Bosco’s Word: John Dies at the End
In David Wong’s novel, “John Dies at the End”, he tells a (supposedly) autobiographical story of himself and his friend John who, after attending a party, are sucked into a battle of dimensions between Earth, Hell, and Korrok. After a drug nicknamed Soy Sauce is introduced to a few in a town that will be referred to as Undisclosed, it’s up to David and John to stop the spread of the Sauce, which seems to have a mind of its own.
David tells the story in retrospect as he reports his entire tale to the skeptical Arnie Blondestone, a small time reporter who hopes to make it big with David’s story. It’s a story so incredibly insane, so intensely implausible, and so wildly preposterous that it just might be true. But David insists that it’s true. There have been plenty of stories about him in the paper and he and John have amassed a cult following throughout their…”career”.
The Sauce, which allows its hosts to connect with the dead along with a set of heightened senses, is also a sinister and insidious force that is actually encompassing the minds and bodies of those who use it. Looking for a human vessel to travel from the world of Korrok to the human world, the Sauce is not to be messed with if you don’t know what to expect. And even then, it’s really just best to not even try.
Directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame, the adaptation attempts to take a 460-page epic and crunch it down to 97 minutes. Starring Chase Williamson as David and Rob Mayes as the titular character, John Dies at the End attempts to display its loyalty for the source material by spending 50 minutes adapting the first one hundred pages faithfully, but then completely abandoning the rest of the novel in favor of a quick and tidy conflict resolution that completely disregards the remaining 360 pages of the book.
Fans of the original “John Dies at the End” novel should be warned, I knew things were going south about thirty minutes in when Robert North was introduced about 45 minutes earlier than he should have, but also when Marconi turned out to be more like a Russian mobster and, with only an hour of the movie left, the film had made its way through maybe 75 pages of the book.
I’d have to say that the real problem with John Dies at the End is, ironically enough, how sloppy it is. I’m not going to vouch for the book as a masterpiece of modern literature. In fact, I’d barely call myself a fan. I thought it had a lot of great ideas but the final 200 pages slipped into sheer incoherence as it attempted to maintain this false sense of absurdity. With that being said, I hoped that the film, in its length, would be able to consolidate some of the bigger ideas better than the novel, creating a more well-paced and coherent story.
In a way I was right but in many other ways I was wrong. While the film is arguably more focused than the book, what’s missing is everything that made the novel fun. It’s a soulless and rather lazy affair. Coscarelli cuts out entire characters and subplots that were crucial to what the novel was trying to convey, but includes other elements of the story that are rendered meaningless because of those other absent elements.
For instance, both the novel and the film open with a monologue about an ax. Dave is beheading a man who tried to kill him and, in the process, breaks the handle. He must now go into the hardware store and get a new handle for his ax. He does so but, soon after, he’s faced with another foe that must be dealt with. After chopping it to pieces, he snaps the blade of the ax, rendering it useless. Now, he must go back to the hardware store and get a new blade. Fit with a new handle and a new blade, the once beheaded man returns and utters, “That’s the ax that slayed me!” Is he right?
I wasn’t quite sure why the author decided to include that scene in the novel. Was it because he wanted to introduce the absurdity of his story in a creative way? I soon learned that it was just a metaphor that was used to explain the climactic reveal that takes place towards the end of the novel. The film, which also contains this opening monologue, makes no attempt to further its use beyond that first scene, which, as I said before, renders the entire scene meaningless and unnecessary.
That’s what this entire film is to me: unnecessary. With more emphasis on the Bill & Ted aspect of the story and not the clever plot aspects that elevated the quality of the novel, John Dies at the End had me wondering why by the time it was over. The performances, sans Rob Mayes and Paul Giamatti as Arnie Blondestone, are uninspired and the ultra-low budget was noticeable and rather embarrassing during the film’s journey into the lair of Korrok.
Your best bet is to read the novel, maybe re-watch Bubba Ho-Tep, and watch the movie if you’re curious to see what they did with the story. But rest assured, your favorite moments from the novel will most likely not even be mentioned in the film at all. The adaptation was Hobbit-ized to say the least and leads me to believe that a faithful adaptation of John Dies at the End will never make its way to the screen.