Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers ever. Maybe not regarded as the best, but he has put out something like 50 novels over the past 40 years, a majority of which have ended up on various bestseller lists. His name is nearly synonymous with horror, but he’s achieved high praise in other genres as well, including non-fiction. So for one of the most recognizable names in literature– for someone who has sold over 350 million copies of his work – there is one question that has always bothered me: Why have the film and television adaptations of his stories been so bad?
Yes, there have been exceptions. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of our greatest films (despite what Mr. King himself has to say about it), and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption is one that, despite how many times you’ve seen it, you will always stop and watch a few scenes when you catch it playing on TNT. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her role in Misery, and Carrie is generally regarded as a classic of horror.
But the success of these films is so greatly offset by the complete duds.
Take a look at It, King’s tale of a shape-shifting being who primarily takes the form of a clown named Pennywise. Written in 1986, the film was adapted for a television miniseries in 1990. From a personal standpoint, I’ve never understood the fear of clowns, especially when they are presented on screen (perhaps the cult film Killer Klowns from Outer Space ruined it for me). The terrifying thing about Pennywise isn’t that he is a clown – it’s that he eats children. But seeing Tim Curry dance around in a puffy costume wearing makeup just doesn’t rile up any suspense.
But the real issue with this film is the climax. Yes, I’m ignoring the C-level acting and production value (how could they not see the shadow of the camera in so many shots?). At the end, the “Losers’ Club” confronts It in its true form: a gigantic spider-like creature. I understand that this was made on a television budget, but this spider thing looks like it was constructed with Play-Doh by my 5-year-old cousin. I saw scarier things in my elementary school cafeteria. I’m amazed that people found this film frightening, and some even say it is the root of their coulrophobia.
I’ve never read the novel It, so my opinion of it is purely based on the mini-series. But another poorly adapted King novel happens to be a favorite of mine: The Stand. Yes, I read all 1,152 pages of the complete and uncut version, and I read them twice. Just an all-around fantastic novel. Now, all those pages makes for a dense story, so I understand the complications that could arise from adapting a story of such epic proportions. But the 1994 television adaptation didn’t even come close.
First of all, I’ll pay you $5 if you can find someone who, while reading the novel, pictured Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith. Hell, I’ll pay you $5 if you can find someone who pictured Molly Ringwald as ANY character in the novel. This has to be one of the all-time worst casting decisions. And I’m not trying to attack Ringwald, but no one wants to be watching an apocalyptic story and think, “Hey, isn’t that the John Hughes’ girl?”
On top of that, bad directing, bad set design (the deserted Las Vegas looked more like a deserted Motel 8), and just an overall poor production. It looks especially bad by today’s standards, but honestly it already looked dated when it was first released.
Others include The Langoliers—a low-budget miniseries with special effects created using Microsoft Paint – and Children of the Corn and it’s seven sequels, which reminds us to always be careful when casting children actors, advice the producers obviously paid no attention.
Hollywood generally looks at the horror genre has a sure bet. But the bottom line is King’s work is much more than simply scary. He describes characters in such depth that is hard to translate to the screen. While he’s never been a master of wrapping up plot points, it’s his characters that we fall in love with and keep bringing us back to his writing – even though he does tend to kill them off without any remorse.
But this isn’t stopping anyone from trying. It’s been announced that The Stand is being rebooted with possibly Ben Affleck at the helm. I wish you the best of luck, Ben, because you’re going to need it.