9f4768b4bd4a205e1d3a60398ab022a2_567x210There is a special kind of magic when a guy gets his first car; it’s a feeling of liberation, of freedom, to climb in and just take off. The mysterious allure of the open road, the siren song of several hundred horses under the hood and a tiger in the tank, rocketing into the future without a care in the world. There is a darker side as well, that of squealing brakes and crushing metal, the bitter sting of humiliation, shattered dreams, and innocence torn asunder. Of love betrayed and forever lost.

These are the central themes of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), in which Arnie Cunningham purchases his first car, a broken-down 1958 Plymouth Fury, against the wishes of his parents and against the advice of his best and only friend, Dennis Guilder. Arnie is portrayed as a quintessential high school nerd, scrawny and pimple-faced, constantly harassed by the school bullies, invisible to the opposite sex. As Arnie gets to work on restoring the car, which he names Christine, the visible changes to the car causes a metamorphosis in Arnie; the blemishes disappear, awkwardness gives way to coolness, and even the girls begin to pay attention to love-starved Arnie. Arnie’s liberation, however, carries with it a steep price: a bond forms between Arnie and his car, and Christine appears to be systematically killing those who had victimized him and those who attempt to attract Arnie’s attention. Christine, as it turns out, is a jealous sort, and she won’t tolerate anyone coming between her and her man. Arnie’s newfound confidence and appearance finds him with the prettiest girl in school, with calamitous results.

Christine is a story told in three parts: first is a first-person account from Dennis’ point of view, the second is in third-person and focuses on Arnie, then returns to Dennis in first-person for the conclusion. This technique makes for a very intimate telling, and allows the reader to gain the perspective of one who is losing their best friend to forces they can’t understand, as well as the painful changes that often happen in long-term friendships when those involved grow in different directions, for different reasons. Dennis likens Arnie’s spiral into obsession with Christine to that of a nice guy who winds up with the school tramp; try as he might to convince everyone that she’s really a special, wonderful person, they all know deep down that she’s trouble, and that no good will come of it, but he won’t hear of it, because she is the first girl who ever paid attention to him and sometimes, that’s enough.

Arnie Cunningham is doubtlessly one of King’s best-written characters and the reason is readily apparent: Arnie, just like Harold Lauder and Trashcan Man from The Stand, are extensions of King himself. The years of not fitting in, social and physical awkwardness, bullying, humiliation, crushes, and pent-up rage are masterfully funneled into these characters and it is this authenticity, this heartbreaking honesty, which makes these characters so compelling, so real. We cheer Arnie’s growing coolness at first, but are later repelled by his inability to understand the reality of his situation and his unwillingness to extricate himself from a relationship that redefines the concept of codependent dysfunction.

Each chapter in Christine opens with a passage from a 1950s car song that gives subtle indication to the action that will follow, and the three parts, titled Teenage Car Songs, Teenage Love Songs, and Teenage Death Songs, give us an idea of where the exquisitely paced story arc is headed, without giving anything away. From the first page, the story is suffused with a feeling of profound loss at that most delicate time of life, when one attempts to make the transition from child to adult. Being written by Stephen King, we can assume that Christine is a horror story, which it most certainly is, but perhaps the horror isn’t the scary car, but rather the realization that youth’s blossom fades too quickly, and that not all of us are able or willing to grow up. Despite all our best intentions, fate follows its own agenda, often with tragic, irreversible results.

Also in 1983, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter directed the film adaptation of Christine, at a time in which King adaptations were being produced at a furious rate, with often-dubious quality. Happily, Carpenter’s version follows the source material keenly, and the casting of Keith Gordon as Arnie and John Stockwell as Dennis works very well; the chemistry of the actors is organic and believable. In Carpenter’s version, Christine’s pedigree has changed: in the book, the reader is introduced to the car as it sits moldering in its owner’s yard; in the film, Christine is first seen on the assembly line, injuring several workers in the act of building it. This change is significant, as it turns Christine from being a vessel for the suppressed rage of its owners into something that was essentially ‘born bad’ and causes a major shift in the relational dynamic from personal to impersonal. The resulting film, which is very enjoyable, loses a fair degree of the emotional depth and overwhelming sense of tragedy that the book conveys.

This is a chief complaint with many King book-to-movie adaptations: when the author invests a great deal of energy and emotion building characters to very specific standards, as King does, much is inevitably lost in the transition to film. While Carpenter’s film is well-directed and worthy of respect, the themes of the book, as discussed above, are largely lost. In both versions, ancillary characters are not nearly as developed largely because their purpose is to propel the main characters, Arnie, Dennis, and Christine. When all is said and done, both versions stand up well, each on their own merits, and each worth a second look.

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