by Truly Edison
Last semester I wrote a pretty scathing post about The Stand (2020) and its treatment of one of my favorite characters in comparison to its 1994 adaptation and source material, the 1978 novel of the same name. Well, over the summer I had a lot of time to reflect on myself and my thoughts and feelings about the works of art I’ve engaged with; I spent some time in nature as a camp counselor before almost immediately being fired, hung out a lot with my extended family, and all around disconnected a little from the internet and social media much to my benefit. And after this period of deep consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m still definitely a hater and every Stephen King adaptation from the last decade has pretty much sucked so far.
Think about it: Carrie (2013) should have been correctly identified as Patient Zero once they cast Chloe Grace-Moretz. Pet Sematary (2019) was a joke. The Dark Tower (2017) bombed so hard they had to retcon their entire Stephen King Cinematic Universe. I wasn’t even particularly wowed by IT (2017), and IT Chapter Two (2019) is one of the few movies in my life I actually regret paying money to see. I thought Mike Flanagan did an admirable job on Doctor Sleep (2019) and Gerald’s Game (2017), but that’s a pretty sad return on the sheer amount of recent adaptations, not to mention the amount that are still on the way. So like, what's been in the water? It’s not like Stephen King’s books are a no-man’s-land for film adaptations--The Shining (1980), anyone?—so why haven’t we been able to get our act back together?
Some of the problem may be rooted in the books themselves. It’s an open secret that King doesn’t outline when he writes, and that possibly combined with his destructive drug use in the 1980s means that a lot of his novels end in… Very Unique Ways. It’s actually something I genuinely enjoy about his work—one of my biggest disappointments with IT Chapter Two was that its stupid ending wasn’t the stupid ending from the book I love—but I’m usually in the minority on this. Even the most die-hard of King fans tend to agree that the guy can’t write an ending to save his life. And if superfans aren’t even happy with them, how the hell is a major movie studio going to make it work for the masses? It puts them in a tough position to either roll with whatever wacky bullshit King wrote or decide that they can come up with something better (and more marketable) than The Master Of Horror. Most opt for the latter, which I think is a mistake. It takes these really fascinating—if sometimes out-of-left-field—narrative choices and reduces them to tropes and formulas already guaranteed to get clicks on Netflix and butts in cinema seats (pre-pandemic, anyway).
There’s also the fact that Stephen King’s books are often full of content that would just be extremely unpleasant—or even possibly criminal—to put on film. King made a name in horror because he was doing things no one had done before, for better or for worse. It’s one of the same points I touched on in my article about The Stand and a character in it that has never made it to the screen; there’s a big difference between what people are comfortable reading and what people are comfortable seeing. And that’s not even getting into the structural barriers of mainstream filmmaking; an NC-17 Stephen King adaptation would be a mind-boggling loss of potential profit. It makes sense why a big studio might not want to even risk that sentence from the MPAA. Sheer content aside, a lot of his novels are also just genuinely upsetting. I gave Pet Sematary (2019) a hard time, but I actually don’t know if I would want to see a film accurate in tone to one of the most emotionally devastating novels I’ve ever read. As a general rule, people watch mainstream movies to be entertained, and the days of a Stephen King novel being adapted into an art film are long over (if they were ever here at all).
The radical aspects of King’s work don’t just stop at horror content, either. Two of my favorite characters he’s created, Harold Lauder from The Stand and Arnie Cunningham from Christine, show off some of his fascinating cultural boundary-pushing in ways that still land today. They’re both teenage boys with low self-esteem from chronic acne and body-image issues: Harold’s overweight and Arnie’s tall and scrawny. They also both go on downward mental spirals to become late-stage antagonists before meeting a tragic end. This is pretty standard narrative fare, but the thing that turns it on its head is that both these characters’ declines are signaled by them becoming more conventionally attractive. Harold loses the weight, Arnie gains some muscle, and both of them clear up their skin. This is a complete disruption of the usual cultural scripts we have around bodies and mental health, especially in Harold’s case; how many times have we been told a character’s depressed or in a bad place through their weight gain? It’s also a facet of both works that has never been tackled in an adaptation before—both versions of The Stand cast a thin actor for Harold from the get-go, and you won’t see a lick of acne in those or in John Carpenter’s Christine (1983).
It’s not that I necessarily think a filmed version of The Stand should have an actor change weight for a role, or that this is necessarily a contemporary problem--Christine is nearly 40 years old. It’s not even that I think every Stephen King film should be a viscerally upsetting grindhouse splatter fest (though maybe, like, a little would be nice). Moreso, I think it speaks to the cultural double-bind of Stephen King as a household name with books that are decidedly not for the household. The unique and shocking qualities of his work that put him on the map in the first place are the very same things that have to be suppressed to keep their adaptations easily accessible and exponentially profitable. Stephen King’s books aren’t for everyone, but the movies are.
And this will always lead to the neutering of horror content, the flattening of narratives into formulas, and the abandonment of character arcs that don’t “read” in the dominant cultural understanding. Which is a damn shame, because I REALLY wanted to see James McAvoy beg a giant turtle for his life.