How adapt­ing the au­thor can lead to shin­ing suc­cess — or ut­ter mis­ery

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By ROB­BIE COLLIN ing,

You might think a name re­spon­si­ble for more than $2 bil­lion in box of­fice re­ceipts would find the movie-mak­ing busi­ness a breeze. But when that name is Stephen King — per­haps in a case of life im­i­tat­ing art — it’s more of­ten felt closer to a toxic smog shel­ter­ing in­ter-di­men­sional fiends.

The strange tale of the Amer­i­can au­thor’s rocky re­la­tion­ship with Hol­ly­wood is stranger still when you crunch his num­bers, which most stu­dio and net­work ex­ec­u­tives would have in gold frames above their desks. Over the last four decades, the now 69-year-old writer’s nov­els and short sto­ries have in­spired 86 films and tele­vi­sion se­ries, with a fur­ther 31 in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment.

Though King is still best known for hor­ror, these adap­ta­tions have ranged across the gen­res, from sci-fi ac­tion to highly strung pe­riod pieces. Not all have been clas­sics: the misses vastly out­num­ber the hits, and around half of them are Chil­dren of the Corn se­quels. But the good ones have been good enough to amass one Academy Award and 14 fur­ther nom­i­na­tions be­tween them.

And the un­mis­tak­able King voice — as on-the-level as an arm around your shoul­der, but spiked with sen­ti­men­tal­ity, 130-proof cyn­i­cism and old biddy lev­els of cur­tain-twitch­ing pruri­ence — has snagged the imag­i­na­tions of some of the most dar­ing di­rec­tors of the age. Stan­ley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Ge­orge A. Romero, John Car­pen­ter and David Cro­nen­berg have all turned King’s writ­ing into great films only they could have made.

From Car­rie to The Dead Zone, they’re all screen­ing in Stephen Kin­gonScreen, a forth­com­ing sea­son at the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute in Lon­don timed to co­in­cide with King’s 70th birth­day later this year. (The sea­son runs from Septem­ber 1 to Oc­to­ber 4.)

The BFI’s tim­ing is dead-on for an­other rea­son, too: the un­ex­pected suc­cess of the re­cent Net­flix se­ries Stranger Things has been a sharp re­minder of just how large the au­thor still looms over the cul­tural land­scape. Broth­ers Matt and Ross Duf­fer’s eight-part, 1980s-set para­nor­mal drama paid ex­trav­a­gant homage to the King canon, along with clas­sic Am­blin pro­duc­tions such as The Goonies and E.T. The Ex­tra-Ter­res­trial.

It ev­i­dently went down so well at Net­flix that the stream­ing ser­vice or­dered a sec­ond sea­son, due for re­lease this Hal­loween, be­fore the first had even launched. And else­where, a slew of King-re­lated com­mis­sions also fol­lowed in its wake, in­clud­ing Cas­tle Rock — an “of­fi­cial” King an­thol­ogy se­ries, in­spired by his sto­ries set in the fic­tional New Eng­land town of its ti­tle. Film­ing is due to start next month un­der the ex­ec­u­tive-pro­ducer guid­ance of J.J. Abrams, whose 2011 film Su­per 8 boarded the retro King-meets-Spiel­berg band­wagon five years be­fore the Duf­fer broth­ers had so much as pulled on their duf­fel coats.

Given the re­newed ap­petite for all things King, it makes sense that two more high-pro­file adap­ta­tions of his work are about to ar­rive in cin­e­mas — and given both have at one time been de­scribed as his mag­num opus, for his Con­stant Read­ers the stakes couldn’t be higher.

One, due in Au­gust, is The Dark Tower — the first en­try in a pro­posed film and TV fran­chise, based

on a wildly com­pli­cated nine-vol­ume fan­tasy se­ries pub­lished be­tween 1982 and 2012. The other, which fol­lows in Septem­ber, is a par­tial adap­ta­tion of the 1986 novel It — in which the de­fin­i­tive Kin­gian ghoul, the de­monic clown Pen­ny­wise, men­aces the young res­i­dents of Derry, a seem­ingly or­di­nary Maine town where an an­cient evil swirls be­neath the streets.

Their timely ar­rival, though, was any­thing but slickly planned. The Dark Tower has been in de­vel­op­ment for a decade — for a while un­der Ron Howard, and be­fore him, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lin­de­lof, when both were in the midst of Lost, a se­ries it­self half-stitched from King DNA, culled from The Lan­goliers, The Tom­my­knock­ers, The Stand and count­less oth­ers. (The fin­ished ver­sion is di­rected by Niko­laj Ar­cel, the Dan­ish di­rec­tor of A Royal Af­fair, and stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.)

It, mean­while, first resur­faced at Warner Bros in 2009, and was wres­tled with by Cary Fuku­naga for three years, be­fore the Jane Eyre and True De­tec­tive di­rec­tor left un­der the usual cloud of cre­ative dif­fer­ences. The film we’re get­ting, di­rected by Ar­gentina’s An­drés Muschi­etti (Mama), will cover only the child­hood por­tion of King’s novel, which has been re­lo­cated from the 1950s to the 1980s. It’s telling that in both cases, the stu­dio is hang­ing fire to see how their first

in­stal­ment is re­ceived be­fore fully com­mit­ting to King’s ex­pan­sive — and ex­pen­sive — vi­sion.

In many ways, King’s writ­ing lends it­self to cin­ema: it’s fast-paced and sat­is­fy­ingly plot­ted, with crisp char­ac­ters and sharp moral hooks, and enough sub­text squelch­ing away un­der­foot to make the sto­ries stick. But he doesn’t write like a frus­trated film­maker, and when he gets up a head of steam — as he un­ques­tion­ably does with the in­tri­cate so­cial ta­pes­try of It, and The Dark Tower’s loopy meta-web of in­ter­con­nected re­al­i­ties — it’s hard not to feel that the sub­stan­tial plan­ing down re­quired for film or tele­vi­sion would un­avoid­ably shave off the point.

The 1990 TV take on It, with Tim Curry’s Pen­ny­wise, runs for three unim­peach­ably scary hours, but never comes close to pulling off the book’s big trick: re­cast­ing pros­per­ous, post­war Amer­ica as one big haunted house, whose adult res­i­dents either can’t or won’t al­low their at­ten­tions to be wrenched to­wards the mon­sters in the base­ment.

As for The Dark Tower, with its par­al­lel worlds, loop­ing time­lines and myth­i­cal al­lu­sions to ev­ery­thing from Robert Brown­ing to Ser­gio Leone — well, good luck squeez­ing that into 95 min­utes. The ner­vous-seem­ing mar­ket­ing cam­paign sug­gests a Ma­trix rip-off with cow­boys. Per­haps that’s all they had time for. Per­haps it’s the only way they know how to sell it.

Gen­er­ally, King’s been lais­sez-faire about this stuff — pre­sum­ably the roy­al­ties help smooth things over — but a hand­ful of cre­ative lib­er­ties have riled him in the past. One, un­der­stand­ably, was New Line’s 1992 ‘adap­ta­tion’ of The Lawn­mower Man — which in re­al­ity was made from a com­pletely un­re­lated script called Cy­ber God, onto which the stu­dio slapped the ti­tle of a King short story to which they’d bought the rights. (King sued them and won.)

But an­other he’s re­peat­edly de­nounced over the years is Kubrick’s The Shin­ing: un­ques­tion­ably the best film to have been in­spired by his work. The bad blood may have first bub­bled up dur­ing its pro­duc­tion, when Kubrick re­jected King’s own screen­play for his own adap­ta­tion, co-writ­ten with Di­ane John­son.

In the years since, King has taken um­brage in in­ter­views at al­most ev­ery­thing about it, from Jack Ni­chol­son’s per­for­mance (“too dark right from the out­set … never any pro­gres­sion”), Shelley Du­vall’s char­ac­ter Wendy (“one of the most misog­y­nis­tic char­ac­ters ever put on film: she’s ba­si­cally just there to scream and be stupid”), Kubrick’s use of am­bi­gu­ity (“[he] made the film into a do­mes­tic tragedy with only vaguely su­per­nat­u­ral over­tones”) and the icy poise of his tech­nique (“al­most prissy … What I’m talking about is just go­ing out and get­ting the reader or viewer by the throat and never let­ting go. Not play­ing games and play­ing the artiste”).

So re­lent­less was this on­slaught that when the tele­vi­sion net­work ABC ne­go­ti­ated a deal with Kubrick for the rights to re­make The Shin

one of the con­di­tions was that King would never again dis­cuss the orig­i­nal film “in any pub­lic fo­rum”. King him­self wrote the screen­play for the re­sult­ing three-part minis­eries, which was first broad­cast in 1997, and is as scrupu­lously faith­ful as it is dread­ful.

Is it pos­si­ble that King was al­ways so down on The Shin­ing be­cause of all the di­rec­tors to have taken on his writ­ing, only Kubrick had a voice-ofthe-au­teur loud enough to drown out his own? Even De Palma and Cro­nen­berg were rel­a­tively nat­u­ral fits for Car­rie and The Dead Zone — while the two di­rec­tors who have con­sis­tently “got” King the best are Frank Darabont and Rob Reiner, nei­ther of whom are ex­actly renowned as Hol­ly­wood’s least com­pro­mis­ing mav­er­icks.

Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) and Mis­ery (1990) are two of the best King films out­side the hor­ror genre. In the for­mer, four young friends set out along the rail­way line in search of the body of a boy killed by a train, a trip that ush­ers them in turn away from in­no­cence and to­wards adult­hood. The lat­ter, a claus­tro­pho­bic thriller, fea­tures a lead per­for­mance from Kathy Bates that won the only Os­car to date to have been awarded to a film based on King’s work.

Darabont came close, though: seven times for The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion (1994) and four more for The Green Mile (1999). These prison dra­mas are two of the most widely loved King films, though for the for­mer, it wasn’t al­ways thus. Ini­tially over­looked in cin­e­mas, Shaw­shank only found an au­di­ence on the then-boom­ing video rental mar­ket, a twist that long ago be­came part of the film’s leg­end. Roughly in line with Andy Dufresne’s wry ob­ser­va­tion that he “had to come to prison to be a crook”, it had to slink off to the nether­world of VHS be­fore it was recog­nised as cin­ema to cher­ish.

Speak­ing of nether­worlds, Darabont’s third King adap­ta­tion was The Mist (2007), a crea­ture fea­ture with a cat­a­clysmi­cally har­row­ing end­ing that is in fact noth­ing to do with the orig­i­nal 1980 novella, but is Darabont’s own work. Fif­teen years on from Shaw­shank, it felt like an­other chance to pose that film’s big ques­tion — “get busy liv­ing, or get busy dy­ing?” — and the con­clu­sion The Mist comes to, plus its hor­rific con­se­quences, can’t be eas­ily for­got­ten.

That’s the thing with King, in both his writ­ing and the best adap­ta­tions of it. Whether the mon­ster at hand is an oth­er­worldly ten­ta­cled be­he­moth, a sadis­tic prison war­den, or just a funny old clown in the sewer, he makes the pre­pos­ter­ous per­sonal.

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