With the onslaught of Stephen King adaptations hitting movie screens and televisions this summer, headlined by It and Gerald’s Game, it’s easy to forget about the Spike television adaptation of The Mist. The Stephen King novel has already been adapted for the screen once, in Frank Darabont’s well-loved 2007 film. So why bother with a series? The answer isn’t all that clear, as the series stumbles around for ten episodes, never quite finding its footing. It departs wildly from the source material, reveals itself to be severely out of step with the national tone regarding sexual assault (especially given Harvey Weinstein’s uncomfortable presence as executive producer), and features far too many scenes of people standing around and talking. But as a scholar of the Bible, I found myself intrigued by the religious viewpoints on display, which make for an interesting contrast with the film version.
In both adaptations, a group of people are stranded as a mysterious mist envelops the surrounding area. The dangers of the mist are clear in the film; it harbors monstrous, carnivorous beasts. In the series, the danger is less clear, as the mist seems to call up memories, regrets, and various other nastiness which are more specific to the individual’s fears. In either case, the results of staying in the mist too long are not pretty.
(Spoilers ahead – but the statute of limitations on spoilers for the film should have run out by now, right?) The film version finds David (Thomas Jane) and his young son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), trapped in a supermarket. Unfortunately, one of the other trapped individuals is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who believes that the mist is a sign from God, and urges everyone to repent in increasingly strident speeches. Her religion begins as a relatively standard form of dispensationalism, in which the mist is the beginning of the end times. (However, she reveals herself to be a rather poor student by referring to the book of “Revelations” in the plural, not the singular “Revelation” as it’s named in the Bible.) In this religious worldview, the mist is a sign of the coming of God, and everyone must repent and turn back to God in order to avoid an unpleasant judgment. However, her perspective shifts partway through the film, as she becomes obsessed with the idea of offering a sacrifice, an “expiation” that will lift the mist. These two worldviews are not usually thought to be compatible; for a fundamentalist Christian, of whom Mrs. Carmody seems to be a representative in the early parts of the film, Jesus would be the once-for-all sacrifice which ended the sacrificial system. But consistency is definitely not Mrs. Carmody’s strong suit. She fixates on Billy as the sacrifice necessary to dispel the mist. David and a few others decide that the monsters in the mist are far less frightening than Mrs. Carmody’s “Old Testament” blood lust, and make a run for David’s SUV. (I would be remiss to not note the pejorative way in which “Old Testament” is used in the film; the stereotype that the Old Testament is bloody and the New Testament is peaceful doesn’t withstand much scrutiny.)
But as the film moves to its conclusion, it introduces an idea which is far more terrifying than anything we’ve seen up to this point. The film suggests that Mrs. Carmody may have been right about God and the meaning of the mist. After escaping, the small group of survivors drives until they run out of gas. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no end to the mist in sight, the group decides to use their final bullets on themselves. David shoots the passengers, including Billy, but runs out of bullets before he is able to kill himself. However, after Billy’s death, the mist dissipates, and a military caravan comes through to eradicate the remaining monsters. Mrs. Carmody’s prophecy proves true: Billy’s death seems to have been the sacrifice that was required. This does not offer a friendly or comforting image of God; instead, the implication is that the monster looming over all of the mist was God him/herself.
While the television series doesn’t offer anything nearly so profound, its religious worldview is still interesting. Characters are spread over multiple locations; the church becomes the grounds for a religious conflict between two would-be-leaders with very different theological interpretations of the mist.
In one corner is Father Romanov (Dan Butler), a rather ineffectual priest who keeps bringing up times from the long-distant past in which he used to matter. In the other corner is the elderly Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy), a woman whose spirituality is rooted in nature rather than in Christianity. As the survivors gather in the church, they look to Father Romanov for leadership; Nathalie is wrapped up in mourning for her husband, victim of the mist. At first, Father Romanov allows a variety of people to fill the leadership vacuum: the town’s sheriff ignores Romanov’s pleas to lay off the violence, and even the altar boy steps in to enforce Romanov’s request for a prayer. Things begin to get really interesting as Nathalie gathers herself and begins to assume a leadership role of her own.
It begins with her taking the communion wine and asking the gathered people to drink with her. Father Romanov declares, unsuccessfully, that the wine is only for service, but he is quickly overruled by the group. Nathalie has successfully appropriated the Christian symbol of communion wine, and the two are firmly established as adversaries.
Nathalie’s journey to the role of religious leader is completed when she steps out into the mist, declaring that she’s ready to go home to be with her husband. The mist kills the young man who followed her out, but spares her; Nathalie interprets this as a sign of friendship from the mist. As she re-enters the church, she declares, “I’ve seen God.” Father Romanov, who just witnessed the young man being killed, is appalled. Nathalie looks at him and condescendingly sneers, “Not your God.”
After this incident, both Father Romanov and Nathalie share their theological interpretations of the mist. For Romanov, the mist is a test: “I believe he’s asking us to believe in him,” Romanov says. Like the story of Job, the mist is a trial sent from God, with the purpose of giving us an opportunity to return to faith in God. As Romanov reflects more and more on his situation, he begins to take a perverse sense of glee in the idea that he might be relevant again, that he might be able to do something useful. At one point, he explains to the gathered people, “I believe Judgment Day has come,” at which point he laughs giddily. His theology reveals itself to be similar to that of Mrs. Carmody’s in the film version, before she decided that a sacrifice was needed.
Nathalie’s interpretation is different. She shares a story of a park ranger who witnesses a bear giving birth to three cubs, only to kill them all. The park ranger is puzzled at first, then realizes that the bear cubs were all born sick. “She killed them so they couldn’t spread the sickness,” Nathalie says, “and life could continue.” For Nathalie, the mist is nature’s way of getting rid of what’s wrong, of protecting itself from the disease. After the sickness has been removed, things will return to the way they were.
And helpfully, Romanov and Nathalie agree to a “trial by ordeal,” in which each of them step into the mist, and see who emerges as the true leader. Whoever survives, Romanov says, “we will provide an answer for the people.” While Romanov is twitchy with a schoolboy excitement at this prospect, Nathalie is calm and measured; both step into the mist, and only Nathalie survives.
This might lead us to believe that Nathalie’s theological interpretation is the correct one, but the series offers a complicating detail: in the mist, Romanov is killed by the four horsemen, the image of the apocalypse from the book of Revelation. Does this indicate that the mist is, indeed, the product of Father Romanov’s wrathful Christian God, or is this simply another instance of the mist manifesting as the greatest fears of its victims? Unfortunately, we’ll never know: The Mist fell flat enough with audiences that it won’t be renewed for a second season, and has been condemned to an afterlife on Netflix.
So in these two adaptations, we have three different characters vying for leadership, all with different theological explanations for the mist. While the contest between the competing visions of Nathalie and Romanov is one of the high points of the lackluster series, it still pales in comparison to the implications of the film version. I suppose a second season of the series could have developed the implications of Nathalie’s theology of nature’s apocalypse, but it’s probably not worth having to suffer through more episodes.
Brandon R. Grafius is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. His research involves the intersection between horror and the Bible. His first book, Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25, will be appearing from Lexington/Fortress Academic in the first half of 2018; his second book, a more general introduction to horror theory and the Bible, is in progress. He blogs occasionally at monstroustimes.wordpress.com.