Long Live the King... the Long-Winded King
By Desmond Reddick
20 November 2006 — Last week I spoke about Clive Barker and why his stories work so well as movies. This week I'll be talking about the cinematic adaptations of the most prolific and best-selling horror author of all time. He also happens to be the best-selling novelist of all-time. If you don't know who I'm writing about... then I have to ask you one question: what is it like being in a coma for 30 years?
One can bicker all they like about the quality of Stephen King's work and his propensity for stories falling apart in the third act, but no one, absolutely no one, can deny his popularity. King has permeated into popular culture more than Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury combined. His very name is synonymous with the genre. His immense body of work, for good or bad, only adds to his legend. Futurama, in one of my favorite pop culture references to King's work, showed main character Fry walking through a library in the future. Fry walks by a room with a sign reading: "The Works of Stephen King volumes A through Aardvark." Tongue-in-cheek references can be found throughout satirical television shows. He has become such a cultural icon that he is often used in allusions to massive amounts of work, creepy stories and, as we will get to talking about, ludicrous plot developments.
In my article on Clive Barker's films I wrote about why many of them work. The imagery and vivid descriptions found in Barker's baroque writing, under the right direction, can be beautifully captured. Also, as far as the right direction goes, Barker himself has helmed Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions. While he doesn't helm his own films — not since Maximum Overdrive anyway — King's filmic adaptations fit into three categories: the horror films that work, the non-horror films that work even better and everything else. While I wish I could fully examine each and every King-based film, we'd be here for days if I did, so I'll focus on but a few.
In all of the film and TV adaptations of King's work — 98 at current count of finished films — only two have the distinction of being hated by the author: The Shining and Lawnmower Man. It's odd: along with Salem's Lot and Children of the Corn, The Shining is what I would consider the best of King's horror adaptation. Although it makes sense that King, who is well-known as a bit of a stubborn fellow himself, had some issues with the notoriously difficult master director Stanley Kubrick. It is rumored that Kubrick, who ordered a rewrite on King's screenplay by another author, would call King at three in the morning asking whether he believed in God or not. I would imagine that would make me dislike Kubrick too. Lawnmower Man, the film King sued to have his name removed from, is a little easier to understand: it's shite.
King's horror films that work are generally adapted from those stories which are shorter. The novella is almost perfect for a two-hour film adaptation, as are shorter novels with some skillful excising of fat. King's shorter novels tend to take place over short periods of time and feature believable characters and extremely visceral scenes that etch themselves in the reader's mind. I remember reading an interview with King several years ago; the interviewer asked how he wrote such dark, intense stuff. King replied (and I'm paraphrasing here), "When people think about rats they think about the eyes, the teeth, the whiskers, the slick pelt and fleshy tail. When I think about rats, I wonder what it feels like crawling down my throat." That statement opened my eyes as a writer at a young age, and also happens to encapsulate the horror he writes in his shorter novels and stories. It's this frantic, intense horror which translates quite well into film.
King's horror films that don't work tend to be his longer works; It and The Stand are two perfect examples of muddled (RE: terrible) filmic translations. The problem is they cap in at 800 pages or more. Even spread across several days, as both of these two novels were adapted into TV miniseries, they still couldn't capture the epic scale King intended. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Stephen King by any means. Any extremely long book should never be turned into a film. Or a series of films for that matter.
Not all bad Stephen King adaptations come from his longer form novels. "Lawnmower Man" was a short story. Thinner was a shorter novel. Secret Window, Secret Garden was a novella and, admittedly, not that bad of a movie as far as King films go. King is a writer of characters; he goes through painstaking details to introduce us to his characters. Anyone who has read the uncut, extended version of The Stand will know how much effort he goes to to develop a character... even when that character dies from the plague. The problem with adapting character-heavy stories is that everything he worked so hard to inject into the character through careful narration, minute gestures and the like is lost when the character is not handled right during the move from page to screen.
King's horror novels, depending mostly on interpersonal relationships, tend to fall apart plot-wise in the third act. It's the character interactions that make his stories — if they're not captured by the director, that's just too bad for you.
An interesting thing about King is that his non-horror adaptations, three of which come from the same book, have been consistently well-made. This is not because King writes non-horror fiction any better (although there is an argument for that), but it is simply because bigger name actors and directors are more likely to get behind a great character drama than they are a horror film. (These three stories I'm alluding to also just so happen to be novellas; since I've already stated why they make better adaptations, I'll refrain from repeating myself here.) Some of the most notable non-horror King adaptations will be mentioned in the suggestions list below.
I wrote this not to steer you away from someone who is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror writers of the modern era, but merely to warn you against the mass of films adapted from his work. If you care, my suggestions follow.
- Salem's Lot: One of the best vampire films I've seen. I still can't help shouting, "Don't open that door!"
- The Shining: Jack Nicholson can't even steal the show away from Kubrick's favoring the setting over the actors. The atmosphere is creepier than most.
- Creepshow: King wrote the screenplay for two of the sequences and the film was directed by George Romero. As you'll see later, this is not always a winning combination. Creepshow 2 was also alright.
- Carrie: Not my favorite, but it's widely loved (most likely for the ending).
- Dead Zone: Christopher Walken has psychic powers... need I say more?
- Children of the Corn: Creepy but very dated. Redneck cultists ensuing that my next child will not be named Malachai.
- Silver Bullet: Corey Haim in a wheelchair fighting a werewolf alongside Gary Busey... and Anne ("with an E") Shirley? If you don't like this movie I will punch you.
- Pet Sematary: The Ramones offered to do the soundtrack. Good enough for me.
The Bad and The Ugly
- Cujo: The book wasn't half bad. This movie is that other half.
- Firestarter: Not awful, really, but that's mostly because the book was awesome. Me, I just can't get into a Drew Barrymore film.
- Christine: Even though it is directed by my favorite horror director, John Carpenter, I don't dig killer cars.
- Maximum Overdrive: Don't watch this, it causes cancer. And it has killer cars (RE: Christine).
- Lawnmower Man: A Silly, garbled, mess of a film.
- Any TV series based on King's work including It, The Shining and Salem's Lot: As mentioned before, the prose is too dense to truly capture King's story — even if that story is spread across multiple parts.
- Dark Half: George Romero and Stephen King. You'd think that would be enough, wouldn't you?
The Cream of the Crop
- Apt Pupil: Bryan Singer's follow-up to The Usual Suspects pales in comparison but is still gripping. In it, a young boy becomes friends with a Nazi war criminal played by Ian McKellan and discovers what he's made of.
- The Shawshank Redemption: The best film about the human spirit ever made. Also the only time I've ever like Morgan Freeman in a film.
- Stand By Me: The ultimate boy's film. My dad and I could watch this together a million times in a row. Director Rob Reiner captures childhood wonderfully as well as the loss of innocence without being too heavy-handed.
- Misery: The best of the bunch. I've never wept from watching something painful happen to someone in real life or on film... except in this one. If you've seen it, you know. If not, I won't ruin it. Rob Reiner returned to direct Kathy Bates and James Caan in a story of an author whose car crash lands him in the house of his biggest fan. Following that, all Hell breaks loose.
Without making this way too long, I want to posit that King should be credited and commended for selling off the film rights of his short stories to independent film students for a dollar. His respect for those just starting out is commendable; the fact that he's contributing to the success of those who deserve to be noticed is great. Now if only one of them would make film versions of The Long Walk and The Breathing Method.