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Film of the Book: Children of the Corn

So, as I mentioned way, way back in the Jane Austen vs Romance post, I've put together a reading list for myself based on books that have been adapted to film. At first I was focusing on movies I had seen, plus books I hadn't read yet--exploring the original source material, because I'm cultured and literary and stuff.

Then, I had an idea: over the years, Iv'e become less critical of movies purely on the basis of whether they adapt the work faithfully. Most of the time, I do prefer the book, but film is a very different medium and ought to be judged on its own terms, inside its own time constraints and limitations. A poor adaptation doesn't automatically make a bad movie, and likewise a faithful adaptation doesn't always make a good one.

With that in mind, I decided to do a Film of the Book blog series reviewing both written works of fiction and their respective cinematic adaptations, detailing the differences between them, which version I personally prefer, and which version I encountered first.

Because I'm me, we'll be starting with Stephen King. . .

Title: Children of the Corn
Author: Stephen King
Director: Fritz Kiersch
Rhoda's First Taste: Short Story

Honestly, the first version of this story that I encountered was the parody on South Park, but that's not important right now. I've seen two cinematic adaptations of "Children of the Corn": the 1984 version everyone knows about with Linda Hamilton and Courtney Gains, and a straight-to-the-SyFy-Channel version from 2009. I've reviewed both over at candycorncomm, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. Also, I'm focusing here more on the difference between the original story and the 1984 film, since the 2009 version is a much closer adaptation--and a perfect example of why that's sometimes not the best thing.

The biggest difference between the 1984 film and King's short story is quite simple: the former draws a very clear line between good and evil. The latter does not. The good guys and bad guys are easy to point out in the movie--you want the good kids and the two innocent bystanders to survive, and you want Malachi and Isaac to get served. And that's exactly what happens. The good guys win, the bad guys go down, and the audience goes home happy.

In the short story, the couple posing as our "protagonists"--and by that, I mean they hold the point of view for most of the story, not that we're supposed to be on their sides, necessarily--start out as self-involved, hateful idiots, they stay self-involved, hateful idiots throughout the story, and then they die. That's it. The end. They have no development or growth as characters whatsoever, and it's difficult to dredge up even the smallest amount of empathy for them, despite the horrible things they go through.

The world-view of the kids is similarly straightforward: they have a job to do, they do it, and they're done. They sacrifice the chosen victims to He Who Walks Behind The Rows, that's it. However, let me point out two things regarding the kids here: 1) They're just kids. They do some truly horrific things, yes, but they're so young you can't really root for the protagonists to kill them, and King doesn't expect you to. 2) The demonic entity living inside the cornfield is real. And if they don't keep it well-fed on adults, it will kill them. Again, yes, they do some truly horrific things, but if it's based on self-preservation, I can't get but so mad at them.

One thing King does exceptionally well is to juxtapose supernatural monsters alongside uncommonly vile human beings, and ask the audience to wonder which of them is the greater threat. He doesn't give any easy answers, and that's one of the things that makes him such a compelling writer. That, plus his impeccable grasp of the craft, works to create an unforgettable reading experience.

The movie takes a much simpler perspective, giving the audience someone to sympathize with, and someone to fight against. The couple who gets trapped in Gatlin during a cross country trip, along with most of the kids, are decent, caring, compassionate, and determined to do the right thing--that being get the good kids out of the cornfield--even if that means risking their own lives. They're the Good Guys. And the two main leaders of the children--Isaac, the prophet who speaks for He Who Walks Behind The Rows, and Malachi, the bruiser who does most of the meat work and enjoys his job WAY too much--are the Bad Guys, along with the monster in the cornfield.

Except. In the last page and a half of the short story, we learn that a couple of the older children, including Malachi, are no longer welcome in the community. As I've already said, the characters don't have much forward motion as characters in the story, which is one of the reasons I believe the changes made in the movie work as well as they do. The only place in the story where we have any character development whatsoever is in this very last scene: Isaac informs his faithful flock that Malachi has reached the Age of Favor, and must now go into the cornfield to die, thereby appeasing He Who Walks Behind The Rows. And in that moment, there's a pause. All the other children watch Malachi to see if he'll do as he's told. Also, he has a girlfriend who's silently pleading with him not to go and leave her alone with these murderous fundamentalists, and she thinks real hard about maybe setting the entire cornfield on fire herself.

I won't tell you what Malachi does. But I love this scene, and it's what makes the whole story work for me. You get a strong impression that even though Malachi is still one of the faithful at this point, he strong enough, and enough of a natural leader, that if he decided to lead a revolt, quit taking orders from Isaac, and damn the consequences? They would follow him.

What's funny about this is in the movie, that's exactly what happens: Malachi leads a revolt against Isaac and takes over. Tell me, how is it that a character who only gets a few pages of devotion in the original work, who isn't named until the final scene, became one of the most iconic horror movie villains of all time? Because Malachi leaves a lasting impression, and has a healthy fanbase of people who think he's a total badass (including yours truly). I'll say this for the 2009 version as well--Daniel Newman makes a fantastic Malachi. Courtney Gains is the ultimate, of course, but Newman brings more humanity and nuance to the role, creating a sympathetic character who you can't quite write off as evil. Also, the girlfriend, Ruth, gets a speaking role and a prominent position in their community.

You know what I'd really like to see? And I've said this before, but I still feel this way: If someone takes it into their head to revisit this story yet again--I mean another reboot of the short story, not the endless sequels we already have--what about retelling it completely from Malachi's point of view? He's the most dynamic, interesting character in the story, and the one with the biggest fanbase from the movie, and for my money I think he's a big reason why it became such a classic.

In the end, I do prefer the short story, but it's a very close call. I like the open-ended feel of it, this sense you're left with that the cornfield isn't finished claiming innocent lives yet, but that the children are stirring to rebel. It's dark, but brimming with possibilities. Unlike the sweet ending of the movie that's just a bit too neat and tidy to be believable, even within the context of the outlandish concept. Open-endings work better on the page, I think. With cinema, the audience expects a conclusion. That's why I feel like the older, less faithful version of this story works better as a movie than the 2009 version.


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(Deleted comment)
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:53 pm (UTC)
Speaking of your evil-children marathon--you really need to see Sinister. That's all I'm gonna say, but yeah. It'll fit on that list nicely.

I suppose they wanted the protagonists to be nicer people because it's hard to get engaged with a story about people we don't care about. But they should have had the guts to kill them off.
Agreed--I definitely like those people better than the ones in the book, but that no-casualties ending was a bit, "Really?" It feels more like a kids' adventure movie than a horror movie to me. Y'know, like Lost Boys or Fright Night, where the protagonists kick a reasonable about of ass, but don't actually have anything bad happen to them. Which I'm fine with, but it's a very different story.

The whole "evil religions are bad" is still a thing in the story, make no mistake. But the fact that they have something to lose if they don't continue following said religion puts a different spin on things.

I clearly need to read more Pratchett--I'll add that book to my list! I never know where to start with a series that massive. However, that idea of gods needing worship to survive reminds me of Neil Gaiman's American Gods--that was a theme there too. Not my favorite thing from Gaiman, but that idea intrigues me.

I mean, in the film it IS the kids that kill the boy who tries to escape, right? It's not the demon that gets him. So I had no indication that there was anything stopping the kids from leaving other than OTHER kids.
It's kind of both, actually. I mean, yes, there's definitely a demonic entity lurking in the field, but we're never explicitly told what it can do or where it came from. Yes, Malachi is the one who killed the boy in the beginning, but he's also following orders--orders he seems to enjoy carrying out more than he should, mind you, but he's got a job to do. Isaac does all the proselytizing and he's the main spokesman for the demon, but it's strongly hinted that he might be lying/making up a lot of what he's sharing with them, and it's hinted just as strongly that Malachi is picking up on that and getting suspicious. And then at the end, Isaac lowers the Age of Favor by a year, which is the justification for him sending Malachi into the field to die.

We never actually know how much is them doing what they have to do keep the demon-thing happy, and how much is them getting a power-trip and taking things way too far. But that's what makes it interesting to me, that gray area that pops up in zealotry in real life.
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