Cell is that Stephen King book and movie that everyone forgets is a Stephen King book and movie. It might be because when you think of Stephen King you don’t usually think of zombies, and when I think of Cell I don’t necessarily think of zombies either. Whether or not Cell is really part of the zombie horror genre, I leave that up to you the reader to decide.
Cell – A Book
Clayton Riddell is an unassuming graphic artist who’s on his way home from Boston after landing the deal of a lifetime to publish his own graphic novel. Unfortunately for him, this is the day that “The Pulse” happens. The Pulse is an entirely phone based event where anyone who’s on their phone at around 3 in the afternoon on October 1st sometime in the mid-2000s gets their mind wiped causing them to suddenly and violently go crazy. Mass murder and mass panic ensues. As hysteria reins and people try to call for help more get hit by the Pulse and the Apocalypse begins.
Clay, who’s cell phoneless, avoids the Pulse, but from his vantage point on a random Boston street corner, things go downhill fast as “phone crazies” attack and kill people all around him. During the initial chaos Clay manages to save a gay guy named Tom McCourt, who joins him for the rest of the book for lack of anything better to do. Eventually they also pick up a traumatized 14 year old girl named Alice.
Fleeing Boston as it burns, our mains become refugees in the cell phone Apocalypse. Clay’s main objective is trying to get home to his wife and son Johnny G (they must have been really big fans of Kenny G is all I can think), Tom really wants to check on his cat, and Alice is mostly just coming along with them since she had to kill the only family she had apparently. They meet other “normies”, none Pulse affected people, along the road, and it is a very long road. There might be more walking in this book than in the whole ten seasons of The Walking Dead combined.
The phone crazies aren’t your typical “brainssssss” zombies. They might bite and stab, but they’re not after your juicy human meats. After the initial homicidal panic from the Pulse, they quickly start to change and evolve into something entirely different. You learn how all this happens from a 12 year old character in the book named Jordan, who apparently can figure all this out because he knows computer basics. As the phone crazies go from individual threats to a hive mind, Clay and his band become targets of the phone crazies new world order.
Thoughts – An effort was made
This book, more than anything else, feels downright frustrating. From the big flashing TECHNOLOGY BAD sign throughout it, to the one note characters, to the lack of clarity into just how the Pulse happened, and the halting pace of the entire book where things start to pick up only to slow down again to mourn for characters that you don’t really care about all that much about. Clay is not a very interesting main character to spend an entire book with. His one and only concern is to get home to his wife and son; no thoughts for other family, friends, coworkers or the greater effect the events that are unfolding around them are going to have on the future. As eager as Clay is to get home though, there are so many detours that slow the whole book down that at times it seems like the book is trying to replicate a phoner in reboot mode. As much as the book tries to push the found family trope it falls flat in that effort too. Despite spending time getting to know random characters, the fact remains that these were people Clay met only a hour to a day or two ago, so any real connection between the characters is somewhat lost.
The beginning of the apocalypse here, which takes at least 100 pages, could be the same as any typical zombie or plague movie or book (think World War Z on a local level only with the most average guy ever instead of Brad Pitt). It’s not until the phoners start changing to something other than mindless zombies that things really get interesting. The characters actually start to have some doubts and moral dilemmas about the mass killing of beings that used to be human, but may not be any longer. The problem is, things also get so convoluted and motivations of the phoner hive mind remain so dim that the big climax and the ending of the book feels supremely unsatisfying as a whole.
The book may hold more disappointment for me than enjoyment, but it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, nor even the worst Stephen King book, but it’s still not ranked anywhere near the top of my Stephen King must read list.
Cell – A Movie
This may be a rare instance where a movie is actually better than the book it was based off of. Perhaps it’s because the movie trims all the unnecessary fat and characters from the book to fit it into its hour and a half running time, but the entire premise seems to work better as a movie. The screenplay is still written by Stephen King and Adam Alleca, and the plot is basically the same as the book, with a few key differences.
Clay in the movie is played by the ever pleasant and sad eyed John Cusack, who brings a real feeling of humanity to the character of Clay that was lacking in the book. Clay’s still a graphic artist on his way home to his estranged wife and son, only now the phone Apocalypse starts for him in a Boston airport, which is a much more exciting start than a random street corner.
Escaping the chaos at the airport for the subway, Clay runs into the movie version of Tom, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who bears pretty much no resemblance to Tom from the book. Movie Tom is now a subway driving, Vietnam vet, devoice who, like Clay, is caught up in everything going on. To the movie’s credit, there is a throwaway line that Tom is still gay, even if it’s blink and you’ll miss it. Tom has Clay’s down to earth attitude about the end of the world and it’s easy to understand why they might stick together this time around. They also find their own traumatized Alice Maxwell, played by Isabelle Fuhrman.
Perhaps the biggest change from the book to the film is the sense of solitude the survivors experience while heading north. Wide shots of isolated cell phone towers in nature add to the feeling, and the low budget independent film look of the movie makes for some realism in a way that World War Z or the Dawn of the Dead remake lacks. When the leads do run into other normies, instead of the stereotypical Stephen King crazy religious ladies or redneck yokels from the book, you get some likeable average Joe type people who are willing to help Clay’s crew out. Even character deaths of one-off characters in the movie seem to hold more weight than they do in the book.
The phone crazies powers are trimmed down from the book as well, and at the same time become much scarier when they start admitting the Pulse (which sounds a lot like an AOL dial-up tone) from their mouths in order to infect remaining normies. At that point it becomes a survival of the fittest species type movie.
After King changed the ending for the movie from the book because of criticism of the book ending, the movie ending is still just as confusing. While the book’s ending is a bit more on the hopeful side, in general I still preferred the new movie ending to the book ending.
Final Girl Thoughts
If you’re the type of person who needs every plot point explained in great detail, this is definitely not the book or the movie for you. If you like your apocalypses more on the confusing side, then you might enjoy Cell. There’s some of the typical Stephen King unusualness that happens, the shadowy figure haunting the mains every step (this time called the Raggedy Man or the President of Harvard or the President of the Internet, whichever you prefer) and characters having psychological breakdowns on the regular. Cell, both the movie and the book, definitely have that Stephen King mark on them, though they perhaps lack the deeper themes that make for a real Stephen King classic. My recommendation, watch the movie for free on Tubi and skip the book entirely.(3 / 5)