"Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the town of Castle Rock, Maine." So opens Cujo, Stephen King's 1981 novel that tells the tragic story of three people killed by a rabid Saint Bernard over a few sweltering summer days. But what if I told you that the monster King is referring to is not the titular canine whose reputation I am here to defend today? Cujo is a story of failure and resilience, but I feel the movie misses this.
Cujo is the second book to take place in King's now-infamous town of Castle Rock (the first being 1979's equally tragic, The Dead Zone) and even inside the world of Stephen King, the events that take place would become that of legend, explicitly referenced by characters in Pet Sematary and The Sun Dog.
In 1983, Donna and Tad Trenton's harrowing ordeal was brought to the screen by director Lewis Teague (who would later collaborate with King on Cat's Eye) and by most accounts it is a rather faithful adaptation, but is it possible that the novel is far too internal to truly be expressed faithfully on film?
In the novel, King writes several sections from Cujo's point of view. While the movie shows us the titular Saint Bernard frolicking and being bitten by the rabid bat, the book actually tells us how Cujo feels about it:
"Dogs have a sense of self-consciousness that is far out of proportion to their intelligence, and Cujo was disgusted with himself. He didn't want to go home, one of his trinity—THE MAN, THE WOMAN, or THE BOY—would see that he had done something to himself. It was possible that one of them might call him a BADDOG. And at this particular moment he certainly considered himself to be a BADDOG."
(Am I breaking your heart yet? Just wait.)
Obviously, all of this is internal and pretty much impossible to express on screen without telling the audience through voice-over. It would be silly and unfitting, but ultimately the movie isn't interested in getting at the book's themes.
Donna Trenton has been cheating on her husband, Vic. She's ending her affair and going to work on her marriage. Vic, however, can't seem to remain present. He works in advertising and allows himself to be called away by a PR fiasco, leaving an unfinished chore left for his wife: bringing the car to Joe Camber's auto garage. The lead-up to the terrifying ordeal in Camber's dooryard intercuts between the Trentons and the Cambers, a working-class family whose abusive patriarch keeps his wife and son under his grease-stained thumb. Their dog, Cujo, has never received a rabies vaccine, the novel is a story about the tragic consequences of familial neglect. The movie is a Creature Feature. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, and I don't mean to say that the film is thematically void, but its choices do not reflect what King tries to convey.
If you're a King reader, you're well aware that substance abuse is perhaps his most frequently recurring trademark next to premonitory dreams. While not necessarily explicit, the implications made in the novel regarding the disease's effect on its victim are certainly an apt parallel to the warped perception of reality caused by drugs and alcohol:
"To Cujo, the words coming from THE MAN meant nothing. They were meaningless sounds, like the wind. What mattered was the smell coming from THE MAN. It was hot, rank, and pungent. It was the smell of fear. It was maddening and unbearable. He suddenly understood THE MAN had made him sick."
Cujo is not the only one failed, though, and this is where the movie makes its biggest compromise. The end of King's novel is like a series of gut punches delivered by an iron-fisted Mike Tyson. Throughout the book, Tad Trenton expresses an extraordinary fear of monsters. His father has written for him "The Monster Words," an incantation designed to keep Tad safe. Tad has this paper with him in the car throughout the entire ordeal. In the movie, Tad's parents work together to save their son's life. In the book, Tad succumbs to the intense heat and lack of water inside the car, dying before his father can get him out. (His mother is busy battling a rabid Saint Bernard with her bare fucking hands).
There is a pain absent from the film that the book has in a stranglehold. Donna Trenton fought for her son, and Vic Trenton fought to find them, but it was too late. Their true strength comes after:
"And they got through the evening, although Tad was still dead. They got through the next day as well. And the next. It was not much better at the end of August, nor in September, but by the time the leaves had turned and begun to fall, it was a little better. A little."
In his memoir, On Writing, King briefly discusses that he has little to no specific memories of writing this novel, as it was written at the height of his alcoholism. This novel is not about a monster, this is a novel about a man who is no longer capable of controlling himself. Whether or not Cujo is supposed to be representative of the author himself is debatable.
In the end, King writes, "It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that [Cujo] had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his Man and his Woman, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor."
It's tough to break an image that has been cast in cinematic eternity. Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, was published over 110 years before James Whale made his iconic film. The eloquent, emotionally tortured, and vengeful creation of Victor Frankenstein in Shelley's novel is incomparable to the monosyllabic bolt-neck in Whale's film. We all know which image is the most culturally recognized. And hey, maybe I'm just an over-sensitive book nerd who is publicly reacting to a friend referring to Cujo as "the one about the evil dog." Doesn't this dog still deserve his day?