“John Dies at the End” has broken my heart
The Internet is full of people whining about how the movie adaptation of their favorite book wasn’t true to the original. About how Coraline shouldn’t have added in the character of Wybie, how Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban should have shortened the approximately ten-hour CGI fight scene with the Whomping Willow in favor of including the Marauders’ back story. When the Ender’s Game movie comes out in the Fall, I’ll probably be first in line to complain about that, too.
But I would like to submit that John Dies at the End is the worst butchering of a movie adaptation in recent memory. Perhaps of all time. The degree to which this movie does not understand its source material is staggering. This is as if The Fellowship of the Ring had begun with an hour of the hobbits hanging out with Tom Bombadil and ended with Frodo giving the One Ring to Aragorn instead of taking it to Mordor. It’s that bad.
The terribleness of the movie probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except for the fact that I had been dreaming about it ever since the book was just an ongoing story that the author was posting chapter-by-chapter on his website. Little by little, he told the ridiculous story of his alter ego, David Wong, and David’s loose cannon of a best friend, John Cheese.
At first it seemed like he was writing a Ghostbusters knock-off with more dick jokes. But as the story went on, out of the foundation of silliness and bathroom humor grew an element of creeping horror. Besides being one of the funniest books I have ever read, John Dies at the End is legitimately one of the scariest.
When the story reached its logical end (and what an end it was!), people began printing it out and making their own bound copies. The author took the hint and self-published. Then the book was picked up by a small publisher. Then a bigger publisher. Then it got a film deal, with actors and a director who people had actually heard of.
Fans of a stupid ghost story that some dude posted on his website were going to get to see it on the big screen.
And, as one of those fans, it physically pains me to say that this movie is a steaming pile of ass.
How the Movie Wrecked Everything:
The book is set up in three “acts,” held together by the framing device of Dave telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone. The first act is an origin story. The second act sets up a few important set pieces. The third act is where absolutely everything important happens.
So I cannot understand why the movie consisted mostly of the first and second acts mushed together, with a few bits from the third act tacked on as a climax. And not the important bits either. Just the explodey bits. It honestly feels as though the screenplay were written by a thirteen-year-old boy who lost interest halfway through the book and copy-pasted all his favorite scenes into a script word for word.
So while we get excellent renditions of some of the fun early scenes, the movie completely misses the most important thing. Which is…
David Wong is a Terrible Person:
Not David Wong, the author. He’s said some questionable things, but I’m not going to comment on his personhood. David Wong, the character, however. He is a truly broken human being, a bad friend, a failure at life, and unkind to people who serve no purpose to him.
You might miss this about him at first glance. You definitely missed this about him if you watched the movie without reading the book, because the movie seems more than eager to gloss over his faults and make him into the everyman hero that the popular narrative expects him to be.
In the book, Dave gave Amy cruel nicknames when they were at school together, calls her the R-word when he thinks she’s mentally disabled, and is awkward and insensitive about the fact that she’s missing a hand. In the movie, it’s Fred Chu who’s awkward and insensitive, which sets Dave up as the nice guy with a crush and paves the way for him to hook up with her in the end.
(By the way, we’ll get to Amy in a minute.)
In the book, when Dave thinks John might be dying of an overdose, he goes to work instead of to the hospital. He does this because John asks him to, and he’s more concerned with what John thinks of him than keeping John alive. The movie, meanwhile, is so busy cramming in character introductions that Dave wouldn’t have had time to go to the hospital if he’d wanted to.
In the book, Dave shooting Fred Chu was presented as necessary, but nevertheless morally reprehensible. There were dissenting voices. Fred’s life was valued. And Dave shot him in the back with no warning and no consensus. In the movie, there was no moral ambiguity. When Dave told Fred to go flag down a car, making him think he was going to let him live, it was presented as a kindness instead of the cowardice that it was.
You might think that having a protagonist this unlikeable would be a liability, and that the movie was right to try to make him more palatable. But you’d be wrong. In the book, Dave is a deconstruction of the typical genre hero – the ordinary man who is thrust into a world beyond his imagining and ends up finding the strength within himself to survive and excel. Dave is not that man. He survives only by dumb luck, and because his enemies allow it. The flaws that keep him from getting a good job and maintaining a loving relationship in the real world do not magically disappear when dealing with the supernatural; they continue to hinder him in all his interactions. And by ignoring or glossing over those flaws, the movie reinforces the very tropes that the book tore to shreds.
Amy Sullivan is Not in This Movie:
The Amy from the movie did exactly one thing that she also did in the book: open the ghost door. In every single other appearance, she was standing in for a character named Jennifer.
Jennifer was Dave’s love interest for the first act of the book, and part of the second. In most movie adaptations, it would make sense to combine the roles of duplicate characters in the interest of saving time. In fact, I fully expected Amy to take Jennifer’s place in a lot of scenes.
The only problem is that almost all of Amy’s real scenes – not Jennifer’s scenes with Amy awkwardly pasted in – were not in the movie. And Amy is a very, very different character from Jennifer. So what ended up inadvertently happening was that Amy was absent from the movie, and Jennifer was called “Amy” instead.
Which would have been annoying, but fine, except for the fact that the entire point of Dave’s relationship with Jennifer was to demonstrate how thoroughly they were not meant for each other, how damaged Dave is, and how the Soy Sauce truly ruined their lives.
So an unhealthy relationship was presented as the endgame ideal, and the complex, tortured, redemptive love that Dave and Amy shared in the third act of the book was abolished.
Not to mention that Amy was a gorgeous, fascinating character in her own right who deserved better than to be shoved into another woman’s less-important role.
John Cheese is Better Than This:
Amazingly, the movie managed to get John exactly right. Rob Mayes was excellent as the impulsive, bombastic, kinda-hopeless (but in a cute way) idiot. Throughout the movie and for the first half of the book, you get the idea that John is a loose cannon barely held in check by his long-suffering friend Dave. It’s John who goes off and tries the Soy Sauce, which gets them into this whole mess. It’s John who insists on maintaining a line of psychic contact with Dave through a bratwurst. It’s John who beats the crap out of creatures from beyond our dimension with a chair, while yelling chair-related puns (not gonna lie, I’m a little bitter that that scene didn’t make it into the movie either).
But in the book, as you come to the slow realization that Dave is, in fact, a bad person, you also begin to appreciate just how good a person John is. Sure, he’s reckless and a bit stupid, but he’s also incredibly loyal to Dave. This isn’t just a case of the two of them being each other’s only friend, either. John has other friends. He has girlfriends off and on. He has a band. He checks in on Amy periodically after her brother dies.
Eventually you figure it out: Dave is not the level-headed guy who is constantly looking out for his nutty friend. John is literally the only person Dave has in the world. John could live without Dave. But not the other way around.
But without the third act, Dave’s character arc never reaches its main conflict. And without Dave’s character arc to play off of, John’s character arc likewise goes nowhere. He remains the loveable idiot to Dave’s harried mother hen. And we never get a glimpse of the far more interesting men beneath the surface.
Some Other Nitpicks:
Yes, movie. I know that David Wong’s narration is really well-written and amusing. No, that does not mean you should include every line of it in a voice-over. Especially when all it’s telling me is what Dave is currently feeling, which Chase Williamson ought to be able to portray with his face (being an actor and all).
The movie was only 100 minutes long, but it felt shorter because the editing left absolutely no room to breathe. There were no pauses between scenes or in conversation. I could almost feel the movie breathing down my neck as it tried to fit within its run time.
I know there was a lot of condensation of plot going on here, but would it have killed the movie to add in a time skip somewhere? The book takes place over about a year and a half. That might have helped explain why John and Dave seemed to halfway-know what they were doing by the time they went back to the mall, instead of rocking in a corner crying because that had all gone down in a single day.
The prologue is absolutely spot-on. I was literally bouncing in my seat I was so happy. Dave’s pseudo-intellectual rambling about giant slugs and headless corpses and twice-repaired axes was the one place that the ridiculous voice-over actually worked. The visuals were just the right mix of silly and terrifying. If I’d walked out right then I would have thought that someone actually cared about making this movie faithful to the book.
Paul Giamatti and Glynn Turman acted their asses off. Since the movie didn’t seem very interested in telling Dave and John’s story, I kind of wish it had been about Arnie Blondestone and Detective Appleton.
Doug Jones’s acting is always a privilege to watch. You probably know him even if you don’t think you do. He was Abe in Hellboy, the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Gentlemen in the Buffy episode “Hush.” The man has a way of creeping you out just by the way he moves. This movie didn’t deserve him.
Jonny Weston as Justin White (post-possession by screaming hell-worms) was absolutely amazing. He nailed the eerie uncomfortableness of a monster impersonating a boy and not really caring if it was doing it right.
The rest of this article contains the spoiler. If you ever intend to read John Dies at the End, and I highly recommend that you do, please close this window now and do not return until you, too, know the awful secret behind the universe.
At the end of the book, you find out that for the entire last act Dave has been replaced by his monster duplicate created by the people from Korrok’s world. The real Dave is dead.
If any thinking person were asked to read John Dies at the End with the intent of adapting it into a screenplay, when they reached that revelation they would immediately understand that that is the crux around which the entire script must revolve. It is the perfect ending. It is the awful secret behind the universe promised to us in the prologue. It is everything.
The movie saw fit to leave it out entirely.
I am not just pouting because a movie left out my favorite plot thread. This was the plot thread. It’s what made it personal. It’s as bad as if Se7en had ended with Brad Pitt arresting Kevin Spacey and getting a promotion. It just does not work. But apparently the people who made this movie are more interested in the juvenile candy-coating shell than the dark, terrifying, introspective, gooey center that was this book.
Because John Dies at the End is not about the Soy Sauce or blowing crap up or even Korrok. It’s about John. It’s about Dave and Amy. It’s about the notion that a creature engineered by an omniscient, incomprehensible monster, a creature with full access to your appearance and memories, a creature who might snap at any minute and go on a murderous rampage…
That that creature might have already killed you and stashed you in your own shed.
And it’s better at being you than you ever were.
PS. The dog’s name is Molly, you assholes.