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: Christine, which he had only seen since the 1983 film. Universal Studios had hired Carpenter to direct a remake of Kings Firestarter, but they dismissed him and hired Mark L. Lester, who directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he admits that it was simply not that frightening. But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.
Carpenter can still convalesce himself: he's in good company. Only a few filmmakers have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, Nope, no one has ever done it very well.
Everybody has their own reasons for the fact that one of the world's top authors has inspired so many duds and catastrophes, but most everyone agrees that transforming Stephen King to perfection is a feat beyond repair. Even King's most popular films, like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, have their flaws, including King's.
Part of the difficulty in constructing a film from a King story is the amount of detail and character-building he puts into it so often. Only 15 of the 60-plus novels he has written or co-authored are less than 300 pages long. Most of them are between 600 and a thousand words. His longest works and most powerful casts cant be enunciated without many hours of screen time.
The Fairy Tale, his latest novel, is a valuable insight into the challenging but rewarding tasks involved in bringing his work to life on screen with any integrity. Kings books create and destroy communities, or even entire worlds, in order to demonstrate how precarious American society is inherently balanced.
Stephen King isnt bound by established structures or audience expectations; he has forged a solid identity. Studios are understandably unable to get their fill of trying to recreate some of what makes him so popular, though it must be said that the ratio of well-liked to disgruntled King in films means they are also hungry 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 successful Kings It adaptation) requires cutting out characters and plot points. And it requires adopting a style that is quite different from Kings', which often devotes entire chapters to characters or events that are not necessary to the plot or tone of the movie.
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, put him on the map, just as the book it adapts drew attention overnight for its author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget in the mid-70s. Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Kings Salems Lot with the intention of turning it into a feature film. It was later handed over to their television division, where two dozen named characters would have
CBS took risks with the book, merging characters and changing the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It's still frightening. It opened the door to the idea that King's greatest approach wasn't in film; flop after flop, Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift all tarnished the stories that inspired them.
When capital-A Artists made the move to the small screen, their work was often subjected to network manipulation (Twin Peaks) or complete cancellation (Fishing With John, The Dana Carvey Show) in order to please TV studio executives as concerned about ratings and censorship as with the relative quality of the product.
On 1991's limited CBS series Golden Years, King Szarabajka plays a janitor who gets older due to toxic chemicals. All tried to capture as much of King's work as possible on the small screen (ABC, specifically) in two-to-four-episode installments. King personally scripted a terrible remake of The Shining (also directed by Garris) and a stunning 1999 production, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley.
No one of the early Kings writers brought any substantial skill to the job, although most of them were shot with small spherical lenses in 1.33:1, a deliberately box-shaped aspect ratio when shooting on television. All of these miniseries seemed to be designed to convey every emotion as plainly as possible.
And 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 enormous 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 to Blu-ray.
Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all took the opposite tack, showing what happens when directors adapt the horror writers gentler stories with an eye toward winning awards. Even some of the older films, such as The Stand, end with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb until it explodes, killing a demonic villain who looks a little too much like Jay Leno.
The arrival of prestige TV
The mist, based on a Kings novel, was reshaping how horror films were presented in the United States. At the same time, mass media was becoming more and more popular.
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; David Mamets The Unit.
Netflix and Hulu paid huge money for shows like House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale, where big-name actors appeared on TV left and right. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) seemed to be off limits, and writers' rooms and casts became more crowded with people other than straight white men. What better time than now to give Stephen Kings' unrivaled name recognition another go on the small screen?
In the 2000s, there were only a few King television adaptations, most directed by Baxley or Mikael Salomon, who remade Salems Lot for TNT in 2004. That series still told the Kings story as it was written, with little style to get in the way. It shouldnt have been such a burden on society to replace Kings pre-Sopranos TV adaptations, again in theory.
King had also written a number of new works begging for the prestige status. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, was funded by the Syfy network, which then was known as Sci-Fi, and it ran for five seasons. It ran like any other network TV series, with decent synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly handsome cinematography, bland characters, and little ambition.
Under the Dome was created by CBS and quickly became a distraction from it. That 2013 series left the Kings massive novel and got down to the business of keeping a weekly program going through the use of dramatic cul-de-sacs and basic plotting. It was canceled after three seasons. King told The New York Times that he wasn't disappointed to see it go.
Finding a footing
The prestige-ification of King-based television didnt start in earnest until Hulus' stunning 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. In 2018, the streamer also released Castle Rock, a kind of open-world Stephen King tribute stuffed with as many references to his work as two seasons of TV could handle.
The Mist was released for the first time in 2017, and ally McBeal's work was later acquired by CBS All Access. Adrien Brody directed a 2021 version of Jerusalems Lotcalled Chapelwaite for Apple TV Plus.
Each of these new shows is exceptional in its own way. Castle Rock's Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey both excel at making skepticism and resigned acceptance seem achingly real as impossible things happen to them. The character of Chapelwaite is beautifully designed and photographed, and the cast imbues its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with a brooding spirit. Liseys Story is one more part of Larrains' collection of time-jumping decade
Even though none of these series ever ran on regular old network TV, they were all off the air, in their own ways. Liseys Story, The Stand, and The Mist were all canceled, despite great response. Even so, the only one of these series that performed admirably was 11.22.63, but it has remained unreported throughout the history of great television. (That may be due to the sexual misconduct allegations against James Franco.)
The horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, all of which have been approved by the Supreme Court, are quiet, brooding, and unsettling, with long silences and frantic attempts to rationalize the unirrational. Chapelwaite, like its fellow horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, goes all out in favor of handsome re-creation.
The Stand, as a whole, was too conventional. It technically modernizes the novel and the subsequent miniseries, but it's still a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added, which leaves one wondering if the creators had any legitimate artistic reason for doing this in the first place? It's a case of trying to imagine that someone saw James Marsden and Greg Kinnear in the roles of the saviors of mankind, or Eddie Murphy-in-the-Klobs-
Why did so few of these shows succeed with all this variety and talent? Modern designers have tried every technique they can think of to solve the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, prestigious and well-established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and brutality you couldn't show on television a few years ago. But nobody has managed to craft a Stephen King TV adaptation that could be described as a classic or compete with his books' success and fame.
The earlier, more sappy versions of King were seen by the early-90s television miniseries boom, but there hasn't been much interest in the latter, nor did anyone express enough enthusiasm for the soberer, more experimental versions. Every few years, a group of artists and producers examine the last bunch of adaptations and attempts to solve their problems by doing the opposite. But in doing so, they have only figured out how not to do what has been done before.
After the most recent round of cancellations, producers continue to think there are avenues not yet taken to make King's voice heard on television. The Duffer brothers, who co-authored much of Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome, are developing The Institute, which will be produced by Steven Spielberg and Steven Spielberg.
What's becoming clear is that it takes more than a commanding voice and modern optics to replace people's first impressions of these stories, or to draw in a new audience that almost certainly knows Kings name, but may not have seen his work. Replacing Kings prose with prestige-TV texture just removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King, and introduces fresh voices to deliver his plot lines.
Fans will be disappointed if they replace the Kings voice with something else. And those who haven't seen his work and already have positive associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. For all his reputation as a reliable, enjoyable author, he has built an equal reputation as a creator of unmemorable or downright terrible media. And when so much of it (saving the It films) has achieved breakout success, it's easier than ever to overlook the latest title rolling by.
More than that, TV has become a medium where other familiar names dominate, such as David Simon, Vince Gilligan, or Shonda Rhimes, who are well-known for creating their own brands and audiences, but who are less interested in adapting someone elses work, especially when almost no one has a proven record of producing a truly breakout King TV show or miniseries.
Were we in a time when familiarity and novelty are the two largest competing media draws? On television, the most-watched shows are ten Dick Wolf episodes, three new Yellowstone varieties, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can think of, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce. Now that the prestige-TV machinery has tried every angle in giving people Kings prose, it increasingly looks this isnt the time to adapt King.
Part of that is because the King series is set in a stressful period where consumers are clearly seeking comfort entertainment. The latest generation of King series really hammer home the cruelty of his worlds, in ways that the earlier television versions of the 90s couldnt match. The opening massacre of Mr. Mercedes, the many innocents slaughtered in The Mist, and a vampiric daughters pleas to her father in Chapelwaite all play with such vivid dramatic weight that they are almost intolerable.
If you are a fan of King movies, it can be difficult to find time in his worlds at all. His stories of sociopaths, parents torturing their children for adulthood, and the sacrifice of kind people to prove that some things are worth saving are all very good.
Despite the fact that his books have been popular for so long, almost everyone who has tried them has dropped out. Is it possible that today's television programs would be better suited than ever to the demands of his long-winded stories? Maybe the next adaptations will uncover the mysterious truth that Stephen King himself once held.