With the recent buzz surrounding both the Dark Tower and It adaptations, not to mention the long-overdue release of Cell, Stephen King is once again in the spotlight as our benevolent horror overlord. King is no stranger to media based on his work, having even involved himself in the production of quite a few movies and TV shows in the past, but this recent wave of adaptations seems to be a dream come true for long-time fans like myself. So, are we about to witness our favorite stories brought to life as big-budget masterpieces in some form of blockbuster renaissance Probably not.
The hard truth that us Stephen King fans must face is that many, if not most, adaptations of his wonderful literary work are actually extremely lackluster, though that’s not necessarily the author’s fault. We tend to remember classics like The Shining and Carrie, while films like The Mangler and Graveyard Shift are quickly lost to the annals of crappy movie history. Even fan-favorites like the original It mini-series fall apart under serious scrutiny (though Tim Curry makes the whole damn thing worth watching). With few exceptions, most of these films fall somewhere in between “awful” and “decent enough”.
Does this mean that King’s work is inherently bad, or even unfilmable? Of course not. Solid attempts like Salem’s Lot and Stand By Me, among many others, have proven time after time that it’s entirely possible to translate the author’s unique style onto both the big and small screen, as long as the right team is behind the project. As John Squires suggested a little while back, the hit Netflix series Stranger Things is nothing more than a pseudo-adaptation of It, and the chances of the official adaptation surpassing the series as love-letter to King’s work are disappointingly low.
However, the critical and commercial failure of Cell is the most recent example of how difficult it is to properly adapt these stories. Despite having a screenplay co-written by King himself (who listened to fans and managed to improve certain aspects of the original novel, including the ending), the film has quickly become widely regarded as one of the most disappointing releases of 2016. I personally enjoyed Cell as a smart B-movie with some interesting subtext, but even I can admit that the author’s peculiar pacing and narrative quirks can get old pretty fast for some viewers. If anything, the film proves that simply transitioning a well-written tale to the screen isn’t enough to guarantee its success as a motion picture.
In any case, this doesn’t mean that filmmakers should simply give up on adapting King’s stories, it just means that there should be more thought put into which stories should be adapted and how. Taking a look at the more successful attempts, it’s easy to see that the best of them weren’t afraid to take a few liberties with the source material, in order to ease the transition onto the big screen. This isn’t just true of the plots and characters, but also of the scares themselves. What works on the page won’t always work in the movies, and when dealing with horror, things get even more complicated.
There’s a certain finesse required to be able to suggest something horrific in literature, and then have the reader fill in the blanks with the darkest parts of their own imagination. This is something that King excels at, but which also makes the task of adapting his work even harder. For example, the evil hedge animals from The Shining were terrifying in the book, but look absolutely ridiculous on-screen (especially on a TV budget). Even beyond the realm of horror, the same still applies to things like the bizarre “Hand of God” from The Stand, and many other outlandish elements from these stories. Ultimately, the subjective nature of King’s writing, which made him such a popular author in the first place, may very well be responsible for the mixed results of so many of his adaptations.
That being said, the Dark Tower, It and hypothetical The Stand films aren’t exactly doomed to mediocrity. From what few glimpses we’ve been allowed so far, Roland’s cinematic quest for the Tower looks genuinely thrilling (due in no small part to the fantastic Idris Elba and Mathew McConaughey), and Bill Skarsgard’s new interpretation of Pennywise seems about ready to inflict coulrophobia upon a whole new generation of unsuspecting kids. If these films are successful, we could potentially be looking at a whole new multi-genre cinematic universe based on King’s interconnected stories (albeit with some films being produced by different studios and creative teams, but I’m not about to complain).
Should we be expecting something along the lines of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with these movies? Not necessarily. Should we be excited about the possibility of sharing these stories with a whole new generation? Absolutely! As long as filmmakers do their homework, there’s a chance for some unforgettable movies to come out of this situation. In the end, it’s more important for the creative teams behind these movies to capture that illusive feel of a Stephen King novel, rather than to adapt the plot beat by beat. Even in the worst-case scenario, a “bad” King adaptation can still be pretty fun. After all, who can deny that Maximum Overdrive is one of the greatest popcorn flicks of all time?