Filming Stephen King: the task that’s defeated dozens of movie-makers

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the murderous clown in the forthcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It.

When the first of two films based on Stephen King’s It is released this summer, we will find out whether director Andres Muschietti and his team have solved a problem that has defeated dozens of film-makers.

That difficulty is this: How do you turn the work of the world’s most gifted and successful modern horror novelist into equally fine and successful films?

The problem must drive Hollywood decision-makers crazy. There they are, in practically every bookstore in the world – shelves full of successful, gripping novels, produced at the rate of one a year for four decades now, and all sure-fire successes. And yet when film producers pick them up, they tend to turn to dust.

We’ve all watched some paradoxes play out when it comes to filming King. First, there’s the paradox that while King may be the master of horror, his small canon of non-genre fiction has spawned some of the best King films: Stand By Me (from “The Body”), The Shawshank Redemption (from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”), The Green Mile.

Secondly, there’s the fact that while King is known for writing books the size of house bricks, it’s the shorter works that have often made excellent films. Hence Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption (a long film from a short work) and Carrie, based on the shortest of his novels. Even Misery, which made a fine horror film, is not a long book when weighed against most of King’s oeuvre.

To these obvious paradoxes we might add a third: That while King may be a unique and strong authorial voice, some of the best films of his horror novels have their directors’ personalities stamped all over them. Think of Carrie and The Shining and the names Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick will probably come to mind at least as quick as that of Stephen King. In both cases, it was impossible to imagine anyone else making the kind of movies they did from the source material.

But while King’s novels have inspired many more mediocre films than great ones, the story has been different on television. TV, with all its curbs on violence, horror and sex, produced two of the very best King adaptations: Salem’s Lot and It. Tobe Hooper’s 1979 miniseries of Salem’s Lot has some moments scarier than anything to be found in many hours of watching big screen horror. The 1990 miniseries of It does an excellent job of paring down the book, eliminating some of its wilder, more metaphysical moments to focus on its compelling tale of childhood fears revisited. It’s no surprise that Salem’s Lot was adapted a second time for TV in 2004, or that in 1997, King chose the small screen for a version of The Shining that aimed to be closer to his vision than Kubrick’s film.

A genuinely chilling moment from the 1979 TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot.

Why have so many Stephen King novels remained so stubbornly resistant to Hollywood adaptation?

Great novels rarely make great movies anyway, and a number of King’s books at least come close to greatness. But it seems to me that, for all his commercial appeal, King’s whole approach to his craft is a uniquely literary one. He is not one of those authors whose books give us the impression that he has a screenplay in his head which he is adapting as a novel.

There are clues in his 1999 book about his craft, On Writing. The volume contains large helpings of advice to nascent authors about the craft – about where the ideas spring from and how he goes about description, action and dialogue. But if you’re waiting for the chapter where he discusses structure and planning, it doesn’t come. King seems to dream up vivid scenarios, create compelling characters and then let himself go where they take him – much like Paul Sheldon, the imprisoned author in Misery, whose technique involves writing until he can fall through a “hole in the page” into another world.

Stephen King’s non-genre work has often made the best films, as with Stand By Me in 1986.

King rewrites extensively, shaping the plot and amplifying any themes that have emerged – but he isn’t working to an outline.
It’s hard to imagine screenwriters working the way King does. William Goldman’s observation that “screenplays are structure” has become a commandment, while Robert McKee’s Story taught writers to obsess about  detailed outlines before getting to the dialogue. That was probably wise advice, but it’s very different from the process that produces a King novel.

King’s works often contain a host of fascinating, flawed characters, whereas screenwriting usually encourages us to identify with just one – a hero who has to take one fateful decision after another until they risk everything in one big climactic moment.

As for climaxes, they are not always the greatest thing about King novels. It, I would argue, is a case in point. I thought the slightly bizarre action at the end didn’t quite pay off the hundreds of pages of build-up about the evil force the characters were contending with. It was a terrific book nonetheless, because by that time the reader had been treated to more than 1,000 memorable pages which included some of the best writing about childhood that you’ll ever come across. In a film, the climax is practically everything – if it doesn’t pay off handsomely, we’re likely to feel we’ve wasted our time.

By splitting It into two movies, it may turn out that Muschietti has finally found a successful way to turn King’s long, multi-character stories into films. Alternatively, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, he may have discovered another way that doesn’t work.

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