Book vs Film: "In The Tall Grass"
It's been another banner year for Stephen King. He has a new novel out, The Institute, Castle Rock came back to Hulu for its second season, and three major motion pictures based on his work hit the theaters—Pet Sematary, It: Chapter 2, and Doctor Sleep. 2019 has also been kind to King's son, Joe Hill, an equally great and prolific author. A television adaptation of his second novel, NOS4A2, arrived on AMC, and he released a collection of short stories titled Full Throttle, which features a novella written with his father, "In The Tall Grass," originally published in Esquire magazine in 2012.
This year also saw the release of a film adaptation of this tale, debuting as a Netflix original in October. It was written for the screen and directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice, several episodes of Hannibal, and incidentally, two episodes of Netflix's upcoming Locke & Key, an adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez's comic of the same name). Reviews for the film haven't been favorable—for instance, The Guardian's Benjamin Lee found the film "easily forgettable," Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter says In The Tall Grass is "mediocre" and insists the viewers' agony is greater than the characters in the movie. Scheck also surmises that the film's mediocrity is due to King and Hill's poor writing, though he admits he hasn't read the novella.
Had he bothered to familiarize himself with the source material, Scheck would have realized that the problems of Natali's adaptation—and there are plenty—don't originate with King and Hill, but are a direct result of Natali expanding the relatively short narrative into a two hour film.
Let's sort out exactly how this film goes off the rails, starting with a discussion of King and Hill's work.
It's difficult to tell where King ends and Hill begins, or vice versa, when reading this novella. There are a few turns of phrase that could only come from a man of Stephen King's age (for instance, the text mentions someone pulling "a really hilarious boner," as in, they cracked a joke, but that no doubt means something very different to people in their late forties, like Joe Hill). Where content is concerned, however, the nasty, perverse things that happen could have been dreamt up by either men.
The plot is simple enough: a brother and sister, Cal and Becky—called the Irish Twins by their parents because they were born 19 months apart and are inseparable—are on a road trip to San Diego. Becky is pregnant and unsure if she wants to keep her baby, so she's decided to take a semester off from college to live with her aunt and uncle and think the matter over. Cal, being the dutiful brother that he is, decides to do the exact same thing so he can support his sister.
Their plans go to hell, however, when, somewhere in Kansas, they hear a small child calling out for help from a field of tall grass across the road from an abandoned church called The Black Rock of The Redeemer. The boy says his name is Tobin and that he's been lost for days and can't find his way out, though he sounds very close to the road. There's a woman calling out from the grass too, begging Tobin to shut up or else "he'll hear." Cal, rather impetuously, enters the grass to fetch the pair. Not one to be left out (or alone), Becky follows close behind and dials 911, though the connection is bad and the call eventually drops. She loses sight of her brother, and Cal loses his patience with Tobin, yelling at him to stand still and wait. But Tobin isn't moving, as the siblings soon discover; rather, the field itself seems to be moving, transporting those inside to different spots within the grass, causing Cal and Becky to sound alternatively very close and far away from each other, and vice versa, within a matter of seconds. As Cal internally surmises later, "The grass flows and you flow too" (which sounds a lot like Pennywise's refrain, "You'll float too," and that's probably not an accident, but more on that in a bit).
Time wears on, the sun goes down, and Becky can no longer hear Cal at all. She is dehydrated and scared, but hanging on. Naturally, the situation goes from bad to worse when a strange man, Ross Humboldt, emerges from the grass and promises he can lead Becky and Cal out of the field, just as soon as he finds his son, Tobin. He proclaims that he's already found his wife, Natalie, and seems unsettlingly keen on Becky meeting her. Though she has her reservations about following Ross, Becky eventually goes with him, and he leads her straight to a clearing where Natalie's dismembered corpse lies. Ross attacks Becky, and raves on about a rock that will reveal such sights and truths once she touches it. Becky finds a pair of scissors flung loose from Natalie's purse and stabs Ross in the eye. She gets away, but not before Ross punches Becky in the stomach repeatedly. This eventually causes her to miscarry during a torrential rain storm, birthing a dead little girl.
Cal, meanwhile, sulks by himself, having failed to locate his sister. He's also dehydrated, and just a hair past the line demarcating sanity and madness, when Tobin shows up. The boy munches on a dead crow and prattles on about how the field "doesn't move dead things around," and tells Cal he can show him how to find Becky if he touches the aforementioned rock, revealed to be a giant slab of what looks like black granite jutting up from the ground, its surface etched with skeletal figures that seem to move and dance. Though he initially feels terror at the sight of the rock, Cal ends up touching it, and has what is tantamount to a religious experience.
Some time later, Becky wakes up to find Cal kneeling beside her. It is clear to the reader that he is more than a little crazed at this point, but as Becky is pretty delirious herself, she doesn't really notice. He feeds her a juicy, salty, savory mystery food that he insists is only grass; she gobbles it up with relish, then passes out again. When she next awakens, Cal has her slung over his shoulder, carrying her toward some destination. As she regains her faculties, Becky realizes the true horror of the magical meal she shared with her brother: it was the miscarried corpse of her daughter.
As she begins to scream at her brother, Cal sets Becky down in a clearing, before the giant black rock. Tobin appears, and the two lead Becky toward the "redeemer," as they call it (remember the name of the church?). The rock seems to pull Becky in, and she succumbs to its power, placing her entire body on its surface and "hugging" it.
An indeterminate time later, some hippies stop in the church's parking lot to have a cookout. Their revery is interrupted by a boy screaming for help in the field across the street. They all decide to help the child and, one by one, enter the tall grass.
And that's it. Nothing much is explained about the grass or the rock, except that it seems to be a really old presence of evil on earth, much like Pennywise AKA It, or He Who Walks Behind The Rows, the being behind all that parricide in the similar King tale "Children Of The Corn." Nor do we really need to know much about the grass and the rock. Part of the story's horror is in the not-knowing, coupled with the sense that this thing out in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas has been eating up people, ostensibly, for as long as humans have walked the earth, and will continue to do so with impunity; the inescapable, undying evil that has always been there and will always be there, until the end of time. Furthermore, there is terror in the idea that something so utterly gut-wrenching as the cannibalization of one's own child could occur within that grass, but it's just a drop in the bucket for the field and the rock, insignificant, meaningless. Another day, another couple of souls, swallowed up and spat back out.
Everything recounted above happens in Vincenzo Natali's adaptation of In The Tall Grass, except for these key things: neither Cal nor Becky touch the rock, and there are no hippies at the end. Moreover, as the novella in full makes for, at most, thirty minutes of footage, a bunch of other things happen to pad out the narrative, and they're not exactly good things. The most significant addition is the appearance of Becky's loser boyfriend, named Travis here and played by Harrison Gilbertson, who has been searching for Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and, to a lesser degree Cal (Avery Whitted), ever since they disappeared weeks ago. He spots their car parked in the church's parking lot, and also gets lured into the grass by Tobin (Will Buie Jr.). But there's also a time loop involved here (yeah), so Travis meets Tobin before the boy has had a chance to touch the rock and become a servant to its machinations. He reveals to Travis that Becky is dead, and leads him to her body. But then, some time passes, and Travis hears Becky calling for help somewhere in the grass. She, Cal, and Tobin find the Humboldt family's deceased golden retriever and, having already learned the field doesn't move dead things, Travis tells them to stay by the corpse and call out to him, allowing the four to reunite. Because of the time loop, Tobin no longer remembers Travis—not that it matters much trying to keep track of all the overlapping timelines, because it doesn't help the rest of the film make much sense.
Anyway, the group figures out if they keep Tobin on their shoulders and he keeps an object in the distance in his sight, they can walk toward it without the field moving them, so they head toward the abandoned Bowl-O-Rama (which is briefly mentioned in the novella). Their plan goes to hell, however, when Ross (Patrick Wilson of The Conjuring fame) shows up and leads them to the rock. There he goes nuts and kills Natalie (Rachel Wilson, no relation to Patrick) by crushing her skull with his bare hands, then chases everyone around in the grass for a while. Everyone manages to make it to the Bowl-O-Rama anyway, where Travis suggests Cal has incestuous feelings for Becky, which he confirms by dropping Travis off the building's roof. Ross chases the gang around some more, Travis isn't actually dead, they all end up back at the rock, Travis touches the rock and defeats Ross by choking him out with some grass (yes, he uses grass to strangle a man to death), then uses his rock power to transport Tobin back in time to prevent Becky and Cal from ever entering the tall grass in the first place. This event somehow convinces Becky to keep her baby instead of giving it up to a family in San Diego (no semester stay with her aunt and uncle to figure things out here). It's a neat, happy little ending that doesn't address Cal's lust for his own sister or his casual willingness to murder the father of her baby, nor does it get at the cosmic horror of Becky's insignificant demise.
Despite this weak ending and the excess of narrative, the film isn't the worst thing you could spend your time watching. The performances are all solid, especially that of Patrick Wilson, whose over-the-top interpretation of Ross Humboldt makes for a great manifestation of the rock's crazy-making. There's some wonderful visuals too, including several brief glimpses of the grass as nude, muddy people with bushy grass heads reaching out for the cast members as they stumble through the field, haunted maze style. Natali even takes us underground to show that the rock has a root system of screaming, writhing, pale white humans, perhaps representing all the souls the rock has slurped up over the eons. Still, what is good about this film doesn't outweigh what is bad about it, and its key problem is that there's just too much story, too much bloat for a narrative that works best as a quick and dirty nightmare with no hope in sight. Ultimately, if you have two hours to spare, bury yourself in the original text instead.
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