Remember when poor Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) lost his glasses at the end of “Time Enough at Last”?
Frank Darabont took one look at that downbeat Twilight Zone twist ending and said, “Hold my inter-dimensional portal!” When the writer-director set out to adapt Stephen King’s The Mist (now streaming on Peacock) for the big screen (his third King-related project after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), he always knew that the novella ending wouldn’t translate properly into a live-action format.
How Frank Darabont’s film adaptation of The Mist got its bleak ending
“Those who know the novella, know that the story ends with them driving off into the mist and hoping that they get somewhere [safe], which, for the purposes of a film, always struck me as so open-ended, that it would really not satisfy anybody in the audience,” Darabont explains on The Mist commentary track. He agonized over how to end the film for a long time, often receiving little prods from King himself. “On a phone call or in an email, every once in a while, he’d say, ‘So…have you thought of something yet?’”
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Turns out the nihilistic ending he would eventually settle on was right there in the text, staring at him all along. Before leaving the supermarket parking lot with Amanda Dumfries, Mrs. Reppler, and his son, Billy, narrator David Drayton briefly entertains the unthinkable:
“I checked the gun and then put it into the glove compartment. Ollie had reloaded it after the expedition to the drugstore. The rest of the shells had disappeared with him, but that was all right. He had fired at Mrs. Carmody, he had fired once at the clawed thing, and the gun had discharged once when it hit the ground. There were four of us in the Scout, but if push came right down to shove, I’d find some other way out for myself.”
That hypothetical scenario never comes to fruition in the novella. Rather, the story concludes on an ambiguous, albeit slightly optimistic, note as David and the others carry on toward a potential refuge in Hartford, Connecticut. Darabont, on the other hand, liked the idea of realizing the passage above for his own take on the material.
Why Stephen King prefers Frank Darabont’s The Mist film ending
“King’s character is weighing the worst case scenario and I seized upon that,” Darabont continues. “Because I thought, ‘If we’re gonna make a horror movie based on a Stephen King story, let’s take Steve’s most horrible, dour, and darkest thought and follow it out to its logical conclusion … It really is from Stephen King, although he himself didn’t realize it until I read that line back to him.”
The rest, as they say, is cinematic history. Seeing no way out of their predicament, the film version of David Drayton (Thomas Jane) shoots his fellow passengers — including his own son — before stepping outside, ready to be torn apart by the horrors lurking within the strange mist. But then the fog clears, revealing that the military has the situation under control, burning the otherworldly creatures to a crisp and rescuing survivors. If only David and the others had waited a few more minutes, they would have been saved. Realizing his actions were in vain, David loses his final shred of sanity. He lets out an anguished scream and, as the final beat in Darabont’s screenplay makes clear, “David will never stop.”
He expounds on Drayton’s never-ending misery on the commentary track, comparing the character to the Biblical figure of Job: “He had to be the one that karma dumps on. [The one] that fate puts through the ringer.”
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It’s definitely an audacious gut-punch of a denouement, but also one that makes the viewer wonder if Mrs. Carmody’s fanatical ravings about a blood sacrifice clearing up the mist (“EXPIATION!!!,” in other words) might have been right all along. “I think that’s kind of a provocative bit of storytelling and if everybody had died, then that element would be missing and ultimately, the story would have no real weight,” Darbont explains. “It would just be shock value. Here, I think it’s shock value, but with some real intention and follow-through.”
While Rod Serling and his patented Twilight Zone twists were, of course, a major influence on the director — “I grew up watching those wonderful things that he wrote and [was] quite affected by them” — he also puts forth the argument that King’s literary works are oftentimes populated with good-natured protagonists forced to deal with a crap hand, despite their noble intentions.
“It’s not unlike the character that Tom Hanks played in The Green Mile — the decent man who does the hard thing, has to make the hard decisions. It’s always coming from a good place, he’s always trying to do the right thing, but karma screws him in the end. Somebody has to pay the price. The debt lands on somebody’s head.”
After reading the script, King voiced regret over the fact that he didn’t think of the idea first. “He also said, ‘I think every generation needs a movie like Night of the Living Dead where nothing turns out well for anybody at the end. Where everybody dies,'” Darabont recalls. “I knew I had Stephen King’s approval on this ending, so I knew I was on solid ground.”
The real hurdle was getting financier Dimension Films to sign off on such bleak idea. While in conversation with King, Darabont revealed that he was allowed to keep the ending intact because the film was so cheap to make (it cost less than $20 million).
“I said … ‘If I were willing to change the ending, I’d be making this movie for over twice the budget that you’re talking about. I will come and make this movie for you at Dimension for the amount of money that you’re talking about, as long as the script is sacrosanct.’”
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King praised the ending for its apathy toward Hollywood’s love affair with happy endings. “It was so anti-Hollywood — anti-everything, really! It was nihilistic. I liked that,” he told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2017, going on to add that while The Mist divided audiences at the time, the film has since been reappraised as a masterclass in subverting expectations. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing several decades prior, this was boundary-pushing cinema that was simply ahead of its time.
“The critics and fans both kind of excoriated him for that,” King concluded. “And now, when you read retrospective pieces about The Mist, people are like, “Wow, that’s one of the great ones.” They like it. They just had to get used to it.”
The Mist is now streaming on Peacock.