Stephen King films: the triumphs and the tragedies


Stand By Me

Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT ​is regarded by a large section of devoted King fans, whom he refers to as his ‘constant readers’, to be the author’s masterwork; it’s comprised of 1,138 sprawling, thrilling and often terrifying pages bulging with characters, flashbacks and backstories. IT’s eponymous villain’s main ‘form’ is the demonic clown, Pennywise, but this shape-shifting evil entity is able to take on the likeness of whatever a child is most afraid of – werewolf, leper, giant bird and more.

While the book is rightly remembered for the horror, it is the innocuous domestic scenes and period details, in this case the 1950s, that also resonate. A challenge then, for any filmmaker brave or foolish enough to attempt a screen adaptation. Following the 1990 TV movie – featuring a great performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise – a new adaptation by Mama director Andres Muschietti will be out in September. The film boasts a suitably scary trailer and a young cast including Finn Wolfhard of ​Stranger Things​, a show that wears its King influence on its sleeve – notably, the IT reboot will be set in the 80s rather than the 50s, perhaps to capitalise on the current retro nostalgia trend. IT is to be released in two parts and will reportedly include vital elements and characters from the novel sorely missing from the 1990 version. The rotting leper who lives under the porch of the abandoned house on Neibolt Street makes an appearance, as does Patrick Hockstetter, a 12-year-old sociopath, who first kills small animals then his baby brother. His death at the hands of flying leeches in the Derry town dump is genuinely horrific.

Of course, 2017’s ​IT ​isn’t the first Stephen King screen adaptation. So far 66 films and 31 TV movies/series have adapted the work of King and his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, with Creepshow 4, a Children of The Corn reboot, and the Dark Tower all forthcoming.

Why has King’s writing proved such fertile ground for adaptation? Is it his grotesque monsters or despicable villains? Or is it the fusion of horror, everyday Americana and politics that make his work so enticing. It could be the biting social commentary against societal injustices we see in characters like The Shining’s Jack Torrance, The Stand’s Stu Redmond or Salem’s Lot’s Ben Mears, who face evil in small-town America. At its core, this battle of good vs evil, morality vs amorality is central to King’s oeuvre. We look back on a few of the key moments from the collection. 

THE ‘DOLLAR BABY’ SCHEME

Firstly, King’s ‘Dollar Baby’ scheme is a major reason for the size of his inspired cinematic oeuvre. Aspiring writers and directors can adapt any King short story (not his novels) for the cost of one dollar. The only conditions imposed are that King retains the film’s rights, that any resulting film is not exhibited commercially without his approval and that he first receives a tape of the finished work. King began the process in 1977 and it still exists today, a key factor in the sheer volume of adaptations. Frank Darabont, who went on to adapt King tales The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, first cut his filmmaking teeth as a dollar baby with his adaptation of King short story, The Woman in the Room.

THE SHINING DYNASTY, KUBRICK’S TRIUMPH & GARRIS’ MISSTEP

King’s third novel has been adapted for the screen twice – first by Stanley Kubrick in 1980, second by Mick Garris in 1997. There’s a documentary, Room 237, that explores the theories (both conspiracy and otherwise) surrounding Kubrick’s film, and it got The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror treatment with The Shinning. Most of us know the bare bones of the story – man gets given job as caretaker at remote Colorado hotel, man goes mad, man tries to kill his family.

Stanley Kubrick adaptation of ​The Shining ​remains the most critically-acclaimed King film, thought it’s a totally different beast when compared to the book. While King’s book focuses on the slow breakdown of a family and the alcoholic destruction of Jack Torrance, a damaged man too weak to resist the malevolent power of the Overlook Hotel, the film shows Jack as near psychotic from the outset. The novel and the hotel at its heart act more as a vessel for the virtuoso direction of Kubrick, all slow zooms, tracking and steadicam shots. True, Kubrick disregards much of the book, but his film remains a standalone masterpiece.

At the other end of the scale is Mick Garris, a journeyman horror director with a major hand in King work: Sleepwalkers ​(1992), ​The Stand ​(TV, 1994), ​Desperation (2006) and ​Bag of Bones​ (2011). Garris’ work contains questionable screenwriting and direction – a scene in Sleepwalkers sees human/cat hybrid Charles Brady stab a cop through his ear-canal with a pencil, shouting ‘Cop Kebab!’.

Made due to King’s displeasure with Kubrick’s misrepresentation of his novel, Garris’ 1997 TV version stays true to the book. Garris faithfully includes key scenes from the novel such as the hedge animals, which come to life, menacing Jack and telepathic son, Danny. Kubrick omitted these sequences from his film, citing well-founded fears that the special effects of 1980 wouldn’t be up to scratch, opting to use a hedge maze instead. Mick Garris had no such qualms and while the scene is not quite a disaster, the animals have not aged well. And ultimately, Stephen Weber is no Jack Nicholson and Rebecca De Mornay is no Shelley Duvall.

ROB REINER AND THE POWER OF CHARACTERISATION

Director Rob Reiner gets Stephen King. Prior to ​Misery, the director of The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap proved this with ​Stand By Me (1986)​, a brilliant adaptation of the non-horror, coming-of-age novella, ​The Body​. As he had shown previously with IT and Firestarter, King has a great talent for writing child characters, managing to capture their spirit, sense of adventure, way of speaking and views of grown-ups. Stand by Me’s excellent cast of young actors, including River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, bring King’s characters to life with intense, funny and heart-breaking performances. The 50s rock and roll soundtrack of Stand By Me also complements the action perfectly, the adventurous, youthful narrative music of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis accompanying the boys on their hike to find the missing body of young Ray Brower.

Though it was Carrie, a tale of teenaged female power and telekinesis, that sparked King’s interest in the young, a film by Brian De Palma that hinges on Sissy Spacek – a strong actor that glides effortlessly from naive, friendless child to steely supernatural killer.

Misery, on the other hand, is a three man/woman show – director Reiner and stars Kathy Bates and James Caan. The casting of Caan shouldn’t have worked, an ageing actor best known for tough guy roles in great crime films like ​The Godfather (1972) ​and Thief (1981) but he projects a convincing level of vulnerability as trapped writer Paul Sheldon. Kathy Bates won the best actress Oscar for her performance as a terrifying former nurse whose mood turns from convivial to murderous in an instant. Particularly unnerving about Wilkes is her childish vocabulary: ‘you dirty birdie’, ‘the cockadoodie car’, combined with her clear insanity and homicidal rage as she destroys Paul’s ankles with a sledge hammer.

THE SYNTHY, NEON, HAZY 80S

By the late 1980s King’s cocaine and alcohol addiction had reached crisis point. As he explained in his memoir On Writing (1999), this led to an emotional intervention from his family, who emptied a wastebin full of empty coke baggies, bloody tissues and beer cans in front of the shocked author at his Maine home. Following this, King became sober but his writing from the 1980s contains much of his angriest, most terrifying and arguably best work including Pet Sematary, Firestarter, Cujo (King claims he was so deep into booze and drugs he does not remember writing this), IT and Misery. The decade also saw a variety of his novels and short stories adapted for the screen, many of which contain the electronic synth music that would characterise the period with artists like Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter and Harold Faltermeyer, and contribute to the nostalgia canon that influences today’s TV with Stranger Things.

THE UNDERRATED, VISUAL MASTERPIECE CHRISTINE

One of the more underrated King adaptations, ​the supernatural car tale Christine ​is a rare example of a filmic tribute that is better than its source novel. Rereading the book recently, it is clearly a mess; 526 pages are structurally chaotic, with vast, meandering chapters devoid of action, despite being less than half the length of other King epics. In Leigh Cabot, King creates one of his more lazily drawn female characters, a ‘nice-girl’ who doesn’t do or say very much, existing only to be a love interest.

John Carpenter’s film, however, just works. In his late 70s, early 80s pomp, Carpenter’s signature visual style, use of captivating special effects and unique self-composed synth soundtrack turn a misfire from King into a slice of classic Carpenter. Memorable shots and scenes include a flaming Christine chasing school bully, Buddy Repperton, down a highway while Carpenter’s excellent electronic score pulses away in the background. Another scene shows the evil 1958 Plymouth Fury somehow rebuild herself after being destroyed by vandals, from a heap of broken metal, back to her former shining glory.

THE GORE OF PET SEMATARY

Pet Sematary ​is possibly Stephen King’s scariest novel, and both book and film plummet into the depths of darkness. The Creed family move to Maine, their house alongside a busy road where huge chemical fertiliser trucks thunder past throughout the day and night, first killing the family cat and then the youngest child. Beyond a nearby pet cemetery (misspelled Pet Sematary by local children) lies The Micmac Indian burial ground whose soured soil turns all buried there into malevolent murderous zombies.

It’s incredibly disturbing: the detailed, gothic descriptions of the Wendigo-haunted woods behind the house, the examination of grief, pain and how far he could delve into the abyss, make the book eminently re-readable and truly unforgettable. The backstory of Timmy Baterman, a U.S soldier killed in World War II only to be buried by his grief-stricken father in the Micmac grounds and then resurrected with tragic consequences, provide satisfying richness. King wrote that he was initially so disturbed by what he’d written he locked the manuscript away in a drawer, detailing this in a recently added intro to a new novel addition

The film of ​Pet Sematary​, however, catastrophically fails. The acting, notably that of daughter Ellie, is ropey and some moments are often unintentionally funny, though the film does captures fleeting essences of the book’s horror. Filmed in Maine – King’s home state and where many of his stories take place – the settings are perfect, and scenes like those of twisted gibbering sister Zelda and the resurrected scalpel-wielding child Gage, are very grim and gory indeed. However, the film is a missed opportunity. Like ​IT ​it requires a decent remake to fulfill the potential of King’s original novel.

Other films from the oeuvre that tread the line of explicit, dated gore include De Palma’s Carrie and Paul Monash’s series Salem’s Lot: while both feature horrifying, disturbing death scenes – think impalement and teens locked in a blazing gym and skewered vampires – the stories still chronicle moments of real human emotion.

ENDURING, ON THE NOSE CINEMA WITH RUNNING MAN (1987)

Like non-horrors ​The Shawshank Redemption (1994) ​and ​Stand By Me​, people often don’t realise dystopian sci-fi ​The Running Man​ (1982) is penned by King, a famed horror writer. The Running Man​ is also written under the pen name, Richard Bachman, a persona created to skirt publishers’ expectations that an author only release one book per year.

In the dystopian America of 2017 (!) the hit reality TV programme is ‘The Running Man’, where convicted criminals are chased down and killed by government appointed ‘stalkers’. How could this story not be compelling viewing? Like the 1990 ​IT​, ​The Running Man​ film is something of a shit-show. Directed with the opposite of aplomb by Paul-Michael Glaser aka ​Starsky ​from ​Starsky and Hutch​, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in ultimate ​McBain ​from ​The Simpsons​ mode, ​the film ​is kitsch to the extreme. Many of the ‘stalkers’ are nothing like those in the novel and are camp rather than fearsome. ‘Dynamo’, who can electrocute his victims, is actually an obese man covered in flashing lights and in possession of an operatic singing voice. ‘Fireball’ is ex NFL star Jim Brown, who can burn ‘runners’ to death with his flame throwers but appears to run at around 3 miles per hour himself.

Again though, The Running Man ​endures. This is due to the strength of King’s original premise, the excellent electronic score of Harold ‘Beverly Hill Cop’ Faltermeyer and the shamelessly enjoyable over-the-top-ness of 80’s Schwarzenegger films. I’m no fan of unnecessary remakes but like ​IT ​and ​Pet Sematary​, ​but The Running Man has aged badly, and 2017 seems the year for do-overs.



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