It began in 1975. Director Brian De Palma read the 26-year-old Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie; he said that it was a “terrific book” and he was “very interested in doing it”. The screenplay was bought by United Artists, and the film released in 1976. Critics loved the film, and it was frequently cited as one of the best films of the year. Roger Ebert called it “absolutely spellbinding”, and it’s Quentin Tarantino’s eighth favourite film of all time. This was a landmark movie: the first Stephen King adaptation ever made.
Since then, there have been forty-seven cinematic adaptations of his novels and short stories (not counting television adaptations). He is the most adapted living author. Modern cinema is full of Stephen King, and it could be argued that much of it is also indebted to Stephen King. The question is: why? Why are the works of King such a popular subject for cinema? This really rests on the question of why we as a society love King so much in the first place. Widely, this is down to things such as his rich characterisation, intriguing plots, and often brilliant use of suspense. He has written so diversely that it often feels like there is a King novel or short story out there for everybody, even among detractors of his work.
Among his most famous film adaptations are Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, far cries from the horror he’s most usually associated with. The fact that he is so prolific a writer, having released about sixty-one novels and 200 short stories, undoubtedly helps. He has a huge body of work to adapt from, and it isn’t all singularly rooted in one genre.
Another reason why King is such a favourite among many is that he often seems to perfectly capture times, moods, and feelings. You could be forgiven for thinking that you’d been a kid in the 1950s after reading It. The childhood portions of the novel are set in the 1950s, and King’s choice of music and his detailed description seem to perfectly create that moment in the mind of the reader. The short story “The Body”, adapted into 1986’s Stand By Me, so perfectly capitalises on that moment of pre-teenage childhood that it still resonates deeply among readers today. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12” is a phrase of almost universal understanding.
It feels as if you can even find parts of yourself inside his horror novels: we’ve all felt like Wendy Torrance in The Shining – tired, exasperated, overwhelmed, almost hysterical. Stephen King understands and is able to articulate the human condition time and time again, in many different situations, and that is what is at the heart of so many of his stories. To be able to capture the complex and often ineffable feelings involved in human lives is the aim of any writer, and when the stories do it as well as King’s so often do, it gives them the appeal that filmmakers are looking for.
King’s characterisation is a particular part of his appeal; many King fans cite this as one of their biggest reasons for loving his work. His characters are full of detail, even those who might meet a grim fate in the next five pages; King engages with all of his characters on a human level. We have a genuine sympathy for them, despite their flaws. Character is the absolute root of horror. As King argues in his own series of essays, Danse Macabre, the art of terror is in making us identify with those experiencing it. This is something that plagues horror cinema – trying to both pack in scares and establish characters enough for us to root for them. King’s gift for characterisation, then, makes his novels and stories ripe for horror adaptation – there is so much character to bring to the screen, as well as horror.
But the biggest reason that King’s work is so often adapted is his ability to terrify. Many people remember scaring themselves silly reading King at too early an age, and adults still maintain that some of King’s novels are too scary to finish. King understands what scares people, and what makes them tick. The whole premise of It is what scares each of the characters at different stages in their lives.
King understands fear in all of its different forms. There’s the supernatural – the terror of the all-powerful Pennywise, the vampires of ’Salem’s Lot, the mysterious and inexplicable power of the Overlook Hotel and its many entities. But he also understands human fears, whether they are paired with the supernatural or the main feature of the horror. This is precisely what makes King such a master of horror: he is able to capture so many different universal fears.
There’s the fear of obsession that makes up Misery, where an author is kidnapped by an obsessive fan. In Carrie, the fear of humiliation from our peers. There’s also a deep trauma that can be seen as a kind of fear that runs in his work: Jack Torrance’s alcoholism in The Shining, the death of a child in Pet Sematary, and child abuse in both Carrie and Gerald’s Game. The editor Jeffrey Deaver says that King “brought reality to genre novels”. This is the reason why filmmakers turn time and time again to his work. King’s grounding in time periods, places, feelings, and characterisation mean that his works transcend simple labels such as “horror”. Take, for example, The Shining. It isn’t just a work about a supernaturally-charged hotel: it is about a family and the breakdown of that family; the effects of alcoholism; and also the effects of isolation on the psyche.
The richness of King’s works and of every aspect in his stories is why we love him as a writer, and the enduring power of his stories is what compels filmmakers to bring them to screen decade after decade.
Image credit: Pinguino Kolb via Wikipedia