How to make great Stephen King movies

Focusing on characters and being inventive beyond the page are keys to creating strong adaptations of the author's works

The new Stephen King movie, It, stars Bill Skarsgard.
The new Stephen King movie, It, stars Bill Skarsgard.PHOTO: WARNER BROS PICTURES
Matthew McConaughey (far left) and Idris Elba star in The Dark Tower.
Matthew McConaughey (left) and Idris Elba star in The Dark Tower.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

LOS ANGELES • Hollywood is no clown, with film-makers having mined the works of horror king Stephen King for a shot at film or television success.

When It, the first in a planned two-part adaptation of his 1986 magnum opus, arrives in theatres on Friday, it will be one of six King films or TV series to be released this year.

The Mist and Mr Mercedes have premiered on the Spike and Audience networks respectively and The Dark Tower swept through cinemas only a month ago.

Gerald's Game and 1922 are both feature films premiering on Netflix in autumn.

Coming up with a grand unifying theory on what separates the great King adaptations from the flotsam and jetsam that have washed onto shore in the past three-plus decades is not easy. There is no single formula for success.

The Shining and The Mist have been adapted multiple times at widely varied lengths for both film and television.

Last year's solid Hulu series 11.22.63 allowed King's sprawling alternative history to stretch out over an eight-episode limited series while The Dark Tower, a tortured first go at King's The Gunslinger books, barely cracked the 90-minute mark.

Some have stuck to the page, letter by letter, and others have only a casual link to the text - neither approach is a guaranteed winner.

But there are some connections to be made among the strongest King adaptations.

The first is counter-intuitive: King characters are best understood from the inside out.

That goes against conventional wisdom because the most adaptable books tend to be short on interior monologue and long on external action.

Yet the true horror of films such as Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone and Christine has to do with transformation, of ordinary stresses escalating into supernatural possession.

In Brian De Palma's hands, Carrie (1976) turns a teenage girl's coming of age into a tale of profound isolation and sexual repression, with her desire for womanhood thwarted by her cackling peers on one side and the shame of her fanatically religious mother on the other.

Even when her extrasensory powers torch the high school on prom night, it is as heartbreaking as it is horrific, a manifestation of pain she can no longer manage.

In Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) and John Carpenter's Christine (1983), there is a chicken-and- egg quality to the relationship between the lead character and the sinister object of their obsession.

Perhaps the Overlook Hotel or that snarling 1958 Plymouth Fury would wreak havoc without them, but human weakness and temptation are animating forces in both films, to the point where a symbiosis develops between those forces.

David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983) makes a curse out of a gift, martyring a man who can see the future at the price of his life.

The other common thread is film-makers who refuse to act as stenographers and opt to invent or embellish beyond the page.

Despite all the misbegotten adaptations of his works, King is most famous for detesting what Kubrick did with The Shining, a film many would rank among the scariest of all time. But at the centre of that animus is King's perception of creative disrespect.

He wrote a deeply personal horror novel about alcoholism and authorship, only to have Kubrick strip it for parts with the ruthlessness of a chop-shop mechanic. Yet it was Kubrick's prerogative as an artist to reimagine the novel and make the movie a separate entity.

Although other film-makers have not been as dismissive of the source material, they have benefited from their own invention.

Frank Darabont had to expand on novellas to turn The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Mist (2007) into full-bodied features.

But the former now trades places with The Godfather (1972) as the top user-rated movie on online movie database IMDb and the latter concocts an ending of astonishing darkness.

A little creativity was also necessary to turn King's novella The Body into Stand By Me (1986), but director Rob Reiner honours the nostalgia and ache at the heart of the coming-of-age story.

When Reiner later took on King's Misery, about an author held captive by his biggest fan, he favoured psychological violence over the physical brutality of the novel, but he makes one thwack to the ankles count in the 1990 movie.

As for It, King's novel concerns a supernatural being that terrorises seven children, often in the form of a clown.

It also evokes a community in two time periods, the late 1950s and mid-1980s, and the psychological burdens that carry over from childhood to middle age.

The promotion of It has gone heavy on the clown imagery; there are even "clown-only" screenings scheduled for Alamo Drafthouse theatres across the United States.

But if the pattern holds, and a great screen adaptation is to be made out of It, scary clowns alone will not do the trick.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'How to make great Stephen King movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe