Book to Movie: Christine (1983)
Screenplay by Bill Phillips
Directed by John Carpenter
Based on the novel, Christine, by Stephen King
Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan
The biggest name in horror fiction combined talents with the biggest name in horror film making to bring us 1983’s Christine. While the movie does not represent the best work of either artist, it is an entertaining film worth the time invested in watching it.
In his screenplay, Phillips opens by introducing us to Christine as she rolls off a Detroit assembly line in 1958. The Plymouth Furies all around her are off white which is true to life since this was the only stock color available on the car in 1958. Christine stands out because she’s bright red (or Autumn Red as it’s called in the book and movie).
She moves down the assembly line, fully built. Inspectors look her over. The man charged with taking a final look at her power plant gets his fingers crushed when her hood mysteriously slams down on them. The man doing the interior inspection disrespects her by dropping cigar ashes on her interior. He’s strangled by a seat belt.
In the movie, the spirit of Roland LeBay is not the prime mover behind Christine's evil. She’s an evil Motown monster in her own right.
We flash forward to 1978. Dennis arrives to pick up Arnie Cunningham (played by Keith Gordon). Carpenter quickly and deftly develops Arnie as the consummate clumsy nerd in the opening scenes as he spills garbage all over the driveway and splashes back and forth through a mud puddle in indecision about what to do afterward.
In the book, the confrontation with Buddy Repperton is near the middle of the book and is transitional. In the movie, it appears in the first ten minutes and is defining. We know that he’s not only a clumsy geek. Arnie is a target for bullies as well. He’s the classic downtrodden kid we all knew in high school.
The movie then picks up on the book again when Arnie spots Christine as Dennis drives him home. It is not Roland LeBay from whom Arnie buys Christine. It’s his brother. Roland is dead, having died in the car as did his wife and daughter.
The conflicts with the parents moves forward just as in the book and Arnie takes his jalopy to Darnell’s Garage where he stores her.
Carpenter stays true to the chronology of events in the book and to the spirit of the book as the movie progresses. He does consolidate scenes and eliminates several others to make a cogent movie. Dennis is injured playing football as in the book. But in the movie, he is injured because he’s distracted at a key moment when he spies Arnie in the parking lot with the newly refurbished Christine. Also with him is the lovely Leigh Cabot (played by Alexandra Paul). They are kissing. Dennis has a moment of disbelief (having asked Leigh out himself and having been shot down). That disbelief disappears when he is knocked unconscious.
Arnie visits Dennis in the hospital and he’s obviously changed. The once greasy hair is now an interesting combination of a 1950s duck’s ass and a 1980s feathered do. His wearing a suave Members Only jacket and walks, talks, and acts with an air of confidence that borders on smug. Dennis, having been out of touch with things for so long, is struck by his friend’s transformation.
Christine is doing a little transforming of her own. She’s transforming Arnie’s tormenters into corpses. Carpenter and Phillips redraft King’s chase and death scenes to make them better cinema. Moochie is crushed against a wall and eventually cut in half as Christine makes her way down a narrow ally, ripping herself to pieces in the process. In another scene, she catches up with Repperton and a couple of his pals at the local filling station where they hang out. Christine sets the place – and herself – ablaze, killing them all. The scene of that Plymouth Fury making its way through the streets while covered in fire is awesome cinema.
When she gets back that night. She’s a scorched, burnt mess running on just a couple cylinders and four flat tires. As the car pulls into Darnell's Garage, Will Darnell looks on. He walks over to Christine and looks inside. Nobody is driving her. Intrigued (and spooked), Darnell climbs in to have a better look at Christine. As he gets inside, the radio turns on, blaring old fifties rock and roll and the seat slides forward. Darnell is crushed between the seat and the steering wheel.
Dennis gets out of the hospital and Leigh pays him a visit. She’s broken up with Arnie because of his Christine obsession. She recounts for Dennis how she almost choked to death at a drive in and how Christine locked her own doors to prevent Arnie from getting in to save her. They decide that Christine must die.
In the book, Dennis employed a tanker truck to do the job. In the movie, he uses a front end loader. They go to Darnell’s and wait for Christine to arrive. Leigh gets out to open the door and they are surprised. Christine is there waiting for them. The battle is on.
Leigh flees to Darnell’s office and Christine moves in for the attack. Dennis rams her from the side, but she’s not to be stopped. Christine slams into the office. Arnie Cunningham is catapulted through Christine’s windshield, impaled upon a piece of glass. He looks up at Leigh as he dies.
Dennis continues to ram Christine and she continually pushes out the dents and straightens her frame. Eventually, the front end loader’s size and power are too much. Dennis crushes Christine beyond her ability to fix herself.
The movie ends with Dennis, Leigh, and Detective Junkin looking on as a cube is dumped from a car masher. It’s obviously Christine, having met her end. Just as the credits start to roll, we hear groaning metal. Christine is trying to right herself once again.
Carpenter and Phillips streamlined what was a fairly complex story and in doing so, made it a good film. In the book, there is some ambiguity as to Christine’s true nature. Was she powered by the malevolent soul of the deceased Roland Lebay? Or was she a jealous lover? King’s clues point to both. In the movie, it’s all about the car. LeBay is a bit player.
Much of the book revolves around all the conflict in Arnie’s life. Arnie’s conflict with bullies, with his domineering parents, between Leigh and Christine, and with himself and his conscience. Most of that is eliminated as well. Carpenter streamlines the complex story into a monster movie and the monster is a 1958 Plymouth Fury.
In this case, simplifying is good. Yes, we are presented a movie with a linear plot and devoid of subplot. But monster movies – when well made – are fun and Christine is a fun movie. Not poignant like the book where Arnie is the tragic dupe of the evil spirit of Roland LeBay. No one is going to confuse it with high cinema. But it should not be dismissed based on what seems to be a silly premise of a haunted car.
According to the good folks at IMDB.com, many Plymouth Belvederes gave their lives to make this movie. Ordinarily, I am sad when an old car dies. I love old cars and appreciate their beauty and the dedication to their preservation by their owners.
However, there is little to love about the Plymouth Belvedere (of which the new Fury was a sub-model in 1958). It was not a pretty car. It was a tank and looked like it. The Fury added a fancy trim package, but did little to improve the looks of this family hauler of the Eisenhower years. I’ll not mourn those Belvederes who were injured or killed in the making of this film. Perhaps King chose this ugly car deliberately for as Arnie says, Christine is the only thing he could find uglier than himself.
Christine is another of those film titles that people know right away and has entered our lexicon to a degree. As much as the name Cujo immediately brings to mind rabid dogs, Christine brings to mind haunted cars. It’s another example of King’s work becoming an integral part of our culture.
Christine is great fun and a good movie to be enjoyed for what it is – a monster movie. While it lacks the complexity of the book, John Carpenter took just the right elements of King’s story to make a worthwhile movie, representing King’s work well.