Paper View: Stephen King's Novels on Screen

Few authors have seen as much of their work take the page-to-screen path as Stephen King; we assess the best and worst King adaptations, and look at what could be in store in the future

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 06 Dec 2017
The Shining

The return of Stranger Things was one of the key pop culture events of 2017, and while the Duffer brothers’ own creative powers are now beyond doubt, they’ve never shied away from the influence of others in their work. One name in particular echoes through their eerie sci-fi – swimming in suburbia’s uncanny undercurrent, tinted with a nostalgia for the simpler ages of the 80s and adolescence, the show acts as homage and heir to the literary legacy of suburban horror maestro Stephen King. 

Hammering out two thousand words a day since the 70s, the sheer volume he has written combined with the cinematic style of his writing and the freedom he gives filmmakers to reinterpret as they see fit has turned King into perhaps the most widely adapted author of all time. 2017 saw no less than four of his works given the feature film treatment, with killer clown classic It, McConaughey/Elba showdown The Dark Tower and Netflix’s 1922 & Gerald’s Game all arriving within months of each other. And the really startling thing is that this is nothing new: he’s been hitting doubles, triples and quadruples a few times a decade ever since he was first adapted for Sissy Spacek’s iconic, ensanguined turn in 1976’s Carrie.

Stephen King’s film career is a lot like his monsters, fading out of sight at times but never gone completely, biding its time for right moment to strike. Drawing power from your fear like an undancing Pennywise, the chaos of 2017 made for the perfect setting for his latest resurgence.

Which of Stephen King's Novels Have Been Adapted?

So so many, too many to ever count. One man tried once but he slowly went insane as the answer evaded him and he eventually murdered his whole family. Only later did coroners realise that the number of stab wounds he inflicted gave them the answer he’d been seeking. Then King wrote a story about it and the film rights have already been auctioned. 

Or, around 59, depending on how purist you’re being about the King canon (you could argue all day just about how many of the Children of The Corn films we’re counting). After Carrie came Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), a cinematic one-two punch only slightly undermined by King’s total dismissal of the latter in years since. In '86 we got Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, an 80s classic to rival Back to the Future or The Goonies. Then in the 90s it seemed like prison movies weren’t everything they could be, so King came through with The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and its supernatural cousin The Green Mile (1999) and casually redefined the genre.

It’s always been the haunted houses where King feels at home though, with Cathy Bates' murderous fangirl in Misery (1990), Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgård’s turns as fear incarnate in It (1990 & 2017) and the freezer-worthy terror of Cujo (1983) the most iconic of the nightmares King has wrought upon the big screen. The horror worlds of cinema and small screen have been so successfully colonised by King’s demons and devil-dogs over the last forty years that you can basically describe any bad dream you’ve ever had and you’re probably infringing on some part of his intellectual property.

What’s Being Adapted Now?

Andy Muschietti’s well-received take on the Losers Club versus Pennywise is only half the tale, with the second installment of It scheduled for 2019 and rumours already abounding about the grown-ups who’ll be tapped to take over from one of the best young casts in recent years. If Sophia Lillis does grow up into Jessica Chastain, we can probably just give it four stars now, see if it earns the final one later. Saves some time.

Another beloved tale of terror which has already been adapted, Pet Sematary is set to be dug up and reanimated once more, possibly with Muschietti again as necromancer-in-chief.

Of the endless litany of other projects currently at some stage of development, the most enticing is probably Castle Rock. Helmed by nerd king (and King nerd) J J Abrams, Hulu’s series aims to fully explore the hinted idea of a shared King universe, uniting characters from It, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, The Green Mile, The Shining and many more.

With familiar faces like Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård already attached, it’s like a Stephen King’s Avengers. Only if all of the Avengers wanted to avenge themselves on you by eating your eyelids or turning your parents into hordes of killer bees, or leading a legion of zombie pirates through your quiet, suburban neighbourhood. 

Oh, and of course there is another Children of the Corn coming.

Which of Stephen King's Novels Should Be Adapted Next?

Of those which have yet to be taken from page to projector, 1979’s The Long Walk is one of the most popular shouts for a filmic interpretation. Set in an alternate history where Hitler’s Germany prevailed, it centres around a cruel competition imposed upon American boys by the new totalitarian regime known simply as 'The Walk'. The premise is simple: they must all walk and walk and walk, their speed never dropping below four miles an hour. There are no pauses, there is no finish line, the walk ends when only one is left walking.

It would be cinematically challenging to create a compelling film out of a plot so literally pedestrian but, handled right, it could serve as a fierce rebuttal to the rising tide of fascist sympathy.

Equally timely could be a film version of Rose Madder. With one foot in the real world and the other in a fantastical realm of magic and minotaurs, King’s 1995 novel could offer a chance to succeed where The Dark Tower failed, whilst also serving as a feminist fable about a woman overcoming a powerful abuser. A female-led visual feast in the manner of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman could make for something truly special, especially if someone like Jenkins could be convinced to take the helm.

What Shouldn’t Be?

There have now been so many Children of The Corn movies that complaining about the idea of another Children of The Corn movie now just seems repetitive and redundant. You know, like the Children of The Corn movies. Honestly, the universe created by King’s writing over the last forty years is so vast, varied and plain out weird that you could have a lot of fun delving into its depths to see who can fish out the story most Darwinistically unsuited to survival in a cinematic environment.

Our pick? 1999’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. 

When nine year-old Trisha gets lost in the woods on a family hike, she must fend for herself with little more than her wits, a Walkman and a hardboiled egg to survive on. As she grows weaker, various people from her life begin to appear before her, as does baseball heartthrob Tom Gordon.

Then a bear appears. 

In imitation of her handsome hero, she takes her Walkman in hand and fastballs it straight at the bear’s face. The book informs us that this was a good decision. Honestly I’m backing down even as I write this, I want to see that scene on as large a screen as possible. It could be Millie Bobby Brown versus the bear, and it could be glorious. She’d put DiCaprio to shame.