Maybe you’ve seen the movie 1408. Maybe you only watched it because John Cusack is the star and you’ve trusted his judgment in movies ever since he held that stereo above his head and made your blackened teenage heart skip a beat. Whatever your reason for watching 1408, I’m guessing it wasn’t because you read the short story it was based on and wanted to compare the two. But in case you hadn’t guessed from the title of this post, that was my reason for watching the movie. The fact that John Cusack was in it was just a bonus.
Let’s get something out of the way: Yes, Stephen King’s short story “1408” takes place in a haunted hotel, something he’s written about before and will remain synonymous with until the end of time thanks to the success of both the book and film version of The Shining. But before you jump on him for writing the same story over again, know that King only started writing “1408” to use as an example of how his rewriting process works for his book On Writing. So we can forgive him for revisiting the subject he’s so famous for given that, as he puts it in Stephen King Goes to the Movies: “I had done my haunted hotel story and ordinarily feel no urge to chew my cabbage twice.”
After writing out the first thousand words of “1408” longhand, he became intrigued by the situation he’d put his main character in: what happens when a cynical writer who has built a career writing books debunking haunted places is suddenly faced with the real thing?
In the first part of the movie and the short story we are introduced to that writer. Mike Enslin is a bit insecure. He’s worried that he comes off as a hack despite his numerous bestselling books, or “bill-payers” as he calls them. The short story brings you right into the Dolphin Hotel on the first page. Mike arrives to check into room 1408 and the hotel manager, Mr. Olin, doesn’t think that’s such a good idea because something isn’t quite right with that room. Our introduction to the hotel is delayed in the movie because they added some backstory that, as King puts it, is “an old Hollywood trick, always dangerous and rarely successful.”
But the film did do a good job at keeping Mike Enslin true to the way he’s written in the short story. Stephen King excels at creating characters that you’re interested in. One of the ways he does that is by providing the reader with memorable details about the character, which makes you feel like you really know them. Like the cigarette Mike Enslin keeps behind his ear, even though he doesn’t smoke. The movie kept that detail, but King takes it a step further in the short story, telling us that he changes the cigarette every day so it’s fresh, because “you sweat back there behind your ears,” which leaves a residue.
But back to room 1408. It hasn’t seen a paying guest in over 20 years, and of the maids who have gone in to give the room an occasional freshening up, some have burst into fits of crying or laughing, some have fainted, and one went blind. As Mr. Olin describes the mysterious deaths and suicides that have taken place in room 1408, we get the feeling that we’re in for a good old fashioned ghost story.
The movie felt much creepier than the book but only because it was able to show viewers bloody pictures and play that damn music that puts you on edge. The movie also adds some grisly details to up the scare factor, like the sewing machine salesman who tried to sew himself together again after staying in the room. In the book that guy just jumped out the window.
Reading about the 70 minutes Mike Enslin spends in room 1408 might not scare you. But it will take you on a feverish, dreamlike trip with vivid colours, odd sounds, and a voice saying things that make absolutely no sense. You won’t understand what happened, but you’ll enjoy the ride. And in the end you’ll curse Stephen King for writing yet another story that will keep you awake the next time you check into a hotel. Watching what happens to Enslin during his stay is just as fun as reading about it, maybe better because of the special effects. By the end of his stay in the room John Cusack had a bit of an Ace Ventura thing going on, which I couldn’t help but laugh at.
I really enjoyed the movie until the last quarter or so when it kind of fell apart a bit. There’s a moment where it feels done but then it isn’t. And then there’s the whole backstory with his wife and kid, which was a good addition to the story but dragged on for too long. At the end of the movie Enslin plays his tape recorder back and it’s the voice of his dead daughter we hear. But in the book his agent listens to the tape despite the fact that it creeps him out. He describes what he hears and to me it’s just more interesting:
“…the background sounds on the tape, a kind of liquid smooshing that sometimes sounds like clothes churning around in an oversudsed washer, sometimes like one of those old electric hair clippers…and sometimes weirdly like a voice.”
I liked the way King’s short story ended. It wasn’t trying to make a point, unlike the movie. And I like that it brought everything back to the idea that the only reason Mike Enslin endured the hell of room 1408 is because he is a writer and knew it would make an amazing story. From that experience he could write a book that would sell more than any of his other books. That makes the entire thing believable and a bit sad, really. But in the end Mike says he doesn’t want to write anymore. He doesn’t remember exactly what happened in the room, but remembers enough to make him quit writing and never look at a tape recorder again. Enough to sleep with the lights on.
I liked this adaptation enough to pick up a copy of Stephen King’s short story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which spawned some movie versions of its own. I’m starting to think that short stories make the best adaptations, but that theory is still new so don’t quote me on it.