The Difficulties in Adapting Stephen King’s Horror for the Screen
Ever since Stephen King became a best-selling author in the 1970s, Hollywood has been eager to adapt his works for the big and small screen. With such a long history, not every adaptation is going to be great, but more have been terrific than one might realize. Few would argue about the classic status of big-screen King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Misery, or Stand by Me. On the small screen, one can easily point to Salem’s Lot, It, and 11.22.63 as longer former versions that were exceptional renderings of King’s material too. Still, King’s horror has a reputation for being tricky to visualize onscreen.
Visualizing and capturing the elements of King’s nightmares can easily stymie even the most accomplished of filmmakers because the author has such a rich and often outlandish imagination. He’s able to create fantastical stories, sometimes bordering on the ludicrous, yet his writing is so grounded, we buy into the poppycock hook, line, and sinker. King achieves such results by placing his stories in realistic, recognizable settings, and placing well-developed, relatable characters within them. It works like gangbusters on the page, but sometimes, having to visual such outrageousness for the camera is another story altogether. The mind’s eye can buy many things that our rational eyes simply will not.
That was one of the problems that Stanley Kubrick had when he worked on the adaptation of The Shining. He felt that King’s literary idea of animal-sculpted bushes chasing Danny about the grounds wouldn’t play onscreen. It would look too ridiculous. That’s why he replaced King’s foliage with a chase in a hedged maze for the film. As it’s often said, the book is the book, and the movie is the movie.
If the two overlap – great – but a wise adaptor realizes what works on the page might not always play on ‘the stage.’
Another issue that filmmakers face in adapting King’s work has to do with his ideas that qualify as, to use a popular film term, high concept. Many of King’s works have a striking and easily communicable idea, albeit the kind that often seem more outlandish the more one thinks about them. “An obese man starts wasting away after being cursed to grow ‘thinner’ by a gypsy” or “A teen’s vintage Plymouth starts offing his enemies” – these are easy ideas to imagine in our minds, but how do you bring them to life onscreen without giving such broad concepts a cartoonish appearance?
Despite the strong performance by lead Robert John Burke, Thinner director Tom Holland had a difficult time visualizing the character’s increasing emaciation. Sure, the filmmaker started by putting Burke in a fat suit, but as his character shed weight, it became harder to convey that he was turning skeletal. Bad makeup marred the last half of the film, with a lot of dark pancake makeup trying to increase the hollow of his cheeks. It never looked believable and thus, the images of a gaunt, suffering man that we read about in King’s pages were fumbled in the film by makeup that just couldn’t bring it to life properly. (Perhaps a remake of Thinner might be in order, considering what CGI can do these days.)
Director John Carpenter had better success in his visualization of the killer car in Christine, mostly due to his deciding not to overdo how much we saw of the vehicle. Carpenter wisely cloaked the car under the dark of evening most of the time too, especially when it went on its murderous jaunts. Less is often more in horror as it’s never good for the monsters to become overexposed.
Another difficulty in adapting King involves keeping an earnest tone, no matter how big and broad the horror escalates. King writes seriously about his ghouls and goblins, never making them seem silly. In fact, more often than not, he applies psychological undertones that deepen his material. His horror may be outlandish, but he never treats it like hokum.
The better film adaptations of King’s work have kept his earnestness intact onscreen. Christopher Walken’s haunted performance as the beleaguered psychic Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone made that thriller as poignant as it was eerie. James Mason underplayed Straker, the vampire’s caretaker, in the TV version of Salem’s Lot, and such a grounded take made all of the story’s melodramatics seem more credible too.
And even when King’s material occassionally creeps into self-consciousness, like it did in Creepshow in 1982, the smarter actors didn’t follow. Creepshow was both a scary movie and a hilarious spoof of the EC Comics from the 1950’s, and King had a field day riffing on the terrifying comic books from that era. Director George Romero’s cocked camera angles and zealous use of primary colors enhanced the satire as well. Yet even though the rest of the film was often in quotations around them, most of the actors played it as straight as they possibly could. They may have gone big, but the best ones still managed to stay believable.
Veteran character actors Leslie Nielsen, Fritz Weaver, and E.G. Marshall performed especially well, grounding their characters in recognizable humanity despite the largess all around them in that movie. Weaver made the sweaty terror he exhibited over the contents in “The Crate” almost tragic.
In “They’re Creeping Up on You,” the 68-year-old Marshall turned a story about fighting cockroaches into a meditation on old age and mortality. And Nielsen resisted going over-the-top until the very end of “Something to Tide You Over” when his smarty-pants tech maven is bested by the water-logged ghouls he drowned at the beach.
In It: Chapter Two, the latest King adaptation, there is much to admire. Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Isaiah deliver strong performances, and the production values are top-notch. Yet, like its predecessor from two years ago, there are notable flaws too. Moving up the time frame some 30 years in the story throws off the timeliness of much of its social commentary. Focusing too much on the kids in both films robs some of the impact of their characters as adults. And there’s too much CGI in a story that is supposed to be about abused children and guilt.
Still, the worst of its sins may be the creeping sense of winking at the audience during the third act in the second chapter of the tale that mars the seriousness of all that went on before it. In the last 30 minutes of It: Chapter Two, the film starts to comment too strikingly on its own absurdity, to the point that it all but winks at the audience.
Up until then, Gary Dauberman’s screenplay and Andy Muschietti’s direction played pretty straight, but then they start to give the main characters played by Bill Hader and James Ransome more and more wisecracks that make fun of the horrors going on around them. Pennywise the clown is trying to kill them and their friends, but the two men heckle him and crack wise like they’re those two old Muppets up in the balcony playing the role of a Greek Chorus. Sure, Hader and Ransome are talented actors and they get big laughs with all their quips, but their dialogue starts undercutting the earnestness of the rest of the material. By the time, a facsimile of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining pops up in a cameo and exclaims, “Here’s Johnny!” the film has started to derail into self-parody.
The television miniseries of It made back in 1990 for ABC TV played things much straighter. That take was good, scary fun without ever resorting to such quippiness that stepped on the material. There was an inherent earnestnes to it all, even in the over-the-top character of Pennywise as played by veteran character actor Tim Curry. The character in the book may have been merely a symbol of childhood fears, one of many forms that the villainous space entity in the story assumed to terrorize the folks in Derry, Maine, but onscreen, Curry made that evil side show attraction into a flesh and blood human being. Pennywise’s realness made his acts of terror all the more palpable.
In the new take on the material, CGI continually and maddeningly interferes with Bill Skarsgard’s similar attempts to make Pennywise seem genuine. Almost every time his clown appears, he’s rendered more ridiculous by computer effects that exaggerate his eyes, tongue, teeth, and herky-jerky body movements. Such effects seem like, well, effects, and they end up making him less of a character and more of a technician’s trick. Where’s the humanity?
Arguably, most of the best screen adaptations of King have been his non-horror works. In addition to the straight dramas listed at the top of this article, one can also point to The Green Mile and Dolores Claiborne as two other King adaptations that were done exceptionally well. Does the genre of horror, known for its excesses and outlandishness, encourage some filmmakers to try and go too big to match it? Maybe so.
It’s surely gratifying for filmmakers of horror to sit in a theater and witness an audience leaping from their seats and screaming in fear. But more often than not, the ripest horror does something even more substantive. It pins us to our seats with an overwhelming sense of dread that sears far deeper into our psyche than momentary jump scares. That’s what Stephen King’s books do.
His storytelling leaves us breathless as we anxiously turn each page to find out what horrors await. The adaptations of his work should be just as potent.
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