John Carpenter, the director of Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, told SFX Magazine that he had only made one film he didnt like, the 1983s Christine. It was his only Stephen King adaptation. Universal Studios had hired Carpenter to direct a remake of Kings Firestarter, but they resigned him and hired Mark L. Lester, who directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he says it just wasn't that scary. It was something I needed to do at the time for my career.
Carpenter can still confide in himself: He's in good company. Few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, Nope, no one has ever done it very well.
Then again, everyone has their reasons for why one of the world's bestselling authors has inspired so many duds and catastrophes. But even Stanley Kubricks' The Shining, which has its critics, is a herculean task. King's handful of hit adaptations are the exception to the norm: his work has been turned into theatrical feature-length films more than 50 times.
The difficulty in making a film from a King story is the volume of detail and character-building that he so often invests in. Only 15 of his 60-plus novels are less than 300 pages long. Most of them include a large cast of actors who cant be explained without much screen time.
The newest book, Fairy Tale, is a useful window into the exciting but terrible challenges of bringing his work to life in a visual medium. In that single sentence, it is easy to imagine the effort it would take to bring such a broad story to life on screen with any integrity. In order to demonstrate how precarious American society is in place, Kings books have become a fixture in American film and television.
Stephen King isnt bound by established rules or audience expectations. He has molded his imagination into a trustworthy brand. Studios understandably cannot seem to get their fill of trying to capture some of what makes him so popular, though it must be said that the ratio of well-liked to disapproved takes on King on film means they are also gluttons for punishment.
Making a single film out of a book about all of American life (or even two, as in the case of Andy Muschietti's enormously profitable Kings It adaptation) means eliminating characters and plot points. It also means adopting a style that is completely different from Kings', which spends time or energy on events that are not essential to the story's theme and tone.
Kings first movies and the miniseries boom
Brian De Palma was the first filmmaker to direct a film based on Kings' writing. Carrie, a 1976 horror film, piqued his interest, as the text it adapts made an overnight sensation for its author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget, making it a surprise purchase.
CBS took risks with the narrative, merging characters and transforming the evil vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It's also opened the door to the notion that King's greatest approach wasn't in film, where flop after flop Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift tarnished the stories that inspired them.
When capital-A Artists made the transition to the small screen, their work was often subjected to network manipulation or outright cancellation (Fishing With John, The Dana Carvey Show) when it failed to attract an audience. That meant a much safer class of director would have to tackle Kings work.
Golden Years, a 1991 limited CBS series, in which Keith Szarabajka plays a janitor who is exposed to harmful chemicals, was released for the public interest in the United Kingdom. Among them, Tommy Lee Wallaces The Shining, Tom Hollands The Langoliers, andMick Garris The Stand, King personally directed a terrible 1999 production, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley.
Which part of the problem were you tackling? Choices. None of the early Kings adaptations included any substantial style, aside from the fact that they were shot with small spherical lenses in 1.33:1, a deliberately box-shaped aspect ratio when shooting on television.
Then there were the special effects. Though some of these early adaptations have interesting practical effects (the best are found in Wallaces It, in which Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown takes on gigantic shapes and sizes thanks to the effects team), theyre mostly marred by early CGI that wasnt ready for primetime. Only The Stand and It have made it on Blu-ray.
Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all adopted a different strategy, incorporating less hushed scenes than The Stand, which concludes with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb until it detonates, killing a demonic figure who appears a little too much like Jay Leno.
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on a Kings novel, was becoming a Mark Twain or Will Rogers-style publication in America. The mist was a major shift in how horror films were presented in the United States.
Shows like Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood were redefining what could be shown on television. Literary writing, patient direction, and cameras shooting in wider aspect ratios all gave television a cinematic feel and feel. Soon, every network had its own prestige show: The West Wing, Hannibal, and Friday Night Lights on CBS; and David Mamets The Unit.
Netflix and Hulu paid huge sums for series like House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale, revealing that big-name talent was being attracted. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) was no longer outright prohibited, and writers rooms and casts were finally enlisted. Who could have proposed that Stephen Kings might get a second chance on the small screen?
In the 2000s, King produced only a handful of TV series, some directed by Baxley or Mikael Salomon, who remade Salems Lot for TNT in 2004. That series told the Kings story as it was written, with little style to get in the way. It shouldnt have been such a huge task, again in theory, to replace Kings pre-Sopranos TV adaptations in the public consciousness.
King had also written a number of new works for the prestige award. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, was funded by the Syfy network, which was then called Sci-Fi, but it was funded by a weaker, less ambitious network television series.
CBS followed with Under the Dome, a groundbreaking series that quickly lost interest in the King novel, and went back to the business of keeping a weekly program going by packing the narrative with dramatic cul-de-sacs and rudimentary plotting. After three seasons, King told the New York Times that he wasnt disappointed to see it go.
Finding a footing
Hulus' fanciful 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who goes back in time to protest the Kennedy assassination, was released in 2018, as well as a fine open-world Stephen King tribute that includes as many references to his work as two seasons of television could accommodate.
The Mist was launched for a very expensive season in 2017. In 2017, Ally McBeal's creator David E. Kelley created a Mr. Mercedes adaptation for the now-defunct Audience Network. The Outsider is now available on CBS All Access. Adrien Brody star in a 2021 adaptation of Jerusalems Lotcalled Chapelwaite, which was distributed on Epix. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Pablo Larrain directed Liseys Story for Apple TV Plus.
Each of these new series is exceptional in its own way. Castle Rock's Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey excel at rendering mute optimism and resigned acceptance seemingly real as impossible things befall them. Like its protagonist, Brendan Gleeson, and his neighbor, Holland Taylor, the cast imbues its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with a dark sadness.
Even if none of these programs ever ran on regular old network television, they were all off the air, in their own ways. Liseys Story, The Stand, and The Mist were all canceled, despite great response. The only other series that fared well was 11.22.63, but it has remained a popular topic of discussion, whatever the reason may be.
Castle Rock was granted the privilege of re-creating Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, though it has a different arc than that of the previous series: it's quiet, brooding, and unsettling, dripping with postmodern cool and real, scorching pain, courtesy of co-leads Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt. Chapelwaite, like its fellow horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror
The Stand, if anything, was too conventional. It technically modernizes the novel and the subsequent miniseries with a more diverse cast, culturally relevant dialogue, and accidental COVID echoes, but it is still just a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added. It's one of those exercises that asks whether the creators had any personal or artistic reason to want to do this in the first place?
Why did so few of these television adaptations succeed with all of this variety and talent? Modern artists have tried every trick they can think of to address the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and brutal violence you couldnt get on television a few years ago.
The early-90s TV miniseries boom has boosted interest in the hokier versions of King, but there hasn't been much interest in the soberer, more experimental versions. Every few years, a group of artists and producers examines the last bunch of adaptations and attempts to remedy their problems by doing the opposite. But theyve only discovered how not to do what has been done before.
Even after the last round of cancellations, producers still think there are still ways to go in making King's voice heard on television. The Duffer brothers, who co-authored much of Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome, are developing a series called The Institute. With Steven Spielberg and Stranger Things' creators, there are still artistic routes to be taken in making King's voice on the small screen.
Replacing Kings prose with prestige-TV texture removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King and seeks out new voices to flesh out his plot points.
Those who haven't read Kings' work and don't already have positive associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. For all his reputation as a reliable, enjoyable author, he's established an equal reputation as a creator of unmemorable or downright deplorable media. And when so much is done (saving the It films), it's easier than ever to ignore the next one rolling by.
In fact, television has evolved into a medium where other well-known names dominate, such as David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Shonda Rhimes, who are well-known for generating successful, unconventional, and unusual content. These kinds of auteur showrunners, who have built their own brands and audiences, have less interest in adapting someone elses work, especially when almost no one has a proven track record of creating a truly groundbreaking King TV show or miniseries.
Were we to live in a time when familiarity and novelty are the two most powerful competing media attractions? On TV, the most-watched shows are ten Dick Wolf shows, a Game of Thrones spinoff, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can think of, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce. It increasingly looks this isnt the time to adapt King.
Part of the reason for that is that King series are set in a stressful age where audiences are clearly looking for comfort entertainment. The latest King series really hammer home the cruelty of his worlds in ways that the earlier television versions could not match. The opening massacre of Mr. Mercedes, the many innocents slaughtered in The Mist, and a vampiric daughters pleads to her crestfallen father in Chapelwaite all have a powerful dramatic impact that they are almost intolerable.
If you're going to watch Kingworlds for months at a time, it's a lot of work. His stories of people being harmed by sociopaths, parents torturing their children for adulthood, and the sacrifice of kind people to prove that some things are worth saving are all good. King stories often conclude on a note of hope or relief, but they aren't comfort food.
Still, his short stories have remained popular for so long because they take his viewers on breathlessly quiet, well-realized dark journeys. And today's television productions are better suited than ever to his long and varied tales. However, almost everyone who has tried has dropped out. Does a Stephen King TV show exist in a position to find the kind of purchase producers have sought for since the 1979 Salems Lot miniseries? Perhaps the next adaptations will finally unravel the curse of Stephen King in media, which was