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Stephen King from Page to Screen: Some Shine, Some Redeem, and Some Bite

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

It’s officially spooky season. That means flannels are out, I have a bag of hand picked apples sitting on my counter reminding me that I really should have made that apple crisp by now, and it’s time to revisit some Stephen King favorites. King’s reputation as a horror writer has always been problematic simply because as an author he is so much more than that. He crafts situations, villains, and heroes that rightfully establish him as a cornerstone of the horror genre, but his novels transcend fear as a device. His world-building is unparalleled, and his knack for crafting three-dimensional, living breathing characters is irresistible. However, in spite of how limiting and reductive the horror label is when discussing King’s work, it must be admitted that he is a key part of the much-loved horror communities of literature and film alike. Take a look at King with his house–a house King himself said at first “disapproved of us”–he knows he’s basically the mascot.

Stephen King

Speaking of King’s home, the genius lives with his wife Tabitha in Bangor, Maine, which incidentally was the inspiration for the fictional town of Derry. If you know King’s work, you know this makes him just as much of a local color writer as a horror writer, as the universe he creates and recreates in his novels is in a supernatural, parallel-universe version of his home state. There is no discussion of horror in American culture without Stephen King’s classically terrifying stories; stories which tend to succeed not because of the gore but because of the real and relatable fear he instills in our brains and hearts. These tales are all worth experiencing in their original written form, but the following list is concerned with the seemingly countless attempts to bring Stephen King’s works to life on the silver screen. Here are some of his more prominent films, sorted into those that totally bite, those that make a redeeming attempt, and those that truly shine. And yes, there is a brief but important category focused simply on “films featuring roles only Kathy Bates could ever have played.”

Films that Bite

It

Cujo (1983): This film isn’t awful as a standalone experience. This film falls short as an adaptation mostly because of the novel it is based on. In Cujo, King makes the brilliant choice to narrate several passages from the dog Cujo’s own perspective. The depth of feeling a reader has for a beloved family pet who contracts rabies and doesn’t understand what is happening to him as he becomes sicker and more violent is indescribable. The reader learns, “It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog…he had never wanted to kill anybody” (King). This is a depth of perspective and narrative that is entirely absent from the film. The identification and intimacy with the antagonist of the novel complicates the experience of the story and imbues it with a vast emotional range. The film does nothing to establish meaningful sympathy for the dog, although it is acknowledged that his aggressive behavior is out of character. The film is quintessentially 80s in style, and relies too heavily on a mother and son screaming in a car, alternated with closeups of an ever-declining, foam-mouthed Saint Bernard. Much of the inner, psychological horror and raw grief of the novel is lost in the translation of Cujo to the big screen. King’s strength is in character building and the truth of an inner monologue when confronting fear and mortality, and this film just doesn’t get there.

It (1990): Technically, this adaptation is a miniseries. Tim Curry is an immensely talented fan favorite, so it’s unfortunate that this adaptation fails, but it does fall short of the novel on which it is based. It is a 1,138 page tome of epic proportions. It spans decades, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, and the villain is an ancient evil entity as old as the universe itself, who knows and can shape-shift into the form of any child’s worst fear. It feasts on the fear of children and then lies, like a horrific dormant cicada, under Derry for 27 years plotting its next strike. The scope and sheer hopelessness of being faced with a villain of this proportion is lost when this complexity is flattened. The miniseries reduces this cosmic monster, for the majority of the miniseries, to a sewer clown. The shapeshifting and the timelessness take a backseat to Tim Curry’s admittedly terrifying performance as Pennywise, and the friendships of the Losers Club. Curry’s performance was rightly commended, but Pennywise is only one tiny sliver of the true horror the novel brings to life. The depth of what makes It such an insurmountable, timeless evil suffers in favor of the iconic clown imagery of It.

Films That Redeem Themselves

The Shining

The Shining (1980): This film is strong, especially with Jack Nicholson at the helm. It birthed some truly unforgettable moments in cinema, and for this reason it must be praised. Nicholson truly captures the decline into madness that Jack Torrance suffers through his winter in the Overlook Hotel, and in many of his scenes the power of his acting is bone-chilling. Where the film falls short is in its failure to truly capture the spirit and focus of the novel. “The shine,” as hotel cook Dick Halloran calls his and Danny’s supernatural power, has a complex backstory in the novel, and the telepathic communication and inner relationship between Dick and Danny is deeply underdeveloped in the film. Similarly underdeveloped is the role of Wendy Torrance. Shirley Duvall is primarily tasked with cowering, screaming, and running, which seems a deep disservice to the strong and complex woman King originally wrote. King himself said in an interview with BBC that Kubrick and Duvall’s Wendy Torrance was “basically there to scream and be stupid” (King, BBC). Even the entire nuanced family dynamic of the struggling Torrances is lost. In addition to being a supernatural horror novel, The Shining is largely about the disintegration of a family due to Jack’s alcoholism and resulting unemployment and neglect and abuse of his family. Again, this is a film that suffers the loss in translation of the narration and inner lives of the characters that King created. Ultimately, Nicholson’s performance is the most redeeming element of the film, raising The Shining up.

It and It Chapter Two (2017, 2019): These are actually very strong films. The cast chosen to portray the Losers Club in childhood is a well-selected, highly talented group of child actors, and their adult counterparts are pitch-perfect. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise is unforgettably terrifying. These films do a much better and more thorough job of capturing the multifaceted elements to the evil cosmic villain than its miniseries predecessor. Where it falls short is in the narrative structure. The novel It has been criticized for being too lengthy and winding. This is actually a novel in which the sheer expansiveness of King’s universe building is on full display. King creates lore, legend, and individual encounters with Pennywise that span history, dating before Derry was even incorporated as a town. The scale of It as a villain cannot truly be observed without the sprawling domain King gives It in the novel. While many of these side stories and legends are alluded to in the films in the form of Easter eggs, which is a delightful treat for a fan of the book, it is still difficult to appreciate the scope of the horror without having previously read the novel. In addition, the films fall into the trap of relegating the childhood encounter with Pennywise and the adult encounter twenty-seven years later into their own films. While It Chapter Two does flash back to childhood at times, it is much less cohesive and satisfying than the novel, which integrates and reveals both battles with this villain seamlessly. Ultimately, the acting performances and the visual effects of these films redeem them and make them well worth watching–especially if you have read the novel.

Films That Shine (Ironically, not The Shining)

The Shawshank Redemption

Stand by Me (1986): King states in the documentary Walking the Tracks: The Summer of Stand by Me that this film is the only adaptation of one of his novels with which he is completely satisfied. Rob Reiner perfectly interprets the childhood friendships, loss of innocence, and identity struggles that the novella “The Body” tackles. Interestingly, one of the major indicators of the success of the film adaptation is the very fact that the novella and the film do not share a title. While the novella focuses on Gordie’s individual loss of innocence and the how he and his friends support each other through the life-changing moment of seeking out and seeing a dead body for the first time, the film Stand by Me focuses heavily on the irreplaceable and inimitable friendships of the boys on the journey together. As King says in The Body,” and Richard Dreyfuss as Gordie says in the Stand by Me, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve” (King). Reiner’s film flawlessly captures the essence of each character and of the group of friends as a whole, knowing when to liberally quote King’s writing directly and when to let the strategically-cast child actors guide a scene. The key factor in this adaptation is that it does just that–it adapts. Stand by Me does not attempt to be identical to “The Body,” rather, it faithfully captures the spirit of the source story by using the strengths of the medium of film to its advantage. Stand by Me is its own work of art, and it translates the novella from which it is derived rather than attempting a copy.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Whether or not you are familiar with the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the film by a slightly different name is no less than a masterpiece. Similarly to Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption was inspired by a novella in the collection Different Seasons, and the strength of the film lies in its willingness to be a different piece of art from its source material. On multiple turns, The Shawshank Redemption changes plot elements to better utilize the visually driven media of film. Tommy, an inmate who teases Andy DuFresne with knowledge about his family’s true killer, and the Warden never actually die in the novella; Tommy is transferred to another prison and the Warden resigns in disgrace. This change was a wise one. Some films lose depth in translation when inner narratives of the novels are lost, but in showing visually striking violent deaths the turmoil of Andy’s escape is captured on screen in its own way. The novella and film are both entirely narrated by Red, who in the novella is genuinely a redheaded Irishman. This allows for a wonderfully funny tongue-in-cheek nod to the novella when Morgan Freeman’s Red responds to a question about the nickname by saying, “maybe it’s because I’m Irish.”

Films That Make Us Want To Thank (And Run Away Screaming From) Kathy Bates

Misery

Dolores Claiborne (1995): This film was an intimidating undertaking from the outset, as the novel of the same name revolves around a stunning first-person narrative perspective. The entire novel is told solely in Dolores’s voice, as she is giving a police interview regarding the suspicious death of her husband. The novel has no chapters and no section breaks; it is instead written in a continuously transcribed spoken monologue. A novel this stunning was bound to lose some key depth and value in a translation to film, and that is unfortunately the case in this one. The comprehensive window we get into Dolores Claiborne’s consciousness, and the familiarity and intimacy we feel with her voice as she tells her own story is lost. However, this film is worth watching for Kathy Bates’s masterful portrayal of the strong, gruff, tenacious titular character. In true Kathy Bates fashion, she commands the screen in Dolores Claiborne and owns the film, conveying the spirit of the character, even if the vehicle of the film does not allow a viewer to know her as intimately as the novel does. Ultimately, Bates is always worth a watch.

Misery (1990): Again, Kathy Bates steals the spotlight in Misery. This film is successful in capturing the horror of crazed super-fan Annie Wilkes, and the gradual revelation of the depths of her homicidal madness is no less impactful than in the novel. What the film does not live up to is, again, a feature that only a novel could adequately provide. As novelist and main character Paul Sheldon (James Caan) attempts at Annie Wilkes’ behest to create a new Misery novel, the keys on the old typewriter he uses give out on him one by one. As Annie descends into madness and Paul’s situation grows increasingly desperate, more keys break and Paul is forced to begin handwriting the missing letters into the manuscript. The reader is actually treated to full passages and chapters of Paul Sheldon’s Misery novels, and this incorporation adds realism and a creative narrative and structural element to the novel. Thanks to the way Caan and Bates interact on screen, much of this tension and growing suspense does make its way onto the screen. Another Reiner production, it is one of the more successful King adaptations. The film knows when to strategically divert from the original novel in order to retain the impact and tone of the work. Misery is a shocking and stressful delight, in no small part due to Kathy Bates’ flawless portrayal of Annie Wilkes.

Stephen King

The one thing that the most successful film adaptations of Stephen King novels all have in common is their willingness to treat the novels as inspiration, rather than strict prescriptions. A film will never be a carbon copy of a novel, nor should it be if it is to be done well. Novel and film are necessarily vastly different media, and the same strategies and blueprints just don’t always work in both forms. Among other reasons, this is a factor in so many King films suffering in ratings. A truly successful adaptation of a work as deep, human, and psychological as King’s needs to be willing to not just transcribe the original work, but truly translate it for its audience. The films that are able to capture the essence of what King accomplishes in his novels are the ones that utilize the unique language of film to open a window into the truths of the literature at its core, without relying on the finer points of the source novels as a crutch. This balance often requires making deliberate changes or additions to the novel, and these changes, if done with intention and understanding, are what separates “the book was better” movies from truly astounding and cherished films. This spooky season, take some time to curl up with some awe-inspiring novels and their film counterparts.

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  1. One I feel is deeply underrated was John Carpenter’s Christine. In the day and age of incels and the Alt-Right, Arnie’s metamorphosis from nerd into obsessive monster feels like an accidental prophecy. His unhinged rant near the end is reminiscent of a school shooter manifesto. The car is not the scariest thing about the film anymore, and maybe never was. Keith Gordon’s performance also aged incredibly well.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! I haven’t actually seen Christine, but I’ll definitely check it out!

  3. Had no idea until now that the Cujo novel had passages from the dog’s perspective, which sounds brilliant and heartbreaking. To your point, I have no idea how something like that could be translated to screen (save for following the dog for the entire runtime or perhaps a Kevin Costner-voiced inner monologue), but I would really like to see a film adaptation that tries.

    Side note: I saw Secret Window for the first time last week, and I would definitely place it in the ‘Films that Bite’ tier. Not a fan of that ending at all, but at least John Turturro looked like he was enjoying himself.

      • Brand names appear pretty often in King’s work. I like that it ties the stories to the real world. Sure, Derry could be falling apart at the hands of an ancient supernatural evil, but the general store still stocks Lipton Cup-a-Soup. And downward-spiraling writers can quench their thirst with Mountain Dew (for better or worse, he drinks Pepsi in the novella).

  4. I’m kicking myself that I forgot about Secret Window! I agree that it isn’t the best film…it’s a bit heavy-handed, and kind of ruined corn for me for a little while.

    I would love to hear more about Kevin Costner as the casting choice for a Cujo inner monologue. A version where the dog is more human and sympathetic would definitely get me to watch.

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Written by Casey Tinston

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