This may be a very niche post.
a) Like most posts on the all-new PK’s Writing Blog, it’s aimed at writers or those interested in writing and how it does or doesn’t work. You don’t need to be a writer – just willing to tinker under the bonnet/hood (UK/US term for the front bit on a car).
b) You need to either have seen In The Tall Grass on Netflix as I just have… and/or read the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella it’s based on… OR …not mind reading about spoilerific plot points in either, if you’re planning to see/read it.
I was intrigued to see that this slim trim horror story – with a pretty lean cast to begin with – had to add one crucial character to graduate from page to screen. And that in turn is quite telling about an essential part of telling a satisfying story. Which we’ll get to. But first, what you need to know about In The Tall Grass. SPOILERS below…
It’s a horror film based on one neat idea – what if you got lost in a field of grass that was just too tall to see over? Watch the trailer, you’ll get a feel for the whole movie. So it’s a maze: at times repetitive and annoying, at times scary, at (rare) times hopeful, and at times the same characters bump into each other…
Those characters are: our hero the pregnant Becky… her ill-motived brother Cal… a stereotypically cute/scary boy called Tobin who incites their incident (his lost cries lure them into the field of corn – I mean grass)… Tobin’s twisted dad Ross (don’t trust him)… and Tobin’s mum Natalie (the subbest of sub-characters, so you know she’s there just to show you how nasty Ross becomes.
Oh and a dog. Of course there’s a dog. Should they follow the dog? No they should not follow the dog.
But going back to Natalie, her hideous demise comes bang-on exactly halfway through the film. Almost to the minute.
The midpoint. That elusive screenwriting moment that’s a major plot point to shake things up. A realisation of what’s at stake. A false resolution, or an awareness of how bad things have become. In Se7en, it’s when Detectives Mills and Somerset discover John Doe’s lair. In Jurassic Park, almost exactly halfway to the minute, we first see the T-Rex and realise its threat. In Jaws, almost exactly halfway to the minute, the shark’s in . In each case, it’s horrific awareness. In Schindler’s List (Spielberg clearly loves his midpoints), almost to the second, halfway through the film Oskar Schindler goes from self-absorbed egotist to benevolent life-saver. We’ll zoom in on that example in a future blog post – it’s such an effective turnabout.
So that’s the midpoint – time and time again, giving our characters a fuller understanding of the horror show they’re in. It’s like they’ve spent the first half of the film climbing a mountain. Halfway through they’ve climbed the peak, and they can see not only far they’ve come, but the sheer scale of how far they have to go. But at least they can climb down the other side with skills learned and knowledge gained from the first half.
The end of In The Tall Grass novella and film differ. Why? Mainly because of the audience. Stephen King and Joe Hill write to shock their readers. The number of Stephen King short stories with downer endings… Me oh my. But films? With very rare exceptions, even horror film audiences seek some kind of happy ending. Tie up the loose ends. Let our hero win the day. They’ve suffered enough! You can still have an epilogue gut-punch if you really want, but most of the time, we won’t be satisfied with a downer ending.
Proper spoilers now: the novella ends with Becky, Cal and Tobin all a bit mad, hugging n evil rock, destined never to leave the grass, but this won’t do for the film. Simply put, they need saving.
How do you save a character? With sacrifice. And no, not Children of the Corn type sacrifice on that rock – but with self-sacrifice. We could get spiritual and religious here but I’ll park that for now. Suffice to say, an outsider coming in to sacrifice himself so that others might live sounds a bit familiar.
So this is where our extra character comes in. Not in the book, but entering the film stage left is Becky’s estranged boyf and father of the baby, Travis. For the first half of the movie, it’s not entirely clear if he’s good or bad, but again, at around that midpoint, all becomes clear. The brother is bad – the boyfriend is good. From the midpoint on, we’re just playing out what’s been set up.
Travis’ entire role in the film is to save the day – but the rules mean that doesn’t come easily. He has to sacrifice himself (the only way out of the grass maze is to touch the rock, to gain knowledge – again the biblical metaphors are there, with Eden-based apple-eating and knowledge consumption). Armed with the knowledge of how to escape, but cursed with never being able to leave himself, Travis can save the boy Tobin, who can then save Becky and Cal.
(One bugbear of mine? By saving Becky and Cal, Becky is destined to a life with her twisted brother Cal, but hey, maybe she’ll realise his motives another day, off-screen…)
So there you have it. A cast list of 5 grows to a cast list of 6 from page to screen. Interestingly too, the grass in the book can only alter space, while the grass in the film can alter space and time. By making it 2D, they’ve added a dimension… and a sacrificial saviour, to give us a ‘happy’, if still somewhat unpleasant, ending.