He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.
From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.
All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.
It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.
Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.
Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.
But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.
Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.
In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.
Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.
All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.
And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.
Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).
Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.
So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible.