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Why it’s so difficult to adapt Stephen King’s books for film

Timothy Hutton as George Stark in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half

It was while watching George A. Romero’s 1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half that the realization hit me. After years of successive disappointments with cinematic translations of the author’s books, I finally realized why most filmed versions of King’s fiction fall flat. And the answer was literally right in front of my eyes. The reason is: you can see them.

Fiction in general, and horror fiction specifically, preys on the imagination. There’s a reason directors withhold showing audiences the monster until the last possible moment: they understand that what is unseen is exponentially more terrifying than what is. (That, or they are besieged by mechanical problems with a faulty shark, which ends up as the same principle at work.) Jacques Tourneur’s genre classic Cat People is an exercise in fear precisely because its horror elements are confined to shadows or noises heard off screen. A low budget can actually be an advantage in some cases: Neill Marshall had little money to throw around when making The Descent and so used the underground caves’ darkness to his advantage, cleverly concealing the horrors of the crawlers by shooting them from afar or in shadow.

Here is how King describes George Stark, the psychotic nom de plume of writer Thad Beaumont, who has materialized and is beginning to fall to pieces because of Thad’s refusal to give him life by writing any more pseudonymous books:

He looked like a decayed scarecrow which had somehow come to life. The grin was the worst, because the left half of his upper lip appeared not just decayed or decaying, but chewed away. She could see grey-black teeth, and the sockets where, until recently, other teeth had been.

The passage is specific enough to be chilling, while also leaving the reader sufficient latitude to impose upon the literary presentation any number of visuals from outside the text. Stark comes to hideous life in the liminal space between the words on the page and the reader’s imagination. It is the reader, ultimately, who will determine what the grotesque figure confronting Thad’s stricken wife must look like.

Onscreen, there is no doubt about what George Stark looks like: he looks like Timothy Hutton. True, by the film’s second half, he looks like Hutton under a thick layer of gory prosthetics and milky contact lenses, but it’s something that can be seen and, therefore, dealt with. There is nothing left to the imagination, so the level of creepiness is inevitably diminished.

The number of King’s horror stories that have been brought to the screen suffering from this malady comprise an entire catalogue, some of them otherwise strong films, some not. They include Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary, John Carpenter’s Christine, Tobe Hooper’s televised miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot, Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapters 1 and 2, and Mick Garris’s miniseries The Stand. Whatever merits any of these might have as cinematic works, they each contain material that is denuded by the mere fact of its being visualized. (The trip through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand – one of the most intense and hair-raising set pieces in any King novel – comes off as pallid by comparison when rendered on film.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the stories that rely less on horror effects that have worked better onscreen. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” was generally strong, depleting its source material only by rendering the title less allusive and interesting. And Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, adapted from ”The Body” – another novella from Different Seasons – is one of the best King film adaptations to date. By contrast, Reiner’s much-praised 1990 version of Misery doesn’t work, in part because the sense of claustrophobia the book builds up is absent. Once again, when we are allowed to see Annie Wilkes’s house and its expansive frontage, it feels just too airy and welcoming. We never get the sense that James Caan (playing the King-manqué Paul Sheldon) is ever really trapped.

Cujo by Stephen King
Lewis Teague’s film version of Cujo is one of the most underappreciated King adaptations

One King book that straddles the line between a horror story and a more “naturalistic” presentation is Cujo, and Lewis Teague’s adaptation is one of the strongest – and most frequently overlooked – films made from King’s work. The story of a mother and her young son trapped in a car by a murderous, rabid St. Bernard does what Reiner was unable to do in making the experience feel utterly breathless and placing the viewer in the close confines of the automobile with the characters, here played by Dee Wallace and Danny Pinaturo. The only complaint with this film is the lack of courage in remaining true to King’s ending, which sees the young Tad die. Where the book’s climax is an emotional gut punch, the film’s happy ending feels less potent. Even when Hollywood gets King mostly right, it still finds some way to get him wrong at the same time.

King was famously dissatisfied with Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining, which he felt took the heart out of his book. The movie is notably different from its source material, but that is part of what makes it so effective. Kubrick knew film and understood the medium; he was able to insert visuals – the hedge maze, the blood from the elevators, the twin girls – that are staggeringly effective as both cinematic cues and triggers for a viewer’s subconscious. The film works remarkably well as a film, though here again the filmmaker craps out in the finish, inexplicably dropping the camera-ready boiler explosion that destroys the Overlook Hotel at the end of King’s novel.

David Cronenberg also managed to turn a King novel into a solid film by eschewing the author’s vision and focusing on his own. In The Dead Zone, Cronenberg foregrounds Johnny’s existential crisis and finds a unique way to visualize his precognitive powers (the scene with Christopher Walken screaming from under the covers of a bed that is consumed in flames is a classic image from the canon of King on film). It would seem that, with the more genre oriented material, the further a filmmaker deviates from the original material, the stronger the resulting film will be.

The exception to the rule can be found in Mike Flanagan’s 2017 adaptation of Gerald’s Game, one of King’s most merciless tales. The scenario is simple: Gerald Burlingame and his wife Jessie travel to an isolated cottage for a getaway. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to their bed as part of a kinky sex game and then proceeds to die from a heart attack. The rest of the story involves Jessie, alone and manacled to the bedframe, slipping in and out of reality while simultaneously searching for a means of escape.

King fans will be familiar with the novel’s infamous “degloving” scene; unlike Kubrick and Cronenberg, director Mike Flanagan is ruthlessly faithful to his source material. Anyone who has read the book will know exactly what is coming, but reading the scene and actually seeing it are experiences worlds apart. Gerald’s Game is the first film in decades that has forced me to stop watching because I felt I couldn’t handle what was put onscreen. I’ve since gone back and watched the entire sequence but it remains almost unbearably excruciating and comprises perhaps the single instance in which King onscreen is more punishing and horrific than King on the page.

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