Graveyard Shift

'Christine’ Is One Of The Most Underrated Adaptations To Come Off Stephen King’s Assembly Line 

Orrin Grey
Updated December 23, 2019 2.8k views 16 items

By 1983, Stephen King was already something of a household name, so when he published and adapted his novel about a sentient 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christinethe horror audience was prepared for something great. In the years prior to Christine, Brian De Palma adapted King's breakout novel Carrie, and Tobe Hooper brought Salem's Lot into homes. The same year Christine was in cinemas, we also got adaptations of King's novels Cujo and The Dead Zone.

Over the years Christine has become one of Stephen King's most memorable stories, to the extent that, in the 2014 film Cooties, there is a recurring joke about the main character, who wants to be a horror novelist, writing a book about a man who falls in love with an evil boat - an obvious play on the relationship between Arnie Cunningham and his car, Christine.

Yet, for all that, Christine is often overlooked when discussing King's adaptations, even though it's the only time King and horror master John Carpenter collaborated on a film. 

In The Film, Christine Is The True Villain, Unlike In The Novel Where She Is Possessed By Her Previous Owner
In The Film, Christine I... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 'Christine’ Is One Of The Most Underrated Adaptations To Come Off Stephen King’s Assembly Line
Photo: Columbia Pictures

In the book, it's uncertain whether Christine herself is evil, or whether the car - and, later, Arnie Cunningham - is possessed by the spirit of her first owner, Roland Le Bay (changed to Ronald in the movie). As King said in a 1984 interview with Randy Lofficier, "I think that, in the book, there is the suggestion that it's probably Le Bay, rather than the car." 

The film opens with a bronze-hued sequence of Christine rolling off the assembly line in 1957 while the soundtrack blares George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." We see the hood slam on a technician's fingers, while another worker winds up deceased behind the wheel, though the cause is never explained. From this, it's pretty clear that, like the eponymous abode in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the movie version of Christine was simply "born bad."

'Christine' Turns The High School Love Story On Its Head
'Christine' Turns The Hi... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 'Christine’ Is One Of The Most Underrated Adaptations To Come Off Stephen King’s Assembly Line
Photo: Columbia Pictures

The plot is familiar: a nerdy teen undergoes a personal transformation, stops wearing their glasses, gets a new wardrobe and car, and goes out with someone from the popular crowd. Christine tells that same story, but it takes a back seat to the unhealthy relationship between Arnie and Christine.

Christine is mainly responsible for transforming Arnie from the class nerd to "cool" and confident - even arrogant. But he also becomes obsessed; Arnie's relationship with the car takes on aspects of dependency as his "cool" look is slowly replaced with sunken eyes and an increasingly haggard expression. Love, as Arnie tells his friend Dennis, "has a voracious appetite. It eats everything. Friendship. Family."

In one of the most telling scenes of how Christine upends the typical high school love story, Arnie gets the girl of his dreams, but the only time the two are seen together is when he picks her up in Christine and takes her to a football game, after they are already together, allowing Christine to remain the singular dominant factor in Arnie's life.

The Relationship Between Christine And Arnie Is Genuinely Believable
The Relationship Between... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 'Christine’ Is One Of The Most Underrated Adaptations To Come Off Stephen King’s Assembly Line
Photo: Columbia Pictures

"I knew guys like this in high school," Roger Ebert wrote in his 1983 review of Christine." They spent their lives customizing their cars. Their girlfriends were accessories who ranked higher, say, than foam-rubber dice, but lower than dual carbs."

Central to making Christine work is selling us on the relationship between Arnie (Keith Gordon) and his new ride. Part of that success comes from Gordon's acting skills, but the screenplay, and what the film chooses to show (and not show), is key as well. We get a pretty clear picture of why Arnie is so susceptible to Christine's charms - and why he can't let go - during an altercation with his mom right after he buys Christine.

"I managed to get through 17 years without embarrassing your bridge club or landing in jail," he says after laying out a litany of all the things he's done that his parents wanted him to do. "Now I'm telling you, I'm gonna have this, this one thing!"

The Evil Car Is Never Treated As A Joke
The Evil Car Is Never Tr... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 'Christine’ Is One Of The Most Underrated Adaptations To Come Off Stephen King’s Assembly Line
Photo: Columbia Pictures

"One grin and the mood would be broken," Roger Ebert said of John Carpenter's decision to take the horror of Christine seriously. It would be easy for "evil car" to become a joke premise, especially in the '80s, when horror-comedy hybrids were already all the rage. But by choosing to never downplay Christine's horrifying nature, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips created a narrative that stands the test of time.

One of the ways they do that is by not explaining too much. We get hints of the car's past from its previous owner's brother, but never get an explanation for its evil. And by keeping the audience rooted inside the perspectives of the kids whose lives intersect with Christine, the filmmakers put us in the same position of awe at how this supernatural car is functioning.