You know adaptations that don't merely modify the source material in details and plot mechanics but completely change its nature? Mikael Håfstrom's 1408 is like that. It's an interesting work, less in its own right than because it takes a virtuoso straight-ahead horror story and, in bringing it to the screen, turns it into a nuanced, downright surreal exploration of the protagonist's guilt and grief. You do not expect a film adaptation to tone down visceral thrills and flesh out emotional content. Nonetheless, here we are.
Stephen King's short story, part of the all-around-excellent Everything's Eventual collection (as well as the Blood and Smoke audiobook), is probably the scariest piece of fiction I've ever read. It begins in fairly conventional horror tones – a story about a haunted hotel room – but then moves on to something far more frightening. Ghosts can be scary enough, but you can at least understand them: they used to be like us, and in most cases they want something straightforward. What lived inside Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel – King's version – was nothing like that. We don't get specifics, but that's because we wouldn't understand them: the force that inhabits that room is so utterly, terrifyingly alien as to be beyond human comprehension. What Mike Enslin encounters isn't, it turns out, a "haunted hotel room," but an unfathomable cosmic terror that would have made H.P. Lovecraft proud. King does more than give us a scary story – he takes us to the edge of an abyss.
The movie takes the structure and the plot almost verbatim, with the notable exception of a weird new ending that plunges it into abstraction. The backstory is the same: Enslin is a jaded debunker of the supernatural, spending nights in supposedly haunted locales and writing story after story about how they may be creepy, even remarkable, but haunted they're not. The more conventional horror trappings of the first half are present and accounted for too, with Enslin's trained skepticism unwillingly giving way to the realization that Room 1408 is messing with him in impossible ways.
But while a lot of the elements of the short story are present, they are also drastically recontextualized. The film does not, like the story, mean to make us ponder with wide-eyed horror what unspeakable monstrosity is responsible for the hell that Room 1408 becomes – it doesn't care what the answer is. To the film, the room is essentially just a way for Enslin to face his demons, find a new lease on life, and come to terms with the tragic death of his daughter. It's a fundamentally different kind of horror, personal rather than existential. And in this case it's kind of weird: how odd that Room 1408 apparently cooked up that entire horrorshow for the sole purpose of helping Enslin deal with his emotional crises.
Consider a concrete example. The most enduring, bone-chilling image in the short story comes toward the end: as the walls of Room 1408 begin to literally crumble around Enslin, an awful, horribly foreign yellow light pours in – like a sunset on a different planet, or in another dimension. We never learn what the source of the light is, but we know that it's real, and dangerous, and it drives Enslin out of his mind. The movie dutifully reproduces the image, but the yellow light is no longer meant to be a source of particular mystery. To Håfstrom, it's a piece of psychological symbolism: as the light floods the room, an image of his dead daughter appears to Enslin, forcing him to relive one of the most difficult moments of his life. It's an effective moment, poignant and even scary in its way, but it doesn't attempt to replicate the story's elemental dread.
What's really interesting about all this is that in changing the source material the way it does, the movie approaches King's ouvre from the other side. 1408 the short story is part of King's uncompromising, Lovecraft-influenced body of work, which also includes From a Buick 8, Cell, The Tommyknockers, The Mist, and to some extent The Stand. But 1408 the movie is much closer to King's other mode: the sad, personal horror story, where the horror or sci-fi conceits revolve around character relationships; think Lisey's Story, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, maybe even Carrie. King is so gifted in part because he's so good at both. And the reason 1408 is so fascinating as an adaptation is that it somehow manages to transplant a King work from one "category" to the other.
I suppose it's fitting that I can't wholeheartedly embrace the film for personal reasons: the story made such a lasting impression on me, and Håfstrom is almost rude in his disregard for King's original objectives. But I also recognize that it's a rare adaptation – it is far more common for movies to latch onto a book's genre elements and lobotomize it of its emotional core than the other way around. I admire the film for that, and I suppose the fact that it still manages to be pretty scary is a testament to the technical skill with which it was made. 1408 is worth watching, but the story is essential reading for any self-respecting horror fan.