Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 3
I am not aware of a single living author who has generated more big and small screen adaptations of his work than Stephen King. By my count, King’s novels, novellas, and short stories have been made into 34 feature-length films (including a Bollywood production), three TV series, 11 TV miniseries, and 18 separate short films (most of which I have seen, for better or for worse). Currently, the third adaptation of Carrie is in production, and remakes are in the works for two of King’s most renowned epics – The Stand (with director Ben Affleck) and It (with director Cary Fukunga).
Although some of the best adaptations of King’s work fall well outside the genre he is most known for (Stand By Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994)), in the spirit of the season, I offer my own personal favorite horror films adapted from his stories.
The Shining (1980)
The setup of director Stanley Kubrick’s film is simple enough. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, where he, his wife Wendy (Shelly Duval), and child Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be snowbound for the winter. While it has become a cliché to refer to a setting in a movie as a “character,” the Overlook is alive and has an agenda. But Danny’s amorphous psychic perceptions add the element that could thwart the Overlook’s plans to add the Torrance family to the list of victims in its storied history.
It goes without saying that Nicholson’s performance is enigmatic. Unlike the novel, the film does not treat Jack as a sympathetic character. He is extremely self-centered. He suffers from writer’s block, although it is unclear that he ever graduated from school teacher to Serious Writer. All in all, Jack is a loser, and a sore one at that. And in Jack’s interview with the hotel management at the beginning of the film, he expresses social graces with such a grain of sarcasm that it should be no surprise that his issues with anger-management and authority overtake him once he leaves the confines of society for the seclusion of the Overlook. Whether Nicholson hits it out of the park or overplays it is in the eyes of the beholder, but on this question, I tend to agree with Kubrick – interesting is always better than realistic.
It is well known that co-writers Kubrick and Diane Johnson took great liberties with the original novel. King was not pleased, and he took it upon himself to write the teleplay for a TV-miniseries that originally aired in 1997, which is, for the record, awful. (Ironically, rumor has it that in order to reacquire the film rights back from Kubrick, King had to tone down his criticisms of the original film.) But Kubrick’s film is one example of an adaptation where the visual storytelling of the original film far transcends the source material. Arguably, the Kubrick/Johnson characterizations are more convincing in the sense that Jack only needs a tip to the dark side (as opposed to hard shoves in the novel) and the wife of such a character needs to be a bit slight and indecisive (as opposed to a headstrong semi-feminist). And when it comes to topiary terrors, menacing mazes prove to be much more effective than animated animals. In any case, if you are willing to accept the notion that a movie director is an artist and the novel he adapts is merely a canvas for his own expression, then you may find that the film has a unique depth of its own that goes well beyond the original cautionary tale about the evils of alcoholism. (Indeed, there is a feature-length documentary – 237 (2012) – currently making the festival circuit that deals with the obsessive nature of this film’s interpretations.)
The Dead Zone (1983)
I imagine that it seemed like a great match in 1982. The main character in King’s acclaimed fifth novel, The Dead Zone, acquires the power of psychometry. David Cronenberg had recently directed two successful horror movies dealing with psychosomatic conditions, telepathy, and telekinesis (The Brood (1979), Scanners (1983)). Although a great match on paper does not always translate into a successful film (e.g., The Dark Half (1993), directed by George Romero), Paramount had a commercial and critical hit with The Dead Zone.
At the beginning of the story, everyman schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is in the early stages of a romance with the love of his life, Sarah (Brooke Adams), when he is plunged into a five-year coma as a result of a car accident. When Johnny awakens, he finds that while he has lost everything important to him (Sarah has married and had a child), he has also gained the power to touch a person and see the most harrowing episodes of that person’s future and past. Although both the novel and the film have an episodic pacing, as Johnny learns that the power is both a gift and a curse, we also come to realize that the clock is running on Johnny. And he has a date with destiny involving a rising populist politician, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), which ultimately provides one of the most subversive endings to any of King’s stories.
In commenting on the movie, Cronenberg stated that “[i]n order to be faithful to the book, you have to betray the book.” That said, this particular adaptation takes less liberties with the source material than the successful cable TV series would two decades later. The title, the artwork for the promotional poster, and the fact that the film begins with a recitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” all suggest an exercise in horror; but for better or for worse, Michael Kamen’s imposing score seems to signal a right turn into pure melodrama. And the film has a more traditional Hollywood feel than any of Cronenberg’s work up to that date.
That said, Cronenberg’s fingerprints are there to be found if you are looking for them (e.g., the sequence where the police track down a serial killer). Like his immediately preceding film, Videodrome (1983), Cronenberg avoids portraying the line between perception and extra-perception. Instead of using the typical flourishes as obvious signposts to Johnny’s psychic visions (e.g., spinning, blurring, etc.), both Johnny and the viewer are directly thrust into the world of those visions – a choice that imparts a unsettling sense of reality to what is fundamentally supernatural. And although Johnny feels like he is a part of those moments, he is powerless to act – like a mute witness to a crime.
But in this case, the best decision Cronenberg makes is to allow the actors sell the story. To exhibit a superpower that drains one’s life force, it helps that Walken looks a bit like the living dead. Adams exudes a quiet melancholy even when she shares one afternoon of what-could-have-been with the damaged Johnny. And Sheen plays awould-be senator with such a sense of real desire that seems to elude most of today’s candidates for the highest offices. All three of the performances really work to make this one of the most effective genre films of the 1980s.
King was in his commercial prime when he released the psychological thriller Misery along with four other novels during a 15-month period in 1986/1987. Misery was originally slated for publication under King’s pen name, Richard Bachman – an outlet for some of his more un-King-like novels. However, the connection was discovered by an industrious bookstore clerk in 1985. And as the story goes, King ultimately decided to release the novel in response to his fans’ negative reaction to The Eyes of the Dragon, an unexpected fantasy novel seemingly aimed at a young teen audience.
In this case, the source material is so engrossing that the strength of the movie lies with the performances of the proverbial two characters in a room – Paul Sheldon (James Caan), the purveyor of a widely popular series of historical romance novels based on the character Misery Chastain, and Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her performance), his #1 fan. On the eve of the release of his final Misery novel, and having just completed his first effort as Serious Writer, Paul’s car crashes off a deserted road in the midst of a blizzard. The physically formidable Annie, a former nurse, saves Paul from the wreck, takes him back to her isolated farmhouse, sets his broken legs, and brings him back to health. Unfortunately, the snow covers any signs of the crash, and when the car is finally found several weeks later, Paul is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Paul is confined to a wheelchair at the mercy of Annie’s “generosity,” and Paul’s #1 fan is not pleased with his recent literary choices. What ensues is a game of cat-and-mouse, while the narrative flirts with questions of whether the artist should create for himself or his audience and who really owns the art when it becomes a product. From a psychological perspective, the atrocities that Paul (as artist) is forced to endure make the torture porn that dominated the horror genre during the aughts feel like child’s play.
The screenplay, adapted by Hollywood veteran William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President’s Men (1976)), is true enough to the relatively taut novel. And Rob Reiner, who had previously adapted a King novella with commercial success (Stand By Me), provides a workman-like direction (even if he relies a bit too heavily on the wide angle close-up of Bates). Although it is impossible to capture the novel-within-a-novel aspects on screen, the film is as effective as it needs to be.
Apt Pupil (1998)
Different Seasons, a collection of three King novellas and a short story published in 1982, has proven to be the most fertile source of material for film adaptations – most notably outside the horror genre. In contrast to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, Apt Pupil – appropriately subtitled “Summer of Corruption” – is one of the most provocative stories King has ever written.
The setting is a pre-internet/mobile phone suburbia, and all-American boy, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), an academically proficient high school student, discovers that an elderly neighborhood shut-in (Ian McKellan) is really a Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander. But instead of turning Dussander in to authorities, Todd presses the seemingly helpless man for stories about the worst atrocities committed during the war. Dialogue becomes the instrument of evil. The evil is the indulgence in the basest of human motivations. And Todd gradually evolves into Dussander’s apt pupil.
If the story comes across as farfetched, or it seems like King is overplaying a teenage boy’s propensity for cruelty, you need only look to the local news for similar stories. And that is what makes the story all the more horrifying. There are no ghosts or haunted places to push Todd over the edge. Todd was not abused as a child. Rather, Todd has the inclinations and takes those steps himself.
Director Bryan Singer was fresh off his breakthrough debut The Usual Suspects (1995) when he actively sought to bring this story to the big screen – even foregoing an opportunity to direct The Truman Show (1998). Based on the spec scrip by Brandon Boyce, King reportedly optioned the rights to Singer for $1. The choice was a wise one. Singer is adept at creating a subtly uncomfortable atmosphere. Throughout the first half of the film, the dark meetings of Todd and Dussander are illuminated with the yellow of the California sun. And the casting is perfect, as Renfro and McKellan turn in two of the least appreciated performances of the 1990s.
To be sure, Singer and Boyce tone down the sadism, the anti-Semitism, and the homoeroticism of the source material. Certain scenes in the book could never make it onto the screen without a commercially disastrous NC-17 rating, and perhaps it is the exploitative overkill (so to speak) of the novella that is unnecessary. That said, the open ending portrayed in the film ultimately proves to be far more disturbing than the rather predictable conclusion to the novella.
The premise of 1408 is certainly not original. (Instead of being trapped in a hotel with a main character may or may not be losing his mind, we are trapped in a hotel room located on what is actually the 13th floor with the digits of the room number adding up to …) Nonetheless, it took two screenplays by three different screenwriters (Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski) to adapt what was a bare bones short story into a feature-length film. And director Mikael Håfström’s only previous attempt at a Hollywood movie, Derailed (2005), was a critical failure. All of this would seem to be a recipe for mediocrity (or worse), but 1408 proves to be one of the most thoughtful cinematic takes on any King horror story.
At the beginning, we find Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a former Serious Writer, venturing across the country to add installments to his pulpy travelogues of all places haunted. If Mike had once intended to find ghosts, his long search has turned up empty – leaving him cynical, if not humorless. As he returns home from his road trip, he finds an anonymous postcard from a Manhattan hotel with the simple message, “Don’t enter 1408.” Seeing the postcard as a challenge, he calls the hotel to find that room 1408 is not available. Ever. His publisher’s lawyer compels the management to allow him to stay there under a federal civil rights law. When he arrives, the hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel Jackson) makes one last plea to Mike, which he takes as mere hype-building. Although Mike has done his homework, Gerald’s own file reveals to him the true death toll – since 1912, 56 people died from causes as innocuous as heart attacks and as gruesome as self-mutilation. We are told that nobody has lasts more than an hour. But true to the genre conventions, Mike takes the room, blithely dismissing Gerald’s warnings (“Do you know why I can stay in your spooky old room? Because I know that ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties don’t exist, and even if they did, there is no god to protect us from them, is there?”)
Once Mike arrives in room 1408, the festivities begin slowly. A clock radio spontaneously blaring The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” A thermostat goes on the fritz. A painting inexplicably tilts off center. And then the clock sets itself to a 60-minute countdown. The room seems to have its own intended destination for Mike, but the road travels through a Dante’s Inferno of the subconscious as we learn more about his own emotional burdens. What starts as an exercise in cheap scares evolves into a contemplation on the nature of despair. As film critic Mick LaSalle put it, “go for the gimmick, but stay for the ideas and the emotion.”
To be sure, the movie is not perfect. The Wild Strawberries-lite subplot and the preachy apparitions of Gerald are unnecessary. But while Cusack doing terrified can seem foreign to the viewer familiar with his work, he is also one of the few actors who has been able to reflect King’s satirical sense of humor on to the big screen. And frankly, who wouldn’t want to follow Lloyd Dobler into a haunted house?
(NOTE: Håfström’s original ending tested negatively in pre-release screenings, and the result was the release of a more user-friendly theatrical cut. I strongly recommend the director’s cut – available on Blu Ray and on the second disc of the DVD special edition – where the narrative rabbit-hole runs a little deeper and the ending is less of a cheat.)
Treading On Sacred Ground
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have read just over half of King’s 49 novels and several of his collections of shorter works – including every book published prior to 1989. That said, I am much more of a cinephile than an avid reader.
My own personal favorite novel by King is Pet Sematary (1983). I originally read the 416-page hardcover in one day. The storytelling seemed so much more efficient than what I had come to expect from King, as if he was trying to exorcise the story from his mind. As a teenager, I admired how far he pushed the topical envelope – even for a horror story. (Legend has it that King buried the finished manuscript in a chest and only brought it back out to settle a contract dispute with Doubleday.) But the book still resonates with me 25 years after I read it because it is a much more personal take on the familiar tropes first tackled in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Of all of the stages of grief, King focuses on what may be the most destructive – denial. And the use of genre simply becomes a means of playing with the what-ifs.
Two years after I read the book, the original movie was released. King himself drafted the screenplay, which faithfully followed the novel, and Mary Lambert (Siesta (1987)) directed. There is nothing particularly awful or inspiring about the adaptation. And therein lies the lesson – slavish service to the source material, and striving for mere competence, makes for a flat film.
In 2010, it was reported that Matt Greenberg (1408) was drafting a screenplay, with Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)) wanting to direct. Del Toro would be a fine choice, but his name also seems to pop up every three months or so with some new project that he “plans” to undertake – the latest being an Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast adaptation. So I am not holding my breath. In fact, I am not even sure I want to see another screen adaptation.
(NOTE: At the end of his 2008 collection of previously adapted short stories, Stephen King Goes to the Movies, King lists his own top 10 favorite adaptations, which include three of the films mentioned above – Misery, Apt Pupil, and 1408.)