Pet Sematary Book vs Film

In 1983, Stephen King released Pet Sematary, a novel so unsettling that even King himself felt he had gone too far. Decades later, it holds up as one of the author’s best, and scariest, books. Hollywood has turned to King’s novel about a cursed burial ground twice now (three times if you want to count a sequel that has nothing to do with King).

In 1989, Mary Lambert helmed a spooky, somewhat campy, but still effective adaptation. Now, in 2019, Paramount is set to release a new take on the tale from directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Both adaptations are very different from one another, while also being similar. And both maintain much of King’s prose, while also creating their own details.

Below, we’re going to go through all three versions – book, 1989 film and new 2019 movie –and compare notes. Call it Pet Sematary book vs. film vs. film. Major spoilers follow!

ludlow

The Creeds Move to Ludlow

All three versions of Pet Sematary kick-off with the Creed family moving to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Dr. Louis Creed has just landed a job as director of the University of Maine’s campus health service. The rest of the family consists of wife Rachel Creed, and children, Ellie and toddler Gage. There’s also the family cat, Winston Churchill, named Church for short.

King’s novel has the family moving from Chicago to Maine, and so does the 1989 film. The 2019 film, however, reveals the Creeds are moving from Boston – trading one New England locale for another. In all three versions of the story, the move is supposed to be a fresh start for the entire family. The 2019 film underlines this the most, by having Louis state that the reason he took the university job was so that he could stop working long hours in an E.R. and spend more time with his family. All of this sounds pretty pleasant, right? Well, don’t get used to it. Because it’s all darkness and doom from here!

jud lithgow

Jud and Norma Crandall

The new Creed home is somewhat isolated, save for the nearby Crandall residence. King’s novel plants the Crandall house directly across from the Creeds, separated by a stretch of road that is frequently trafficked by huge tanker trucks for oil company Orinco. In the new movie, the Crandall house is situated slightly behind the Creed home.

In the house, in King’s novel at least, reside Jud and Norma Crandall, two elderly life-long residents of Ludlow. Jud is 83-years-old in the book, but strikes Louis as much younger. While Jud seems healthy and spry for his age, Norma suffers from arthritis, and as the book progresses, she grows increasingly unhealthy. The Creeds and Crandalls become friendly, with Louis heading over to Jud’s porch almost every night to knock back a few beers. On Halloween night, Norma suffers a heart attack, but Louis is able to help treat her quickly. Louis saving Norma’s life is an important element of King’s novel, because it’s part of the reason Jud makes the terrible choices he does further down the line. Or so he tries to convince himself. A little after Christmas and New Years, Norma dies.

Alas, poor Norma – she doesn’t make it into the 1989 film. There’s not even a mention of her. As far as we can tell, Jud is a lifelong bachelor. Instead, some of Norma’s story elements – the arthritis, the somewhat sudden death – are grafted onto Missy Dandridge, the Creed’s housekeeper. Missy is in the novel, too, but survives there. Lucky her.

The 2019 film takes an interesting approach to Norma. She’s dead when we meet Jud, but Jud does mention her. Near the film’s conclusion, Jud is tormented by a demonic vision of his dead wife, taunting him, marking the first time Norma has had a chance to actually physically show up in an adaptation. Congrats, Norma! You made it!

louis and jud

Louis and Jud

Jud is like Louis’ surrogate father in King’s book. King doesn’t paint this picture subtly. He literally writes that Louis thinks of Jud as the man who should have been his father. The two have an easygoing camaraderie in the novel, tipping back beers, cracking wise, growing close. Mary Lambert’s ’89 film builds up the Jud/Louis dynamic a bit, but the story moves at such a quick rush that there’s not much time for us to get used to Jud and Louis’ friendship. In this year’s Pet Sematary, there’s almost no Jud and Louis relationship to speak of. Yes, Jud eventually shows Louis the cursed burial ground that can raise the dead. But the two of them aren’t simpatico. I asked screenwriter Jeff Buhler about this decision, and Buhler told me the choice was made to pick and choose which relationships the film focused on. Instead of befriending Louis, the Jud in the 2019 film befriends Ellie, and thinks of her almost like the granddaughter he never had.

jud in the sematary

The Pet Sematary

The Creed house has a mysterious path in its backyard, stretching into the woods. The path remains something of a mystery to the Creeds at first, although in the 1989 film, Jud immediately says he’ll tell them where it leads…some day. In that same movie, Jud tells Louis later that night that it leads to a pet cemetery, where local kids burry pets run down in the dangerous road. Not long after, he takes the entire Creed family on a hike to show them the burial ground.

This lines-up with King’s novel, although King builds things up a bit before getting there. The ’89 film can’t wait to get to its titular location. Both the ’89 film and the 2019 movie do an excellent job of recreating the ramshackle, cobbled-together burial ground King describes in his book, complete with a misspelled sign. However, the new movie introduces the patch of earth in a different way. Rather than Jud taking the Creed family up there, Ellie wanders into the “sematary” on her own. She tries to climb a huge pile of dead trees and branches that rests in the back of the burial ground – the deadfall, King’s book calls it. Before she can get over, however, Jud appears and startles her. He quickly reveals himself to be somewhat friendly, though, and Ellie immediately takes a liking to the old man.

pascow

Pascow

The first real sign that horror is lurking in Pet Sematary comes during Louis’ first day of work at the university. As King tells it, Louis is bright and chipper, ready to face his new job with gusto, when all hell breaks loose. A student named Victor Pascow has been struck by a car, and while he’s brought into the infirmary still breathing, it’s clear he’s going to die – there’s a crack in his skull so big you can see his brain. After Pascow expires, Louis is left alone with the dead man…who then promptly wakes up, gurgles some blood, and proceeds to call Louis by name.

Louis is understandably spooked, and things only get creepier when the Pascow gives dear old Dr. Creed a warning about the Pet Sematary…and what lies beyond it. Before Louis can truly react, more people come back into the room, and Pascow appears completely dead again.

This scene plays out almost identical to the book in both film versions, although both add their own little touches – Lambert goes in for jarring close-ups, while Kölsch and Widmyer play with the lighting to create an eerie atmosphere.

In King’s hands, Pascow is a harbinger; someone sent to warn Louis…before its too late. He appears as a ghost to Louis later that night, and takes Louis out to the Pet Sematary to once again issue his warning about something beyond the deadfall. As Pascow warns, the ground…is sour. After this episode, we, the reader, never encounter Pascow again – although his presence is felt, and his name is mentioned several times, as he appears to Ellie (off page).

Lambert’s movie takes things a step further, and makes Pascow the comic relief to lighten all the darkness. He keeps popping up again and again, trying to prevent catastrophe. He even goes so far as to tamper with the laws of physics in order to help Rachel out.

Kölsch and Widmyer keep Pascow physically around a bit longer than King does, but he’s not the comic relief character we saw in the 1989 movie. And instead of appearing to Ellie to warn her, he appears to Gage.

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