Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers ever, with more than seventy published works to his name (and a further seven under his pseudonym Richard Bachman). But King’s specific brand of psychological horror has never scored him much love from critics, in fact his writing has even been called “non-literature”. Regardless of those views, Stephen King is adored by his Constant Readers and Hollywood alike.
It was beginning to seem like 2017 was the year of Stephen King. Beyond the hype of It and The Dark Tower, there were smaller, less successful television adaptations of Mr. Mercedes and The Mist, Netflix film adaptations of Gerald’s Game and 1922, and a Castlerock series in production at Hulu. But has there been a sudden spike in King stories making their way onto our screens? No, film and tv producers have been adapting Stephen King’s work at this absurd rate since King was first published. He is the most adapted western author ever. There have been over sixty films and thirty television shows inspired by King’s work, and more often than not, they make for some below average viewing material.
King’s first published novel – 1974’s Carrie – was also his first story to be adapted for the big screen. It was a resounding success, becoming one of the few horror films to be celebrated at the Oscars. Unfortunately, Hollywood can rarely leave well enough alone and they saw Carrie’s initial success as reason enough to adapt it a number of times since – into the 1988 disastrous stage musical, the 1999 sequel The Rage: Carrie 2, the 2002 television version and finally, the 2013 theatrical release. Each revision capitalised on King’s name, while losing even more of the original story.
The second adaption of King’s work – 1980’s The Shining – was even more successful than Carrie, but was loathed by the source material’s author. Director Stanley Kubrick’s vision for the film deviated drastically from the book. Though King would come to praise the film as a valuable contribution to the horror genre, he was open about his resentment at the film’s loss of themes in the book that were very personal to King, like the disintegration of family and the consequences of alcoholism.
The story of these first two adaptations alone sums up Hollywood’s approach to King’s work; to completely alienate the finished product from its source material or to drive one of King’s stories off into oblivion at the hands of multiple unnecessary sequels and remakes. In 1984, King wrote a screenplay for his book Children of the Corn, but to King’s anger, the producers opted for a different, more conventional script. Since then, there have been seven sequels. In 1992, King sued the producers of The Lawnmower Man for using the title of one of his stories, when all but one scene of the film was different. For four decades, Hollywood has been running wild with King’s stories.
Considering his long love-hate relationship with adaptations of his work, it’s difficult to understand why King sold the rights to any of his stories. The answer seems to be that King simply loves film. This is epitomised in his Dollar Deal scheme. King’s idea, which he called Dollar Baby, or Dollar Deal, offers the one-time rights to one of his short stories to independent and budget-less filmmakers, on the condition that the finished film is never distributed and they pay King a total sum of $1. Frank Darabont was a Dollar Baby when he adapted The Women in the Room from King’s The Night Shift collection. King enjoyed working with him so much that he went on to allow him to adapt The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist (though the third film in that list is nowhere near as revered by fans as the previous two). On King’s website, there is a still list of short stories waiting to be made into films by anyone who pleases.
Stephen King’s works are not the easiest to adapt for the screen. Often his books are too long. 2017’s It really only covers the first part of it’s colossal source material, that has over a thousand pages. In other cases, it impossible to see how King’s prose could be portrayed on screen. The book Gerald’s Game takes place almost entirely in one room and is told through the hallucinations of one women, and yet Netflix have turned it into a terrifying psycho-sexual thriller.
There have been incredibly notable exceptions to the rule of bad King adaptations; Stand By Me, Misery, Dolores Claiborne and this year’s reincarnation of It. There is a sense that you have to let anyone willing interpret your work, in order to get the adaptations that truly serves the original story. Then again, maybe King’s patience with mediocre adaptations of his work is wearing thin. Just this year, he has taken legal action to retain the licensing rights to a number of his famous works, including Cujo, Creepshow and Firestarter. Who knows what this could mean for future King-inspired films, but it seems that Hollywood’s fervor for Stephen King adaptations is in no danger of dying out anytime soon.
Muireann O’Shea – Film Editor