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Stephen King adaptations are practically impossible to get right and always will be

The definitive history of King adaptations, and why they might never be as popular as his books

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown leers evilly through a dark red light in the movie It Photo: Warner Bros.

In 1996, Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China director John Carpenter told SFX Magazine that he’d only really made one film he didn’t love: 1983’s Christine. It was his only Stephen King adaptation. Universal Studios had hired Carpenter to direct an adaptation of King’s Firestarter, but after his movie The Thing underperformed, they fired him and brought on Mark L. Lester, and Carpenter directed Christine for Columbia Pictures instead.

“It just wasn’t very frightening,” he says in the interview. “But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.”

Still, Carpenter can console himself: He’s in good company. Few directors have successfully translated Stephen King to the screen. As Carpenter put it to SFX, “Nope, no one has ever done it very well.”

He’s hardly alone in saying so. Everyone has their explanations as to why one of the world’s bestselling authors has inspired so many duds and disasters. But nearly everyone agrees that adapting Stephen King successfully is a herculean task. There are a couple of agreed-upon classic King movies, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but even that film has its detractors, most notably King himself. And King’s handful of hit adaptations are the exception to the norm: His work has been turned into theatrical feature-length movies more than 50 times, and only a dozen of those movies got consensus good reviews.

Part of the problem with making a movie out of a King story is the level of detail and character-building he so often puts into his work. Of the 60-plus novels he’s written or co-authored, only 15 of them are less than 300 pages long. Most of them range from 600 pages to more than a thousand. His longest works and most enormous casts can’t be enunciated without many hours of screen time.

His newest novel, Fairy Tale, out Sept. 6th, is a useful window into the exciting but harrowing challenges of translating his work for a visual medium. Fairy Tale’s plot revolves around “a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher — for that world or ours.” In that single sentence, it’s easy to imagine the money it would take to try and bring such a broad story to life on screen with any integrity. King’s books create and destroy communities, or even entire worlds, in order to show how precariously so much of American civilization is balanced. Trying and failing to respect that dynamic in adapting his books has become something of a hallmark for American film and television.

Stephen King isn’t bound by conventional structures or audience expectations. He’s made his imagination into a dependable brand. Studios understandably cannot seem to get their fill of trying to capture some of what makes him so popular, though it must be said that the ratio of well-liked to despised takes on King on film means they’re also gluttons for punishment.

Making a single movie out of a book about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti’s hugely profitable adaptation of King’s It) means shaving off characters and plot points. And it means adopting a style very different from King’s writing, which frequently spends entire chapters on characters or events that don’t move the plot forward, but are essential to the theme and tone of the work. Adapting his work means making choices — and usually sacrificing everything uniquely essential about his work.

King’s first movies and the miniseries boom

Sissy Spacek, drenched in blood and with wide, fixed, staring eyes, in the 1976 movie Carrie Photo: United Artists

Brian De Palma was the first director to release a movie based on King’s writing. His 1976 horror movie Carrie put him on the map, just as the book it adapts made an overnight sensation of its author. The film grossed $33 million against its $2 million budget. So it wasn’t surprising when, in the mid-’70s, Warner Bros. acquired the rights to King’s Salem’s Lot with the intention of turning it into a feature film. It was eventually handed over to their television division, where two dozen named characters would have room to breathe over two nights of broadcasting time.

Still, CBS took liberties with the book, merging characters and changing the villainous vampire from a dandy to a subhuman rodent. Thanks to Tobe Hooper’s direction and a game cast, it got great reviews and ratings. It remains truly frightening. And it opened up the door to the idea that the best approach to King wasn’t on film, where flop after flop — Firestarter, Sleepwalkers, Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet, Graveyard Shift — tarnished the stories that inspired them. The real future of King adaptations, according to Salem’s Lot, was on TV.

But TV has frequently proved ill-fitting for King as well. Longer run times gave creators the freedom to explore more of the nuance of King’s work, but there was still a tough hurdle in making great art on television at a time when the medium was the province of writers, and good directors wouldn’t go near it. When capital-A Artists made the crossover to the small screen, their work was frequently subjected to network tampering (Twin Peaks) or outright cancellation (Fishing With John, The Dana Carvey Show) when it failed to find an audience. That meant a much safer class of director would have to tackle King’s work, in order to please TV studio bosses as concerned with ratings and censorship as with the relative quality of the product.

King got his first taste of TV writing on 1991’s limited CBS series Golden Years, in which Keith Szarabajka plays a janitor who’s exposed to toxic chemicals and starts getting younger. Over the next few years, six adaptations of King’s work hit the small screen (ABC, specifically) in two- to four-episode installments. Tommy Lee Wallace’s It, John Power’s The Tommyknockers, Tom Holland’s The Langoliers, and Mick Garris’ The Stand all tried to capture as much of the novels’ enormity as possible. King personally scripted a truly awful remake of The Shining (also directed by Garris) and an original 1999 production, Storm of the Century, directed by Craig R. Baxley, who King hand-picked for the task.

So what was the trouble? Choices. None of the filmmakers who got a crack at King’s writing brought any significant style to the task. The goals of these early adaptations were just replicating King’s ideas and story beats as faithfully as possible. Though most of these projects were shot on 35mm film, they were photographed with small spherical lenses in 1.33:1, a deliberately box-shaped aspect ratio that became the standard when shooting on TV. For all the sprawling run times and apocalyptic events being portrayed, these miniseries all felt small. Most of the actors seem to have been encouraged to adopt a broad performance style, to broadcast every emotion as plainly as possible. And none of these stories gain anything specific in the translation to visual media: They’re all visually lifeless, dramatically inert, and far too literal attempts to get the story basics on the screen without shaping those stories for a different medium.

And then there were the special effects. Though some of these early adaptations have interesting practical effects (the best are found in Wallace’s It, in which Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown takes on monstrous shapes and sizes, thanks to the effects team), they’re mostly marred by early CGI that wasn’t ready for primetime. King was vocally happy to get another crack at The Shining, but effects like the living topiary monsters in that miniseries showed their age seconds after they debuted. Only The Stand and It have made their way to Blu-ray.

This was all in stark contrast to the lessons being learned by people adapting King’s work for the movies. The sober, adult-oriented dramas Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, and Hearts in Atlantis all took the opposite tack, showing what happens when directors adapt the horror writer’s gentler stories with an eye toward winning awards. Even some of the horror films from this ’90s era — Misery, The Dark Half, Needful Things — adopt much more controlled, hushed atmospheres than the likes of The Stand, which ends with a computer-generated hand squeezing a nuclear bomb until it detonates, killing a demonic villain who looks a little too much like Jay Leno.

The arrival of prestige TV

A sandy-haired, bearded white man stares in astonishment at the vivid red bloody handprint he’s just made on what appears to be empty air in the CBS show Under the Dome
Under the Dome
Image: CBS

Just as King was becoming something of a Mark Twain or Will Rogers-style fixture in America (he even had a syndicated column in Entertainment Weekly at the height of the Iraq War), the torture-porn and found-footage fads were reshaping how horror movies were presented in America. The real bellwether came when Frank Darabont made the plentifully gory and unbearably cruel 2007 movie The Mist, based on King’s novella. Filmmakers could now lean into unapologetic sadism at every turn and get great reviews in the process. At the same time, something else was happening to mass media.

On HBO, shows like Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood were redefining what could be shown on TV. Literary writing, patient direction, superlative performances, and cameras shooting in wider aspect ratios all gave television a more cinematic look and feel. Suddenly, as a million trend pieces pointed out at the time, TV was looking better than what was on offer at the movies. Soon, every network had its own “prestige” show: Mad Men and Breaking Bad on AMC; The Shield, The Americans, and Nip/Tuck on FX; The West Wing, Hannibal, and Friday Night Lights on NBC; David Mamet’s The Unit on CBS. And then came the streamers.

In order to compete with the broadcast stations, Netflix and Hulu shelled out big money for shows like House of Cards and The Handmaid’s Tale. Censorship loosened and big-name talent was being attracted, with Oscar-winning actors popping up on TV left and right. It seemed like nothing (colorful language, graphic sexual assault, violence) was off-limits, and writers rooms and casts were finally filled with people other than straight white men. The possibilities were endless. So what better time to give Stephen King’s unbeatable name recognition another outing for the small screen?

There were only a few King products for TV in the 2000s, most directed by Baxley or Mikael Salomon, who remade Salem’s Lot for TNT in 2004. That series got away with a fair bit of violence, but still basically told King’s story as it was written, with little style to get in the way. It shouldn’t, again in theory, have been such a Herculean task to replace King’s pre-Sopranos TV adaptations in the public consciousness. Though they’d provided audiences with some good scares, those earlier adaptations weren’t so beloved that they’d spawned a vocal fandom who might complain that their favorite shows had been “ruined” by some new interpretation.

Furthermore, King had written a number of new works crying out for the prestige treatment. But that new round of writing got off to a bumpy, pedestrian start. The Syfy network, then still called Sci-Fi, financed five seasons of Haven, a 2010 series based on King’s short 2005 mystery novel The Colorado Kid. It looked and acted much like any number of network TV shows, with cheap synth music, not-all-there special effects, flatly handsome cinematography, quirky characterization, a bland cast, and not much ambition.

CBS was next, creating and quickly losing interest in Under the Dome. That 2013 series abandoned the story in King’s massive novel and got down to the business of keeping a weekly show going by packing the narrative with dramatic cul-de-sacs and rudimentary plotting. It was canceled after three seasons. King told The New York Times that he wasn’t sad to see it go.

Finding a footing

Julianne Moore, submerged in water up to her nostrils, in front of a wild jungle background in Lisey’s Story
Lisey’s Story
Photo: Apple TV Plus

The prestige-ification of King-based television didn’t start in earnest until Hulu’s handsome 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63, about a man (James Franco) who travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. In 2018, the streamer also launched the excellent Castle Rock, a kind of fanfiction open-world Stephen King tribute stuffed with as many references to his work as two seasons of TV could handle.

In 2017, Spike TV launched a very expensive season of The Mist. The same year, Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley created an adaptation of Mr. Mercedes for the now-defunct Audience Network. HBO Max got 2020’s The Outsider. 2020’s new version of The Stand went to CBS All Access. Adrien Brody starred in a 2021 adaptation of “Jerusalem’s Lot” called Chapelwaite, which aired on Epix. And Oscar-nominated producer and director Pablo Larraín directed 2021’s Lisey’s Story for Apple TV Plus.

Each of these new shows is great in its own way. Castle Rock leads André Holland and Melanie Lynskey both do marvelous work making harried skepticism and resigned acceptance seem achingly real as impossible things befall them. Mr. Mercedes had a fearless interest in the sex and social lives of retirees, like its protagonist, played by Brendan Gleeson, and his neighbor, played by Holland Taylor. Chapelwaite is beautifully designed and photographed, and its cast imbues its tale of outcasts fighting for their lives with brooding soul. Lisey’s Story was one more addition to Larraín’s collection of time-jumping decadent and dreamy tragedies.

They all share one thing in common: Even though none of them ever ran on regular old network TV, they’re all off the air, in their differing ways. Poor reviews assailed Lisey’s Story, The Stand, and The Mist. Mr. Mercedes, The Outsider, and Castle Rock were all canceled, in spite of great response. The only one of these series that fared fairly well was 11.22.63, but even that has stayed out of conversations about “great TV,” however you may define that. (That may be because of the sexual misconduct allegations levied against its star, James Franco.) And all that happened even though the shows’ creators took a wide variety of approaches and methods.

Castle Rock was plainly greenlit on the success of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, though it takes a different tack than that series. It’s quiet, brooding, and unsettling, marked by long silences and attempts to rationalize the irrational. Lisey’s Story unfolds like one of Larraín’s movies (Spencer, Jackie, and so forth), dripping with postmodern cool and real, scorching pain, courtesy of co-leads Julianne Moore, Dane DeHaan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Allen, and Michael Pitt. Chapelwaite, like its fellow horror period pieces Salem, Penny Dreadful, and The Terror, goes all in on handsome era re-creation. Mr. Mercedes’ cranky procedural elements could have easily slotted into any weeknight lineup on a major network any time in the last 50 years, if not for the swearing and the incest.

The Stand, if anything, was too conventional. It technically “modernizes” the novel and the preceding miniseries with a more diverse cast, culturally relevant dialogue, and accidental COVID echoes, but it’s still just a rough translation of King’s words, with too little personality added. It’s one of those exercises that raises the question “Did the creators have any personal or artistic reason for wanting to do this in the first place?” It’s tough to imagine that someone looked at King’s foundational epic story — in his own words, his version of The Lord of the Rings and saw James Marsden and Greg Kinnear in the roles of the saviors of mankind, or Eddie Murphy-in-The Klumps-style makeup on the necks of people dying of the plague. It was just enough like the old Stand, and just enough of a departure, that it pleased nobody.

So with all this variety, all this talent, why did so few of these shows succeed? Modern creators have thrown every trick they can think of at the problem of rethinking Stephen King: longer run times, beautiful production design, prestigious and well-established actors, million-dollar soundtracks, gory violence you couldn’t show on TV a few years ago. But nobody has managed to crack the code and produce a Stephen King TV adaptation that could be described as a classic, or compete with the success and fame of his books.

What now?

Shelley Duvall screams in terror and presses her body into a corner as an axe crashes through the door of the bathroom she’s hiding in in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
The Shining
Photo: Warner Bros.

Audiences watched the hokier version of King brought on by the early-’90s TV miniseries boom, but there hasn’t been much demand to keep those shows in rotation. Nor did anyone express enough interest in the soberer, more artistic versions. Every few years, a group of artists and producers looks at the last bunch of adaptations and attempts to solve their problems by doing the opposite. But in trying to fix something through negative example, they’ve only figured out how not to do what’s been done before. What remains is the question of how to adapt Stephen King in a way that pleases a mass audience.

Certainly we’re going to be given a number of opportunities to see if anyone has found the secret to bringing King’s voice to TV. His son Owen King is turning Sleeping Beauties, the book he co-authored with his dad, into an AMC series. Jack Bender (who produced and directed much of Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome) is working on a series based on King’s 2019 novel The Institute. And Steven Spielberg and Stranger Things creators the Duffer brothers are producing The Talisman for Netflix. Even after the last round of cancellations, even after decades of poorly reviewed TV, producers still think there’s money to be made, and writers and directors still think there are artistic roads not yet taken, in making King work on the small screen.

What’s become clear is that it takes more than a commanding tone and modern optics to replace people’s memories of the first versions of these stories, or to draw in a new audience that almost certainly knows King’s name, but may not have read his work. Replacing King’s prose with prestige-TV texture just takes out the compelling writing style that still draws readers to King, and tries out new voices to deliver his plot points.

But replacing King’s voice with someone else’s will surely disappoint fans. And those who haven’t read his work and don’t already have positive associations with a given title may largely avoid these ubiquitous adaptations. For all his reputation as a reliable, enjoyable author, he’s built an equal reputation as a creator whose work results in unmemorable or downright bad media. And when there’s so much of it, and none of it (saving the It movies) has achieved breakout success, it’s easier than ever to ignore the latest title rolling by.

More than that, though, TV has become a medium where other familiar names dominate — people like David Simon, Vince Gilligan, or Shonda Rhimes, known for producing successful, idiosyncratic, fresh work. These kinds of auteur showrunners, who’ve built their own brands and audiences, have less interest in adapting someone else’s work — especially when almost no one has a great record of producing a truly breakout King TV show or miniseries.

We’re in an age where familiarity and novelty are the two biggest competing media draws. The box office is dominated by huge franchises; on TV, the most-watched shows are 10 Dick Wolf shows, a Game of Thrones spinoff, the soon-to-be three different Yellowstone varieties, every branch of CSI and NCIS you can think of, Star Trek and Star Wars franchise installments, and as many iterations of popular reality shows as TV can produce. In such a splintered TV landscape, risk is rarely rewarded. Now that the prestige-TV machinery has tried every angle in giving people King’s prose, and nothing has risen up out of the fray, it increasingly looks this just isn’t the right time to adapt King.

And part of that is that we’re also in a stressful age where audiences are visibly seeking out comfort entertainment. The latest batch of King series really hammer home the cruelty of his worlds, in ways the softer TV visions of the ’90s couldn’t match. Now, when people suffer or die in King-derived stories, it hurts. The child torture and murder in Doctor Sleep, the extended family agony after the child deaths in The Outsider, the opening massacre of Mr. Mercedes, the many innocents slaughtered in The Mist, a vampiric daughter’s pleas to her crestfallen father in Chapelwaite these things are played with such vivid dramatic weight that they’re almost intolerable. There will always be an audience for horror, but horror is most popular when it’s cathartic rather than nihilistic — or when it cuts too close to home.

Spending time in King’s worlds at all can be tough, let alone tuning in once a week for months, or for 10 hours at a clip if you’re bingeing. His stories of communities ruled by sociopaths, the bullies out to traumatize the weak, parents ruining their kids for adulthood, the sacrificing of kind people to prove that some things are worth saving — it’s all a lot. In many of these films and shows, worlds of torment fail to get better week after week. People live with scars wrought by psychopaths, they resolutely fail each other, or worse, they continue to be awful on purpose. King stories often end on a note of hope or relief, but they aren’t comfort food.

Still, his books have been so popular for so long because he takes his audiences on such breathlessly tense, well-realized journeys into darkness. And today’s TV productions seem better suited than ever to the demands of his long and winding tales. Still, nearly everyone who has tried has struck out. Do the demands of a fickle audience and marketplace preclude the idea of a Stephen King TV show finding the kind of purchase producers have been aiming for since the 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries? With a larger toolkit than TV and films have ever had before, this should be the perfect time to try out new and exciting things. Maybe the next adaptations will finally break the curse of Stephen King in media, a mystery as dense and thorny as any the man himself ever wrote.

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