“John Dies at the End” has broken my heart

ImageThe Internet is full of people whining about how the movie adaptation of their favorite book wasn’t true to the original. About how Coraline shouldn’t have added in the character of Wybie, how Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban should have shortened the approximately ten-hour CGI fight scene with the Whomping Willow in favor of including the Marauders’ back story. When the Ender’s Game movie comes out in the Fall, I’ll probably be first in line to complain about that, too.

But I would like to submit that John Dies at the End is the worst butchering of a movie adaptation in recent memory. Perhaps of all time. The degree to which this movie does not understand its source material is staggering. This is as if The Fellowship of the Ring had begun with an hour of the hobbits hanging out with Tom Bombadil and ended with Frodo giving the One Ring to Aragorn instead of taking it to Mordor. It’s that bad.

The Book:
The terribleness of the movie probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except for the fact that I had been dreaming about it ever since the book was just an ongoing story that the author was posting chapter-by-chapter on his website. Little by little, he told the ridiculous story of his alter ego, David Wong, and David’s loose cannon of a best friend, John Cheese.

At first it seemed like he was writing a Ghostbusters knock-off with more dick jokes. But as the story went on, out of the foundation of silliness and bathroom humor grew an element of creeping horror. Besides being one of the funniest books I have ever read, John Dies at the End is legitimately one of the scariest.

When the story reached its logical end (and what an end it was!), people began printing it out and making their own bound copies. The author took the hint and self-published. Then the book was picked up by a small publisher. Then a bigger publisher. Then it got a film deal, with actors and a director who people had actually heard of.

Fans of a stupid ghost story that some dude posted on his website were going to get to see it on the big screen.

And, as one of those fans, it physically pains me to say that this movie is a steaming pile of ass.

How the Movie Wrecked Everything:
The book is set up in three “acts,” held together by the framing device of Dave telling his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone. The first act is an origin story. The second act sets up a few important set pieces. The third act is where absolutely everything important happens.

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Pictured: not actually all that important

So I cannot understand why the movie consisted mostly of the first and second acts mushed together, with a few bits from the third act tacked on as a climax. And not the important bits either. Just the explodey bits. It honestly feels as though the screenplay were written by a thirteen-year-old boy who lost interest halfway through the book and copy-pasted all his favorite scenes into a script word for word.

So while we get excellent renditions of some of the fun early scenes, the movie completely misses the most important thing. Which is…

David Wong is a Terrible Person:
Not David Wong, the author. He’s said some questionable things, but I’m not going to comment on his personhood. David Wong, the character, however. He is a truly broken human being, a bad friend, a failure at life, and unkind to people who serve no purpose to him.

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A bad person. Also, high.

You might miss this about him at first glance. You definitely missed this about him if you watched the movie without reading the book, because the movie seems more than eager to gloss over his faults and make him into the everyman hero that the popular narrative expects him to be.

In the book, Dave gave Amy cruel nicknames when they were at school together, calls her the R-word when he thinks she’s mentally disabled, and is awkward and insensitive about the fact that she’s missing a hand. In the movie, it’s Fred Chu who’s awkward and insensitive, which sets Dave up as the nice guy with a crush and paves the way for him to hook up with her in the end.

(By the way, we’ll get to Amy in a minute.)

In the book, when Dave thinks John might be dying of an overdose, he goes to work instead of to the hospital. He does this because John asks him to, and he’s more concerned with what John thinks of him than keeping John alive. The movie, meanwhile, is so busy cramming in character introductions that Dave wouldn’t have had time to go to the hospital if he’d wanted to.

In the book, Dave shooting Fred Chu was presented as necessary, but nevertheless morally reprehensible. There were dissenting voices. Fred’s life was valued. And Dave shot him in the back with no warning and no consensus. In the movie, there was no moral ambiguity. When Dave told Fred to go flag down a car, making him think he was going to let him live, it was presented as a kindness instead of the cowardice that it was.

You might think that having a protagonist this unlikeable would be a liability, and that the movie was right to try to make him more palatable. But you’d be wrong. In the book, Dave is a deconstruction of the typical genre hero – the ordinary man who is thrust into a world beyond his imagining and ends up finding the strength within himself to survive and excel. Dave is not that man. He survives only by dumb luck, and because his enemies allow it. The flaws that keep him from getting a good job and maintaining a loving relationship in the real world do not magically disappear when dealing with the supernatural; they continue to hinder him in all his interactions. And by ignoring or glossing over those flaws, the movie reinforces the very tropes that the book tore to shreds.

Amy Sullivan is Not in This Movie:
The Amy from the movie did exactly one thing that she also did in the book: open the ghost door. In every single other appearance, she was standing in for a character named Jennifer.

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Jennifer was Dave’s love interest for the first act of the book, and part of the second. In most movie adaptations, it would make sense to combine the roles of duplicate characters in the interest of saving time. In fact, I fully expected Amy to take Jennifer’s place in a lot of scenes.

The only problem is that almost all of Amy’s real scenes – not Jennifer’s scenes with Amy awkwardly pasted in – were not in the movie. And Amy is a very, very different character from Jennifer. So what ended up inadvertently happening was that Amy was absent from the movie, and Jennifer was called “Amy” instead.

Which would have been annoying, but fine, except for the fact that the entire point of Dave’s relationship with Jennifer was to demonstrate how thoroughly they were not meant for each other, how damaged Dave is, and how the Soy Sauce truly ruined their lives.

So an unhealthy relationship was presented as the endgame ideal, and the complex, tortured, redemptive love that Dave and Amy shared in the third act of the book was abolished.

Not to mention that Amy was a gorgeous, fascinating character in her own right who deserved better than to be shoved into another woman’s less-important role.

John Cheese is Better Than This:
Amazingly, the movie managed to get John exactly right. Rob Mayes was excellent as the impulsive, bombastic, kinda-hopeless (but in a cute way) idiot. Throughout the movie and for the first half of the book, you get the idea that John is a loose cannon barely held in check by his long-suffering friend Dave. It’s John who goes off and tries the Soy Sauce, which gets them into this whole mess. It’s John who insists on maintaining a line of psychic contact with Dave through a bratwurst. It’s John who beats the crap out of creatures from beyond our dimension with a chair, while yelling chair-related puns (not gonna lie, I’m a little bitter that that scene didn’t make it into the movie either).

But in the book, as you come to the slow realization that Dave is, in fact, a bad person, you also begin to appreciate just how good a person John is. Sure, he’s reckless and a bit stupid, but he’s also incredibly loyal to Dave. This isn’t just a case of the two of them being each other’s only friend, either. John has other friends. He has girlfriends off and on. He has a band. He checks in on Amy periodically after her brother dies.

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A deceptively well-adjusted person

Eventually you figure it out: Dave is not the level-headed guy who is constantly looking out for his nutty friend. John is literally the only person Dave has in the world. John could live without Dave. But not the other way around.

But without the third act, Dave’s character arc never reaches its main conflict. And without Dave’s character arc to play off of, John’s character arc likewise goes nowhere. He remains the loveable idiot to Dave’s harried mother hen. And we never get a glimpse of the far more interesting men beneath the surface.

Some Other Nitpicks:
– Yes, movie. I know that David Wong’s narration is really well-written and amusing. No, that does not mean you should include every line of it in a voice-over. Especially when all it’s telling me is what Dave is currently feeling, which Chase Williamson ought to be able to portray with his face (being an actor and all).

– The movie was only 100 minutes long, but it felt shorter because the editing left absolutely no room to breathe. There were no pauses between scenes or in conversation. I could almost feel the movie breathing down my neck as it tried to fit within its run time.

– I know there was a lot of condensation of plot going on here, but would it have killed the movie to add in a time skip somewhere? The book takes place over about a year and a half. That might have helped explain why John and Dave seemed to halfway-know what they were doing by the time they went back to the mall, instead of rocking in a corner crying because that had all gone down in a single day.

The Good:
– The prologue is absolutely spot-on. I was literally bouncing in my seat I was so happy. Dave’s pseudo-intellectual rambling about giant slugs and headless corpses and twice-repaired axes was the one place that the ridiculous voice-over actually worked. The visuals were just the right mix of silly and terrifying. If I’d walked out right then I would have thought that someone actually cared about making this movie faithful to the book.

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Badass

– Paul Giamatti and Glynn Turman acted their asses off. Since the movie didn’t seem very interested in telling Dave and John’s story, I kind of wish it had been about Arnie Blondestone and Detective Appleton.

– Doug Jones’s acting is always a privilege to watch. You probably know him even if you don’t think you do. He was Abe in Hellboy, the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Gentlemen in the Buffy episode “Hush.” The man has a way of creeping you out just by the way he moves. This movie didn’t deserve him.

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Creepy

– Jonny Weston as Justin White (post-possession by screaming hell-worms) was absolutely amazing. He nailed the eerie uncomfortableness of a monster impersonating a boy and not really caring if it was doing it right.

The Reveal:
The rest of this article contains the spoiler. If you ever intend to read John Dies at the End, and I highly recommend that you do, please close this window now and do not return until you, too, know the awful secret behind the universe.

At the end of the book, you find out that for the entire last act Dave has been replaced by his monster duplicate created by the people from Korrok’s world. The real Dave is dead.

If any thinking person were asked to read John Dies at the End with the intent of adapting it into a screenplay, when they reached that revelation they would immediately understand that that is the crux around which the entire script must revolve. It is the perfect ending. It is the awful secret behind the universe promised to us in the prologue. It is everything.

The movie saw fit to leave it out entirely.

I am not just pouting because a movie left out my favorite plot thread. This was the plot thread. It’s what made it personal. It’s as bad as if Se7en had ended with Brad Pitt arresting Kevin Spacey and getting a promotion. It just does not work. But apparently the people who made this movie are more interested in the juvenile candy-coating shell than the dark, terrifying, introspective, gooey center that was this book.

Because John Dies at the End is not about the Soy Sauce or blowing crap up or even Korrok. It’s about John. It’s about Dave and Amy. It’s about the notion that a creature engineered by an omniscient, incomprehensible monster, a creature with full access to your appearance and memories, a creature who might snap at any minute and go on a murderous rampage…

That that creature might have already killed you and stashed you in your own shed.

And it’s better at being you than you ever were.

PS. The dog’s name is Molly, you assholes.

Author: Christina Kim


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Comments

  1. This makes me want to read the book AND see the movie. I love when someone gets passionate about what they read and watch. 🙂 Thank you!

    1. You’re very welcome! I hope you do read the book at least, and watch the movie too! As much as it bothered me, I think indie movies like that should be supported and people should be free to form their own opinions about them. Obviously not everyone hated it as much as I did, haha.

  2. Either the filmmaker or Wong himself stated on Reddit that the dog had to be called by its actual name to properly do what it was told, or they would’ve used Molly. As far as the movie itself goes, I enjoyed it for what it was. I’ve read the book and saw the movie as soon as it came on demand in December. Admittedly, it was disappointing from the perspective of being an adaptation from such a great novel, but if it’s viewed independently, I think it can still be very enjoyable. I think it’s best to keep in mind that while the filmmakers would want to stay true to the original as best as they can, they’re also trying to appeal to people that haven’t read the book, which usually means they need to simplify things to make it readily understandable to anyone. That being said, I would love to see a more true to form film version of JDatE. Also, have you read the sequel? I wrote a review of it on my blog if you’d be interested in it.

    1. I’m usually a big proponent of enjoying movie adaptations for what they are instead of comparing them too closely to their source material. But in this case, the stuff they left out was when set the story apart for me in the first place. Without it, I found what was left to be generic and unexciting. Besides, if they weren’t going to follow through with the Monster Dave storyline, they should have gone full-bore with the Vegas storyline instead. Keep Jennifer instead of Amy, forget North, add Big Jim back in, and end it with a massive showdown and John playing Camel Holocaust at a room full of wigmonsters. I could have gotten behind that.

      But yes, I can see how the movie could be enjoyable. I just personally hated it.

      And I have been absolutely aching to read the sequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe I can convince someone to get it for my birthday. 🙂

      (That’s interesting about the dog! I didn’t know that. Although I would think that they could get around that issue with a bit of editing…)

  3. John Dies At The End is an offbeat B grade movie that was marred by racist allusions and stereotypes. This happens in a number of American movies. It’s pretty sickening and off-putting when it happens.

    Instances that I sighted:

    >Rasta black guy /drug association.

    >”White” guy talking “black”

    >” When one of the protagonists is being interrogated by a black detective, a narcotic is described by him as “black shit”. The camera focuses on the black detective’s face. I’ve seen this kind of thing done in many American movies.

    > And then there’s a derisive stereotype about the size of black penises.

    It’s a disappointing movie, sorry.

    1. Yea, you DEFINANTLY should not read the book. And………….
      1. The soy sauce isn’t a drug and he wasn’t a real jamaican
      2. How do black people “talk”?
      3. Are you funckin crazy?
      4. How is having a big dick derisive? That stereotype is only a bad one if your Asian.

      But really DON’T read the book, you’ll most likely cry.

      1. The problem is in the book (most of) the racism, sexism, and ablism was used to further the characters. It had a purpose beyond being edgy. In the movie it was just… there.

  4. This review was an exceedingly more satisfying take on JDATE than the film was. I came for standard whining about all the ways the film failed the book, but your commentary on the book and the characters were very illuminating, maybe making me love the book even more than I already did.

  5. Yea, all true but the movie would have needed a shitload more money, which I would have donated blood to raise, (mine and other peoples too). The really sad thing is without all the extra story of the book “this book is full of spiders” won’t have a chance at being true to the book either if it gets made, ( that will need a lot more money too…. Blood drive anyone?)

  6. Weirdly, the thing that bothered me more than calling the dog Bark Lee instead of Molly was that they changed Amy’s last name to Larkin. I just… why? What was wrong with Sullivan? Was it because Movie!Amy is so far removed from Book!Amy that she might as well be a different character entirely? Was it because she had become Jennifamy and “Larkin” is apparently the white version of “Lopez”? It can’t be because they wanted to distance her from Big Jim, because Big Jim isn’t in the movie. It was just such a pointless decision and it BOTHERS me because at least they changed Molly’s name for a reason.

    This is a fantastic review, by the way. I’ll admit I like the movie fine on its own merits (it’s a fun waste of time if you distance it from the book) but compared to the novel it’s a piece of nothing. It’s not even good enough to be shit – it comes and goes and you’re left with nothing but dissatisfaction. The fact that some of the early scenes are so spot-on makes it even worse, too, because you get to catch glimpses of how great it could’ve been and the fact that it only skirts that greatness is infuriating.

  7. Excellent review sadly yeah the movie was hideous and left out everything important, I have and read this book is full of spiders although cool to see dave and john-ish in kind of a post apocalyptic setting I think Jason is banking too much on that whole fad going on with A.I post apoc, zombie apoc, fallout, skyrim-esque apoc scenes. It wasn’t the same as the first can’t go into too much detail busy… :((((

  8. I find its easier to just not consider the movie an adaption since they left out like 99% of the damn book. It has been pissing me off for a year now similar to The vampires Assistant which was adapted from the Darren Shan books, just gotta Think of it a a seperate thing and enjoy the odd quirks, the vampires assistant grew on me, im just about to go watch this film now since the first time i pissed me off but this time from a different perspective and hope for the best. I wonder if they will adapt this book is full of spiders…

  9. I’ve not seen the film, but want to throw something out there which everyone seems to have overlooked. Most pages say “in a twist, it’s shown that John does not die at the end, but Dave does”.
    OK. Now. I would like you to bear in mind these things:
    1. Early in the book, Dave says that John is never wrong.
    2. After Dave has shown his body to the reporter, he leaves the wood covering the body up. He tells John this, and John says he’ll put the wood back over original Dave’s body as he’s going to the Mall anyway. Dave asks why. John doesn’t answer.
    3. When they’re playing Basketball at the end, after coming back through the portal, the two argue about who has the ball, and Dave admits he was wrong.

    So… put that together, and you have John finally, once, admitting that he was wrong after he said that he was going back to the body hiding place in the mall. Why would he go back to the mall? To hide his own body. John is now dead as well, and has been replaced by Monster John, who is going to the mall to hide original john’s body, and who we know is not original John as he admits that he’s wrong.

    I don’t know at what point in the story Original John gets replaced by Monster John. I’ve just finished my first read through, and will re-read it to see if there are any pointers, but that’s my theory.

    1. While I’m on a roll: Note also that when the gang discover original Dave’s body, John says to Amy “He’s been much better since he was replaced” or similar.
      The fact that John was never wrong in the first 90% of the book, and only admitted to being wrong after saying he was going to the mall for an unidentified reason, would indicate that at that point he was a “better” person, prepared to admit he was wrong on occasion, and hence was now dead and replaced by Monster John.
      So what happened to him? Was it voluntary, out of either wanting to be more like his friend, or wanting to be a “better” person like he’d seen happen to Dave?

  10. Nice. I watched the movie three times over the last two years, just read the book.

    Of course, the Book is better. I am sad that so much was left out, and as you said, the crucial plot point about Dave left out just felt…I mean, the other stuff hurt to, not being in the movie…but they made a coherent plot, as much as one can, generally, to the viewer of the movie.

    However, if you only saw the movie, the riddle at the start merely seems a thing there to make you go “Cool”, and is unrelated to the actual story.

    It saddens me because they got -so- much right in the movie, that if it had been cut into two 90 minutes movies, or one 240 Minute movie, it could’ve been insane…but well, it became a cult classic. It was also a long shot in the first place.

    Also, seeing the cover for the book, I can’t picture John & Dave looking like that. I know it’s cause I saw the movie first, but I felt like the movie guys just fit so perfectly to the descriptions in the book, besides the ponytail.

    Absolutely spot on about John’s actor getting his character 100% right though. Best adaption of any book character I think.

    I was surprised at the Jennifer thing at first, I was like “Where’s Amy? Where’s Fred’s awkward scene?” Ectera. I thought they had just changed names for the movie due to legal reasons.

    Amy in the book though..god, so sweet, the way the author described her and wrote her, I was falling in love with her at that point. Really surprising.

    If they did a remake of it though, I’d want the same actors – I’d doubt they’d agree to do that though, but even, I dunno. The movie got so much right, that it hurts that much more for what it got wrong.

    I think they were clearly passionate about the Source material, but their investors weren’t. So they had to put in what they could, with the time given, the budget, ect, and still make a story that could pass.

  11. This is a really stellar review of the movie! I think it was reasonably true to Act 1, at least, and I personally appreciated the voiceover because I just love Wong’s writing style. After that, though, it went completely downhill. You’re absolutely right about the character arcs – they should have just ended it in Vegas. I really missed the wig monsters, honestly. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the riddle!

  12. In the book, did anyone catch that john still goes to the mall to probably mourn his dead friend? It’s subtle but Dave mentions that he left the body uncovered after showing it to Annie, and John says he’ll take care of it because he was going there anyhow. I think that speaks a lot to John’s character.

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