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