John Carpenter, the director of Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, told SFX Magazine that he had only made one film that 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 rehired him and hired Mark L. Lester, who directed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he says, the experience was just unbearable. However, it was something I needed to do at that time for my professional career.
Carpenter can still be content. He's in good company. Few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, Nope, no one has ever done it very well.
The fact that one of the worlds bestselling authors has inspired so many duds and catastrophes is not the case. Most people agree that making Stephen King a household name is a chore. Even his most well-known films, like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, have their critics, most especially King. And his fifty-plus successful feature-length films are exceptions to the norm: Only a dozen of them received unanimous praise.
The difficulty in enforcing King's 60-plus novels is the amount of detail and character-building he puts into his work. The majority of his most significant works and cast members are impossible to decipher without many hours of screen time.
The final chapter of Kings' latest book, Fairy Tale, is a useful introduction to the exciting but terrifying challenges of converting his works to a visual medium. The stakes in that world and ours are unimaginable, and it is easy to imagine the effort it would take to translate such a vast story to screen with any integrity.
Stephen King isnt bound by established rules or audience expectations; he has developed a solid brand. Studios are understandably unable 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 depictions of 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, as in the case of Andy Muschietti's hugely successful Kings It remake) requires removing characters and plot points. And it requires adopting a style that is completely different from Kings writing, which spends time and effort on events that are not important to the plot or tone of the film. Adapting his work involves making choices and usually sacrificing everything unique to him.
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, positioned him on the map, just as the book it adapts became an overnight sensation for its author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget in the mid-70s, so it was surprising when 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 evil vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. It's still frightening. And it opened the way to the idea that King's best approach wasnt on film, where flop after flop Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Silver Bullet, and Graveyard Shift all tarnished the stories 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 product's quality.
On 1991's limited CBS series Golden Years, King Szarabajka plays a janitor who is exposed to dangerous chemicals and starts getting older. All six adaptations of King's work were made for television, including a remake of The Shining (also directed by Garris) and a new 1999 film, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley.
The answer to this question was choices. None of the filmmakers who got a degree in Kings writing brought any significant skill to the task. The primary purposes of these early adaptations were to reproduce Kings ideas and story beats as faithfully as possible. These were all shot with small spherical lenses in 1.33:1, a deliberately box-shaped aspect ratio that became the standard when shooting on television.
Then there were the special effects. While some of these early adaptations have fantastic practical effects (the best of which 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. For example, The Stand and It have never been released on Blu-ray.
Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all took the opposite tack, showing how filmmakers modify the gentler stories they've written with an eye on winning awards. Even The Stand, which concludes with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb, is a bit too similar to Jay Leno's appearance.
The arrival of prestige TV
The Mist, based on King's novel, was reshaping how horror films were presented in America, just as Mark Twain or Will Rogers' styles became mainstream.
Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and others changed what could be seen 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 sums for programs such as House of Cards and The Handmaids Tale. Big-name talent was being attracted, with Oscar-winning actors popping up on TV left and right. Everything (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) seemed to be off limits, and writers' rooms and casts finally had people other than straight white men. What better time than now to give Stephen Kings' unbeatable name recognition another screen role?
In the 2000s, there were only a handful of King TV shows, 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 a Herculean task again in theory, to remove Kings pre-Sopranos TV adaptations from the public consciousness. That community might lash out at their favorite shows because they
King had written a number of new works begging for a prestige contract. However, the previous cycle of writing got off to a dismal, pedestrian start. Haven, a 2010 series based on Kings' 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid, was funded by the Syfy network, which then renamed Sci-Fi. It was financed by a single season, which was funded by a single season of cheap synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly beautiful cinematography, a poor
Under the Dome was the next step, putting a story off in a major novel by Kings. It was canceled after three seasons. King told The New York Times that he was disappointed 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 investigate the Kennedy assassination, was not launched until 2018, as a kind of fanfiction open-world Stephen King tribute that contained as many references as two seasons of television could handle.
In 2017, Spike TV released a very expensive season of The Mist. In the same year, Ally McBeal's adaptation of Mr. Mercedes 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 shows is remarkable in its own way. Castle Rock's Andre Holland and Melanie Lynskey both excel at making mute skepticism and resigned acceptance seem achingly real as impossible events unfold. Like its protagonist, played by Brendan Gleeson, the cast imbues its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with a brooding inner.
Although 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 that one of these series was a little better than 11.22.63, but it has remained hidden from all discussion about great television, whatever you may define it. (That may be due to sexual misconduct charges against James Franco.)
The success of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story has been lauded by Castle Rock. It's quiet, brooding, and jarring, accompanied by long silences and long attempts to rationalize the irrational. courtesy of co-leads Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt. Chapelwaite, like its fellow horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, goes all in on handsome re-
The Stand, if anything, was too standard. It technically modernizes the novel and the preceding miniseries with a more diverse cast, culturally relevant dialogue, and accidental COVID echoes, but it remains just a rough translation of Kings words, with too little personality added. It's one of those exercises that enlightens people whether or not they wish to do this in the first place.
Why did so few of these programs succeed due to all of these variables and abilities? Modern designers have thrown every trick they can think of in dealing with the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, and nasty violence you couldnt show on television a few years ago.
The early-90s TV miniseries boom generated enough interest in the soberer, more expressive versions. No one expressed enough enthusiasm for the latter. Every few years, a group of artists and producers examine the last bunch of adaptations and attempts to resolve their problems by doing the opposite. But they have only discovered how not to do what has been done before.
After the last round of cancellations, producers still believe there are creative avenues to take to make King a household name on television. Jack Bender (who co-authored and directed many of Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome) is developing a series based on King's 2019 novel The Institute with the Duffer brothers. The Talisman is being produced by Steven Spielberg and the Duffer brothers.
It takes more than a commanding tone 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 books. Replacing Kings' prose with prestige-TV texture just removes the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King, and employs new voices to deliver his plot points.
Fans will be disappointed by the fact that replacing Kings' voice with another's will be largely avoided. And those who havent read his work and already have positive associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. He has earned an equal reputation as a creator whose work results in unmemorable or downright terrible media. When there is so much of it, and none of it (saving the It movies) 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 well-known names dominate, such as David Simon, Vince Gilligan, or Shonda Rhimes, who are well-known for their successful, personal brands and audiences, but who are less interested in adapting someone elses work, especially when nearly no one has a proven track record of producing a truly breakthrough King TV series or miniseries.
Were you ever in an age where familiarity and novelty are the two greatest competing media draws? On TV, the most-watched shows are ten Dick Wolf episodes, a Game of Thrones spinoff, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can think of, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce.
Part of the reason for this is that we were also living in a stressful time where consumers are clearly looking for comfort entertainment. The new King series really hammer out 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 crestfallen father in Chapelwaite all have a profound dramatic impact.
If you're planning on going to Kings Worlds for months at a time, it's tough. 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 relatable.
Despite his long-running stories, most of those who have tried have withdrawn. Does the prospect of a Stephen King TV show getting the attention it deserves since the 1979 Salems Lot miniseries in the United States? Perhaps future adaptations will help you unravel the mystery as dense and thorny as any the man himself ever wrote.