I watched the pilot to Spike TV’s adaptation of The Mist today and during it, I couldn’t help but think why so many filmmakers have adapted works by Stephen King. In fact, King has the second most number of works adapted into movies and shows — the first being, of course, Agatha Christie, whose entire canon has been adapted, some of them multiple times — and an adaptation or two of a King novel nearly comes out every year. Just this year, we have The Dark Tower, It, Gerald’s Game, 1922, The Mist, Castle Rock, and Mr. Mercedes. So why has King been adapted so many times? And what makes a good Stephen King adaptation anyway?
First, let’s get this out of the way: Stephen King is massively popular and, unlike a lot of other authors, he has stayed popular over the decades. He may not have the same huge popularity as he did in the ‘80s (when seven King film adaptations came out in the same year of 1983), but his books have stayed on the bestseller list. Moreover, King has a lot of work than can be adapted; not just novels, but loads and loads of short stories and novellas. And, often, it’s the short stories and novellas that are adapted, since King’s novels tend to run extremely long and his stories and novellas are shorter and can be better adapted to fit a two-hour movie. (Different Seasons, his book of four non-horror novellas, has famously had three of them adapted into films, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil. The fourth, The Breathing Method, is probably unfilmable.)
But there have been other popular authors that have had large canons and they have not been as continuously adapted as King has. Another reason why he has been adapted so much could be because of the “Dollar Babies,” the name that King gives the short films and filmmakers who pay him one dollar to make an adaptation of one of his short stories. Frank Darabont apparently started his career by making one from “The Women in the Room” and later went on to direct The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist.
(My favorite Dollar Baby, on the other hand, is “Paranoid: A Chant.”)
Darabont has been one of the few to direct multiple good King adaptations. Of the many adaptations of King’s books and short stories, one could say that a majority of them were, in fact, bad. So what separated out the good for the bad? What makes King such an easy writer to adapt badly?
For one thing, King often has a very distinctive voice while writing — he writes in his characters voices. Sometimes he will use the omniscient narrator, but a lot of the time, the words on the page will, in fact, reflect the thoughts of the person the scene is about. Take, for instance, this sentence from Misery:
In a book, all would have gone according to plan.... but life was so fucking untidy - what could you say for an existence where some of your most crucial conversations of your life took place when you needed to take a shit, or something? An existence where there weren’t even any chapters?
The sentence is nominally from the omniscient narrator, but really it’s from the point of view of Paul Sheldon, the main character. And often, instead of having a back and forth dialogue between two characters, King will have a character have an internal monologue, revealing their motivations and backstory and personality only to themselves.
Which doesn’t work if you are trying to make a movie. I mean, you can do inner monologue, but that usually means having a voice over and voice overs can be tedious and boring. You can also have the character break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera — like Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Frank Underwood in House of Cards — but that pretty much only works if you stick with it for one character, while King often has multiple characters perspectives in his books. So a lot of the time, filmmakers will drop these things entirely or replace the inner monologue with clumsy expository dialogue.
Another reason that there are a lot of bad King adaptations is that King writes horror and he writes all variations of horror. He’s written cosmic Lovecraftian horror, survival horror, post-apocalyptic horror, and even rape revenge horror (a controversial subgenre if there ever was one). And while there are a few really good horror films made every year, there are a lot more bad horror films. It’s a lot easier to try and use jump scares and gore to make a horror film than be actually inventive. King’s novels and stories rarely rely on either (jump scares are rarely effective in written format), instead relying on psychological horror most often. Jack Torrance slowly goes mad, Annie Wilkes reveals herself to be Paul Sheldon’s greatest fan, and so on. A lot of the really great scary stuff is also quick and doesn’t come across in film as well. Take, for instance, 1408, a very short story which was adapted in to a pretty good movie. In the story, inside an evil hotel room (yes, King can make anything evil), the phone rings and when the main character answers it, a voice like “an electric hair-clipper that has learned how to talk” comes on and says this:
“This is nine! Nine! This is nine! Nine! This is ten! Ten! We have killed your friends! Every friend is now dead! This is six! Six! Eighteen! This is now eighteen! Take cover when the siren sounds! This is four! Four! Five! This is five! Ignore the siren! Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room! Eight! This is eight! Six! Six! This is goddamn fucking six!”
On paper, this is incredibly creepy. If you translate that into film, however...suddenly, you can see how it might not work. Instead, the film gives us this:
On the phone is instead the voice of a normal receptionist, until the very end of the call, when the phone itself melts and we get a part of the above quote. It’s only a small piece, though, and doesn’t have the same impact, but the rest of the scene works out better for using something a bit different, something that works better on film.
The same thing happened with Misery — in the book, Annie cuts off one of Paul Sheldon’s feet with an axe, but this was thought to be a bit too severe, so it was changed to simply breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer, thus creating one of the more iconic moments of the film. (Which is funny, because Kathy Bates had read the book and was eager to film the foot-chopping scene.)
Some changes, however, are more controversial: Frank Darabont’s infamous ending to The Mist changed the novella’s uncertain ending into one of incredible bleakness and even though King has said he prefers the movie’s ending, there are a lot of people who prefer the novella’s.
Which brings us to new TV show version of The Mist. Is it good? Well, it’s only been one episode, so I can’t judge it as a whole, but based on the pilot: maybe? The pilot introduces us to a load of characters and then has the titular mist descend into town so we can see how these characters survive or don’t.
The problem here is twofold:
One, most of the characters are unlikable. The main characters are Eve and Kevin Copeland and their daughter Alex, but Eve is the only likable character there. In the pilot, she tells her daughter not to go to a party, but Kevin tells her she can go (without informing his wife) and Alex, of course, gets drugged and raped. Instead of this making Alex sympathetic, however, she comes across as whiny, complaining to her mother about having to leave town and then calling her mother a slut. And this is a scene right after Alex herself was called a “whore” because she was raped. Kevin, too, comes across unsympathetic, trying to say that it wasn’t his fault because Eve is too restrictive — despite their daughter just having been raped. Other characters fair a little better, with an unnamed junkie with a mysterious backstory and an amnesiac military man who tries to warn the town about the mist. The best characters, however, are probably Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy) and her husband, who are the most sympathetic and likable characters, which is too bad because we spend very little time with them during the entire episode. All in all, the show is in danger of falling into what I call “Under the Dome-syndrome.”
Two, the mist takes way too long to arrive in town. All the events I describe above — the introduction of Eve, Kevin, and Alex, her rape, going to the police, and so on — take up over half the episode. The rest, thankfully, is about the actual mist, but the show spends waaaaay too much time setting up characters we don’t care about before it introduces the actual horror elements.
All in all, some things appear to be working out in the show — like the implication that the mist not only brings monsters but also hallucinations — but also does other things that don’t quite work. Time will tell if the show corrects itself and we get a really good Stephen King television show or not.
If not, we can always hope for Castle Rock.