The Importance of Stephen King’s Cell Movie

The story of why it took 10 years to make Stephen King's Cell into a movie and why it's an important film...

Today marks the VOD release of the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, a book that stands out as the writer’s first and only novel-length zombie story to date. Sure, he’s written zombies before: in “Home Delivery,” he wrote a bit of a zombie love story (it’s a good read in Nightmares & Dreamscapes), and you could call the Slow Mutants in The Dark Tower series that universe’s version of the undead. But it’s in Cell that a zombie outbreak — one you’d least expect outside the pages of science fiction — really is front and center. 

Although perhaps it isn’t my favorite King novel — it runs a bit too long, in my opinion — I do admire the way King turned the zombie genre on its head, building on themes of technophobia and fatherhood (you’ll find that many King books that deal with the latter theme) to create a sprawling narrative that sort of foretold the hivemind-like fanaticism towards social media that we see today. Of course, the book came out in 2006, so MySpace and Facebook were already on the rise. It’s more like King peeked into an alternate reality where these digital comforts took full control of our lives, turning us into husks fueled by a hungry groupthink. In Cell, King asks what if it was them versus us?

The “us” are people like the novel’s protagonist, comic book artist Clay Riddell, who is one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak. Oh, the outbreak is by far the most unique part of this grim zombie novel. In an event known as “The Pulse,” a mysterious signal sent out through the global network turns all cell phone users into crazed killers. At first, the zombies, which are called “phoners” in the book, attack everyone, including each other, in a manic frenzy. But after a while, the phoners start to develop a sort of hivemind, grouping into flocks and helping each other scavenge for food.

As the novel progresses, the main characters, who also include Tom McCourt and teenager Alice Maxwell, watch the phoners organize into this hyper-intelligent horde that seeks to convert the remaining humans into their ranks by blasting them with the Pulse. They’ve also developed psychic powers, which they use to force unwanted groups of humans to commit suicide. Fueled by the strange signal, which continues to broadcast from an unknown source, the phoners continue to gain more power.

Amidst all of this, Clay, who is in Boston when shit hits the fan, must travel back to Maine to meet up with his son, whose fate is unclear until the end of the novel. Along the way, they must wage war against the hivemind and their leader, the Raggedy Man, a special phoner who haunts the characters’ dreams. 

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Cell is an ambitious novel with a B-movie sensitivity that calls back to the classic George A. Romero zombie films (the two are good friends) in its gore, violence, and philosophical message. Always, in the back of the writer’s mind, is the thought that perhaps the undead are right. Maybe our time on this Earth is rightfully over, leaving our place open for a new species. Even as the phoners grow in numbers, the humans continue to commit atrocities against each other. The true monsters have walked the Earth since the beginning of time. 

In 2006, King’s book did exactly what it needed to do: enter an ever-growing canon of zombie tales at a time when that specific Hollywood trend had reached its peak. After all, 2002’s brilliant 28 Days Later hadjumpstarted the modern zombie film, and in three short years, we’d see a fantastic remake of Dawn of the Dead and a new chapter in Romero’s Dead series, Land of the Dead (which actually has A LOT in common with King’s zombie hivemind concept). But King added his own unique sci-fi techno-war elements that made his particular take on the zombie genre very special. Surely, a film company would see the promise of King’s concept. Cell could make for the most unique zombie film of the modern era.

So when it was announced only a few months after its publication that Dimension Films was optioning the novel for a film, it seemed like the best decision ever made. And in the hands of their visionary horror director, Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Cell was bound to be one of the greatest entries in zombie film canon. The film was due out in 2009.

It is now 2015, and lots of things have changed. The film is finally coming out from The Genre Company (former Dimension president Richard Sapertein’s production company), Cargo Entertainment, and Bedaroya Pictures after Dimension (which was incorporated into The Weinstein Company in 2005), dropped the film. It is directed by Paranormal Activity 2‘s Tod “Kip” Williams from a script by Adam Alleca (The Last House on the Left) and King himself.

Why did it take so long for the film to get made? Creative differences and the inability to produce a script are at the forefront here. When Roth was helming the picture, he had a specific vision, one he teased in a statement to Ain’t It Cool News in 2006

I think you can really do almost a cross between the Dawn of the Dead remake with a “Roland Emmerich” approach (for lack of a better reference) where you show it happening all over the world. When the pulse hits, I wanna see it hit EVERYWHERE. In restaurants, in movie theaters, at sports events, all the places that people drive you crazy when they’re talking on their cell phones. I see total armageddon. People going crazy killing each other – everyone at once – all over the world. Cars smashing into each other, people getting stabbed, throats getting ripped out. The one thing I always wanted to see in zombie movies is the actual moment the plague hits, and not just in one spot, but everywhere. You usually get flashes of it happening around the world on news broadcasts, but you never actually get to experience it happening everywhere. Then as the phone crazies start to change and mutate, the story gets pared down to a story about human survival in the post-apocalyptic world ruled by phone crazies. I’m so excited, I wish the script was ready right now so I could start production. But it’ll get written (or at least a draft will) while I’m doing Hostel 2, and then I can go right into it. It should feel like an ultra-violent event movie.

It very much sounds like Roth was going for the epic zombie blockbuster event feel that perhaps wasn’t as faithful to the actual book, which is a bit more of a quiet affair. Sure, things go to shit in Boston, and we see a lot of that, including a line about a crazed naked phoner whose “cock swung from side to side like the pendulum on a grandfather clock on speed,” but things very much slow down after the initial outbreak, and the survival tale is much more in the tone of something like The Walking Dead.

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This novel presented itself as a chance for a director to make a heavy film about survival along the lines of the genre-transcending 28 Days Later while still keeping things both gruesome and fun. The “ultra-violence” Roth seemed to embrace in his take would’ve been right on the money, though, in terms of the novel and the other zombie films of the time. Especially Land of the Dead, which features some of the best gore in zombie movie history.

But after that initial spark of excitement from Roth, things seemed to stall. In 2007, the writing process was under way, from the pens of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote 1408, another King adaptation from Dimension. Roth was busy working on Hostel: Part II at the time, and told several outlets that he would not be working on Cell until a) he was done with his current project, b) the script was finished. The script was never finished. 

Throughout 2007, Roth continued to field questions: “No script yet, no Cell yet.” In 2008, Roth and Dimension went quiet about the film, and in 2009, Roth decided to leave the project. Said Roth to Shock Till You Drop:

There was just sort of a difference in opinion on how to make to film and what the story should be, and there’s a different direction the studio wants to go with it. It was very friendly because it’s the Weinsteins, they made Inglourious Basterds and we’re all friends. I said, “‘I’m not really interested in doing the film this way. You guys go ahead and I’m going to make my own films.” I’ve also learned that I really am only interested in directing original stories that I write, that’s another thing I learned through that whole process.

Roth later elaborated that the script wasn’t ready and that Dimension, who really wanted to hit that 2009 release date, had a different idea for the story. So Roth quietly exited the project. Interestingly enough, his next film, The Green Inferno, wouldn’t be ready until its premiere in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and remains indefinitely delayed for wide release due to financial difficulties. 

Fortunately, Cell rose from the grave fairly quickly, thanks to Stephen King’s new script, which he revealed at a book signing in Maryland a few months after Roth left the project. Here’s the King himself:

Note that King mentioned in the video that he would change the original ending of the novel for the film. We’ll see how that turns out, won’t we?

Dimension dropped the film, and it was Saperstein — he also produced King’s 1408 — who picked up the rights and decided to push the film forward. Sidenote: Saperstein was infamously let go from Dimension by the Weinsteins in Summer 2007, and you can read all about that drama over at Deadline.

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In 2012, six years after the original announcement that Cell would be turned into a movie, Saperstein declared the film was still on by casting John Cusack in the main role. And in 2013, Williams was chosen to direct. Samuel L. Jackson, Stacy Keach (American History X), and Isabella Fuhrman (Orphan Black) soon rounded out the main cast.

And that is how Cell, a 2006 best-selling novel, died and came back to life. Hopefully, now that zombie TV shows are a norm in the entertainment industry (The Walking Dead and its upcoming spinoff, Z Nation, iZombie), Cell will still be able to make the huge impression that it would have made in 2009 — a year before any of these series even existed. At least this Constant Reader hopes so.

Cell is out on VOD today. 

A version of this article originally ran on February 9, 2015. 

John Saavedra is betting big on Cell. Talk him out of it on Twitter.

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