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On Stephen King Adaptations [Editorial]

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.

0% on Rotten Tomatoes, really?

0% on Rotten Tomatoes, really?

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.

I wonder how much Pennywise has cost the circus industry.

I wonder how much Pennywise has cost the circus industry since the ’80s.

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?


30 Comments
  • Isaac Clarke

    you dont even metion the Green Mile or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, those are the best i think, Cell is complete shit, i wonder if the book is that bad too.

    • CB Punk

      Hell he didn’t even Misery either.

      • CB Punk

        And as for his comment of Big Budget masterpieces that right there leads me to believe he know nothing about what The Dark Tower is, and is going to be. It’s going to contain four films and three mini series’s.

    • If we only listed the great SK adaptations there wouldn’t be much else to talk about. Anyway, I really enjoyed Cell (the novel), but the movie’s ending is a lot better.

    • DimestoreSaint

      To your point, the novel is not very good either. Easily one of King’s worst in my opinion.

  • CB Punk

    To answer the question that started off your last paragraph, yes. At least with Dark Tower since it is King’s LOTR. Have you ever read the Dark Tower series?

  • Erik Peabody

    The power in King’s writing is in his ability to write believable, three-dimensional characters. He does a LOT of this through internal dialogue and history. Most filmmakers focus on the surface details of this stories, which can’t be compelling without the characters to drive them. The best movie adaptations of his books have focused on the characters first, and have focused on shorter stories. This allows them to keep in the essential character development without cutting crucial scenes/moments.

    • Tigernan Quinn

      Stephen King has never written one believable character in his life – and I am a huge fan. He writes People Who Do What Needs Doing As The Plot Dictates.

      • Gavin Dobbs

        Let us also not forget the six on one gangbang in It.

        Because THAT was important to the book

        • Tetra-Gramaton-Cleric

          Setting aside your reductionist analysis of the scene, ultimately any writer worth a shit decides for themselves what content is necessary for the novel they are constructing.

          Personally, I’ve always considered IT one of King’s more laborious reads and I would argue there is plenty in that novel that could have been trimmed but again, that’s the author’s call (along with the editors and publisher)

          What I don’t entertain is that the scene in question was placed there for the purposes of titillation or smut, which seems to be what you are implying. King’s never shied away from sex but he also doesn’t really linger on it.

          • Gavin Dobbs

            Stephen King has a long history of creating glass door female characters who do absolutely nothing to further the plot except to die or be used for sex. If anything, one could argue that King was “fridging women” long before DC did it with Kyle Rainer’s girlfriend. The way Beverly was written, both in childhood and in adulthood, was a continuation of that trait. One could argue that he passed that trait and respect for women down to his son who has made some seriously questionable choices in presenting women himself… especially in the form of the protagonist of N0S4AU2.

          • KSE1977

            Seriously? The women Joe Hill has included in Heart Shaped Box, the Fireman and N0S4AU2 were all strong. Yes they were sometimes messed up, but I think he has done a far better job than his dad of presenting women in a positive sense. Shoot his lead for the Fireman was a great character.

          • Gavin Dobbs

            Hear me out here: Vic’s ending was handled terribly in N0S4A2. The entire book makes it a point to mentally and physically beat the shit out of her, and refer to as a piece of shit multiple times. It could even really be argued that her relationship with Lou compared to Tabitha’s relationship to Lou was another punishing point because of how many times the book drilled it into your head that Lou was a fat and pretty much socially worthless until he got the by-pass (a sentiment that I, as a big man, got a little hurt by).

            But the big part that bothered me was that **SPOILERS***

            ***SPOILERS****

            Okay… the part that bothered me the most was that Vic didn’t even get a funeral or remembered. One moment she’s there, next she’s dead and Lou has moved on weight free to the woman who basically hunted the hell out of the mother of his child. It seemed callous to put that much energy into beating the hell out of the character, and not even give her a couple of pages at least of a worthwhile funeral.

          • KSE1977

            I hear what you are saying and certainly that was not a worthy end for such an important character, but overall, that character had agency and an arc. So maybe overall it evens out. Check out the Fireman and Heart Shaped Box.

      • Tetra-Gramaton-Cleric

        Well, I don’t agree with that sentiment in the least.

        I’d say he writes believable characters thrust into unbelievable situations who act accordingly.

        Also, believability is simply the creation of a character who occupies three-dimensional space in a credible manner.

        If characters were to act “believably” when confronted with monsters, demons, or the Devil itself, 99.8% of them would assume the fetal position and wait for death.

  • Tigernan Quinn

    The issue with King’s material is cyclical – the early stuff was basically pulp horror that a LOT of people grew up with, and therefore have pretty pleasant memories about that superceed the books. I remember to this day walking home from boy scouts and a car turning on its lights behind me as it pulled out, and immediately thinking Christine. But because they were pulp, no one wanted to make movies out of them – so King famously began giving up the rights to anybody for a buck. Here come all the movies we know so well, Children of the Corn, Pet Semetary, It, and so on, and almost universally they are awful. But because they’re movie versions of the books we love, we made room for them too, forgiving them their badness. I mean, Maximum Overdrive is just a pile of shit, but boy do I love it. Problem is that King then begins to want to be a serious writer, has his accident, finishes the Tower, and although he’s doing the best work of his life the fans are all still back in Christine land, and they want better movies than they grew up with.

  • Gavin Dobbs

    You all will throw flak at me, and that’s fine, I love you any way.

    I feel the best adaptation of a Stephen King’s work was actually The Shining mini-series with Stephen Webber. Not only did the story fix Kubrik’s weird decision to make Wendy and Hallorann horror movie tropes (and in Hallorann’s case, a victim), but it also gave real depth to Jack. To this day I’m still moved by the final scene at the graduation. It felt earned and it felt good.

    Oddly enough, nearly everyone I meet hates that version. I mean there is damn near presidential candidate vitrol thrown at that movie. I can’t understand why. The only thing that movie is missing that would have made it better is the ku-ku clock scene from the book. But it makes me wonder if we deserve the adaptations we get, because we as an audience shit all over the ones that are true to novel.

    • Stefan Heikel

      Agreed 100%
      What many people don’t understand I feel is they compare it to the Kubrick version, which is inappropriate to do. TV movies don’t have to have the same level of acting/writing, etc., since they are on a limited budget/audience. If they wanted to create something to have amazing acting/writing, they wouldn’t waste their time making something for a limited TV audience.

  • LOX TO THE DEATH

    The Night Flier is a good one people never talk about and Christine is underrated

    • RKSDooM

      Love THE NIGHT FLIER! Such a great flick!

  • Baron Von Marlon

    Needful Things. Always loved that one.
    And Maximum Overdrive. Emilio Estevez, machines turned evil and an all AC/DC soundtrack. Sounds surreal.

    • KSE1977

      Haven’t seen the movie or read the book, but they are both on my list for this year.

  • Amber Woodworth Pace

    To me, and I have been a Constant Reader since I was 12, the works that have translated best to the big (or small) screen have been Stand By Me (aka The Body), Shawshank and The Green Mile. The Stand was alright as was The Shining mini series (I did personally grow up watching Kubrick’s version and love it as a stand alone but I’ll leave that aside for this particular argument — I did watch that movie before I read the book… that is probably WHY I like it). The ones that have adapted better than others have been his novellas or his shorter stories, but look at the length of the movies — Shawshank was over 2 hours, The Green Mile was 3+ and Stand By Me was, well I guess a typical movie length, but you get my point. What King does well (in my opinion) is his attention to detail, his ability to develop characters and his ability to create a good story. I think what is missing with the meh adaptations are these elements. We got to really feel the story and the friendship between Andy and Red in the movie, we got a sense of the closeness of Gordie and friends in Stand By Me and also we really got to know the characters and story well in the Green Mile. I truly, truly fear the adaptation of The Dark Tower — NOT because of who they cast but because I fear they are not going to be able to touch what that epic quest was truly about. I don’t think it is going to translate well at all to the viewer. I feel like in order to TRULY get what the quest is all about and dive into the depth of the characters, it would take hours and hours and hours of movie. Something I don’t think even Peter Jackson can touch. I am still in favor of this one being animated I think it could be done well that way (but that is just me…). I cringe when I hear about adaptations coming out because I know we will be watching someone else’s view on a master of storytelling’s story. It doesn’t happen well most of the time so I have rely on my books and King’s words and I am good with that. I am one who absolutely HATE the ridiculous liberties that get taken — 11/22/63 was absolutely AWFUL, I HATED The Mist’s ending (still feels like a kick in the gut) so I will be one who will re-read The Dark Tower books, remember my love of Roland, Eddie and company and not waste my time watching a horrific adaptation…

    • KSE1977

      Look, I am with you, especially on the short story/novella adaptations. Shoot Big Driver and the Good Marriage were both decent adaptations for what they were. He has some awesome short stories out there, waiting to be expanded and adapted.

  • thegunshow

    I think there are quite a few good King adaptations. In my opinion, the following list of films are all well done:
    Carrie
    The Shining
    Cujo
    Christine
    Stand by Me
    Needful Things
    Apt Pupil
    Misery
    Shawshank Redemption
    Delores Claiborne
    Pet Semetery
    The Green Mile
    The Dark Half
    1408
    Creepshow (although not an adaptation)

    That’s a pretty sizable list all in all. Sure, it only represents a third of the output, but it’s enough to give me hope that future adaptations can do just as well.

    • Gavin Dobbs

      I saw Pet Semetery as a kid. Was freaked out by it, loved it, and thought it was spectacular.

      Later I read the novel. When I realized that the entire subplot of **SPOILERS**

      **SPOILERS**

      of the Wendigo was cut out of the movie, I became gravely disappointed in it. It really wouldn’t have been that hard to acknowledge the subplot either: I.E. eyes in trees, crashing through the underbrush, anything really.

      But other than that point, you’re right it was a good adaptation.

      • thegunshow

        Yeah, all of these are missing certain elements from King’s books, if not outright telling a different story, (The Shining), but I still think all of them work as good movies in and of themselves.

  • KSE1977

    I think Stephen King fans are also partly to blame. We have soaked up his work for so long, that when we see an adaptation, even if it is merely okay, we the fans immediately attack it. Not to mention his outliers like the SHining, STand By Me and the Shawshank Redemption, all of which film and adapt far better than some of his other material. I think if you took IT or the Stand and gave Peter Jackson or somebody similar the budget and time to do it, they could make a true masterpiece. When you try to cram 1000 pages into a few hours, well its like 5 pounds of poo in a 3 pound bag.

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