Why Stephen King continues to shine, on-page and on-screen

There are no fewer than six other King films due this year, including It (also filmed before as a TV mini-series) and his woeful 2014 crime shocker Mr Mercedes

In this June 1, 2017, photo, author Stephen King speaks at Book Expo America in New York. The house that inspired Stephen King's novel "Pet Sematary" is up for sale in Maine. WCSH-TV reports the 113-year-old, four-bedroom Orrington house is being listed for $255,000. The house sits on three acres about 15 minutes south of Bangor. It's also where King wrote the story. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

What is it exactly with Stephen King and screens: big, small or otherwise? These days, hardly a television turns on, or a cinema opens, without a new King adaptation. Two are running concurrently right now: a film of The Dark Tower and a new series, The Mist (which was previously released as a movie in 2007). There are no fewer than six other King films due this year, including It (also filmed before as a TV mini-series) and his woeful 2014 crime shocker Mr Mercedes.

King's screen output is now so capacious that it comes as only a minor surprise that 'Stephen King movies' outranks 'Stephen King books' on a Google search. The King brand is so diverse that horror, the genre with which he is most immediately associated, simply won't do anymore. Think of Under the Dome, a science-fiction soap opera. Or 11.22.63, King's update of his earlier novel The Dead Zone, in which a teacher rewinds through time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating United States president John F Kennedy.

And what about The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont's revered prison drama that has probably done more than any King adaption to elevate its creator's profile. The horror here was not a monster or even a person, although Warden Samuel Norton did a fair imitation; instead it was the overwhelming sense of a life wasted, of one man's careless treatment of his wife, and of a prison system that brutalises and exploits instead of offering salvation.


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Yet even King's infinite variety does not completely explain his appeal for directors as distinctive as Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, Rob Reiner and John Carpenter. Generosity plays a part. King is not only hands-off when it comes to films of his work, he has actually put his money where his mouth is. His 'Dollar Baby' deal encouraged student filmmakers to adapt a King short-story for the princely sum of US$1 (Dh3.67).

Darabont was the second artist to take him up on the offer: in 1983, he filmed The Woman in the Room from King's Night Shift collection. Darabont would go on to adapt three more Kings: in addition to Shawshank, The Green Mile and the movie of The Mist.

For some commentators, King's enduring popularity with film and television producers confirms his literary inferiority. If one wanted to be snobbish, and plenty of critics do where King is concerned, one could resort to the cliché that second-rate novels often make first-rate movies. When Charles Shaar Murray cited this very truism in a 2001 article about Martin Amis's unfilmed script of London Fields, the prime example he offered was King's Carrie.

King has certainly infuriated his share of critics over the years, none more so than Yale professor Harold Bloom who described the National Book Awards' decision to honour King's Distinguished Contribution in 2003 as "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life". While King himself confines many of his comments to his own 'Constant Readers' and not Yale professors, he is not above courting serious acclaim. Blurbs of early novels like Christine emphasised snappy plots ('Sometimes ownership can become possession'), forthcoming film adaptations and just how many millions of books he had sold. Later novels, by contrast, proposed a growing concentration on his literary reputation, highlighting that NBA and higher-brow reviews: "One of the greatest storytellers of our time" (The Guardian).  

But nor does this solidifying critical status illuminate King's escalating onscreen presence. What might help is Shaar Murray's explanation for the success of second-rate movies like Carrie: "Filming removes an author's prose style from the equation, reducing 'story' to 'plot'." The implication that King is a great storyteller is, as The Guardian blurb confirms, hard to deny. His forte is insinuating an outlandish premise into one's imagination that feels as natural as two posh types dancing at a ball in a Jane Austen novel. There are the zombie-inducing phone calls in Cell, the possessed hotel in The Shining or a gipsy curse that induces weight loss in Thinner.

Of course it is one thing to invent a devilish set-up; quite another to bring it home. What elevates King above his peers and disciples is how a big idea is chased to its logical or, more terrifyingly, illogical conclusion. The mordant twist at the end of Pet Sematary which manages to be both deeply moving and deeply creepy at the same time, for instance.

What Shaar Murray misses in King's prose at its best, however, is the strange power that his narrative voice exerts on the reader to make the extraordinary feel commonplace. This begs a crucial question: how do you translate this intimate voice onto film?

The unsatisfying response is: with great difficulty, which might explain why King's filmed output is, to misquote the author himself, a mixed bag of bones. For every hit like Shawshank or Misery or The Shining, there are rather more misses like The Lawnmower Man, The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, The Mangler and The Mangler Reborn.

Still, with more than 50 novels and almost 200 stories in print, and King himself showing no signs of slowing up, there is plenty more source material where that came from, good, bad or ugly. King will keep them coming.

Only no more stories about the Mangler, if you please.