With his prolific resume of short stories, novellas and novels, Stephen King is living proof that you can have both quality and quantity as an artist. When it comes down to it is there any other living author with as many works adapted to the big screen? No. There isn’t. I know because I googled it. With 34 adaptations (and a whopping 241 writing credits) King leads the pack by a long stretch, with Nicholas Sparks coming in a distant second with 11.
Sparks as the first runner-up proves that quality is definitely preferable to quantity. With that, let’s take a look at the quality of King’s adaptions. First up is Carrie, King’s debut novel published in ’74 and the first to be adapted to screen only two years later. Under the helm of Brian de Palma the film was nominated for two big Oscars – best actress and best supporting actress. The book was a bestseller and launched King’s literary career, coinciding with non-stop adaptations garnering critical and commercial acclaim.
Bursting out of the 80s are cult, critical and fan favourites The Shining, Cujo, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary and Stand by Me. The 90s is quieter with Misery and The Shawshank Redemption coming in early in the decade, with the decade rounded off by the The Green Mile. Moving into the 21st century are Secret Window, 1408, The Mist and most recently, It. Looking at this abbreviated list you get a sense of the incredible and diverse cinematic resume attributed to King’s works.
Is there a quintessential King film there? Despite a knee jerk reaction to associate the man with one of his pure horror stroies, my vote is for Stand By Me. It has the wonderful 80s child adventure vibe, made vogue again now by Stranger Things and 2017’s It. The narration by main character Gordie Lachance (played by Wil Wheaton) so powerfully encapsulates the uncertainty of childhood. It cuts through the bullcrap of adult double speak and lets you dive into that special period of ignorance and enlightenment on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. Director Rob Reiner captures the sympatico King has to our child’s mind. It’s this mastery he uses in other works to unleash the perverse fears that have gestated in our shared childhood, waiting to be unlocked from the adult subconcious.
The difference between ‘horror’ and King’s horror is stark. Horror films, particularly now, seem to be producers jumping on whatever fashionable spook bandwagon they can attach themselves to. The standard plot line seems to be: isolate a woman, throw some spooky circumstances at her, mix in as many jump scares as possible and voila! And yes, that can be quite scary and entertaining but those jump scares are soon forgotten and a re-watch of those films never produces the same level of terror.
King’s horror disseminates from ideas, people and locations. There’s the slow descent into madness of a father who ends up trying to murder his family. Or a popular author held captive by the deranged fan of his work. The supernatural elements to his films aren’t crucial to the scares, but rather highlight the real life fears we have. Psychotic people, rabid dogs – these are tangible and sensible fears.
It’s King’s idea-based visions that make even his badly reviewed movies enjoyable. Pet Sematary, The Dream Catcher, Children of the Corn – whether they’re camp, kitschy, low budget or even poorly made, the foundation and idea behind these stories stays with you. A recent film such as the successful Annabelle, which I personally enjoyed, is going to be rested in the public conscious as another possessed doll story in a few years. An idea like beloved pets coming back as zombies, ridiculous or not, sticks with you.
So what’s in store for the future of King adaptations? Unsurprisingly there are a lot. Of the more interesting is the adaptation of Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining involving a grown Danny. And while on sequels, everyone now knows that It Part Two will be coming soon. Mr. Mercedes, a cat and mouse between a psychopathic killer and detective, is due to release this year as a television series with Brendan Gleeson and looks very promising.
Disappointingly, we’re yet to have a worthy adaptation of his magnus opum – the epic eight book series of The Dark Tower. This is King’s most beloved work of fiction by fans and himself. It presents a western, alternate universe that ties in many of the supernatural and mystic elements of all King’s works. There is some hope however of a media platform doing justice to the story, with a planned television series set to accompany the 2017 feature.
Despite all his success as a cinematic muse, King’s foray into film can be described as a mixed bag. Notoriously not precious about his work being adapted, he infrequently cameos in all varying standards of work. His only attempt at directing led to the woefully bad Maximum Overdrive, created while he battled a huge cocaine addiction. And despite having his finger on the pulse of what readers want, he can get it wrong when it comes to screen audiences. His infamous disdain of Kubricks’ The Shining is brought up repeatedly in interviews. Online and in interview, King lavishes equal praise on the captivating It adaption as much as the lacklustre The Dark Tower.
It’s clear movie fans owe a great deal to the man. Neither shy nor egotistical, he seems content to let the producers and directors do what they will to his work. It’s almost as if he is just as curious as the rest of us to see his words translated to screen. He graciously allows student filmmakers to adapt any of his shorts for a meagre one dollar. He self-effacingly describes himself as ‘the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries’. I’ll let the the man sum himself up: “People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”
It is in cinemas from 7th September through Roadshow Films.