Heeeeere's Johnny! Films like the Shining are iconic—but do King's novels really work on screen.

A real horror show: why Stephen King's novels don't work on screen

In many ways, King's works are better known on screen. But do his novels really work as films?
September 11, 2017

In 1986 Stephen King, whose novels had already been adapted for the screen by directors such as Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and Rob Reiner, decided to make a film of his own. To signal the advent of Maximum Overdrive, a ludicrously camp horror film in which a passing comet sends the world’s machines on a human-killing spree (crushing people with steamrollers, zapping them with arcade cabinets, hacking at them with electric carving knives), the producers cooked up a trailer in which King himself, bearded and intense, stepped forward from a dark backdrop to look the audience in the eye. “A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories,” he declared, “and I finally decided, if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself.”

By the time of Maximum Overdrive’s release, however, the King of Horror had changed his story slightly. Appearing on a Canadian chat show to promote the film, he offered a disconcertingly frank take on the film business. “I’m not rehearsing my Academy Award speech,” he said amiably, with a forthrightness only partly attributable to the booze and coke habit that had him in its claws for most of the 1980s. “I don’t even think I want to make another movie. It’s a primitive way to create. I mean, it’s interesting for that reason, because you have to overcome so many odds.” As the interviewer blinked in confusion, King narrowed his eyes. “You know what I’d really like to have?” he said. “A pair of lizardskin boots.”

Thirty years have passed, but King, who is 70 this year, remains strikingly cool on filmed versions of his work. His distaste for Kubrick’s The Shining is well known (he called it “a Cadillac with no engine”) but it doesn’t stop there: as far as he is concerned, the films based on his work are at best a sideshow to the books themselves. This isn’t an unusual position for a novelist—King likes to tell a story about the pulp writer James M Cain, who pointed helpfully at a shelf of his books when someone asked if the movies had ruined his work—but he can be particularly chilly in making the point. “They just make them,” he told an interviewer a couple of years ago. “If they’re good, that’s terrific. If they’re not, they’re not. But I see them as a lesser medium than fiction, than literature, and a more ephemeral medium.”

That’s one tagline the BFI will not be using for its season of Stephen King films, which lasts until early October and promises to explore King’s “invaluable contribution to the moving image.” Still, at least the organisers have plenty of material to choose from. This seems to be a bumper year for King adaptations, with filmed versions of his novels IT and The Dark Tower in cinemas this summer and two television series, The Mist and Mr Mercedes, airing over the same period, but in fact it represents only a slight upward trend in a continuous stream of cinematic work since Carrie (1976). The current tally stands at 62 feature films and 29 TV series, to say nothing of the vast number of non-commercial shorts produced under the “Dollar Babies” scheme, by which the author licenses rights to his short stories to young filmmakers for a buck apiece.

It would be enticing to say that King is entirely wrong about the book-film thing but, looking down the vast list of adaptations, it’s hard not to agree. The BFI has cut its list to a third of the filmed output, which means that viewers won’t need to sit through some of the more egregious adaptations: they’ve dropped the interminable Hearts in Atlantis (2001), for example, a moody coming-of-age drama in which Anthony Hopkins plays a mind-reader pursued by packs of men who communicate through lost-pet posters, as well as No Smoking, an Indian adaptation of King’s story “Quitters, Inc” whose story about a man being bullied into kicking the cigs is punctuated by Bollywood song-and-dance sequences. They’ve also cut Dreamcatcher (2003), a film that drags a stellar cast and crew—actors Damian Lewis, Morgan Freeman, director Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman—through a positively insane plot about bottom-munching aliens, penis-biting aliens, telepathic fungus and helicopter battles. The only one that really deserves to creep back on to the list is TheMangler (1995), about a possessed laundry machine from the late Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper, which features a half-hearted cast being trouser-pressed out of existence while uttering lines such as “It folded her like a sheet, Mark!”

This is the low end of King filmmaking—schlocky plots, buckets of blood, plenty of screaming—and, even on the BFI’s 21-film list, there’s a great deal of it about. The intensely bleak novel Pet Sematary, about a family living up the road from an Indian burial ground that can reanimate corpses, was adapted as a pedestrian succession of shocker clichés by Mary Lambert in 1989—incidentally, the only King adaptation to have been directed by a woman. Sleepwalkers (1992), based on a King original screenplay, told the inadvertently hilarious story of an incestuous mother-son pair of shape-shifting vampires who go from town to town preying on virgins. Set aside the committed performance by the young Drew Barrymore in 1984’s Firestarter—and the long shadow that its plot casts over the current Netflix series Stranger Things—and it is far more cursory and anaemic than any film about an escaped government experiment starting fires with her mind has a right to be. Like a disturbingly large number of King adaptations, the recent film of The Dark Tower included, it presents a sort of filmed digest of conflict points from the original novel: more an adaptation of the blurb than of the novel itself.

Part of this is clearly a problem of genre. King’s reputation as a novelist has taken a dramatic turn in the past 30 years, with magazines and newspapers that once portrayed him as a blood-crazed vulture now praising his talent for writing about small communities, the bonds between people and the details of blue-collar Americana. Horror and threat are, of course, a significant part of what he writes, but the other part is his interest in ordinary people: the politics, the New England speech patterns, the meticulously-observed details on brandnames and favourite foods and gossip and old marriages and small-town friendships that last for a lifetime. “The best stories, it seems to me,” he observed on Twitter recently, “deal with friendship put under stress”; it’s an insight that gives even his most cynical early exercises in horror cliché a striking air of human plausibility. With rare exceptions, however, the people adapting his books for the screen have had their eye on shock and sensation alone. Polanski’s observation that screenwriting from a novel is like drawing a cartoon of the book is amply borne out in the rote horrors that characterise much of King on screen.

The exceptions, however, can be striking. King’s reasons for disliking The Shining may rest on reasonable foundations—Jack Nicholson’s blocked writer does put a hole in the drama by being crazy from the start, and Shelley Duvall’s perpetually shrieking wife is a parody of a rounded character—but they still miss the point of Kubrick’s adaptation, which presents a stately, surreal and imagistic form of horror that only distantly resembles the source novel.

King’s book forces the reader into the cramped and teeming heads of his characters, but Kubrick’s dispassionate, emotionally wintry take evokes a different kind of fear in the viewer. King’s later script for a television series of The Shining, which devotedly incorporated every scene from the novel that he could manage, seemed a near-comical exercise in point-missing by comparison.

A similarly constructive-destructive approach is at work in John Carpenter’s film of Christine (1983), which strips King’s 500-page novel about a car possessed by a vengeful ghost down to an unexplainable love story between a boy and a machine. The context and the human drama from King’s novel have gone, but Carpenter’s film—part teen movie, part monster movie—has a powerful pull of its own.

Directors and screenwriters have tended to do better with King’s short novels and novellas, which neither require expanding to feature length nor cutting down from 500-page blockbusters with the character count of a Dostoyevsky novel. Frank Darabont’s three feature-length adaptations—The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist—make occasional alterations from King’s texts, but their reading of the books’ emotional temperature is spot on; they’re crisp, dialogue-heavy dramas, each set in a confined space (two in prison, one in an alien-besieged supermarket), where the emphasis falls directly on the inner lives of the characters rather than the horrors that surround them. The same goes for De Palma’s Carrie and Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, adapted with notable literalism from two of the shorter novels, and particularly for Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and Misery, which capture the Kinginess of King—the nostalgic small-town world of Stand by Me, the ghastly paradoxical folksiness of Kathy Bates’s hammer-swinging superfan in Misery—better than almost anything else on film.

One might argue that the best King adaptations are the ones with less horror, but that’s not the whole story: it’s true that the adaptors of Shawshank and Stand by Me never needed to grapple with integrating a rabid St Bernard (Cujo) or a possessed Coke machine (Maximum Overdrive) into their plots, but King’s fascination with the macabre and the oppressive is still present in these stories. More likely, the successful adaptations use the horror for contributory rather than for instrumental effect; as in King’s novels, their drama runs off character, rather than shocks.

Most television versions of King’s work have either spun off his original concepts into weekly drama—a long-running series of The Dead Zone featured the psychic protagonist solving a mystery a week—or adapted them as miniseries with often threadbare budgets and performances.

One recent success is Mr Mercedes, adapted by the network Audience from one of King’s unaccustomed excursions into hard-boiled crime, which interweaves its story of a harried ex-detective (Brendan Gleeson) pursuing a teenage killer with the kind of deft and convincing portrait of a down-at-heel American community in which King has traditionally specialised. Meanwhile, next year’s Castle Rock, a Hulu series produced by JJ Abrams, promises to take a different tack: it draws on characters and plots from across King’s work, mixing them into an original story set in the fictional Maine town that provides a setting for many of his stories.

This is an adventurous idea, but in many ways it’s surprising it took so long to arrive. As signalled by Mr Mercedes, as well as by the surprisingly engaging adaptation of Under the Dome, the contemporary TV series, with its novelistic construction, extended character arcs and its refusal of the recursive dramatic strictures of hour-long drama, is an obvious fit for King. Its wider limits allow directors to explore aspects of the work that are necessarily compressed in the feature format: the large casts, the punctilious interest in the texture of speech, the fascination with playing out the power dynamics and the demagoguery of wider society on a small-town stage. There are at least three more feature films based on King’s work coming out next year, but who knows: the best adaptation of his novels may still be the one that tries to do all of them at once.