The new episode of WTF Happened to This Adaptation looks at Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, from Guillermo del Toro and Andre Ovredal
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark episode of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by Lance Vlcek and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian. Here is the text of Hatfield’s script:
Campfire tales. Town legends. Ghost stories. Whatever you want to call them, they exist as a way to tell stories from one generation to the next. They can be told at summer camp, at sleepovers, or by grandpa when he’s had an extra J & B and is feeling squirrely. They can be urban legends, embellished stories based in fact, or even just a made-up tale to illicit fright from its listeners. For certain generations, the stories of Alvin Schwartz accompanied by the illustrations of Stephen Gammel have terrified kids who stumbled upon them at the Scholastic book fair and given adults PTSD from the decade they were originally published all the way through the reprints today. In 2019, after a bit of time in the oven developing, we got a silver screen adaptation, at least in spirit. No pun intended. Turn the lights down as we find out what happened to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (watch it HERE).
Why it took so long for a studio to take a chance on making something out of these 3 books is beyond me but in 2013, CBS Films was able to secure the rights to the books directly from its author and began working on a feature film. A year later it was announced that John August was attached to write the screenplay. While August may not be an instantly recognizable name to most, he wrote things like Go! and the Charlie’s Angels movies before going on to a long partnership with Tim Burton starting with the script for 2003’s Big Fish. He would write an additional 4 movies for our favorite adult emo kid between 2005 and 2012 and would ultimately be replaced by, well by a lot of different writers.
In 2016 Guillermo Del Toro was announced as being involved and everyone went wild. The hope was that he would write and direct, but he ended up being a producer and received some story credit on the final product. The screenwriting brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman started out by touching up August’s script but ended up receiving sole writing credit for the movie. With Del Toro not being the director, Andre Ovredal was tapped, and production was on its way in 2018. The brothers had already quite the resume under their belts with crafting the story for Hotel Transylvania and then helping to build, pun intended, the Lego movie empire with the Lego Movie and Lego Ninjago Movie and TV series. After this movie they worked on The Croods, Star Trek Prodigy, and re-teamed with Del Toro on his Troll Hunters universe.
Ovredal burst onto the movie scene with Troll Hunter in 2010 which is a wonderful almost documentary and then made the sneaky good Autopsy of Jane Doe with Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. After this he made The Last Voyage of the Demeter and is on pace to give us a Scary Stories sequel. The cast is filled with mostly up and coming younger talent with a few grizzled character actors thrown in. Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur play the main cast and they have appeared in everything from Mythic Quest and The Hunger Games to Fear the Walking Dead and Wes Anderson movies. For some of the adults, the production company hired Gil Bellows and Dean Norris. Dean Norris is an amazing character actor who is probably now known best for his role in Breaking Bad but has 175 roles on his IMDB list. Gil Bellows has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies but for me will always be the guy from Shawshank that wanted to help Andy Dufresne.
The movie wrapped production and Del Toro made it clear to the fans that it wouldn’t be an anthology film: “When we started talking about this about five years ago, I had to think about it … Anthology films are always as bad as the worst story in them — they’re never as good as the best story… I remembered in Pan’s Labyrinth, I created a book called ‘the Book of Crossroads’. I thought it could be great if we had a book that reads you, and it writes what you’re most afraid of. Then the theme became stories we tell each other.”
The movie released on August 9th and would make 104 million on it’s 28-million-dollar budget with both critics and audiences loving it and the film would even get nominated for 2 Saturn awards.
Or in this case books. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammel. Much of it was based on folklore and other superstition and Scwartz would do extensive research for each short story. All three books are collections of short stories that were released in 1981, 1984, and 1991. He took more than a year to write each collection as his research was extensive and pulled from all manner of regional tales as well as famous works from Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, and even Mark Twain. The stories have been loved since their release and have been released multiple times for that matter. You can now get all 3 books in one collection. In 2011, a new release of the books brought with it new artwork that was… received less than well… but ultimately the books have sold over 11 million copies.
Artist Stephen Gammel has over 70 books that he has worked on but will forever be known for his charcoal nightmares. Alvin Schwartz passed away just a year after the third story collection. While he had far fewer works than his collaborator artist, younger kids might also remember his In a Dark, Dark Room book that is almost as iconic.
What is the Same?
To the film’s credit, they took many of the main protagonists fears directly from the stories. The Big Toe, Harold, The Pale Lady from The Dream, The Red Spot, and then ideas from The Haunted House and Me Tie Dough-ty Walker are all represented and represented well. Harold the scarecrow looks almost as he does in his short story and behaves similarly. A character abuses him and Harold finds that he has had enough so he takes his revenge by eerily appearing where he shouldn’t before striking. The Pale Lady also looks exactly as she does in the short story The Dream and even appears in a dream like endless hallway while stalking Chuck and even the Pale Lady is specifically from his nightmares. The Red Spot happens almost exactly as it’s told in the story with Ruth having a spider bite that leads to it bursting with tons of baby spiders. The short story is little more than a paragraph and this encapsulates everything about it that is frightening.
The Big Toe follows pretty closely with a big toe being put into soup and then the owner of said big toe coming back to collect it. While the words the creature asks are slightly different, some of the story is taken verbatim from the book, like when the boy assumes that the monster will never find him. Me Tie Dough-ty Walker features a couple of aspects of the story like a dog trying to warn and interact with a human on the danger coming and ultimately a head falling down a chimney. At the end of the day, the thing that is most consistent through both the collection of stories and the movie is the FEEL. The colors and way the movie is shot feels like the disturbing drawings have come to life and jumped on the screen. As I said before I really believe this has to do with Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement. There are nearly 80 stories total across the 3 volumes and the ones they picked; they did a great job bringing them to life.
What is different?
While the movie screams anthology bait, particularly as these stories are just very small, self-contained vignettes, as I mentioned earlier, Del Toro resisted the urge to make it one. They gave the book more purpose and had it exist in real time with our characters. There is also an actual story that connects everything together in a similar fashion to the wraparound story that exists in all anthology movies. Sarah Bellows was the author of many of the stories before hanging herself after being accused of witchcraft. Our 4 main characters start investigating the book as it starts to write its own stories that end up terrorizing and ultimately capturing some of them.
Along those lines, all of the stories are expanded upon greatly or changed to fit the overall narrative. The ones they chose were probably chosen based on what they wanted to do with the characters they created for this world. The Pale Woman can bend time and seemingly make copies of herself, the creature looking for its big toe is something we actually get to see in the movie while the story just shows the titular toe, and whatever the story was trying to get across to us for whatever the hell Walker is gets turned into The Jangly Man. It’s a move that works much better than just telling the stories one at a time via a campfire or sleepover situation.
The movie from 2019 was a surprise hit that has a sequel currently getting worked on with the same creative team behind the first one. While the first movie ends on a kind of cliff hanger, it could also be a standalone entry as a fun adaptation of some of, well, the scariest stories to tell in the dark. The movie is good and is destined for Halloween classic status. The 3 collections of short stories are generational, however. There just isn’t anything like them. While the movie will get at least one sequel and could eventually get remade, the books are classics and in 2011 when they were released with art done by someone else, there was nearly a riot. As a parent myself, the books will be handed down more often than the movie will be shared and the books themselves have a better chance of being discovered by a kid wandering the aisles of a bookstore or with money burning a hole in their pocket at the fall scholastic book fair. At the end of the day, they are both good but watch the movie and OWN the books. You never know when you will need the perfect scary stories to tell in the dark.
A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? can be seen below. To see the other shows we have to offer, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!