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 fired him and hired Mark L. Lester, who directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he admits that it just wasn't that scary. But it was something I needed to do at that time for my professional life.
Carpenter can at least express himself; he's in good company. Only a few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, No one has ever done it very well.
The other side of the story is that everyone has their own reasons for why one of the world's top authors has inspired so many mishaps and catastrophes. Most people agree that adapting Stephen King is a tough task. Even Stanley Kubrick's The Shining has its critics, especially King himself. His handful of successful feature-length films are the exception to the norm: Only a handful of them received favorable reviews.
The difficulty in enforcing King's 60-plus novels is the amount of effort and effort he puts into his work. Most of his longest works and most powerful casts cannot be described without many hours of screen time.
The new book, Fairy Tale, which is out on September 6th, is a useful glimpse into the exciting but harrowing difficulties of translating his work for a visual medium. In that single sentence, it is easy to imagine the effort it would take to bring such a vast story to life on screen with any integrity.
Stephen King isnt bound by established structures or audience expectations; hes made his imagination a reliable brand. Studios are understandably unable to get their fill of trying to capture some of what makes him so popular, though it must be noted that the ratio of well-liked to disapproved portrayals of King in film means they are also a glutton for punishment.
Making a single film from a book about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti's hugely successful Kings It adaptation) involves stripping off characters and plot points. It involves adopting a writing style that is very different from Kings', which often devotes entire chapters to characters or events that are irrelevant to the plot or tone of the film.
Kings first movies and the miniseries boom
Brian De Palma was the first director to direct a film based on Kings' writing. Carrie, his 1976 horror film, put him on the map, just as the book it adaptation drew attention within the film's $2 million budget. It was therefore surprising 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 changing the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It remains truly frightening. And it opened the door to the idea that King's best approach wasnt in film, where flop after flop Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift tarnished the stories that inspired them.
When capital-A Artists crossed the small screen, their work was often subjected to network manipulation or outright denial (Fishing With John and 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 show Golden Years, where Keith Szarabajka plays a janitor who is exposed to harmful chemicals and starts getting older, King wrote six adaptations of his work for 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 original 1999 production, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley.
What was the issue? Choices. None of the filmmakers who took a chance at Kings wrote any substantial prose. These early adaptations were made mostly to reproduce Kings concepts and narrative beats as faithfully as possible. It was important, then, to show every emotion as clearly as possible.
Then there were the special effects. Although some of the 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. Effects like the living topiary monsters in that miniseries showed their age seconds after they were released.
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 worst horror films from this 90s era The Stand end with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb, killing a demonic villain who looks a little too much like Jay Leno.
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on a King novella, was becoming a Mark Twain or Will Rogers-style fixture in America (he even wrote a syndicated article in Entertainment Weekly at the height of the Iraq War). At the same time, filmmakers could now lean into unapologetic loathing at every turn and win enthusiastic 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 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 big money for shows like House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale, where big-name actors appeared on television left and right. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence, etc.) seemed to be off limits, and writers rooms and casts became increasingly filled with people other than straight white men. What better time than now to give Stephen Kings' unsurpassed name recognition another appearance on the small screen?
In the 2000s, there were only a handful of King television series, all 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, again in theory, have been such a daunting task to replace Kings pre-Sopranos TV adaptations in the public consciousness.
King had previously written a number of new works begging for a prestige status. However, that new round of writing got off to a dismal, pedestrian start. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, financed by the Syfy network, which then was still called Sci-Fi, was funded by King. It portrayed and acted like any number of network TV series, with cheap synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly beautiful cinematography, a
Under the Dome was the next step, with CBS rapidly losing interest. That 2013 series gave up the huge novel of Kings and went down to the business of keeping it 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 was sahful to see it go.
Finding a footing
Hulus' 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, was completed in 2018, resulting in a superb Castle Rock, a kind of fanfiction open-world Stephen King tribute that makes as many appearances to his work as two seasons of television could handle.
The Mist was released for the first time in 2017 by Spike TV. The same year, Ally McBeal's production The Outsider was acquired by CBS All Access. Adrien Brody star in a 2021 remake of Jerusalems Lotcalled Chapelwaite, which premiered on Epix. Oscar-nominated director Pablo Larrain directed Liseys Story for Apple TV Plus.
Each of these new shows is stunning in its own way. Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey both excel at rendering skewed fear and resigned acceptance seeming to be real 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 a spooky spirit.
All of these programs are off the air, in their own ways. Liseys Story, The Stand, and The Mist were all canceled, despite great response. Even the most recent was 11.22.63, although it has remained hidden from the general public's discussion about great television. (That may be due to the sexual misconduct charges against James Franco.)
Castle Rock was undoubtedly given the go light on Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, which is quiet, brooding, and unsettling, characterized by long silences and attempts to rationalize the unintended. Throughout the film, Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt, Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, and Michael Pitt, each lead Julianne Moore and Michael Pitt to create postmodern sci-fi horror period films such as Salem, Penny Dread
The Stand, if anything, is 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's still a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added. It's one of those exercises that raises the question Did the creators have any personal or artistic motivation for wanting to do this in the first place?
Why did so few of these television adaptations succeed with all of this variety and talent? Modern designers have tried every method they can think of to solve the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and brutal violence you couldn't show on TV a few years ago.
The hokier King versions that were introduced by the early-90s TV miniseries boom have not received much attention. 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 theyve only learned how not to do what has been done before.
The Institute, the book he co-authored with his father, is being developed by Jack Bender, who is also developing The Talisman for Netflix. Even after decades of poor reviewing TV, producers still believe there is money to be made. Writers and directors still believe there are artistic routes not yet taken, in bringing King's voice to life on the small screen.
It takes more than a commanding tone and modern optics to replace people's initial impressions of these stories, or to draw in a new audience that most certainly knows Kings' name, but may not have seen his writing. Replacing Kings' prose with prestige-TV texture just removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King, and seeks out new voices to flesh out his plot lines.
But substituting Kings' voice with someone else's will likely disappoint viewers. And those who haven't seen his work and have negative associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. He's built an equal reputation as a creator whose work results in unmemorable or downright terrible media. And when there's so much of it, and none of it (saving the It films) has achieved breakout success, it's easier than ever to ignore the latest title rolling by.
More than that, television has evolved into a medium where other familiar 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 solid track record of producing a truly breakout King TV show or miniseries.
Were you ever in an age when familiarity and novelty were the two main competing media draws? On TV, 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. It is becoming increasingly clear that this isnt the right time to adapt King.
Part of the reason for this is that King series are developed in a stressful period when viewers are visibly seeking out comfort entertainment. The new batch of King series really hammer out the cruelty of his worlds, in ways that the earlier television versions couldt match. The opening massacre of Mr. Mercedes, a vampiric daughter's pleas to her father in Chapelwaite these things are played with such vivid dramatic weight that they are almost intolerable.
If you want to see Kings worlds for months at a time, it can be difficult. His stories of communities ruled by sociopaths, the bullies out to traumatize the weak, parents ruining 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 arent comfort food.
Still, his stories have been so popular for so long because he takes his viewers on incredible, well-crafted, heartbreaking journeys into darkness. Today's TV programs seem more suited than ever to his long, varied stories. Do the demands of a fickle audience and marketplace prevent the idea of a Stephen King TV show finding the kind of purchase producers have been aiming for since the 1979 Salems Lot miniseries? This should be the perfect time to experiment with