The filmmaker of Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter, claimed to have only actually created one movie that he didn’t adore: 1983’s Christine, in an interview with SFX Magazine in 1996. He only ever adapted one Stephen King novel. Universal Studios had engaged Carpenter to helm a film version of Stephen King’s Firestarter, but following the box office failure of his last film, The Thing, they let him go and chose Mark L. Lester. Carpenter then helmed Christine for Columbia Pictures.
In the interview, he claims, “It wasn’t particularly terrifying.” But I had to do it at that particular time for the sake of my profession.
Carpenter can still find solace in the fact that he is not alone. Filmmakers have effectively adapted the screenplay of Stephen King. Nobody has ever accomplished it particularly successfully, as Carpenter told SFX.
He’s not the only one who thinks this. Everyone has an explanation for why one of the best-selling authors in the world has been the source of so many flops and misfires. However, almost everyone agrees that properly translating Stephen King’s work is a mammoth effort. There are a few universally regarded King classics, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, although even that movie has its critics, chief among them King. King’s small number of successful adaptations is also the exception rather than the rule: just 12 of the more than 50 theatrical feature films based on his books received generally positive reviews.
King’s penchant for meticulous character development and degree of detail contributes to the difficulty of adapting one of his stories into a film. Only 15 more than 60 novels he has written or co-written are less than 300 pages. The majority have between 600 and 1000 pages. Without several hours of screen time, his longest masterpieces and largest casts cannot be articulated.
His most recent book, Fairy Tale, comes out on September 6th and offers a helpful glimpse into the thrilling but terrifying difficulties of adapting his writing for a visual medium. The main plot of the fairy tale revolves around a 17-year-old boy who receives the secrets to a concurrent planet where both good and wicked are at the battle, and the consequences could not be greater – for that world or ours. In that one sentence, it is simple to imagine the amount of money it would cost to attempt to bring such a vast story to life on screen with any integrity. To illustrate how dangerously balanced so much of American civilization is, King creates and destroys entire universes or even villages in his stories. When adapting his writings, American cinema and television have a history of trying and failing to honor that dynamic.
Stephen King is not constrained by societal norms or viewer expectations. He has established his imagination as a trustworthy brand. Although it must be acknowledged that the ratio of well-liked to loathed takes on King on film indicates that they are also gluttons for torture, it is understandable that studios cannot seem to get enough of trying to capture part of what makes him so popular.
It takes a lot of people and narrative lines to make a single movie out of a novel about all of American life (or even two, in the case of Andy Muschietti’s tremendously successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It). It also entails writing in a different manner than King does, who regularly devotes full chapters to people or incidents that don’t advance the story but are crucial to the idea and tone of the book. Making decisions when adapting his work typically involves giving up everything that makes it special.
It may be difficult to immerse yourself in King’s universes for any length of time, much less 10 hours at a period if you’re bingeing. He tells several anecdotes about how sociopaths run entire societies, how bullies target the weak and wreck their lives, how parents damage their children for maturity, and how good people are sacrificed to show that certain things are worth saving. Many of these movies and television series feature realms of suffering that never seem to get any better. People continue to fail each other, suffer with the scars left by psychopaths, or, even worse, act badly on purpose. King novels frequently have happy or relieved endings, yet they don’t provide comfort.