By Scott Tobias Special to the Washington Post
Since the second half of 1983, when Cujo, The Dead Zone and Christine rolled into theaters, one after another, its been unofficial Hollywood writ that no Stephen King novel, novella or short story shall go unadapted for film or television. And its been Kings habit to keep turning out work at an astonishing clip, as though he himself were the medium through which some malevolent, supernatural voice flowed.
To say there have been countless films and TV movies associated with King isnt merely an expression but a genuine conundrum: Do the seven sequels to Children of the Corn count, or just the one based on his short story? How about The Lawnmower Man, which bears so little resemblance to Kings story both have lawnmower men, and thats it that he successfully sued to have his name removed from the title? And what of his original screenplays?
When It, the first in a planned two-part adaptation of his 1986 magnum opus, arrives in theaters Friday, it will be one of six King films or TV series to be released in 2017. (And thats not counting another Children of the Corn movie!) The Mist and Mr. Mercedes have already premiered on Spike and the Audience network, respectively, and The Dark Tower swept through theaters only a month ago. Geralds Game and 1922 are both feature films premiering on Netflix in the fall. The King brand has always been licensed liberally - the man behind Maximum Overdrive, a lark with a killer vending machine, cant be too precious about his work but its never lost its commercial cachet, even in fallow stretches.
Coming up with a grand unifying theory on what separates the great Stephen King adaptations from the flotsam and jetsam that have washed onto shore the past three-plus decades isnt easy. Theres 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 years solid Hulu series 11.22.63 allowed Kings sprawling alternative history to stretch out over an eight-episode limited series, while The Dark Tower, a tortured first go at Kings The Gunslinger books, barely cracked the 90-minute mark. Some have stuck to the page, letter by letter, and others have only a casual relationship 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 counterintuitive: 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, which is why a sledgehammer narrative such as James M. Cains The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted multiple times in English, in Italian (Obsessione), in German (Jerichow) and in Chinese (Ju Dou), and the novels murderous love triangle has been resonant every single time. Finding some visual analog for a characters thoughts is a trickier proposition.
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 Palmas hands, Carrie turns a teenage girls 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 and beyond on prom night, its as heartbreaking as it is horrific, a manifestation of pain she can no longer manage. In Stanley Kubricks The Shining and John Carpenters Christine, theres a chicken-and-the-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. We might fear the goings-on in Room 237 or the animal roar of a sentient muscle car, but the source of each fear is so deeply connected to one mans ravaged psyche, we cant get a distance from it. David Cronenbergs The Dead Zone 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 filmmakers who refuse to act as stenographers and 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 center of that animus is Kings 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 Kubricks prerogative as an artist to reimagine the novel and make the film a separate entity.
Although other filmmakers havent been as dismissive of the source material, theyve benefited from their own invention. Frank Darabont had to expand on novellas to turn The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist into full-bodied features, but the former now trades places with The Godfather as the top user-rated movie on IMDb, and the latter concocts an ending of astonishing darkness. A little creativity was also necessary to turn Kings novella The Body into Stand By Me, but director Rob Reiner honors the nostalgia and ache at the heart of Kings coming-of-age story, even as it was impossible to write to the letter. When Reiner later took on Kings Misery, about an author held captive by his biggest fan, he favored psychological violence over the physical brutality of the novel, but he makes one thwack to the ankles count.
As for It, Kings novel concerns a supernatural being that terrorizes seven children, often in the form of a clown. It also evokes a community in two distinct time periods, the late 50s and the mid-80s, 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 theaters in various cities across the country. But if the pattern holds, and a great screen adaptation is to be made out of It, scary clowns alone wont do the trick.