The Once and Future King

Another Round of Stephen King Adaptations is Upon Us

SCOTT EISEN/GETTY IMAGES FOR WARNER BROS.

Given Stephen King’s proclivity for pop culture, it should come as no surprise that Hollywood has adapted his works into films and other visual mediums so many times. Books like The Shining, The Dead Zone, Carrie and Cujo are masterclasses in visual descriptions and scene-building that play like little movies in the reader’s mind. Short stories like The Body (later adapted into “Stand By Me) and The Mist feature characters that jump off the page.

 

That’s not to mention the work King himself has done in film and TV. He wrote and directed Maximum Overdrive, now a cult classic, and penned the screenplays for several adaptations of his work. Storm of the Century was King’s first attempt at writing an original screenplay for a miniseries, and it did well with critics.

He’s shared the love, too: His Dollar Babies competition allows up-and-coming filmmakers the chance to buy the rights to some of his stories for a dollar to adapt them.

King’s work has become back en vogue for film and TV producers lately, thanks to the success of the 2017 remake of It. But even so, the longest gap there’s been without a King adaptation of any kind was between 1976 1979, when there was a three-year hiatus between the Brian DaPalma Carrie film and the Salem’s Lot CBS miniseries. Ever since then, there has been a film or TV adaptation of King’s works about every other year.

After It, though, something of a Kingaissance began. That 2017 remake of a 1990 TV miniseries based on King’s 1986 doorstopper is the biggest King adaptation of all time, making nearly $327.5 million and kicking off another clown craze in America. In the wake of It’s clown-shoe-sized impact, studios started announcing future King adaptations started in earnest: A Castle Rock anthology show on Hulu; Gerald’s Game and 1922 movies for Netflix; a Pet Sematary remake; a Doctor Sleep movie for this November; forthcoming streaming shows on Apple TV+, HBO and CBS for Lisey’s Story, The Outsider and The Stand, respectively; and future film adaptations for In the Tall Grass, Salem’s Lot, The Long Walk and From a Buick 8. At this point, it’s easier to find a King property that someone hasn’t adapted yet. But what is it about King’s work that producers and audiences find so irresitible?

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood in Gerald’s Game.

For me, it’s the way his work seamlessly blends the mundane with the supernatural and manages to find the humanity in every story. Take out all the pop-culture references in his books, and few, if any, of them feel dated. The scares and frights around which he builds his books come from real places and touch on our primal fears (death, dependency, repeating the mistakes of your family, growing up). One of my dogs died this year, and I’m thankful I read Pet Sematary before she passed.

At their core, they’re all stories about ordinary characters blessed (or cursed) with extraordinary abilities or circumstances. King’s stories work because they’re about people first and the plot second—and he writes them for people first, in his laid-back prose. Critics have often derided his writing as paperback trash, mindless rubble meant to placate the masses. But some people said the same thing about Charles Dickens, too. And, like Dickens, I have a feeling that centuries from now, people will still be reading King and watching adaptations of his work.

This weekend sees the release of It: Chapter Two, the conclusion of director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It, about a supernatural evil that terrorizes a small town every 27 years. Fittingly, they released first part of this new adaptation 27 years after It first appeared TV miniseries. There are, seemingly new evils in the world to be afraid of now, but not really; they’re just the same evils with different faces. King (and It) knows this, and exploits it, and provides a way of processing it all in a safe way for the reader.

King’s horror gives us an opportunity to take a break from real-life horror so we can control when we’re scared. And as long as we have fear, we’ll have the horror genre, and we’ll have the works of Stephen King to process it all.

 

Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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