It’s safe to say at this point that Stephen King isn’t just one of the best horror writers around; he’s legitimately one of the best authors of all time. Throughout the insane amount of books that he’s written and still continues to write, King has proved himself a master at developing fully formed characters and bringing naturalism and intelligence to the horror novel. Because his stories are so rich and creative, Hollywood came knocking immediately and never stopped. In the nearly 40 years since the first film adaptation of “Carrie” hit the screens, his work has been attached to some 170-odd film and television productions, which has to be some kind of record. What do you say to that, Shakespeare?
So in honour of King’s huge influence on the medium, TIFF has put together a 12-film series that showcases some of the most notable adaptations from some of cinema’s most distinguished directors. Kingdom of Fear: Stephen King on Screen was put together by Twitch Film’s Todd Brown and runs every Saturday night until April 5, 2014.
“Carrie“, “Salem’s Lot“, and “The Shining” were King’s first three novels and the first three to be filmed (Salem’s Lot being a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper). Brian de Palma introduced King’s world to the screen with his typically stylish version of Carrie, employing all his usual visual tricks. I always found King’s tale of a telekinetic high school girl who gets bullied and humiliated into unleashing her enormous power on her school to be a little simplistic in both book and movie form. But it was his first novel and there are still plenty of scares to be had here, especially with De Palma treating the subject matter in his lurid and overheated way. After wowing audiences a couple of years before in Badlands, Sissy Spacek really broke out in a big way as the meek titular character who turns into a rage-fueled superhuman psycho in the iconic prom climax. It’s no doubt one of King’s most popular stories, having been remade twice and spawning a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) that my 15-year old self quite enjoyed.
It is The Shining, however, that is arguably the greatest film ever made from a Stephen King book. I mean, it’s Stanley Kubrick, so nobody should have expected any less. Yet King has never been a fan, always publicly stating his disappointment in the way Kubrick treated the material. As a massive fan of both the book (which I think is King’s greatest novel as well) and the movie, I can attest that they are both completely different beasts. King’s novel, like a lot of his writing, is extremely internal and what’s so scary about it is that we gradually see how Jack’s mind turns against him with some nudging from the forces in the hotel. On the other hand, what has made the film such a classic is that Kubrick knew it was impossible to show Jack’s changing thought processes on screen, so he takes a completely different route, making a terrifying cinematic mood piece about isolation and loneliness which stands on its own. To me, there has never been a better horror film.
King has more up his sleeve than just horror, however, and two of his most acclaimed adaptations have been poignant dramas. Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are among the most well-loved movies ever made. Honestly, you have to be a cold bastard to not feel anything about these two. Stand by Me has been a staple in my life since I was a young boy and remains a film I return to again and again, changing as I get older. It’s the ultimate coming of age movie. And the story of wrongly-convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne in Shawshank is so uplifting that it always brings a tear to my eye by the time it reaches the epic finale. Directors Rob Reiner and Frank Darabont both built their careers on these films.
Interestingly enough, Reiner and Darabont would both return to King later for darker adaptations and they proved just as adept at handling horror. Reiner directed Misery, which plays like King’s own personal nightmare, about a famous author (James Caan) who is nursed back to health after a car crash by an obsessed fan who doesn’t like the tone of his new work. It’s truly the definition of a white-knuckler and Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning performance has lost none of its deranged power. You’ll walk away gaining some unpleasant associations with sledgehammers too. Darabont, on the other hand, tried his hand at The Mist, which unfortunately received little attention upon its initial release since it’s the best King adaptation of the new millennium by far. Starting off as a creature feature about a fog that descends on a small town, bringing with it monsters from another dimension, The Mist slowly becomes a disturbing parable about human nature and the evil we all have within us, as a group of people holed up in a supermarket try to figure out how to deal with the situation. The horrors constantly come at you on two different levels and culminate in an absolute shocker of an ending.
The rest of the series includes: Drew Barrymore scrunching her face up and launching fireballs at people in the cheesy Firestarter; everybody’s favourite rabid dog, Cujo; John Carpenter trying hard to make a serious evil car movie with Christine (and mostly succeeding); the Romero-King mashup anthology flick and Halloween favourite Creepshow; and Bryan Singer’s intriguing adaptation of the dark psychological drama Apt Pupil.
Last but not least (actually, maybe least) is King’s very own directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive, where machines come to life and become homicidal towards humans. There’s some nasty violence early on that’s pretty great, when the machines start their rampage, but the majority of the movie is kind of boring, as Emilio Estevez and a group of people take refuge in a truck stop while sentient tractor trailers circle around outside waiting for the kill. The constantly pumping AC/DC soundtrack is amusing though. King has admitted that he was coked out during the production of the film (he struggled with drugs and alcohol at the time) and is embarrassed of it, never having stepped behind a camera again since.
Directing doesn’t seem to be his calling unfortunately. I guess he’ll just have to settle for mastering the art of telling stories on the page.