I finally got around to reading Stephen King and Joe Hill’s supernatural horror novella, In the Tall Grass, and since it was a quick read, I decided to watch the recent film adaptation on the same night, making comparisons between the two all the more interesting.
Both versions follow the exact same setup. In fact, the opening 20 minutes of the film are a beat-for-beat recreation of the novella’s first section, dialogue and all. Adult siblings Cal and Becky pull over for a rest stop by the side of an old church. On the other side of the road, a field of impossibly tall grass spreads to the horizon. From it, they hear a young boy pleading for help, and his mother, begging them to stay away. Against the mother’s warnings, the two venture into the grass to try and help; a decision they will quickly regret.
First to point out is how loyal the film is to the overall tone of the original story; both creating a sense of dread and unease that is deliberately disorientating. It’s clear that director Vincenzo Natali (who also adapted the screenplay from the King/Hill story) has great artistic flair. Writing-wise, he makes a decent attempt to flesh out the plot to accommodate the longer running time (adding a new major character and building on concepts of time displacement only hinted at in the novella) without contradicting anything from the source material. Sadly, it feels a little overstretched, if anything. My main gripe with the novella was its lack of cohesion, with the story feeling like a series of horrifying vignettes rather than a fully developed narrative. For all its effort to delve a little deeper, the film can never quite shake the same feeling.
Where the film really excels, however, is its visuals. Natali makes excellent use of what could have been a very restrictive setting and colour palette, with some gorgeous shots and surprisingly clever cinematography. The performances on the other hand are a little uneven. The cast all have their decent turns, but some awkward dialogue contributes to more than a few unintentionally camp, hammy moments.
All-in-all, I’d say the screen version of In the Tall Grass is a very solid adaptation, making every effort to enhance what was set down on the page, tweaking and expanding where necessary to suit the visual medium. The trouble is, the core narrative being built from was never quite strong enough to make either wholly satisfying. Both versions (the novella, in particular), focus more on evoking a nightmarish atmosphere than laying out a cohesive story arc, as we stumble from one disturbing tableau to another, with little being explored beyond face value. As such, neither are prime examples of what the genre can do, but if you want to spend an hour or two with some entertaining and unashamedly strange, dark, mind-bending ideas, you could do worse than the book or the film version of In the Tall Grass.