Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box might not ever earn the legitimate cult classic status it most certainly deserves. Kelly’s other two features, Donnie Darko & Southland Tales, have already found their own dedicated of cult followings out there in the wilderness of cinematic nerdom, but The Box remains largely unchampioned. There are many, varied complaints detailing exactly why The Box “doesn’t work,” but one of the most common is that it expanded upon a basic premise that needed no depth of context or detail. Before The Box was a sprawling, two hour critical & financial misstep it was a nine page story in Playboy Magazine & a 20 minute episode of the Twilight Zone. When it comes to adapting literary text for the big screen, the critical impulse generally tends to favor the source material in terms of legitimacy, especially in the case of something like The Box, which shows very little, if any regard for solely sticking to the script of its short story origins. By exploding the central mystery of its source material into a galaxy of other unanswered questions, however, The Box far exceeds its origins’ ambitions & successes in my mind. Its DNA in Playboy Magazine & The Twilight Zone is interesting for sure, but nowhere near as fascinating as the places Kelly took the story in his go-for-broke adaptation/bastardization.
Consider the shifted stakes & the heavy-handed morality lesson of The Box’s very first incarnation, a very brief short story published by Playboy Magazine in 1970. The Richard Matheson-penned story “Button, Button” is for the most party reminiscent of what Kelly later brought to the screen. Even its central character names remained largely unchanged: Arthur, Norma, Arlington. However, the story’s scope is ludicrously miniscule as a comparison point, with these three characters more or less representing the totality of relevant players. In “Button, Button” the mysterious agent Arlington Steward drops off a box featuring a button under the cover of a glass dome. He informs the married couple of Norma & Arthur Lewis that if they press this button someone they do not know will die & they will receive $50,000 cash. The husband urges the wife not to push the button out of basic human decency, but she does so anyway, as she does in all three versions of the story (it’d be a pretty go-nowhere plot if she didn’t). What differs in the original text is its last minute twist in which Arthur is the one who is killed the promised $50,000 is collected from his life insurance policy. Incensed, Norma calls out Arlington for claiming that the person who would die would be someone she did not know. Steward retorts by questioning if Norma ever truly knew her husband. As far as morality tales go “Button, Button” is a little slight, but very efficient. However, it raises a lot of interesting, open-ended questions about the origins of its mysterious box & the menacing organization who carry out its machinations, an ambiguity its down-the-road adaptations would greedily revel in.
“Button, Button” was published too late in the game to be included in the classic black & white, Roger Sterling era of The Twilight Zone. Instead it appeared in the much cheaper, much less charming 1980s run of the show. Its basic premise remains faithful to its Playboy Magazine roots, but it does make some significant changes to the details. In the Twilight Zone version the prize for pushing the murder button skyrockets to $20,000, along with an escalation in the economic state of the couple in question. The televised Norma & Arthur live unhappily in abject poverty, with Norma playing the thankless role of a nagging shrew wife & Arthur struggling to provide for the household in a less than glamorous economy. Their philosophical conversations around whether or not to push the button are largely the same as they are in the original story, but they’re nastily heated here in a way that low income couples arguing about money often tend to be. Unfortunately, because the production value of the episode is so ungodly cheap, their tension is conveyed mostly through shouty braying, two performances that might even stand out as over-the-top in an early John Waters provocation.
Besides altering the economic tension of the central philosophical crisis, the televised version of “Button, Button” also crucially changes the detail of its gotcha ending. Instead of killing Arthur, the box only instigates Arlington Steward paying the couple their previously discussed amount, then informing them that it will be “reprogrammed” & passed along to a new household, someone they do not know. Just like the original story, it’s a tidily little morality play, although in this case the lesson is shifted from what it means to truly know someone to the value of the Golden Rule, which was the lesson of most Twilight Zone episodes anyway.
Part of the sprawling brilliance of Richard Kelly’s The Box is how it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of both of these works, yet still drowns out their central life lessons with a deafening sea of existential concerns and batshit crazy plot twists. So much of Richard Kelly’s film adaptation is eerily faithful to its source material, from the exactly look & name of “the button unit” (mostly lifted form the Twilight Zone verson of the story) to the intense focus on domesticity & the home (very strongly emphasized in the Playboy version, if you can believe it). It’s all represented in the first 20 minutes or so of The Box before Kelly blows the whole tightly controlled story apart into something infinitely more expansive & strange. You can tell Kelly was a huge, adoring fan of his source material. It’s just that he gets hopelessly lost in his fascination with its minor details. In the Twlight Zone version, Norma asks “What is this, some kind of survey or something to see who will and won’t push it?” Kelly wants to know what that survey would look like, what it would mean, and what other similar surveys it would constitute. In the Playboy version, Steward admits that he “represents and organization of international scope,” but keeps the details vague & menacing. Kelly wants to know exactly how large & powerful such an organization would have to be to function. You can even see Kelly’s admiration for his movie’s “Button, Button” roots in the details he does decide to change. For instance, when he gives Norma & Arthur a child, he can’t figure out exactly what the child is good for in the story, except as a plot device that allows for more button unit-type moral/existential dilemmas once the plot becomes truly unwieldy.
The Box has a tendency to over-explain or provide too much context for what’s basically a very simple story, but Kelly leaves the overall ambiguity of his source material’s scenario exactly how he found it. He pokes & questions initial vague details presented in the early versions of “Button, Button,” but only so that they give way to even more immense & vague details once they’re prodded. The mistake a lot of reboots, prequels, and reimaginings make is in providing too much context & background info so that all mystery is sucked out of the room in favor of mediocrity. No one liked Death Vader better after knowing he was a little blonde boy who built C-3PO & held his beloved at the lakes of Naboo. However, the kind of context Kelly piles on how somehow makes the story feel more contextless. A lesser, more disciplined mind might’ve stuck to the basic outline of “Button, Button”, but stretched it out to a feature length slog of a moral dilemma. Kelly instead gives it the exact length of time it needed to work itself out on an episode of television, then expands his scope from there, chasing his fascination with the story’s vague, menacing details once the business of a faithful adaptation was out of the way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a literary adaptation quite like it, even from other films that started as Phillip K. Dick short stories or slight Roald Dahl novellas for children. Kelly’s film is at once a faithful adaptation and a brazen, no-cares bastardization. Its gaze into the infinity can be at once both cripplingly silly & devastatingly impressive, but looking back to its roots as a miniscule 9 pages in Playboy Magazine only makes Kelly’s fascinating sprawl all the more puzzling. The question, then, is whether or not you find that puzzle entertaining.