Yesterday Jesse and I watched 1408, a horror flick based on a Stephen King short story. It was really good. So good I looked it up, wondering why it hadn’t gotten better reviews. It turns out it got pretty good reviews from critics, but not audiences. I concluded that the audiences wanted to see “Saw” or “Tales from the Crypt” and got an Edgar Allen Poe story, which disappointed. I, on the other hand, after seeing many movies based on Stephen King short stories, am beginning to think he’s a genius. All of his stories are seeds, not ordinary seeds, but seeds that yield strong, flourishing, complex, nuanced plots. Like a person who sniffs coffee beans, I feel like I can tell the difference, between the commonplace, over-used idea and the dark, layered kernels he comes up with. And yet he, like Spielberg, gets little credit for what he has done. Even I am inclined to dismiss it, “just horror,” until I watch the movie and see all its layers.
Jesse and I paused the movie in the middle to look up Dante’s Inferno, coming to understand that this story is based on his nine circles of hell, each level characterized by a different and increasingly personal torment. The evil room sends guests not into a world of impersonal demons, but into the world of demons that belongs uniquely to them, saving the most vicious, difficult demon for last. Hell, which seems at first random, located outside of the self, turns out to have roots in the deepest secrets of your own private suffering. And so the story morphed from one of spooks and things that go bump in the night into one of a man forced to confront, and finally overcome, his greatest loss, the moment when he gave up on God and his own life.
The whole second act pushes the protagonist to confront that moment. He is given a choice, right before the beginning of the final act: a noose. Express Checkout. And that’s when he gets his resolve: no, I am not going to give up. I’m going to fight back. I’m going to fight until it’s over. His decision: it’s better to fight, even if it kills you, than to let despair win.
It’s a beautiful, deliberate structure, a beautiful performance, a beautiful, sad story, and one that went largely unnoticed, some critics allowing that it was a very good movie, but a big chunk of the audience not liking it very much.
People like to be scared. They also like their demons to be simple and external, not painful and private. They like happy endings. They like to be shocked. They like to think, but not too much. These are the entertainments we seek, the way we are drawn to MacDonald’s hamburgers, things that go down easy, fast and cheap.
What’s my point? Realizing, I guess, that some strong, worthy stories don’t succeed, not because they don’t deserve it, but because of their genre, or the tolerance of the audience for the material, or the message. Because of bad luck, or bad timing. In the end, it’s not just how well you tell your story, but also what kind of story people want. All we can do, really, is keep our head down and do the work.