Stephen King Week: The Stephen King Equation, or, why are there so many Stephen King films?
This guest post is brought to you by Jennifer from sennydreadful.com.
“I love the movies, and when I go to see a movie that’s been made from one of my books, I know that it isn’t going to be exactly like my novel because a lot of other people have interpreted it. But I also know it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year, or a year and a half of my life working on it” – Stephen King
Has any other writer seen so many of his books and short stories played out on the big screen? I doubt it. There have been some howlers, it’s true – King’s Sleepwalkers is the sort of film you will only willingly watch when half cut and kebab-laden – but we’ve had more than a reasonable number of hits, too. What is it about his stories that clamour to be made into films?
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption wasn’t an obvious choice for a film adaptation; only dedicated fans, constant readers, if you will, had even really heard of the novella, but it made a great film. In fact, I suspect that if you asked people, The Shawshank Redemption is a film that appears in top three all time favourite films lists with surprising regularity, and if you didn’t cry during that final scene on the beach it’s probably a scientific fact that your soul was stolen by a goblin in the night. Or something. The key to this film, and the novella it’s based on, is a likeable if slightly odd character, Andy Dufresne, suffering a huge injustice and being placed in a dreadful situation. We know that what has happened to him is wrong, and we feel every setback, every moment of misery. But he wins through.
There are so many emotional moments in Shawshank it’s almost too much. Andy playing music to the inmates, Brooks brief stint on the outside, and, well, pretty much anything Morgan Freeman says. Of course, casting Morgan Freeman as Red (a character originally described in the novella as a red-haired Irishman) was a stroke of genius; the whole film is wrapped up in his extraordinary narration.
Just recently we very sadly lost Michael Clarke Duncan, a fine actor who is probably best remembered for his role in The Green Mile. Originally released in parts, The Green Mile was a modern day serial; to me, not a great one – I could never quite get over the immortal mice – but I enjoyed it well enough. The film though, was brilliant; visually striking with its muted greens and use of searing light in darkness, and about as well cast as a film ever could be. Tom Hanks as a troubled everyman? Check. Michael Clarke Duncan as a mysterious and tragic gentle giant? Check. Doug Hutchison as a sleazy scumbucket you’d cheerfully kick in the guts until his anus fell off? Check.
Again we have an essentially good man facing a monstrous injustice, and although he isn’t given the freedom the audience wants for him, he does find a kind of peace. Again, check your souls at the door if you didn’t cry at this.
And there’s The Mist. I remember reading “The Mist” in Skeleton Crew a long, long time ago and I absolutely loved it. Looking back, I suspect it was because of all the unanswered questions; we don’t really know what has happened or how exactly reality has been broken, and we never really find out what happens to David’s wife – like the terrifying creatures preying on the unfortunate souls trapped in the supermarket, everything is lost in the fog. There were hints though, tantalising hints. And so help me, I do like an ambiguous ending.
The film, another reasonably faithful adaptation from Frank Darabont, is a lovely little horror movie and actually one of only two properly scary movies on my list. The situation is hopeless, and there are just as many monsters in the supermarket as outside – King always does a good line in human monsters. The main character is a generally good man stuck in a terrible situation, a theme that is particularly brought home in the final scene… a scene which I suspect is one of the most agonizing endings in cinema history, a sucker punch so brutal it almost made me wish for the “no answers for you!” ending of the novella. Once seen, never forgotten.
All three films work so well because Frank Darabont knows what makes a Stephen King story work. He has the essential formula figured out, and he takes it and uses it mercilessly; ordinary people, good and flawed and likeable people, thrown into untenable situations. And follow that up with the pain and joy that comes from striving against injustice. King and Darabont both know that this is how a story really rips your heart out.
There are two other films that need to be mentioned here. Firstly, Stand by Me, based on the novella The Body. A simple coming of age story on the surface, The Body is actually a story about grief and loss – the loss of those people close to you, but also what you lose when you become an adult. Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner, was a film I actually got to watch repeatedly growing up because my older female cousins were big fans of River Phoenix, and I remember it being a favourite of mine too; I loved the story about the kid eating all the pies, the panic over the leeches, Teddy playing chicken with the train. Now when I watch it I usually can’t get more than fifteen minutes in without weeping like a snotty kid. I tell you what, the older you get, the more you see the sadness in that film. It’s another King film that works because of the sucker punch, and because of injustice towards essentially good people – Chris Chambers was the sort of friend we all needed growing up, and he didn’t steal that damn lunch money.
And you know what? “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” *blub blub blub*
Stephen King himself famously wasn’t all that keen on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – he disagreed with the casting of Jack Nicholson and wanted it filmed at the hotel that originally inspired the book. There’s no doubt that The Shining is a terrifying and note-perfect horror film, but perhaps there is a reason it doesn’t fit as easily with the other films on this list. In all the others we see characters who are flawed and troubled but ultimately good, facing up to terrible situations, and most of the time, winning through. You never doubt the humanity of the protagonist. In the book it is very clear that it is The Overlook that is evil; it takes advantage of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism and uses it to possess him and attempt to murder his family. In the film, the emphasis was shifted away from the supernatural aspects so the cause of the horror at the hotel is a lot more ambiguous. Torrance isn’t an especially likeable man, and although the casting of Jack Nicholson is near iconic now (honestly, try reading the book these days without picturing him as Torrance) there is such an aura of danger to Nicholson that, come on, who in their right mind would leave him in a deserted hotel surrounded by axes and shit? That’s just asking for trouble.
The Shining is a brilliant, dazzling film that doesn’t quite manage to convey the same kind of horror as the book because our loyalties are adrift. Book-Torrance is no saint, but, like all King’s main characters he is human, and it is his struggle against the forces of the Overlook that deliver the Patented Stephen King Sucker Punch to your delicate bits. The film is beautiful and frightening, but it doesn’t rip my heart out like the other films on this list.
(thanks to the clip below I have just noticed that the curtains in our bedroom bear an uncanny resemblance to the carpet in the Overlook. Nice.)
So, what films will we have on the horizon, and will they be any good?
Back in the day when I spent most of my waking hours on a fan forum called DarkTower.net, there was a long standing joke that the first thread started by any newbie was always a “Who do you think should play Roland in a Dark Tower movie?” thread. Oh, how we laughed. It seemed like an impossible task; The Dark Tower is a sprawling fantasy western epic, with a hero so iconic he may well be uncastable, and a set of creatures that will have to be treated very carefully if they are to avoid looking silly on the big screen (gigantic robo-bears, anyone?). But as the years go by and cinema gets more comfortable with treating fantasy seriously, I think there is a chance that The Dark Tower will get the adaptation it deserves. Alright, so it might need to be in several parts and it will probably need to be visually revolutionary, but I think if we can get a director and a writer who understands the very core of the Stephen King equation – flawed human characters + impossible odds = heartwrenching bravery and drama – then we might be on to a winner.