The Mist. Spike. Thursday, June 22, 10 p.m.
Stephen King's novella The Mist, published back in 1980 before he was too important to suffer editors, was a marvel of taut, muscular prose. A bunch of shoppers are marooned inside a grocery store when a heavy mist suddenly rolls across their small town. Inside it are a pack of fantastic creatures: Pterodactyls. Giant bugs. Other huge things, indiscernible through the fog except for their enormous, questing tentacles. They are hungry. They eat. A handful of people escape the grocery store and drive as fast and as far as they can in hopes of escape, but as the story ends, there's no real sign that they've succeeded.
The whole thing was sort of like walking outside and discovering you had stumbled into a better-dubbed and shockingly realistic Japanese monster movie. There was a single subplot that extended directly from the action: the devolution of many of the people inside the store into superstitious religious mania. No soap-opera detritus, no Sophie's-choice moments about saving kids or mistresses over wives, no Freudian agonistes, not even all that much time pondering the cause of the events. The Mist landed like a brutally hard punch. Frank Darabont's 2007 film adaptation took almost exactly the same approach to great effect (though he did add a Hitchcockian surprise ending that, purposefully or not, seriously subverted King's contemptuous treatment of religion).
If it doesn't seem to you that The Mist sounds like a good fit for a television series, then I've got bad news and worse news. The bad news is that you'll never be a production executive at Spike, Viacom's manly-men cable channel, which thought a TV version of The Mist sounded like a capital idea. The worse news is that a legion of demons did not burst from the ninth circle of Hell during production, set upon the cast and crew with fangs and claws, and leave them dangling from the sound-stage lighting towers by their own shredded intestines.
Okay, it's possible I'm overreacting here just a smidge. But Spike's version of The Mist is one dumb piece of work. It's a "reimagination" (Spike, mindful of the scant resemblance of its show to King's novella or Darabont's film, has been careful to avoid the word "remake") by Danish TV producer Christian Torpe, whose shows are much beloved there.
But his notion of U.S. politics and culture seems to be drawn in equal parts from a video archive divided between smarmy liberal-moralist soap operas like Peyton Place and redneck drive-in paranoia like Jackson County Jail.
Cops beat the bejeezus out of practically anybody they encounter, just on general principle. A teenage girl who reports she was roofied and raped at a party is immediately branded a lying slut by the whole town. A popular teacher is fired for explaining to her high school class where babies come from. (And it's not from giant prehistoric eggs coaxed into hatching by tiny Japanese fertility goddesses.) That's just in the first episode. By week two, I'm sure we'll have worked our way to the Scopes Trial, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, and a mayor who takes a sledge hammer to Elvis Presley on the steps of city hall.
Even if Torpe's characters hijacked a time machine to escape 1955 America, though, his conception of The Mist is dreadfully wrongheaded. Virtually every one of his changes conspires to rob the work of its gut-punch power.
Stretching out the show's timeline and giving its characters extensive back stories (even if they were less silly ones than these) distracts from the story's sheer horror. Trapping the survivors in a shopping mall instead of a grocery store dissipates its air of claustrophobia. What you're left with is a version of As the World Turns in which booty calls have been exchanged for body counts.
And though I'm not certain, it may be that Torpe (perhaps in deference to network bean-counters) has even eliminated The Mist's monsters. In the pilot episode, at least, none were visible; instead, any human who spent much time inside the fog turned homicidal and zombie-ish, a much cheaper visual effect that requires only makeup and no expensive computer work.
If The Mist rolls up decent Nielsen numbers, we can look no doubt look forward to further adaptations of King novels, including a Salem's Lot with mosquitoes instead of vampires, a Shining in which a family has to ride out a fierce blizzard with a broken cable-TV box, and a Cujo in which a boy and his mom are besieged by an incontinent chihuahua. Maybe we can even expand to the works of Shirley Jackson and her famously haunted Hill House: "Whatever walked there, walked alone…except for a fluffy kitten."