John Carpenter, the director of Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, admitted to 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 an adaptation of Kings Firestarter, but they dismissed 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 rest assured that he is in good company. Only a few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, No, no one has ever done it very well.
The fact that he is not the only one to claim otherwise is a given. Every person has their own explanation as to why one of the world's most famous writers has inspired so many dreadful episodes and catastrophes. However, most people agree that executing Stephen King successfully is a daunting task. Like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, there are a few agreed-upon classic King movies, but even that film has its critics, including King himself.
Part of the difficulty in constructing a film out of a King story is the amount of detail and character-building he so often puts into his work. Only 15 of his sixty-plus novels are less than 300 pages long. Most of them are from 600 pages to more than a thousand words. His longest works and most enormous casts cant be enunciated without many hours of screen time.
His newest novel, Fairy Tale, is a useful glimpse into the exciting but troubling difficulties of interpreting his work for a visual medium. In that single sentence, it's easy to envision the effort it would take to bring such a vast story 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 in place.
Stephen King isn't bound by established rules or audience expectations. His imagination has become a reliable name. Studios are undoubtedly unable to get their fill of trying to recreate certain aspects of what makes him so popular, although it must be noted that the ratio of well-liked to disapproved King on film means they are also recipients of punishment.
Making a single film out of a book about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti's brilliantly successful Kings It adaptation) requires drastic deletion of characters and plot points. And it requires adopting a writing style that is completely different from Kings', which often spends whole chapters on characters or events that are not essential to the work'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, boosted him onto the market, just as the novel it adapts evoked a overnight sensation of its author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget. It wasn't surprising then that Warner Bros. purchased the rights to Kings Salems Lot with the intention of making it a feature film.
CBS took risks with the story, merging characters and transforming the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It is still extremely terrifying. And it opened the door to the idea that King's best approach wasnt on film, where flop after flop Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift tarnished the stories that inspired them.
When capital-A Artists made the jump to the small screen, it was often subjected to network manipulation 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.
Golden Years, a 1991 limited CBS series, in which Keith Szarabajka plays a janitor who is exposed to harmful chemicals, was released on the small screen (ABC, specifically) in two-to four-episode installments. Tommy Lee Wallaces It, John Powers The Tommyknockers, Tom Hollands The Langoliers, and Jimmy Garris The Stand all tried to capture as much of the novels' enormity as possible. King personally scripted a horrific 1999 production
No choices. All of the early Kings adaptations were done with small spherical lenses in 1.33:1, a deliberate box-shaped aspect ratio that became the norm when shooting on television. And yet, all of them were visually lifeless, dramatically inert, and far too literal attempts to recreate the narrative basics in a different medium.
Then there were the special effects. Though some of these early adaptations have fantastic practical effects (the best is found in Wallaces It, in which Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown takes on bizarre shapes and sizes thanks to the effects team), theyre mostly marred by early CGI that wasnt ready for primetime. Effects like the living topiary monsters in that miniseries showed their age seconds after they were released. 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 gentler stories with an eye toward winning awards. Even some of the 1990s horror films The Stand, which ends with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb, looks a bit too much like Jay Leno.
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on a book by King, was transforming how horror films were presented in America, just as Mark Twain or Will Rogers was popular (he even had a syndicated column in Entertainment Weekly at the height of the Iraq War). At the same time, filmmakers could now lean into unapologetic sadness at every turn and get great reviews in the process.
Shows like Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and AMC, along with literary direction, superlative performances, and cameras shooting in larger aspect ratios, gave television a more cinematic feel and feel. Soon, every network had its own prestige show: The West Wing, Hannibal, and Friday Night Lights on CBS. And then, the streamers.
Netflix and Hulu paid huge sums for shows like House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale, whereby big-name talent was being attracted, right and left. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) seemed to be off limits, and writers' rooms and casts became more populated with people other than straight white men. What better time than now to give Stephen Kings his unmatched name recognition?
In the 2000s, there were only a handful of King TV commercials, mostly 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 difficult task to bring King pre-Sopranos TV adaptations to life, as those earlier ones were sown by a vocal fandom.
King had also created a number of new works begging for the prestige award. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, wasfinanced by the Syfy network, which then remained known as Sci-Fi. It was funded by a relatively small network, with cheap synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly beautiful cinematography, quirky character, and little ambition.
Under the Dome was the next step, establishing and rapidly losing interest. That 2013 series gave up the story from Kings' massive novel and went back to the task of keeping a weekly program going by packing the narrative with dramatic cul-de-sacs and minimal plotting. It was canceled after three seasons. King told The New York Times that he wasnt surprised to see it go.
Finding a footing
The popularity of King-based television didnt begin in earnest until Hulus' beautiful 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. In 2018, the streamer also launched Castle Rock, a kind of fanfiction open-world Stephen King tribute stuffed with as many references to his work as two seasons of television could handle.
The Mist was released for the first time in 2017. The same year, Ally McBeal's production of The Outsider was sold to CBS All Access. Adrien Brody starred in a 2021 adaptation of Jerusalems Lotcalled Chapelwaite, which premiered on Epix. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Pablo Larrain directed Liseys Story for Apple TV Plus.
Each of these new series is incredible in its own way. Castle Rock's Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey do fantastic work bringing out resentful skepticism and resigned acceptance as impossible things happen to them. The story of Chapelwaite is beautifully designed and photographed, and the cast imbues it with a brooding terror.
Even though 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 one of these series that performed admirably was 11.22.63, but it has remained out of discussion about great TV, however you may define it. (That may be due to the sexual misconduct charges against James Franco.)
Castle Rock was clearly approved for Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, although it takes a different tack than that series. Its quiet, brooding, and unsettling, accompanied by long silences and frantic pain, by Co-Leads Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt. Unlike its other horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, Chapelwaite goes all out with handsome re-creation.
The Stand, if anything, was too conventional. It technically modernizes the novel and the preceding miniseries with a more diverse cast, culturally relevant dialogue, and accidental COVID echoes, but its still just a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added. Its one of those exercises that questions whether or not the creators had any personal or artistic motivation to write this in the first place?
Why did so few of these films succeed in terms of variety and talent? Modern creators have tried every trick they can think of to solve the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar music, and nasty violence you couldnt show on television a few years ago.
The more hokey King that was brought on by the early-90s TV miniseries boom, but there has been little interest in the soberer, more provocative 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. They have only figured out how not to do what has previously been done.
The Institute, a book he co-authored with his father, is being developed by Jack Bender, who is producing and directing The Duffer brothers, who have created and directed Much of Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome. Even after decades of poorly reviewed TV, producers still think there are avenues to take in bringing King's voice to TV.
Replacing Kings prose with prestige-TV texture removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King and explores new perspectives to convey his plot points.
Those who havent read Kings' work and have negative associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. For all his reputation as a reliable and enjoyable author, he has also built an equal reputation as a writer who produces undignified or downright depraved media. And when so much of it (except the It films) hasn't achieved breakout success, it's easier than ever to overlook the latest title.
Although not all TV series or miniseries have a strong reputation for generating distinctive, original content, there are others who are less interested in copying someone else's work.
Were we in a time when familiarity and novelty are the two most dominant media draws? On television, the most-watched shows are ten Dick Wolf series, three different Yellowstone variations, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can imagine, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce.
The latest King series strikes home the cruelty of his worlds in ways that the 90s soft television visions could not match. The first child massacre in The Mist, a vampiric daughter's pleas to her fallen father in Chapelwaite These scenes are played with such vivid dramatic power that they are almost intolerable.
If you want to spend any time in Kings worlds for months at a time, or for 10 hours at a time if you're bingeing, it's a pain. Worlds of agony come to an end when people suffer from psychopaths, or worse, they continue to be awful on purpose.
Still, his books have remained popular for so long because they take his readers on breathtaking, well-told, dark adventures. Today, TV productions seem better suited than ever before to his varied, varied opinions. Does a Stephen King TV show find its way back in media, a mystery as deep and complex as any he ever wrote?