SK vs. SK
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You know who SK is, right? Stephen King. He's the most read author in the history of the world. How could he not be, with a bazillion copies of his novels circulating the world? Still, it used to be a rare movie based on those novels that's worth even a 99 rental. It seemed for a very long time that Stephen King's worst enemy was Stephen King. It's only been in the last few years that film credits reading "Based on a Stephen King novel" hasn't meant "Kiss of death." I've long been a non-believer in the power of SK's words to translate to celluloid. Oddly enough, it was a TV mini-series that began to change my mind.
I bought my copy of "It" on the back row of a mile long flea market in Honolulu. Nestled between cracked old fins, cloudy dive masks and thrice owned baby clothes, it was the only book in the booth and had obviously already been read six or seven times. I paid a quarter for it, not expecting much because King hadn't done it for me for several novels by this point. But I'd already read all the other books I'd packed for the trip so I bought it. I devoured it in three blissful days. It was fun, sometimes scary (even in sunny Hawaii), and really irritating in spots. Typical King. That would have been the whole story, except the movie came out a few months later, and danged if that wasn't fun, too! It followed the story of the book, the actors closely resembled the characters of the book, and Pennywise was as scary as in the book. After the dreck that had been Stephen King movies till then, who would have believed it? I began to pay attention to SK movies again. Give them a chance. I began to wonder what made these newer films really work for me where the earlier ones hadn't.
"Carrie" was the first SK novel I ever read, and it really grabbed me. I was just going off to college about then, and the next few novels I read were all by SK - because of "Carrie." He made me miss more sleep than studying ever did (which might partially explain my hiatus from college life shortly thereafter), so I was a big fan by the time I first saw a movie based on a King novel. The book worked so well because it tapped into powerful human fears, like religious mania and adolescence, putting a likeable though flawed character into a situation we could identify with and then having really evil things happen to her. Simple and creepy. What could be better? Then there was his homey style of writing. Breezy and to the point (with occasional parenthetical remarks that worked well), it was something different than we were used to seeing, and felt as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. This book scared me, and it was fun. That's what horror novels are supposed to do, right?
While still living La Vida Dormitory, I also read "The Shining," a masterful slow descent into hell, with a scary nemesis and believable characters. This was longer, more introspective, and scared me half to death a few times. There was only one gruesome death, and one fabulously gruesome close shave.
"Salem's Lot" was not just the first vampire novel I'd ever read; it caused heart palpitations every time I looked out my dorm window - six stories up. I read it at night. I read it while eating breakfast. I read it during class and while walking to and from class. It was flat out scary and I loved every second. Scores of decent people become monsters, and becoming the undead isn't a big coolness here. It's ugly and dark and heart rending. There are several gruesome deaths.
"The Stand" is King's ultimate masterpiece (despite some maddening flaws) that, again, uses fears that are primal to the point of being genetically programmed. We may not consciously worry about the end of our species, but the telling of that story grabs you and stays with you. Religion is again used effectively. Never mind The Devil is walking the Earth. How comfortable are we, really, loving the character of Mother Abigail, who is essentially a religious fanatic along the lines of Carrie's mother? There were billions of gruesome deaths, some of them frighteningly up close and all of them horrendous.
I believe his best novels are the ones in which King recognizes basic human fears and uses them relentlessly against his audience. When he began to simply write novels around a few kewl gory scenes, and do mean things simply for the sake of being mean (not to mention getting seriously long winded and losing some of his folksiness), he lost me as a regular reader.
The first movie based on a Stephen King novel I ever saw was Carrie. Apropos, eh? Note to the filmmakers: a bucket o' blood does not make a whole movie. Neither does 70 minutes of adolescent posturing and bitchiness. That wasn't at all what the novel had been about and, though I've been cynical about adaptations since seeing The Swiss Family Robinson in the theater as a child, it still bugs me when filmmakers lose EVERYTHING about a novel that works. The worst thing was, I was never scared. The novel made me think and it made me shiver. The movie did none of this. So, as far as I'm concerned, it sucked.
When Salem's Lot came out I was pumped. Here was a book that had been the highlight of my college freshman year. Now, I was going to see the movie. It sucked. Where was the development of characters from "normal citizen" to "blood sucking monster"? Where was the insidious spread death from the lurking Monster On High? Where was the heartrending story of yet another lost love for the Good Guy? I thought it was pretty pathetic that printed pages, read in a crowded dorm cafeteria scared me more than a multi million dollar movie that supposedly had the advantages of mood music (scary music REALLY gets to me) and lighting, and all the other magic tricks of horror movies.
Ironically, when I had finally determined to avoid SK movies at all cost (fool me once), things began to change. Slowly, haltingly, the films began to improve - but not all at once. The absolute nadir of SK films was yet to come.
The Shining is an absolute piece of dreck. I'm talking about the Jack Nicholson film of 1980. Yeah, I know a lot of people who were very young saw it and were scared spitless by it and now consider it one of, if not the best, horror movie ever made. *snort* Yeah. Right. What I read was a brilliantly written account of a man's slow descent into insanity and the horrifying effects on his family. What I saw was a man who is obviously rowing a leaky boat (Jack Torrence as played by Nicholson). The moment we see him striding across the lobby of The Overlook, the rational part of our brain screams, "Loony!" The kid "associates" with the Shine (psychic mental abilities) by croaking his lines and waving a finger in the air. (I kept waiting for someone to pull it.) We won't even talk about Shelley Duvall as the wife. I might burst into tears. We don't have to mention Hallorann, since he played such a minor role in the movie he might as well have been left out completely. I remember my jaw dropping when he got axed. To this day I don't understand why.
So I missed Creepshow, Cujo, Firestarter and Maximum Overdrive. I didn't just think it was a waste of time, I was still mad about The Shining. No matter how good the novel, SK movies were being miraculously transformed, one after another, into crap. Filmmakers scrapped the words that worked so well and shot gore scenes and dark, hulking monsters and cranked out movies that bore almost no resemblance to the original work. And they bombed, and they gained a reputation. How many people do you suppose who went to see Maximum Overdrive bothered to spend money on Stand by Me?
For some reason, though (probably, someone else paid), I did go to see Stand By Me. The novella hadn't impressed me, and of course I wasn't expecting much on the screen. By this time, I'd also gotten thoroughly sick of King's parade of heroic, sexy twelve-year-olds and I was only reading books that people loaned me. Imagine my shock. Stand By Me is beautifully filmed, well paced, well cast, and I got over there being no women anywhere. It works because it follows the story. (Radical thought, that.) It works because it uses the parts of the original story that were scary or unnerving to make the movie scary or unnerving.
Because Hollywood doesn't operate on a steep learning curve, the director, Rob Reiner, adapted another King novel four years later just to make sure they got it. It's one of the King movies I most often hear praised as someone's favorite. Misery also uses those parts of the book that are creepy, and follows the story line from A to B. Actually seeing Annie torch Sheldon's novel horrified me (as a writer) every bit as much as it had when reading the scene. The parts that are changed, like breaking the legs rather than cutting off the foot, make better use of the format of film than a strict interpretation. It's a brilliant adaptation of a pretty good (for King) book.
Since then we've been treated to some fine SK movies. Shawshank Redemption. Dolores Claibourne. The Green Mile. Hollywood will never stop making atrocious movies based on Stephen King novels and stories, at least now we have a chance of seeing films that reflect the original works. Still, it's not yet a guarantee that adaptations will be good. The chances are way better than they were for years, but it's not a sure thing.
What makes a good adaptation? Using the elements of the novel that worked so well. Sounds simple, doesn't it, but we all know how seldom that really happens.
In The Green Mile, they didn't turn the jailer into a milksop anti-death penalty protester waving candles in front of the front gate. They didn't turn the condemned man into an urbane serial killer tacking drawings of the Duomo up on the walls of his cell and trading wise cracks with the guards. Dolores Claibourne didn't transform into a cheery, anorexic, feather dusting wimp, and Pennywise didn't adopt a fluffy white poodle on a sequined leash. But all that could have happened, for all the reasons Hollywood thinks are important but generally end up ruining a film.
I'm not sure it's possible to determine who is more powerful: Stephen King or Stephen King. But I think we can all agree that more and more as time goes by, we are the winner.