Unsurprisingly, this article contains spoilers for 2007’s The Mist. This is a deliberately big spoiler warning, for a film you really don’t want spoiled. Really.
Stephen King is a man of many collaborations. We suspect you don’t need us to tell you that, as they span many mediums and have borne more sweet-tasting, fleshy morsels than the Man from Del Monte would know what to do with.
Without even mentioning his many silver screen collaborative efforts, there’s American Vampire, the excellent comic book series he initially co-wrote with the wildly-talented Scott Snyder; and Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical created in cahoots with T Bone Burnett. If we’re talking straight up words on a page then King’s literary tag-teaming with Peter Straub on the Talisman series is a genuine heavyweight combination.
Yet of all of his creative partnerships, it’s arguable that none have surpassed his partnership with one Frank Darabont. As this is an article discussing the ending of 2007’s King/Darabont collaboration The Mist, it’s probably worth mentioning that King and Darabont’s careers intertwine to the point that adaptations of the author’s work currently bookend Darabont’s career as a film director.
From 1983’s The Woman in the Room through to The Mist, King and Darabont have tag teamed on four separate occasions, producing the two movies mentioned above as well as 1999’s Oscar-nominated The Green Mile and 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. Nominated for seven Oscars (but winning none), Shawshank is currently the #1 user-voted movie on IMDb – meaning in terms of pure numbers that it’s the world’s favorite film, should you believe in such things. And if you don’t, I can explain it to you using beer mats if you like.
Although in previous adaptations of the author’s work, Darabont had taken various liberties with King’s stories (such as Tim Robbins’ mad, opera-blaring pirate radio skills in Shawshank), 2007’s The Mist saw him divert from King’s source material like never before – he completely rewrote the ending. Although this in itself is nothing new in movie adaptations, it was the tonal sea change that Darabont’s rewritten denouement added to the film that makes it memorable today, almost a decade later.
King’s novella, first published in 1980, tells the story of David Draper and his son, marooned in a New England supermarket by an otherworldly mist while inter-dimensional beasties prowled hungrily outside. The tale ended on an uncertain note with Draper and several other survivors escaping the increasingly dangerous confines of the supermarket and heading out into the haze to death or perhaps to freedom. King himself satirized the story’s deliberately unsatisfying conclusion within the pages of The Mist when Draper, the tale’s narrator, admits that such endings can be considered ‘cheap’:
“It is, I suppose, what my father always frowningly called ‘an Alfred Hitchcock ending,’ by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were ‘cheap shots.’”
Whether you subscribe to that theory or not, it’s easy to see that The Mist’s ending works well given the parameters of its story. Essentially, the ending is about hope (which also happens to be the final word of the 138-page tale). While other characters in the story lose it, ending their lives or seeking it at the bottom of a bottle, others misplace hope, seeking salvation in the prophetic doom-mongering of Mrs. Carmody and her Old Testament hatred. David and his followers, however, are the few to hold onto that hope, in the face of terrible opposition and King rewards the characters for their tenacity with an ending that allows the reader’s sensibilities to determine the characters’ fate.
With Shawshank however, Darabont had already masterfully crafted one of King’s tales about the enduring nature of hope and as such, he chose to go in another direction with The Mist. In the movie’s memorable climax, having escaped the supermarket, Draper and his fellow survivors reach the conclusion that they are doomed and that suicide is their best option. Draper (played by Thomas Jane) kills the other four occupants of his jeep (including his young son) before running out of ammunition and stepping out into the mist to face the monsters and end his anguish. With tragic timing, the cavalry arrive in the form of the United States military and Draper realizes that he has just slaughtered his remaining family and friends for nought. Nada. Nothing!
With its curious blend of schlocky B-movie CG throwing into sharper relief the numerous cinéma vérité touches (its workmanlike, documentary-style camerawork is complemented by a lack of music for the first hour and a half), The Mist represents something of a stylistic oddity and perhaps this is why it was received with relative ambivalence upon its cinematic release. Looking back though, it’s very plausible that this jarring mise-en-scéne mashup was intentionally constructed with the film’s ending in mind – that Darabont constructed The Mist’s finale as a darker reassertion of Shawshank’s key theme: that ultimately, hope is everything – a maxim that allows Tim Robbins’ wrongfully-imprisoned convict to survive his years of incarceration with thoughts like this:
“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Whereas in Shawshank and even in King’s novella of The Mist the characters are rewarded for clinging to hope, Darabont brutally penalizes his protagonist in the movie adaptation for forsaking it. The closing shot of The Walking Dead’s Melissa McBride clutching her children after walking out into the mist much earlier in the movie is a clear visual callback to the power of faith, particularly as it happens when we see Draper at his lowest ebb, falling to pieces as he comes to terms with the terrible consequences of his actions.
(By the way, speaking of Melissa McBride, re-watching The Mist as a ‘spot The Walking Dead actors drinking game could be a lot of fun – or an extremely messy night – no fewer than five Darabont collaborators from the show pop up in the film!)
There can be no argument that whatever the reasons for the rewrite, Darabont’s revised ending is a visceral punch to the gut, the kind of ending that is tailor-made for YouTube reaction videos. Ultimately, as I was suggesting with the point about stylistic juxtaposition, it wasn’t the freaky monsters that were the undoing of Draper and the other characters. After all – with all the CG contrasted against a documentary aesthetic, how could they be? At the point of the characters’ collective demise, the creatures were nowhere to been seen or heard (in fact, re-watching the scene suggests the exterior noises of military tanks are instead denizens of the mist, adding a delicious layer of dramatic irony). Nope, it’s abandoning hope that did it for Draper and co.—a rejection of the fading idealism that got them so far, but ultimately served as the final nail in their collective coffin.
King himself loved the ending and has gone on record to state the anyone that “spoils the last five minutes of the film should be hung from their neck until dead.” I think I’m pretty safe as the statute of limitations has surely passed (but there’s still a big spoiler warning at the top)… but should he set Pennywise, Christine, and Carrie on me, know that it’s been an honor, Constant Reader.
As for Darabont, The Mist was his last outing as a film director, at least for now. Since then, harsh treatment at the hands of AMC following his exit from The Walking Dead and the cancellation of his follow up project Mob City have meant that sadly, we’ve seen less and less of his creative vision as the years go by. Darabont does, however, still hold the rights to The Long Walk, another King story that fans are eagerly waiting for somebody to adapt, so there’s always the chance that Darabont will rewrite his own ending and we’ll see the duo work together once again.