resurrected, but comes back “wrong,” wreaking havoc on the already-devastated Creed family.

But in the new film, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and written by Jeff Buhler, it’s Gage’s older sister Ellie who gets the death-and-resurrection storyline. Ellie is played by 12-year-old actress Jeté Laurence, who’s significantly older than the two-year-old Gage as he appears in the book and Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation, written by King. This is a pretty big change, and judging from online reactions, a controversial one to boot.

Though altering the story was always going to miff some fans, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the story. Ellie’s arc in King’s novel is centered on her fascination with and fear of mortality. Ellie also has a very close relationship with her dad Lou, whose devastation will surely take on a new angle with this update. Also, as the directors explained to Entertainment Weekly, this change allows the story to retain its dramatic tension without resorting to complicated tricks to make a two-year-old look convincingly scary. (You may recall, in Lambert’s version, that resurrected Gage was often played by a doll.)

I often think of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when adaptation controversies start popping up online. The characterization of Jack Torrance is fundamentally altered from King’s novel; whole scenes are added and removed, and the ending is completely different. This bothered King, who has been vocal about his hatred of the film (and understandably so, as its themes of alcoholism are true to his real-life experience), but gave audiences one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. By contrast, a 1997 TV miniseries based on the book—and written by King—stuck closely to its source material, and was heavily panned. Some things that work in a book, like a nightmarish firehose, just don’t work on screen.

And even beyond simple translation issues, major changes from book to screen can deepen your understanding of that thing you already love. I learned this with last year’s Netflix horror series, The Haunting of Hill House. The original book, written by Shirley Jackson, is one of my favorite stories of all time, a novel that I treasure. When the trailer for the series first came out, I was livid; it changed the story completely, retaining only some character names and the setting. But then I watched the show, loved the show, reread the book, and came to love it even more. There are things director and writer Mike Flanagan took from the book and baked into his version that made me respect Jackson’s storytelling even more. The nuances of matriarch Olivia and her fragile mental health are pulled right from Jackson’s dialogue, and reshaped in a way that make their haunting beauty all the more tragic and knowable.

In fact, in changing some things, you can almost be more faithful to the material. An older Ellie in Pet Sematary means the harsh dialogue Gage spews at his parents can actually make its way to the screen, after being cut from Lambert’s film. It also means her larger physicality can come off appropriately intimidating, instead of laughably ridiculous.


Other details of the trailer stand out as noticeable changes that are in symmetry with King’s story, like the masked children. There is no masked kid cult in the novel, but he does allude to the cemetery putting a spell over the town’s children, resulting in cultish group burials. The masks and frequent appearance of the children may be a change, but it’s in line with the book’s messaging, about the dangerous power of this evil place.

The changes don’t appear to have bothered King, who tweeted his support of its scares.

I don’t know if Pet Sematary will be a good film, but I’m willing to wait it out instead of learning another Hill House-shaped lesson. I recommend doing the same, and appreciating how one man’s imagination might inspire a new generation’s worth of ideas.

Images: Paramount Pictures

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