Sunday Rant: Stephen King – Maximum Overload?
Have we hit peak Stephen King saturation for adaptations? It sure feels like it these days.
We like to be topical here at Deluxe Video Online. If there’s something new at theaters getting all of the coverage, we try to drill down and find an angle on it that’s not being talked about. Well, all of the conversation this weekend is about the really quite good adaptation of King’s opus, IT. In general, the guy is having a banner year with movie versions of Pet Semetary and IT, and the return of the Castle Rock series to television. So I dug around in the root cellar and tried to find something about King’s work to talk about. I spent a lot longer down there than I anticipated.
At first I thought I’d dig up some of his…questionable…adaptations. Shoot, already covered the real awful stuff. Then I thought I’d talk about his lesser known stuff. So many of his books have been made into films (and remade, over and over) I wanted to find some of his un-adapted works and talk about which ones would make either great films or television series. So I grabbed ten of my favorites from his short stories and criminally neglected period of writing under a pen name. Well, goddamn it all, ten seconds on google revealed that half of that list was already out there via shoddy TV movies or straight to VHS dreck. The other half of that list? Already in pre-production. I’m serious. I’d already written a tight page on a really obscure sci-fi short story he wrote about teleportation, only to discover that IT director Andy Muschietti is ALREADY MAKING IT WHILE WE SPEAK.
Coming Soon: A Post-It Note King Wrote His Grocery List On – The Movie!
How many of King’s stories do you think have been made into movies? Ten? Twenty? Try forty-six. The guy has fifty-seven published novels. That’s a ridiculous conversion rate. Shakespeare hasn’t had that high a percentage of his stuff adapted to film.*
(*Shakespeare has nine plays not made into Hollywood movies, so 24% of his stuff is unmade. King has seven novels not adapted, which gives us a bonkers 12% unmade rate. And yes, I’m willfully ignoring the BBC adaptations on television, cause they covered nearly every play at some point. I’m also not counting the Bachman books against King, cause see below. It would still work out to 21%, so King has got the bard covered seven ways to Sunday.)
Of the novels not adapted to film, the lion share are the ones King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. I don’t know why Hollywood hasn’t been willing to touch them. Sure, one is about a school shooting, which is pretty obviously off the table…but they did make his story about a young boy and his coming of age friendship with A NAZI WAR CRIMINAL IN HIDING. So, questionable content is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, Insomnia and The Lawnmower Man were both made into films that had nothing to do with the source material, just to get the lucrative “Stephen King’s…” attached to the project. Oh. Now I get it. Nobody’s going to pay for a movie with a “Richard Bachman’s…” tag line.
Except, Wait. They Totally Are.
The Bachman books are totally getting optioned as we speak. At least one, The Long Walk, is moving through the pipeline. Of the seven books not already represented on film, three are already being worked on. A couple more are making their way to television as series or mini-series. Both of King’s collaborations with Peter Straub are in the pipeline. King’s fairly flimsy early fantasy novel, Eyes of the Dragon, is working its way to Hulu. I’m frankly shocked that we’re not getting On Writing made into a big summer flick starring Matthew McConaughey. All told, we’ve got 30 projects in some stage of development. If you’re doing the math, you’ll have realized that means we’re going to be getting plenty of remakes.
Just like every studio and streaming service is desperate to have SOME Marvel property to adapt, every conceivable platform is snapping up King’s work. I’m not kidding, even ABC’s revamped streaming service is grabbing a parcel of the King-dom. Even if we don’t see every property make it to the finish line, and even if the one’s that do take the longest plausible time to materialize, we’re still looking at three to five King adaptations per year for the next half decade. The King-O-Verse is going to make Disney’s release schedule look downright restrained in comparison.
The Problem? IT Is an Outlier.
I’ve covered more than half of the King adaptations in one form of another here on the site. Let me tell you, it was much, much easier to fill the Top Ten Worst list than it was to cobble together the Top Ten Best version. I mean, I love 90% of what King’s written, and even I had to look a little cross eyed to put the original Pet Sematary or TV’s The Stand on a credible list of best stuff. How many absolutely great offerings have come from strip-mining Stephen’s stuff? The Shining. IT Chapter 1. The Shawshank Redemption. You can argue me into agreeing with Stand by Me or the original Salem’s Lot. Other than that, we’ve haven’t really gotten a bumper crop out of this Children of the Corn-field.
Now, we’re seeing a lot more top tier talent chomping at the bit to make adaptations of the material. For long periods of time, King’s stuff was the province of low-rent TV mini-series and abysmal B-movie schlock. Just like comic book movies, there’s now a fresh wave of respectability to the corpus. I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if it turns out a Denis Villeneuve or Alex Garland were attached to direct a major motion picture based on something King wrote. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if untested directors with a tenuous body of work in the horror genre got handed one of those 30 projects. If history is any indication, I wouldn’t be surprised if LOTS of questionable directors got the majority of them.
It’s a Hollywood Problem, Not a King Problem.
I certainly don’t hold a grudge against Steve for being a demon behind the typewriter and getting his pound of flesh from movie studios. I do have a bag of bones to pick with Hollywood’s utterly bankrupt imaginative process. We’ve seen this horse and pony show over and over. Somebody caught lightning in a bottle adapting a young adult novel? MAKE ALL OF THE FUCKING YOUNG ADULT NOVELS! Somebody finally got the super hero genre right? MAKE EVERY LAST GODDAMN COMIC BOOK INTO A MOVIE. A Stephen King adaptation finally worked out? MAKE…you get the point.
It’s not even than we’re getting too much King. It’s that it means we’re getting less of everything else from this system. How many other exciting adaptations of horror and science fiction books from lesser lights are going to get their project shoved in a filing cabinet and promptly forgotten? It’s not even like a rising tide will raise all boats, as has happened with the other big booms of the last decade. I seriously doubt Dean Koontz’ phone is fucking lighting up these days. The peculiarity of King’s name recognition and market dominance means most people who religiously read him probably don’t even know the name of his closest competitor, let alone read them. Sorry, Mylo Carbia, even though you regularly compete with King for top spot on the sales list, I don’t see any movies in the work currently for you. And that kinda sucks.