From the gruff Churchill to the well-meaning Jud, Lithgow is set to continue his current streak of memorable characters.
Veteran actor John Lithgow is noteworthy for some truly wacky characters, but he has also managed to transform himself into memorable dramatic figures with enough gravitas to enrapture audiences. He portrayed Rebel Wilson’s over-the-top father in Pitch Perfect 3 and embodied the very fiber of Winston Churchill’s being in Netflix’s The Crown. He broke our hearts in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and was the voice of Lord Farquaad in Shrek too.
Lithgow is up for basically anything, and now he’s about to add an iconic Stephen King character to an extremely varied filmography. As reported by Entertainment Weekly, the actor has been cast as Jud Crandall, the resident wise old man in Paramount’s Pet Sematary (originally played by Fred Gwynne in the 1989 adaptation). Lithgow joins Jason Clarke as one of the pivotal characters in the long-awaited second film version of the King classic. Pet Sematary will be directed by Starry Eyes helmers Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, from a script by Midnight Meat Train writer Jeff Buhler.
Almost too plainly, death is the main theme in King’s novel, but as we should probably expect from the author at this point, simple premises can hide undeniably confronting secrets of a dark and twisted nature. In “Pet Sematary,” the Creeds — Louis, his wife Rachel, and their two young children Ellie and Gage — move in next to the titular pet cemetery; a burial ground which serves as a gateway to supernatural happenings, including resurrection. Their neighbor, the goodly Jud, introduces the Creeds to the cemetery’s mystical properties after a family pet dies. However, when they then lose a child and spiral into grief, they feel drawn to the process of cheating death yet again, no matter what Jud does to stop them.
The trope of the wise old man is tried and true. We can usually count on a wizened, all-knowing character to appear in basically any genre of fiction, and they especially thrive in expository scenarios – particularly when something magical is afoot. As a friend and surrogate father figure to Louis Creed, Jud fits this stereotype in an absolutely well-meaning way. However, he unwittingly sets into motion something sinister that spells dire consequences for everyone within the cemetery’s vicinity. In eventually iterating the iconic phrase “sometimes, dead is better,” Jud also proves that sometimes it’s too little, too late for a family marked by despair.
Jud may not seem like the most complicated character on paper, but finding the perfect actor for the job makes all the difference in creating a successful version of Pet Sematary anyway. Jud’s strong relationship with Louis is significant in terms of pushing the plot of the story forward while explicating the themes of parenthood and loss that made the original book so damn depressing.
These family-centric elements will be prioritized in the remake, says screenwriter Buhler. According to MovieWeb, Buhler classifies the 1989 version of Pet Sematary as enjoyable but also “borderline campy,” noting instead that a new film based on the book will have to drive its emotional content home in a more real and effective way:
When we first started our conversations, the director and I really connected around the idea of bringing the story back to the source material, to find a modern telling of the book that really spoke to some of the big scenes and big moments that Stephen King had originally written. […] Our desire was to tell a really grounded, character driven, and psychologically horrific version of ‘Pet Sematary,’ which in my belief, is the scariest book that King ever wrote.
With Lithgow, Paramount certainly won’t be disappointed in their choice for Jud. His resume points to a great gauge of his ability to portray the character, but his physical similarities to the book version of Jud were pointed out by EW as well:
“In the 1983 book, here’s how King describes Louis seeing Jud for the first time: ‘He turned and saw an old man of perhaps seventy — a hale and healthy seventy — standing there on the grass. He wore a biballs over a blue chambray shirt that showed his thickly folded and wrinkled neck. His face was sunburned, and he was smoking an unfiltered cigarette. He held his hand out and smiled crookedly…a smile Louis liked at once.'”
Even if you don’t put much stock in actors looking exactly like fictional characters on a page — I know I don’t unless it’s truly plot-relevant — this is a nice touch that preps Pet Sematary to be a really immersive adaptation. Admittedly, while there are no complaints about Lithgow’s casting for this new take on “Pet Sematary,” he still has big shoes to fill after Fred Gwynne stole the show in the 1989 movie. Gwynne’s iconic line delivery lent a sense of gravelly tension to the film, and his performance has become synonymous with the quintessential message of Pet Sematary as a whole.
Other recent King adaptations have benefited from casting relative newcomers due to the nature of their stories; for example, IT focuses on the coming-of-age arcs of a group of young teenagers, which obviously meant that finding the next generation of promising child actors would be a crucial aspect of the production. And to be fair, that tactic still has merit when putting together Pet Sematary‘s younger cast members. However, between Clarke and Lithgow, Paramount is two-for-two in assembling notable actors who could very well tackle the laboriously emotional content of Pet Sematary.