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, from 1983. 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, and Carpenter directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he admits that it wasnt very frightening. But it was something I needed to do at that time for my professional career.
Carpenter can comfort himself: He's in good company. Only a few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to film. As Carpenter put it to SFX, Nope, no one has ever done it very well.
Everybody has their reasons as to why one of the worlds bestselling authors has inspired so many duds and catastrophes. But nearly everyone agrees that reimagining Stephen King is a daunting task. Even King's most famous films have their critics, including his own: More than 50 times, his work has been turned into theatrical feature films.
The difficulty in composing a film out of a King story is the level of detail and character-building that he so often puts into his work. Only 15 of his 60-plus novels are less than 300 pages long, most of them ranging from 600 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 glimpse into the challenging but devastating challenges of translating his work for visual media. In that single sentence, one can imagine the effort it would take to bring such a huge undertaking to film and television in order to demonstrate how fragile so much of American civilization is.
Stephen King has developed a solid brand through his imagination. 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 in film means they are also adept at punishment.
Making a single film out of a book about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti's massively successful Kings It adaptation) means stripping off characters and plot points. And it means adopting a writing style that is quite different from Kings', which often devotes whole chapters to themes or events that aren't relevant to the narrative and tone of the film.
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 novel it adapts sparked an overnight sensation for the author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget, so it was no surprise that Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Kings Salems Lot in the mid-70s, with the intention of turning it into a feature film.
CBS took risks with the narrative, merging characters and changing the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It remains haunting. And it opened the door to the idea that King's best approach wasnt in films, where flop after flop Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift tarnished the narratives 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) 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 got his first taste of TV writing: six adaptations of Kings' work were shown on television (ABC, specifically) in two-to-four-episode installments. A terrible remake of The Shining was created by King personally, as well as a new 1999 production, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley.
What was the problem with Kings writing? Choices. These early adaptations focused on reproducing Kings concepts and narrative beats as accurately as possible, utilizing a deliberately box-shaped aspect ratio when shooting on television. Most of the actors appear to have been encouraged to follow a broad performance to convey every emotion as clearly as possible.
And then there were the special effects. Although some of the early adaptations have useful practical effects (the best are 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 to Blu-ray.
Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all took the opposite approach, showing how good the horror writers give them when it comes to winning awards. Even The Stand, which ends with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb until it explodes, has a different effect.
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on a King novel, was reshaping how horror films were presented in America. At the same time, the mass media was becoming more and more influential.
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 more cinematic appearance 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 amounts for series 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 other people. The possibilities are endless. Now is the time to give Stephen Kings' unrivalled name recognition another chance on the small screen?
In the 2000s, there were only a few King films on TV, mostly directed by Baxley or Mikael Salomon, who remade Salems Lot for TNT in 2004. That series provided little style to get in the way of the Kings story, yet they still served as the show as it was written, despite their minor flaws. It shouldnt have been such a burden on the public, again in theory, to replace Kings pre-Sopranos TV adaptations with passionate fandom.
King had also written a number of new works for the prestige prize. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, was funded by the Syfy network, which then swore to sell the series. It sported and acted much like any number of network TV series, with cheap synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly beautiful cinematography, and little ambition.
Under the Dome was the next step, with CBS quickly losing interest. That 2013 series abandoned the Kings massive 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. It was canceled after three seasons. King told The New York Times that he wasn't sad to see it go.
Finding a footing
Hulus' beautiful 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who goes back in time to intervene in the Kennedy assassination, was released in 2018, as well as the excellent Castle Rock, a kind of fanfiction open-world Stephen King tribute that includes as many references to his work as two seasons of television could fit.
The Mist was launched for a very expensive season in 2017 on Spike TV. Ally McBeal's creation The Outsider was sold on CBS All Access in 2020. Adrien Brody directed the 2021 film Liseys Story for Apple TV Plus.
Each of these new series is unique in its own way. Castle Rock's Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey both make wonderful contributions, making muttered skepticism and resigned acceptance seem achingly real as impossible things happen to them. Brendan Gleeson plays the protagonist, and his neighbor, Holland Taylor, plays the villain. Chapelwaite is beautiful and photographed, and its cast imbues its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with a tingling sorrow.
Even though none of these series ever ran on regular old network television, theyre all off the air, in their differing ways. Liseys Story, The Stand, and The Mist were all canceled, despite great response. Even that, Mr. Mercedes, The Outsider, and Castle Rock were all canceled, despite great praise.
Castle Rock was unanimously approved for Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, although it has a different tone, characterized by long silences and long attempts to rationalize the unthinkable. Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt lead the way, but the film, like its other horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, goes all out with sweet procedural elements.
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 its still just a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added. Its one of those exercises that raises the question Did the creators have any personal or artistic reason for wantingto do this in the first place? It was just enough like the old Stand,and just enough of a departure, that nobody
Why did so few of these programs succeed in terms of variety and talent? Modern producers have thrown everything they can think of at the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and horrific violence that you couldnt see on television a few years ago. However, nobody has managed to make a Stephen King TV adaptation that could be described as a classic or compete with his books' success and fame.
The younger, more sappy King versions were introduced by the early-90s TV miniseries boom, but there was not enough interest in the more savage, 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. However, theyve only figured out how not to do what has previously been done.
Even after the most recent round of cancellations, producers still believe there are avenues to pursue in bringing King's voice to TV. The Institute is a series based on King's 2019 novel The Institute, co-written with his dad. The Duffer brothers are developing The Talisman for Netflix, led by Steven Spielberg and others.
Whats become clear is that it takes more than a commanding voice and modern optics to replace peoples 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 books. Using prestige-TV texture only removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King and seeks out new voices to convey his plot points.
Those who haven't seen Kings' work and dont 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 developed an equally good reputation as a writer whose work results in unmemorable or downright choppy media. And when so much of it (saving the It films) has failed, it's easier than ever to ignore the latest title rolling by.
Television has evolved into a medium where other well-known names dominate, such as David Simon, Vince Gilligan, or Shonda Rhimes, who are well-known for establishing their own brands and audiences, but who are less interested in copying someone elses work, especially when virtually no one has a proven record of producing a truly outstanding King TV show or miniseries.
Were we to live in an age where familiarity and novelty are the two most dominant media draws? On TV, the most-watched programs are ten Dick Wolf series, a Game of Thrones spinoff, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can think of, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as television can produce. It increasingly appears this just isnt the appropriate time to adapt King.
Part of the reason for this is that the recent King series we have seen in a stressful period where audiences are visibly seeking comfort entertainment. It now hurts when people are suffering or dying in King-inspired stories. The opening massacre of Mr. Mercedes, the many innocents slaughtered in Chapelwaite, and a vampiric daughters pleas to her crestfallen father in Chapelwaite
If you want to experience Kings worlds for months at a time, or for 10 hours at a time if you're bingeing, it's difficult. Worlds of torment include sociopaths, parents torturing their children for adulthood, and the sacrificing of kind people to demonstrate that some things are worth saving. King stories often conclude on a note of hope or relief, but they arent comfort food.
Still, his short stories have remained so popular for so long because they take their attention on such unsettling, well-realized journeys into darkness. Today, television productions are more suited than ever to his varied and varied stories. Is there any reason to believe that future adaptations will finally eradicate Stephen King's curse in media, which is as dense and troublesome as any of him himself ever wrote?