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Hollywood Horror: A Capsule History of Stephen King’s Showbiz Career

By far the most adapted American author in Hollywood history, Stephen King’s novels and short stories have served as the basis for over 100 movies, short films, miniseries, and TV shows since his first book, Carrie, was made into a hit 1976 film directed by Brian De Palma. While subsequent adaptations have been anything but consistent – for every Misery or The Mist there are three times as many stinkers – there’s no overlooking the fact that King’s career is now irrevocably intertwined with the Hollywood machine.

On Sunday, April 17th Bloody-Disgusting will be hosting “Stephen King” night on FEARnet (Channel 197 on Verizon FiOS, otherwise call 877-FEAR-247 to request FEARnet HD from your TV provider), during which the network will be screening five films based on the work of the legendary master of horror: Christine (2pm), Sleepwalkers (4pm), Graveyard Shift (6pm), Thinner (8pm), Silver Bullet (10pm). In anticipation of the marathon, B-D’s Chris Eggertsen takes a look back at a few of the most notorious high and low points in King’s storied Hollywood career, tracing a path from the early success of Carrie through to the present day. Read the full history lesson inside.

Stephen King
There is an old adage – one that has remained stubbornly persistent over the years – that most Stephen King adaptations are bad. It’s a belief, though, that seems to ignore several important facts: 1) most movies based on books don’t turn out very good; 2) most movies in general don’t turn out very good; and 3) given facts 1 and 2, the ratio of good vs. bad Stephen King adaptations actually isn’t much worse than the ratio of good vs. bad films overall. And by the way, a lot of them aren’t only good – they’re really good. Take the following titles into account if you don’t believe me: Carrie. The Shining. Creepshow. The Dead Zone. Stand By Me. Misery. The Shawshank Redemption. Dolores Claiborne. Apt Pupil. The Green Mile. The Mist. And those are just the most notable. I’m absolutely positive there are also those out there who would make a case for Cujo (here!), or Christine, or Pet Sematary, or, hell, even The Graveyard Shift (ok, so some King adaptations are just categorically awful – as in no sane person could ever believe The Graveyard Shift is actually a good film).

The point is, the sheer number of King adaptations that have made it to the big and small screens over the last 35 years is far greater than that of any other author in American history, meaning there couldn’t help but be quite a few good ones and (admittedly) even more bad mixed up in the bunch. In fact, when you look over the course of the author’s prolific Tinseltown career it reads a bit like a rollercoaster ride, filled as it is with an array of both dizzying highs and, occasionally, forehead-slapping lows. Following is a brief capsule history of some of the more notable moments in the Master of Horror’s storied journey through the unforgiving, and, yes, sometimes horrifying Hollywood obstacle course.

1976: Carrie hits it big

King’s debut novel Carrie, which became a surprise best seller on its release in 1974, was also the first to be adapted into a Hollywood film. The screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen deviated quite significantly from the book – mainly due to budgetary restrictions – but under the sure hand of rising director Brian De Palma it was released to critical raves, grossed over $33 million on a $1.8 million budget, and was nominated for two Academy Awards (Sissy Spacek for Best Actress and Piper Laurie for Best Supporting Actress). The film cemented De Palma’s stature as a master director, launched the careers of future A-listers Spacek and John Travolta, and ultimately gave rise to the Hollywood appetite for all things Stephen King that endures to this day. Recalled the author of first seeing the film in a packed theater: “I looked at my wife and I said, ‘this movie’s gonna be huge.’”

King on writing and selling the novel:

1977: King begins his “Dollar Babies” policy

After noting that more and more aspiring directors were writing him for permission to adapt his short stories for the screen, in 1977 King implemented his “Dollar Babies” policy, in which we would grant any student filmmaker the non-commercial right to adapt one of his stories for the bargain-basement price of one dollar (novels excluded). All that King required, other than a guarantee that the film wouldn’t be exhibited for commercial purposes without his express consent, was that the filmmaker send him a copy of the completed product for inclusion in his private library. Though the declaration allegedly sent his accountant into a tizzy, this open-door policy – which King himself never publicly addressed until nearly 20 years later – demonstrated the down-to-earth qualities that to this day so endear the author to his legions of loyal fans. It also resulted in kicking off the Hollywood career of frequent King collaborator Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist), who at only 24 years old adapted King’s short story “The Woman in the Room” into a well-received short film that was shortlisted for the 1983 Academy Awards.

Frank Darabont’s The Woman in the Room (Note – the film is slow to buffer):

1979: Salem’s Lot is first King novel to be adapted as a TV miniseries

After several failed attempts at adapting King’s 400-page second novel into a feature film that remained faithful to the source material (Romero was at one time attached to direct), producers ultimately decided to make it into a three-hour miniseries with the television arm of Warner Bros. Directed by Tobe Hooper and airing in two parts the week of November 17th, 1979 on CBS, the miniseries scored stellar ratings and was the first of many instances in which King’s often sprawling novels were adapted for the miniseries format.

Original TV “bumper”:

1980: King vs. Kubrick

In perhaps the most notorious example of King disapproving of a film adaptation of his work, the author publicly voiced his loathing for Stanley Kubrick’s big-screen reworking of The Shining in 1980. King’s many complaints about the film included the casting of Nicholson as Jack Torrance (he wanted a more “everyman”-type for the role); Kubrick’s decision not to film at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, where King originally conceived of the idea for the book; the sidelining of the novel’s overt supernatural elements; and his overall impression of the master director as one who “thinks too much and feels too little”. The film, despite a mixed initial reaction from critics and audiences, went on to become a widely-regarded classic of the horror genre, though that didn’t stop King from adapting the novel into a much more faithful 1997 ABC miniseries directed by Mick Garris.

King on working with Kubrick:

1982: King takes on acting in Creepshow

Beginning a semi-tradition of making on-screen appearances in the film adaptations of his books, in Creepshow King actually portrayed a major character when he anchored the segment entitled “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”. Playing the title character – a country bumpkin who begins growing a plant-like substance all over his body after handling a meteor that crashes to Earth behind his home – King displayed no great acting chops but nevertheless endeared himself to fans with his campy performance. The endeavor also had the effect of further contributing to his status as one of the few American novelists with a face recognizable to the majority of the American public.

1982 PM Magazine Halloween TV Special on the making of Creepshow, featuring a brief interview with King:

1983: The Dead Zone advertised as “Stephen King The Dead Zone”

Any doubts concerning whether King had officially become a cinematic brand or not were put to rest with the 1983 release of David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, when for the very first time the author’s name appeared as part of an adaptation’s advertised title. The film went on to become a moderate success, and the King-referencing marketing trend would become key in advertising many later adaptations of his work – sometimes to the author’s very public dismay (see: The Lawnmower Man).

Original Trailer:

1986: Maximum Overdrive flops

King has since admitted he was in over his cocaine-addled head when he took on helming duties for Maximum Overdrive, a loose adaptation of his short story “Trucks” that featured a soundtrack by rock band AC/DC. The author’s directorial debut was panned by critics and underperformed at the box office, grossing slightly over $7 million on a reported $10 million budget. Not only that, but King was later sued for $18 million by director of photography Armando Nannuzzi due to an on-set accident that resulted in the loss of his eye (the case was settled out of court). The poor reception suffered by the production was undoubtedly a major low point in King’s career, particularly given that he hasn’t directed another film since – a fact most who have seen the film (though it does have its fans) would probably agree is a good thing.

1986 Stephen King interview with AC/DC about creating the soundtrack for the film:

1986/87: Success of Stand By Me leads to the formation of Castle Rock Entertainment

Luckily for King, the failure of Maximum Overdrive was almost immediately followed by the arrival of Stand By Me later that same summer. Based on his novella “The Body”, the Rob Reiner-directed film was released to major critical acclaim, grossed $52 million domestic on an $8 million budget, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans). Following that warm reception, Reiner and partners Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman, Glenn Padnick, and Alan Horn formed Castle Rock Entertainment, named after the fictional Maine town featured in many of King’s novels. The company would go on to produce seven more King adaptations (including The Shawshank Redemption and Misery), over which the author exercised an extraordinary amount of creative control. Not only was he given script, cast, and director approval, the agreement also guaranteed him 5% of the films’ grosses from “dollar one” (i.e. regardless of whether the movies actually made money). More than any previous development in King’s relationship with the industry, this cushy arrangement was indicative of the unprecedented amount of influence he’d come to wield in the Hollywood establishment.

Part 1 of a 2002 Stand By Me documentary featuring interviews with King, Reiner, and some of the cast:

1991: Kathy Bates wins Best Actress Oscar for Misery

It must have been a surreal moment for King to see Kathy Bates, who so effectively portrayed the unhinged Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery, take home the Best Actress award on Oscar night – particularly when she thanked the author in her speech for “thinking of [Annie] in the first place.” To date, it’s the only Oscar ever awarded to someone involved in an adaptation of one of his books.

1991 Kathy Bates Oscar Acceptance Speech:

1991: Golden Years becomes King’s first television project written specifically for the small screen

With the exception of an episode of Tales From the Darkside in 1987 (“Sorry, Right Number”), King’s first foray into original television was Golden Years, a TV series he created about an elderly janitor who is exposed to unknown chemicals after an explosion at a lab and begins growing younger at a rapid pace. Aired during the summer of 1991, the show failed to catch on with audiences due to slow pacing and was pulled by CBS prior to the eighth and final episode of its first season. Viewers were left scratching their heads after a seventh-episode cliffhanger that wouldn’t be resolved until the film’s (truncated) home video release, to which a more dramatically satisfying conclusion was added.

Original Golden Years CBS promo:

1992: Sleepwalkers first of King’s original feature-length screenplays to be adapted into a film; marks the beginning of a long creative relationship with director Mick Garris

Though he’d previously written three of the five Creepshow segments specifically for the silver screen, Sleepwalkers became the first time an original Stephen King script (i.e. one not based on any of his literary works) was produced as a feature-length film. Though the movie underperformed both critically and commercially, it was nevertheless the first in a series of collaborations between King and director Mick Garris, who would go on to helm adaptations of many of King’s works in the T.V. format, including The Stand, The Shining, Riding the Bullet, and Desperation. He is next due to direct a four-hour miniseries version of King’s 1998 novel Bag of Bones.

Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Tobe Hooper cameo scene in the film:

1992/93: King sues New Line Cinema over the use of his name in The Lawnmower Man

Grossing over three times its $10 million budget at the domestic box-office, The Lawnmower Man became a sleeper hit based partially on the strength of King’s name, which was used prominently in the film’s advertising campaign. Unfortunately for New Line, King went on to sue the distributor for exploiting his name to sell a movie that he claimed “bore no meaningful resemblance” to his original “Lawnmower Man” story (included in his 1978 collection Night Shift). Forced to pay King $2.5 million in damages, a court injunction was also issued barring the studio from further using his name to market the film. Nevertheless, King later discovered the studio had released the movie on home video with his name still attached, and New Line was found in contempt of court and ordered to remove King’s name from every home video copy or else pay him $10,000 a day until they complied. In addition, the author was awarded all profits they had so far derived from the home video release.

The Lawnmower Man theatrical trailer:

1995: The Shawshank Redemption is nominated for seven Academy Awards

If Stand By Me was the film that initially brought King recognition for his non-genre output, it was The Shawshank Redemption that cemented his reputation as an author capable of writing outside the horror sphere. Based on his novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, the film was written and directed by “Dollar Baby” Frank Darabont in his first outing at the helm of a feature-length King adaptation. While the $25 million film proved a commercial disappointment on release (it grossed a little over $28 million theatrically), it proved a huge hit with critics and the Academy and garnered seven nods at the following year’s Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor – Morgan Freeman, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing). While it lost in all categories, the awards season exposure led to the film becoming a massive hit on home video, and for the last several years it has remained at #1 on IMDB’s “Top 250″ list as voted by the site’s users – a potent demonstration of King’s popular appeal if there ever was one.

Frank Darabont on Entourage:

1997: The Shining miniseries debuts on ABC

Given his notorious dislike of Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation, it was no big surprise when King decided to undertake this much more faithful three-part miniseries adaptation of The Shining, directed by Mick Garris and starring Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay in the roles originally played by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. The miniseries garnered generally positive reviews and good, if unspectacular ratings, though for many it paled in comparison to Kubrick’s masterful though substantially different version. While favored by many hardcore fans of the novel, unfortunately for King the miniseries did nothing to erase the acclaimed 1980 version from the public consciousness.

Original TV promo:

1999: The Green Mile grosses over $100 million domestic

While The Shawshank Redemption proved a box-office disappointment during its theatrical run, Frank Darabont’s second feature-length King adaptation The Green Mile was far more successful, perhaps partially due to a wave of growing audience affection for his previous film. Clocking it at a mammoth three hours and change, the $60 million film went on to gross over $136 million domestic and another $150 million overseas. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor – Michael Clarke Duncan, and Best Sound). It is to date the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation ever – and the only one to top $100 million at the domestic box-office. Given his aforementioned deal with production company Castle Rock, King himself claims to have come out about $25 million richer on the back end.

Stephen King talking about the movie:

2004: Kingdom Hospital cancelled after one season

Though USA’s The Dead Zone proved a minor ratings hit and lasted for 81 episodes (it ran from 2002-2007), King himself had almost nothing to do with it. Instead he became focused on adapting Lars von Triers’ Danish TV miniseries The Kingdom, which revolved around the bizarre occurrences at a haunted hospital, for American television. While the first heavily-hyped episode on ABC garnered solid ratings, the show’s viewer count would drop precipitously as the series went on, leading to its cancellation following the first-season finale despite King’s desire to continue on with it. After the similar failure of Golden Years over a decade earlier, it began to seem that perhaps a successful King foray into series television simply wasn’t in the cards.

Opening Titles:

2006: King voices his disappointment over ABC scheduling the Desperation TV movie opposite the American Idol finals

Calling it “probably the best TV movie to be made from my work”, King put out a message on his official website a few days prior to the premiere of Desperation on ABC to let his fans know he was “bitter” over the network’s decision to schedule the adaptation opposite the finals of American Idol. “When I see this kind of scheduling, my heart is warmed by how well I have been treated by all my friends at ABC”, wrote King. The Mick Garris-directed movie was indeed crushed by the powerhouse Fox series, pulling in only 7.5 million viewers vs. Idol‘s 30.7 million. Having shared a long history with ABC dating back to It in 1990, it’s perhaps not coincidental that King hasn’t worked with the network since.

DVD trailer:

2007: Both 1408 and The Mist released to praise from King

Following a series of King adaptations either so-so (Secret Window, Hearts in Atlantis) or just plain god-awful (Dreamcatcher), 2007 brought two generally well-received big-screen adaptations drawn from the author’s back catalog: Frank Darabont’s The Mist (based on the 1980 novella of the same name) and Mikael Hafstrom’s 1408 (based on the 1999 short story). While The Mist suffered from a somewhat chilly audience reception (though given its relatively low budget it still ended up in the black), both films garnered mixed-to-positive critical notices and high marks from King himself. Describing both as “really good movies”, King went on to include both films on his list of ten favorite adaptations in the 2009 tome Stephen King Goes to the Movies.

Montage of monsters from the film (SOME SPOILERS):

2010/11: Revived interest in King’s work

While the aughts saw relatively few big-screen adaptations of King’s novels and short stories, in their desperation to find new franchises Tinseltown has recently shown an increased interest in translating his stories into major Hollywood productions. Among the proposed new projects are both remakes of prior adaptations (It, Pet Sematary, The Stand, Firestarter) as well as adaptations of tomes not previously translated for the silver screen (Cell, Under the Dome, The Dark Tower). It’s also recently been reported that King is in talks to write an episode of Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead in its second season. In short, this could prove to be a great decade for hardcore fans of the author’s work.