I’m Not So Sure about This Major Change from the Novel
I’d like to start this piece by making clear a few things. One, I haven’t seen the new 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary yet and have only watched the trailers. Two, I’m extremely excited to see the new remake. I’m a Stephen King super fan, and Pet Sematary is definitely in my top five favorite King novels. I’ve read it three times, most recently last year. It is a powerhouse story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
And three, I understand 100% why the filmmakers behind the latest adaptation decide to kill the Creeds’ eight-year-old daughter Ellie and not their toddler son Gage. It’s not a terrible decision. It’s not a decision that will necessarily make this version a bad film. In fact, what I’ve seen so far in the marketing is a movie that will be quite good.
Yet still, I can’t deny it: from the moment I heard that the filmmakers had changed the death of a child away from Gage to the older daughter Ellie, my heart sank.
Because it’s, in a way, an easier choice. A more palatable choice.
And it’s something I don’t believe will have quite the same emotional impact on audiences.
A Child Dying in a Horror Film is Nothing New, but Gage’s Death Always Left Readers and Viewers Stunned
Children don’t exactly die all the time in horror films, but when they do, it’s always a shock. When a child dies in a movie, all bets are off. Nobody is safe. Because no audience member likes to watch the pain of a child losing his or her life and the aftermath of how the family deals with their grief.
But there’s really nothing more shocking and traumatic than seeing a child of three or younger die, especially in the horrifying way Gage loses his life in the original Stephen King novel and in the 1989 film adaptation of Pet Sematary. That one scene brought to life every parent’s worst fear, worst nightmare.
And nobody could really fault the father Louis for doing what he does afterward.
For bringing his three-year-old son to the pet cemetery to see if he might come back to life.
When little Gage did come back to life at the end of the 1989 film, seeing this new morbid and deadly side to him was all the more striking because he’s just so young. He doesn’t know the difference yet between right and wrong. He’s a tragically young soul without a clue the kind of f*cked-up reality his father has brought down upon him.
Killing Gage in the novel was the less obvious choice for Stephen King. The more unsettling choice.
And seeing that part of the book come to life in the 1989 film made for some of the most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Powerful, memorable, and extremely upsetting.
The Big Change From the Novel Makes Sense… But Will it Necessarily Make This New Version Better?
When it comes to the new remake, the filmmakers decided to make a huge change by killing the daughter instead of the son, and the reasons for doing so all make sense.
1. It’s a remake. Not everything should stay exactly the same. The audience is due for at least one major surprise.
2. Bringing the dead eight-year-old daughter back to life allows for more to be done in terms of performance. There’s of course only so much a three-year-old actor can do vs. an older child actress with more experience.
3. An eight-year-old would understand what happened to her. That she died. That she’s come back to life, and come back wrong. There’s more psychology to explore in a character like that than in a toddler.
Having said that, though, there’s something inherently safer about this decision, even though it is a twist on a story many readers and audiences already know. There’s a lack of danger overall. And there’s also the possibility of too much explaining for the daughter, since she’s old enough to understand exactly what’s happening.
The matter of the death itself won’t be as impactful either, I think, because it’s less likely for an eight-year-old to wander into a busy street where she can be killed vs. a toddler who doesn’t have the same understanding of space and movement. The completely oblivious nature of Gage wandering onto that street in the novel and the 1989 film hurts your heart every single time. Because he just doesn’t know.
I have high hopes for this new remake. I adore Stephen King, and I adore Pet Sematary, and I want it to be a worthy adaptation along the lines of 2017’s brilliant It. But I just have a feeling this particular deviation from the original source material, however surprising, ultimately wasn’t necessary.
The novel is so superb, so intense, that this kind of twist on it seems like a case of overthinking.