With “Under the Dome,” based on Stephen King’s bestseller, now renewed to stay under the dome for another season, and a movie adaptation of King’s novella, “A Good Marriage,” now in production with stars Anthony LaPaglia, Joan Allen and Stephen Lang, it seems fair to ask:
Is Stephen King the king of authors adapted to the screen?
If you actually go and check it out, you will determine that Stephen King is not the most-adapted author to the movies ever. Probably not surprisingly, that honor goes to William Shakespeare, who’s had well over 800 adaptations (though a number of those are television). You might be surprised to learn though Anton Chekov has well over 300, the majority of them non-English. Dumas, Dickens and Poe are huge.
But King is up there, and he’s still kicking. And with King, you not only have adaptations, you have a fair number of original screenplays and teleplays, and then there are the sequels and spin-offs. It’s a wildly impressive array of properties, and in case you were wondering, it completely puts the oft-adapted Nicholas Sparks to shame. What follows is the Spark Notes version of King’s career on the screen.
CARRIE, the movie that started the Stephen King craze.
It started with “Carrie.” Brian DePalma’s 1976 adaptation of King’s first published novel was a hit – over $33 million domestic against a budget of under $2 million – with a couple of Oscar nominations to boot. The movie edition paperback tie-in sold huge, and the King juggernaut was loose.
“Carrie” spawned a belated sequel, “The Rage: Carrie 2,” in 1999, which was critically drubbed flop. A 2002 made-for-TV remake was more faithful to the novel than DePalma’s in some respects, but drastically changed the ending in ways that smelled strongly of eau-de-TV pilot. A Broadway musical based on “Carrie” opened in 1988, closing after 16 previews and 5 performances. But “Carrie” is scarcely done with. A new remake, starring Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass,” “Let Me In,” “Dark Shadows”) and directed by Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), is scheduled to be released October 18th.
Despite the success of “Carrie,” it was 3 years before another King vehicle hit the screen. This time King, who had now already published 7 books (counting 2 published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), came to the small screen with a two-part, television adaptation of his 1975 vampire novel, “‘Salem’s Lot.”
“‘Salem’s Lot,” the story of novelist Ben Mears, who returns to his former hometown of ‘Salem’s Lot, Maine, only to find that the citizens are being turned into vampires by the town’s newest resident, is bar none the best vampire novel since “Dracula” and also one of the finest literary explorations of life in small town America since “Our Town.” The fact that it isn’t required reading for every high school student in the country is as alarming as our national math scores.
The screenplay of the miniseries, by “Peyton Place” creator Paul Monash, was reasonably faithful to the novel, despite a few key differences which have long-rankled King fans. The direction by Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) was properly moody and the production was well-mounted.
David Soul, the blond heartthrob cop of “Starsky & Hutch” fame, was unlikely casting as Ben Mears, described in the book as tall, dark haired and lanky. (Hmm – Stephen King is dark haired and well over six feet tall…) You might have thought Jeff Goldblum. But thank God it was Soul, who is very effective in the role of the tortured, young widower novelist. Soul brought surprising dignity, depth and credibility to the role. One problem with adapting Stephen King has always been casting his male leads. Soul remains a standout.
The rest of the cast, which included James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia (“Heart Like a Wheel,” “Die Hard”), Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, George Dzundza (“The Deer Hunter”), Lance Kerwin (“James at 15”), Kenneth McMillan (“Ragtime,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “True Confessions,” “Dune”), long-time movie and TV veteran Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr., whose career had already been going for a decade before he did “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart, was pure gold.
The jury was out on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of King’s “The Shining” from the get-go. That the movie is a horror classic has become increasingly the majority opinion in the decades since its release, but by no means unanimous. Nearly every aspect of Kubrick’s chilly film are either love it or hate, starting with the casting.
News that the famed director of “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” was going to do an unabashed horror movie, let alone by King, who seemed to be selling a book every ten seconds, initially prompted euphoria. “The Shining,” a creepy, psychological horror story about a writer and his family isolated in a deserted, snowbound, and conspicuously haunted resort hotel in Colorado was also emerging a favorite among King fans.
King’s character Jack Torrance is clearly an alcoholic, and star Jack Nicholson’s performance is alarmingly on point. But if we’re to believe that the Overlook Hotel, itself virtually a character in the movie, is responsible for Torrance’s descent into madness, it’s difficult to separate from Nicholson’s early scenes in the movie, where he already seems unstable. As Wendy Torrance, Shelley Duvall is either a self-deluded enabler or more simply, a blithering idiot.
This is by no means Kubrick’s best work, no matter how you look at it. His device of having child actor Danny Lloyd conversing with his imaginary friend Tony by talking to his finger and doing a phony voice didn’t work, doesn’t work, isn’t going to work. Yet some of Kubrick’s technique is very effective, and the deservedly famous scene, a significant deviation from the novel, where Wendy discovers Jack’s manuscript, page after page that says nothing but “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” is genuinely terrifying. Jack Nicholson’s line, possibly ad libbed, “Here’s Johnny…” has become iconic.
But no matter how you look at it, having Stanley Kubrick do your book means you just got big. For Stephen King, the Hollywood rollercoaster ride was just beginning.
“Creepshow” was a 1982 anthology movie deliberately modeled on the EC horror comic books of the fifties. King wrote the screenplay, most of which was original. Two stories were adapted from earlier short stories. Directed by George A. Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”), this had a pedigree that had to perk up hardcore horror fans, some of whom were still smarting over “The Shining.” “Creepshow” was made for a relatively modest $8 million, grossing back over $21 million.
The reviews were mixed. Some critics didn’t get it, pure and simple. Many simply didn’t appreciate the combination of arch humor and actual horror, which is where the movie gleefully lived and breathed. Some, like Roger Ebert, did. In its own way, “Creepshow” has become a minor horror classic.
The eighties were huge for King generally. In the entire decade, only 1981 and 1988 failed to see something hit theaters with King’s name in the credits. And even so there were well over ten King adaptations that decade. There were three King adaptations in 1983, two in ‘84, two in ‘85, two in ‘86. 1987 saw a sequel to “Creepshow,” an unofficial feature film sequel of sorts to “Salem’s Lot” entitled “A Return to Salem’s Lot” and an adaptation of “The Running Man,” a science fiction novel written by King under the Richard Bachman pen name.
A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT (I met this guy)
I actually was on the set of “A Return to Salem’s Lot,” which was shot up in St. Johnsbury and Peacham, Vermont. Michael Moriarty (“Law & Order”), Ricky Addison Reed, Andrew Duggan, June Havoc and director Samuel Fuller, making a rare on-screen appearance. Horror auteur Larry Cohen (“It’s Alive”) directed from his own screenplay, co-written by his frequent collaborator actor/writer James Dixon (no, no relation, but thanks for asking). While on hanging around outside an antique store being used as a location, I made the acquaintance of a young boy named Jake, whose home had apparently been used as a location and who now appeared to have the run of the set. Jake asked me if I wanted to see some vampires, and he didn’t have to ask twice. He then proceeded to walk me into an RV being used as a dressing room, where I found myself face-to-fang with half a dozen vampires in full makeup, whose cardgame I had just interrupted.
“Um, I’m with Jake,” I said, which was apparently a satisfactory answer. They went back to their game without killing me.
One of the vampires, who wasn’t playing cards, turned out to be a very involved animatronic bust of a vampire in full attack mode, which was Andrew Duggan’s stand-in for some shots. Jake had no compunction about manhandling it and showing me how the jaw moved, although I suspect it might have the single most expensive element of the production.
1983 saw the release of “Cujo,” “The Dead Zone” and “Christine.” “Cujo,” a land-locked “Jaws,” had Dee Wallace as a mother trapped in her car with her young son by a rabid St. Bernard. Directed by Lewis Teague, who had directed Roger Corman’s “The Lady in Red” and would go on to direct “The Jewel of the Nile,” “Cujo” was a workmanlike but amazingly unentertaining movie. “Cujo” is now only rented by hardcore King fans looking to fill out a weekend movie marathon.
“The Dead Zone” was a more interesting movie, but the nuances of the novel completely defeated the big screen, despite some good direction by David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken, no one’s idea of an everyman, was miscast as Johnny Smith, a teacher who awakens from a coma with psychic powers.
“Christine” was directed by horror superstar John Carpenter. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but he seems to be just a beat off for much of the movie. The acting is good, but some of the scariest stuff about King’s entertaining haunted car yarn didn’t make it to the screen. Universal had made “The Car,” about a possessed car, back in ‘77, and most audiences found that unintentionally funny. Christine didn’t quite suffer that fate, but the movie is lackluster at best.
And then there was “Firestarter” (1984).
For whatever reason, King’s novel worked as a road story. The movie works as a captivity story. Where the book is expansive, the movie is often claustrophobic. The special effects are superb, but as the prescient student critic for the Albany Student Press at the State University of New York at Albany said at the time, watching Drew Barrymore (fresh from “E.T. – The Extraterrestrial”) wander through a field of flaming corpses with a tear-streaked face isn’t particularly entertaining. Mark L. Lester (“Commando”) directed. The borderline suicidal stuntmen were the real stars.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN
1984 also saw “Children of the Corn,” based on a King short story. While by no means a good movie, Courtney Gains’ line “Outlander! We have your woman!” has become borderline iconic. Besides, once a movie spawns three or four sequels, you have to admit they’re on to something even if they are direct-to-video.
The nineties were pretty much as busy, with only 1991 not seeing a feature film based on a King property. However, that year saw the Stephen King written and produced TV series “Golden Years,” and the TV movie “Sometimes They Come Back,” based on a King short story. The nineties did see some of the best King adaptations.
Kathy Bates exploded to stardom with the 1990 adaptation of King’s novel “Misery,” winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Actress for her powerful, haunting portrayal of Annie Wilkes, an obsessive fan of a bestselling romance writer. Bates beat out a remarkable field of nominees, including Anjelica Huston for “The Grifters,” Julia Roberts for “Pretty Woman,” Meryl Streep for “Postcards from the Edge” and Joanne Woodward for “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.”
In 1993, Fraser Heston, son of Charlton Heston, directed a reasonably faithful adaptation of King’s absorbing novel “Needful Things” for the big screen. Max Von Sydow played the mysterious curio shop owner Leland Gaunt, who in the movie is treated pretty as much as the devil himself. Ed Harris and Bonnie Bedelia co-starred. A crew member who had worked with Charlton Heston on a number of films, came over to pay his respects when the Oscar winner visited the set. As Heston, who had played the infant Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” directed Von Sydow, who had played Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the crew member reportedly told Heston, “Well there’s something you don’t see every day, Chuck. Moses telling Jesus how to play the devil.”
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Frank Darabont adapted and directed “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1994, based on King’s extraordinary prison novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Arguably the best adaptation to date of a King story, Darabont’s movie is also one of the best prison movies ever made. Tim Robbins gives the performance of a career as Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongfully convicted of murdering his unfaithful wife and her lover. Morgan Freeman’s performance as Red, a lifer who eventually befriends Dufresne is unforgettable. Multiple Tony nominee Bob Gunton cemented his prominence as the dislikeable and/or corrupt executive or bureaucrat of choice.
1994 also saw “The Stand,” a 366 minute miniseries based on King’s post-apocalyptic novel. I have actually seen this on some worst Stephen King adaptation lists, which is frankly ridiculous. After some of the casting in some other King adaptations, this is the one you want to pick on? Gary Sinise was solid and credible as East Texas native Stu Redman, a good old boy who has what it takes to survive in a world almost completely depopulated by a virus we shipped up ourselves. Molly Ringwald’s performance as Frannie Goldsmith, a girl next door from Maine was impeccable. Ruby Dee was dead-on as Mother Abigail. Ossie Davis and Ray Walston turned in excellent performances as plague survivors struggling to ensure they don’t spend their retirement years in Hell. Bill Fagerbakke does the best work of his career as Tom Cullen, a developmentally delayed adult who may nonetheless be in direct contact with God. Rob Lowe was perfectly believable as Nick Andros, a deaf mute who befriends him. Jamey Sheridan, as Randall Flagg, “The Walkin’ Dude,” made an indelible impression. And yes, Kathy Bates does a cameo.
Frank Darabont came back to King again in 2007 with a feature adaptation of King’s novella, “The Mist,” which starred Thomas Jane (“The Punisher”) and the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden (“Miller’s Crossing,” “Space Cowboys”). Widely considered one of the best King adaptations, it also features an ending critics are tarred and feathered for blowing.
Coming soon to a theater near you…
King is still writing – his long-anticipated sequel to “The Shining,” “Dr. Sleep,” will be published amidst much hoopla this fall. I’d expect a movie adaptation. It can get in line with the other dozen King adaptations currently in development. The King of horror may end up being the King of Hollywood yet.