I first discovered John Dies at the End over a decade ago, in serialized form on the now-defunct website www.pointlesswasteoftime.com. It was an online fiction, written a chapter at a time by Jason Pargin, writing under the pseudonym David Wong. This was a singular experience for me, clicking through the story one screen at a time; white text on black background; reading late into the night, spellbound by the glowing words in front of me, unable to tear myself away from the computer monitor, even when the sun rose and the morning birds began their back-and-forth chatter.
The story was unlike any I had ever read: simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. Often I would be laughing out loud yet scared out of my wits at the same time. It was like HP Lovecraft by way of vintage Kevin Smith. David Wrong wrote with a unique voice; capable of contemplating the terror of existential horrors and poking wicked fun at them at the same time.
I wasn’t the only one transfixed and transported by this story. Wong’s novel grew exponentially popular, so much that it made the jump from digital to print, in three escalating steps. First, Wong self-published and sold the print edition of the book on Café Press. It proved to be so popular there that it was picked up by small-time indie publishing company Permuted Press, where it promptly sold out, until it was picked up again by megapublisher St. Martin’s press, which is the current incarnation. As for the original digital version, it eventually vanished into the ether, along with Wong’s website, which was bought by Cracked.com. Wong himself was hired as an editor for Cracked, and continues to write there now.
Along the way, Wong made several changes to his original manuscript. Chapters were re-written, details were changed, characters were altered, and perhaps most significantly, an entirely new and different ending was conceived and added to the end of the book. The story as it originally existed in digital form, all those years ago, is now merely “Book One: They China Food!” (Named for the Chinese Restaurant in which the non-autobiographical David Wong is interviewed by newsman Arnie Blondestone [Paul Giamatti] in the framing device for the story) in the current iteration of John Dies at the End. They China Food! functions as both a self-contained story, and a prequel/prologue to the two stories that make up “Book Two: Korrok.” (Named for the primary antagonist of “Book Two.”)
It was this version (or one very similar) of JDatE that caught the attention of legendary horror director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep). As a big fan of both David Wong and Coscarelli, when I finally was able to view the finished film product, I found it very difficult to figure out where Wong’s voice ended and Coscarelli’s began. Perhaps JDatE and Don Coscarelli were simply made for each other. It helps that Coscarelli has made a straight, nearly word-for-word adaptation, rarely if ever deviating from the source material, including most if not all of the dialogue, which is spoken by the actors almost exactly word-for-word as Wong wrote it in the book.
Unfortunately, forced with the limitations of a small budget, Coscarelli did have to jettison most of Korrok except for the character of Amy, who stands in for the character of Jennifer in They China Food! The film version of JDatE is comprised of about the first 84% of They China Food!; but the climax, which originally took place in Las Vegas, both in the original digital version of JDatE and at the end of “Book One” of the current print version, has been replaced with the climax of Korrok. But the climax of Korrok really only makes sense in the context of the rest of “Book Two.” By taking it out of its own story and forcing it into the context of They China Food!, Coscarelli has taken a story that barely made sense in the first place and compromised its meaning beyond recognition. The original story walked a fine line between genius and madness, occasionally stepping over on one side or the other. It made just enough sense to have the desired Lovecraftian effect. You can’t mess with that perfect storm of ingredients and hope to maintain the integrity of the story. Important characters become superfluous, meaningful events become meaningless, and the gel that held the story together evaporates away. The movie ultimately becomes a failed adaptation, and makes me wonder if the book was always unfilmable to begin with.
Why didn’t Coscarelli simply adapt the entirety of They China Food! and call it a day? This would have made for a much better, more consistent, and comprehensive film. He could have always saved Korrok for a possible sequel. The sequences from Korrok simply don’t work in the finished film, and come off looking cheap, with plenty of dodgy green screen work and SyFy Channel-level CGI, in stark contrast with the wonderful practical effects work that make up most of the They China Food! sequences. In addition to that, they don’t work story-wise with the rest of the film. Korrok himself only works as a character within the context of the rest of his story. In the movie, he simply comes out of nowhere, along with the characters of Roger North (Doug Jones), who doesn’t even appear in They China Food!, and Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who doesn’t show up in the book until the characters get to Las Vegas. Was it that location in particular that was problematic for the director? Could Coscarelli simply not afford to film on location in Las Vegas? That’s not a problem; another location could have subbed in for Sin City. Maybe Coscarelli was simply so in love with the finale of Korrok that he just had to film it, even though the final product looks chintzy and betrays the film’s low budget. If he loved that finale so much, he should have just adapted the second book of the novel and not worried about the first book. Mixing and matching the two books into one just doesn’t work, and so the film itself doesn’t work.
Rob Mayes (right) as John Cheese and Chase Williamson (left) as David Wong
Another element that fails to make the transition from page to screen is the horror. The original novel managed to relentlessly tickle the funny bone while sending chills down the spine at the same time. Coscarelli’s film adaptation gets most of the humour, benefiting from an excellent cast that bring the words on the page to life. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are wonderful as the main characters, Dave and the titular John. Williamson nails the disgruntled pessimism and disaffected sarcasm of Dave, and Mayes expertly inhabits the gleeful, unhinged insanity of John Cheese. The only thing that threw me was that for some reason I always pictured John as mustachioed, but as I’m not sure Wong ever mentions that in the book, I suppose that was just my mental image of the character. The cast is filled out with veteran thespians like Paul Giamatti, Angus Scrimm, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones, who lead verisimilitude, gravitas, and more irreverent humour to the proceedings.
Doug Jones, who shows up for about five minutes, as Roger North
Unfortunately, the movie, while often hilarious, is never scary. One of the reasons that the original story kept me up all night reading it was because it was one of the scariest things I’d ever read. Like HP Lovecraft before him, David Wong excels at communicating the terror of existential cosmic nihilism, while simultaneously undercutting it with wickedly sardonic humour. It was this unusual and potent combination that led me to share the story with many of my friends, and I suspect that it was what led to the novel being a success in the first place. Even Coscarelli himself compared Wong to a “mash-up of Douglas Adams and Stephen King.” And while Coscarelli managed to hit a home run with that Adams-esque lunacy, he struck out when it came to the King-style horror. John Dies at the End is a horror movie that isn’t scary, which is one of the worst things a horror movie can be.
Ultimately, I came away disappointed by this adaptation. While I spent the last two years eagerly anticipating this film, I now must face the possibility that perhaps it was destined to fail from the start. Maybe John Dies at the End really is unfilmable. Maybe it could have been a television series, or a radio play instead. Maybe it would have worked as a comic book. Maybe it could have even worked as a film, if Coscarelli had made different choices, or if he had had more money. All I know is that the film we got doesn’t work, and we’re likely to never get one that does. It’s okay, though. At least I still have the book, and my memories.