The Box





Richard Kelly’s film The Box gets lost in a confusing wilderness when its director abandons its source’s themes, Daniel Crandall writes.

Richard Kelly’s new film, The Box, is more than just a financial flop, Patrick Goldstein notes,

[T]he real shocker is the grade it received from CinemaScore, the Las Vegas-based market research company that compiles Friday-night audience reaction to all of Hollywood’s big new movie releases. The CinemaScore grade [is] culled … from real paying moviegoers. Even more importantly, there’s a very strong correlation between the grade a film gets and its future commercial prospects. An A signals a long happy life while even a C is pretty much of a death sentence.…



[O]f the 33 demographic categories measured by the service, "The Box" got an F in 29 of the 33–and earned a D-minus in three of the four others.

DVD and Blue Ray releases will not save this one.


For those who don’t know, The Box began life as Richard Matheson’s short story, “Button, Button.” It is a brief tale with a powerful dénouement. It can be found on any bookstore shelf and read while sipping your favorite hot beverage. Its impact derives from the idea from which it arose.

Matheson was inspired to write the tale, in part, by something “mentioned in a college psychology class [his] wife took.… To contribute importantly to world peace, would you walk down New York’s Broadway–naked?”

The idea, which resulted in … writing of “Button, Button” was of a similar nature: a sacrifice of human dignity in exchange for a specific goal–in this case nothing anywhere near as worthy as world peace.

[Alert: spoilers ahead.]


Goldstein believes audiences hate the film because the character played by Cameron Diaz “doesn’t make it to the end of the film.” Ed Mintz, of CinemaScore, describes The Box as “a horror movie version of Sophie’s Choice.” Mintz was shocked that “they’re going to kill off a movie star.” That is one explanation for the negative audience reaction, but woefully inadequate in this case.

Psychologically speaking, the short story’s premise is fascinating: A married couple, Mr. & Mrs. Lewis, is given a box with a red push-button by Mr. Steward, and offered a significant sum of money, with no strings attached, on one condition:

“If you push the button,” Mr. Steward told him, “somewhere someone in the world, someone you don’t know will die. In return for which you will receive a payment of [$1 million].”

Many people have contemplated the question, “What would you do for a million bucks?” Framed so that one must play a role in a stranger’s death, that question takes on a much deeper meaning. What Matheson adds is what makes the story such an incredibly compelling read. It takes a hard look at our most intimate relationships and, in its ending, asks readers a very difficult question. Unfortunately, the filmmakers abandoned that ending entirely.


By all outward appearances, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis are a perfectly content couple who have been together for many years. Mrs. Lewis, drawn by the money’s siren song, presses the button and, just as she was told, someone whom she does not know dies.

In Matheson’s story, she confronts Steward when he returns to complete the transaction. Steward calmly responds to Mrs. Lewis with a question she had not previously considered. It is a question most people would rather not confront, but one well worth reflecting upon. If you want to know the question, read the story. The film fails because its creators were either deaf to or simply ignored the question Matheson asks in his tale, despite the fact that he makes the story’s theme explicit in its closing dialog.

The Box leaves its source material behind after the first act, and it wanders off into a confusing mishmash of tripe involving government conspiracy, alien invasion, and an annihilate-humanity-because-it-will-not-abandon-individuality-for-the-common-good theme. I left the film feeling as manipulated by Richard Kelly as the Lewis couple were by the button-unit distributing Steward.

Yes, the written word and film are two very different media. A film, for example, requires much more plot development than is usually present in a short story. There are, however, numerous science fiction and horror short stories adapted to films that remain faithful to the original material.

The same cannot be said about what Kelly did with “Button, Button,” and that’s what really makes it a failure. The short story is about the difficult moral choices people have to make, whereas the film exemplifies the bad choices smug filmmakers make.

–Daniel Crandall