Pet Sematary directors explain their startling change to Stephen King's story
“They don’t come back the same.”
That’s the tagline for the new version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and it turns out the directors were signaling something all along about this adaptation of the 1983 novel.
It’s an astonishing plot twist — not to mention a major spoiler — but it has been revealed Thursday by Paramount Pictures in a new trailer for the April 5 film.
The makers of the new film have their reasons and talked to EW exclusively about the change.
If you’re here, you’ve watched the new Pet Sematary trailer and learned where it deviates from King’s original narrative.
This time, it’s not the Creed family’s toddler son Gage who dies and comes back to life in that otherworldly burial ground in the woods — it’s his big sister Ellie.
She’s played by Jeté Laurence, who (based on early footage that EW has seen) is staggeringly good in both the living and undead parts of the role.
Nonetheless, this is certain to be controversial among King’s Constant Readers as well as fans of the 1989 film adaptation.
“Trust me, we were nervous about it,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “I feel this way about anything that you remake or update. If we gave you what you had before, we didn’t do the subject matter much good. I’m very protective of movies too, but I want a new experience each time, and feel like filmmakers have really thought about the choice. That was one, we thought, ‘All right, let’s make this choice.’”
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) hope fans will hear them out about why they felt the alteration in Jeff Buhler’s screenplay was necessary.
A Bigger Threat
For one, what readers can imagine in King’s book is harder to accept when presented literally onscreen. The resurrected child who returns with a voracious bloodlust is more physically intimidating in the shape of an 8-year-old girl than a 3-year-old boy.
“Much of how they shot the first [movie] was a doll,” Widmyer says. “It’s creepy and it’s effective. But we’ve now seen Child’s Play and we’ve seen the little kid trying to kill, and it’s effective when done right, but …” They felt it had been done already, and this was a chance to try something fresh.
The Mind Games
In King’s novel, the resurrected child doesn’t just physically attack the people who love and miss him — he plays savage psychological games and brutally taunts them about their fears and weaknesses.
He is not, after all, really Gage Creed but a malevolent, angry spirit that the burial grounds allow to inhabit that broken little body.
You can’t physically have that with Gage in a movie, Kölsch says.
“There are things that we put back in that, if people didn’t read the book, they’re going to think they are things that we’ve changed [from the 1989 film],” he says. “‘Why’d they make her say these lines?’ But if you read the book, these are things that are taken right out of it that just didn’t make it into the original movie because they probably couldn’t have a 3-year-old do it.”
Not only is it difficult to get a 3-year-old performer to do those things, but it’s also probably not right to try. A toddler can easily confuse fantasy and reality, while Laurence, who turned 11 during the filming last summer, was fully aware that the gruesome parts were make-believe.
“Gage is so young, you can’t really do that much with him,” di Bonaventura says. “So this way, we’re able to really get underneath our affected child. We’re able to get into the psychological horror of a child [coming back] because of her age.”
No offense to 3-year-old twins Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie, who alternate playing Gage, but in this version, they get to play sweet, sometimes scared, and sometimes sad, but they are kept away from both the road and scalpels.
The Quiet Moments
The filmmakers felt the change would strengthen the story partly because Ellie’s sweet relationship with aging neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) was such an important part of the book.
Before the unthinkable strikes the Creed family, Laurence and Lithgow share funny, caring moments, which ultimately add depth to her untimely end (orchestrated in the trailer by her resurrected cat Church.)
Another powerful moment from Laurence is hinted at in the trailer: the hug she gives her shellshocked mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) while her father Louis (Jason Clarke) tries to explain the unfathomable to his wife.
Laurence was able to play the hushed scenes, before Ellie’s darker side emerges, when she appears to be a scared child who doesn’t understand any of this either. Is this the real Ellie, struggling to speak around the sinister presence animating her? Or is it a calculated performance to lower their guard?
Either way, it’s not something the filmmakers felt audiences could easily believe from a toddler.
“There was something about an 8-year-old and the psychology that she would have,” Widmyer says. “She would understand what happened to her on the road. She would understand that she’s dead. She would know how to not only physically kill a person, but psychologically destroy them as well. It just gave another layer to it.”
While the debate over this change is bound to be intense, it’s also going to lead to another nervewracking moment…
Waiting to hear what Stephen King says about it.
Pet Sematary (2019 movie)