The Stephen King Problem

Listen, we need to talk about this Stephen King renaissance in cinema. 


Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been enjoying it. The entire thing is a massively cathartic experience to me, the decades of reading I’ve participated in being brought to the masses. There are several that call themselves “fans” of his work and that’s a legitimate thing to say. He’s an enjoyable writer that provided thrills to readers of multiple generations, but lately he’s leapt from household name to box-office name. His films adaptations are admittedly spotty at best, with the occasional success here and there (I hate to tell King but…Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is amazing). See, he’s not crafting cinema – he’s crafting a universe.


This makes things complicated when you’re adapting a single work for a film. 400-1000 pages don’t always fit into what you would consider a standard runtime, coming off as bloated or boring in an attempt to be faithful or obscene in the way they hack the material down to its bare bones. There’s either too much or too little for a film, leaving audiences baffled and frustrated. When It: Chapter One dropped in 2017 we experienced a breath of fresh air, a film that was overjoyed to spread itself out and allow the performances to breathe life into a property that had become “the creepy clown story.” I loved it, but there’s been a huge problem with the King films that have come after. Whether adapting short stories or novels, each entry has been lesser (including the sequel to the film that launched the reinvigoration). But why? It’s not a lack of passionate directors and writers, it’s not a lack of dedication from fans, and it’s not like the material isn’t there. So why? 


Turns out it’s oversaturation. That’s the issue.


Look, I’m overjoyed that one of my favorite populist writers is getting the attention I believe they deserve. King’s modern work has been fascinating and wonderful to read at times, but why is it that so many of his adaptations fall flat? He loves them, so why shouldn’t we? 


Doctor Sleep dropped this weekend and it’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. This was a fantastic novel, one that dealt with character issues and primal problems involving the pains of growing up with something special inside of you. It comes with depression, angst, and infantilism that drives those kinds of things. My issue lies with how it’s executed. See, the film is a problematic cobble of gobbeldygook for those that wanted something larger. King’s novel is one that involves a lot of knowledge of his universe, The Shining, and cinematic understanding. You see, King is one of those few writers that can paint a picture worthy of understanding via adaptation in the modern era. He creates visual images and characters that feel real right off the page. When this becomes an issue is when you try to adapt a lifetime into a film.


See, this is the problem a lot of people have with adaptation. Look to the other films in this renaissance! Gerald’s Game is a vicious look at more violent, isolated versions of his work while things like Pet Sematary and In the Tall Grass work to try something new with an existing story. Don’t get me wrong, I love that, but it’s a mixed bag when interpretation is involved. You see, some works need more than a film adaptation. Things like In the Tall Grass or the 2013 remake of Carrie wind up working (don’t lash out at me, that’s a solid movie) wind up working with an asterix, while things like A Good Marriage or Doctor Sleep wind up being entertaining misfires. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Doctor Sleep, but it’s a mess due to the issues discussed in the novel that wound up left by the wayside. See, adaptation can be a fickle mistress. Turns out adapting a larger work can be complicated.


Let’s look at my favorite King novel, Pet Sematary, and the recent reimagining of his novel.


See, this is an absolute mess of a film that nonetheless contains some interesting and original ideas. What King did was process his own stress, dealing with his daughter’s anguish over the idea that her cat would one day die. The film takes that daughter and thrusts her into a role where she has to deal with death on a more visceral level. A bold adaptation struck down by pacing problems and a lack of real understanding of what made the climax terrifying and meaningful. 


That’s kind of what I’m getting at. Mike Flanagan, director of Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game, is a marvelous network television director. He’s hit streaming services hard and can conjure up scares with visuals that befit his medium. The issue lies in the format. See, a film is a wildly different thing than a novel. I’ve always argued that a good short story has cinematic qualities while good novels are more of a mini-series type of thing. King adaptations have been stuck in this rut as of late, seeing versions that aim for something larger than what they should be. Doctor Sleep, as a film, can feel like a bit of a disappointment. It starts on a level that really wants to be a character study, discussion issues revolving around family ties, trauma, and addiction, but it casts them aside for the more fantastical elements of the story and it’s to its detriment.


Look, I’m happy about this King resurgence that’s popped up in the last couple of years. He’s become half a franchise, the name selling films but the connective tissue remaining limp outside of a few jolts, and it’s the problem. In an age where cinematic universes exist Hollywood lacks the gumption to use this because there’s no central hero they’re willing to bet on, no stable of characters they can use to paint a larger picture. I love it, but they’re embracing it for the wrong reasons. Perhaps one day they’ll grasp it but…but today.

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