John Carpenter, the director of Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, told SFX Magazine that he had only made one film that he didn't like: Christine, the 1983 film he'd only directed because to Stephen King. Universal Studios had hired Carpenter to direct a remake of Kings Firestarter, but they fired him and hired Mark L. Lester, who directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he says the process just wasn't that frightening. However, it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.
Still, 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 problem with Stephen King isn't just his opinion; everyone has their own reasons. Even Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which is a well-known film, has its detractors, most notable being King himself. His few successful feature-length films are the exception to the norm: Only a handful of them received widespread praise.
The difficulty of making a film out of a King story is the amount of detail and character-building he puts into his work. Of the 60-plus novels he has written or co-authored, only 15 are less than 300 pages long. Most of them range from 600 pages to over a thousand. His longest works and most powerful casts cant be enunciated without many hours of screen time.
The Fairy Tale, his newest novel, is a useful primer on the exciting but terrifying difficulties of translating his work for a visual medium. In that single sentence, it's easy to envision the effort it would take to bring such a broad story to life on screen with any integrity. King's books create and destroy communities, or even entire worlds, in order to demonstrate how precarious American society is.
Stephen King isnt bound by traditional structures or audience expectations. He has developed a trustworthy brand. Studios understandably cannot seem to get their fill of trying to capture some of what makes him so popular, although it must be said that the ratio of well-liked to disgruntled King on film means they are also gluttons for punishment.
Making a single film from a book about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti's massively successful Kings It adaptation) requires removing characters and plot points. It requires adopting a writing style that is completely different from Kings', which often devotes entire chapters to certain events or characters that are not essential to the plot or tone of the piece.
Kings first movies and the miniseries boom
Brian De Palma was the first filmmaker to direct a film based on Kings' writing. Carrie, his 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. So it was not surprising when Warner Bros. purchased the rights to Kings Salems Lot with the intention of turning it into a feature film in the mid-70s.
CBS took risks with the book, merging characters and changing the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It's still terrifying. It opened the door to the idea that King's best 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 tampering (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.
Golden Years, a 1991 limited CBS series, in which Keith Szarabajka plays a janitor who is exposed to toxic chemicals, was released for the small screen (ABC, specifically) in two to four episodes. King personally directed a terrible remake of The Shining (also directed by Garris) and a fantastic 1999 production, Storm of the Century, which was directed by Craig R. Baxley.
What caused the issue? Choices. None of the filmmakers who studied Kings wrote anything significant to the task. The early adaptations were just trying to reproduce Kings ideas and story beats as faithfully as possible. These miniature series all seemed to be small, since most of them seemed to be encouraged to pursue a broad performance style, to communicate every emotion as clearly as possible.
Then there were the special effects. While some of the early adaptations have useful practical effects (the best is found in Wallaces It, in which Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown takes on massive 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 onto Blu-ray.
Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all took the opposite approach, displaying how much less controlled, quiet scenes can be achieved when directors adapt the horror stories with an eye toward winning awards. Even some of the worst horror films from the 1990s era Misery, The Dark Half, and Needful Things have quite a bit more controlled, quiet scenes than The Stand, which ends with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb until it detonates, killing
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on a book by King, was becoming a Mark Twain or Will Rogers-style fixture in America (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, The Wire, and Deadwood were redefining what could be shown on television. Literary writing, patient direction, and cameras shooting in higher aspect ratios all gave television a cinematic feel and feel. Soon, every network had its own prestige show: Mad Men, The Americans, and Friday Night Lights on CBS; David Mamets The Unit on CBS.
Netflix and Hulu paid out huge sums for programming like House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale. Big-name talent was being attracted, and Oscar-winning actors began appearing on TV left and right. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) was no longer off limits, and writers rooms and casts became filled with people other than straight white men. What better time than now to give Stephen Kings' unsurpassed name recognition a second chance on the small screen?
In the 2000s, there were only a handful of King products on television, most of which were directed by Baxley or Mikael Salomon, who remade Salems Lot for TNT in 2004. That series covered the Kings story as it was written, with little style to get in the way. It shouldnt have been so hard in theory, again, that the earlier versions were so popular that they might criticize their favorite shows for being ruined.
King had written a number of new works that demanded a high prestige level. But that new round of writing took off to a rocky, pedestrian start. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, was funded by the Syfy network, which then referred to as Sci-Fi, with cheap synth music and not-all-there special effects, flatly beautiful cinematography, a slew of actors, and little ambition.
CBS was the next company to begin a series called Under the Dome, but it quickly became lost interest. The 2013 series abandoned Kings' vast novel and went back to the business of keeping a weekly program going by packing the narrative with dramatic cul-de-sacs and basic plotting. It was canceled after three seasons, and King told the New York Times that he was ecstatic to see it go.
Finding a footing
The prestige-ification of King-based television did not start 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 open-world Stephen King tribute stuffed with as many references to his work as two seasons of TV could handle.
The Mist was launched by Spike TV for a very expensive season in 2017. The same year, Ally McBeal's film The Outsider was 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 excel at portraying sarcastic disbelief and resigned acceptance as impossible things happen to them. Chapelwaite is beautifully designed and photographed, and its cast infuses its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with mournful serenity.
Even though none of these series ever ran on regular old network television, they all went off the air, in their own ways. Liseys Story, The Stand, and The Mist were all canceled, despite great response. Even the one of these series that did fairly well was 11.22.63, although it has remained hidden in discussions about excellent television, whatever the reason may be.
Castle Rock was given the go light on Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, although it takes a different approach than that. Its quiet, brooding, and unsettling, dripping with postmodern cool and real, scorching pain, thanks to co-leads Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt. Chapelwaite, like its other horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror,goes all in on handsome re-
The Stand, if anything, was too conventional. It technically modernizes Kings' foundational epic story 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, and its one of those exercises that enlightens nobody.
Why did so few of these series succeed in rethinking Stephen King? Modern producers have thrown every advantage they can think of: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and nasty violence you couldnt show on television a few years ago. No one has managed to develop a Stephen King TV adaptation that could be described as a classic or compete with his books' success and reputation.
The earlier, less amusing versions of King that were introduced by the early-90s TV miniseries boom have not sparked much interest in the later, more evocative versions. A group of artists and producers examines the last set of adaptations and attempts to resolve their problems by doing the opposite. But in doing so, theyve only figured out how not to do what was done previously.
The Institute, the book he co-authored with his father, is being developed for Netflix. Even after the last round of cancellations, producers still believe there are avenues to take to portray King on the small screen.
It takes more than a commanding voice and modern optics to replace people's memories of the first versions of these stories, or to draw in a new audience that almost certainly knows Kings' name, but may not have read his work. Replacing Kings prose with prestige-TV texture just removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King, and employs new voices to convey his plot lines.
The choice of somebody else's voice will inevitably disappoint fans. And those who havent seen his work yet and are not already familiar with it may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. He has also built an equal reputation as a writer whose work results in unmemorable or downright depressing media. When there is so much of it, and none of it (except the It films) has achieved breakout success, it's easier than ever to overlook the latest title rolling by.
More than that, television has become a medium where other familiar names dominate, such as David Simon, Vince Gilligan, or Shonda Rhimes, who are well-known for their successful, individual, and varied shows and audiences. These kind of independent 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 record of producing truly groundbreaking King TV shows or miniseries.
Were we not in an age where familiarity and novelty are the two biggest competing media draws? On TV, the most-watched shows are ten Dick Wolf series, three new Yellowstone varieties, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can imagine, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce.
Part of the reason for this is because we were also living in a stressful time when consumers are clearly seeking out comfort entertainment. The latest King series really hammer home the cruelty of his worlds, in ways that the earlier TV versions of the 1990s 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 these things are played with such vivid dramatic weight 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, it's tough. His tales 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 true. Many of his stories end on a note of hope or relief.
Despite the fact that his books have been so popular for so long, many who have tried have dropped out. Is it possible that today's television programs are better suited than ever to his long and winding stories? Perhaps the next adaptations will unravel the curse of Stephen King in media, which was once as dense and thorny as anyone he ever wrote.