Why Stephen King’s Film Adaptations Keep Failing in the Books

Fire starter is the latest in a series of recent and failed remakes of Stephen King’s adaptations. The new film received overwhelmingly negative reviews, calling it the same worse than the critical 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore. Adapting novels is hard enough, with the pressure of fan expectations and having to follow an existing story. Adapt something that has already done once and failed usually gives you a template for what not to do, but that doesn’t guarantee success.

The big screen adaptations of the King books have always had mixed levels of quality. For each Carrie, the brilliant, The green Lineand Shawshank takeoverthere was also a The dark tower, Fire starter ’84, and It Chapter Two. What makes a good adaptation of King’s work and what leads to a flop?

When the new This was released in 2017, it was a resounding success. There was praise for the young cast, the storytelling was excellent, and there were some legitimate good scares. He knew what to cut (child orgy scene) and what to keep. I remember watching it at the cinema and feeling a surge of excitement about re-reading some of my favorite King books.

So It Chapter Two came out two years later and it was a boring movie. The casting was perfect, but part of the heart was missing. He also had to stuff himself and bring back the kids from the previous installment due to his popularity. When you make a hit, the pressure comes to do something bigger and bolder, not something honest.

The first installment had a budget of 35-40 dollars, the second received 79 million dollars. Though flashy, King’s works are powerful not because of loud big moments, but because of emotional stakes. Moments of pure terror more human than supernatural. The honesty of human brutality.

2019 Pet sematary took one of the most emotionally harrowing King novels and stripped it of any real moments of depth. She made lazy choices and took advantage of the success of This though it’s not (a) creepy (b) undercutting every female character, and (c) changing the ending from pure horror to one of almost domestic zombie bliss.

In many ways, the problem is that for many, horror is just a matter of fear. This security tension that one can feel while watching a character being hunted down by a silent killer. While there’s a place for it, and I’m certainly a slasher girl, Stephen King’s best works are all about turning the domestic into the terrifying. About subverting expectations about who the most innocent among us are.

They are character studies of a middle class that has dark roots and ends up haunting the next generation.

My favorite part in Carrie (1976) isn’t the revenge scene, it’s when Carrie is announced as Prom Queen and the slow walk she and Tommy take to the stage. This superb Hitchcockian tension of knowing that something terrible is about to happen and no one knows about it. Apart from the sound of applause, all you really hear is the score oscillating between fairy tale moment and thriller. It’s the construction of it all. The inevitability of grief.

Carrie 1976 did this with a budget of nothing of $1.8 million (adjusted for inflation which would be less than $10 million today). Not because it’s a perfect adaptation, but because it’s committed to the art of horror, tension, conflict. It is the same for the brilliant.

Storytelling matters, not just a big budget.

(photo: Universal)

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