Stephen King, from page to screen

Stephen King, from page to screen

This year alone, there'll be at least three movies in the cinema that are adapted from Stephen King's novels - 'Pet Sematary', with Jason Clarke, 'It: Chapter Two' with Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and James McAvoy, and in November, 'Doctor Sleep', the sequel to 'The Shining' starring Ewan McGregor.

In fact, since 1976's 'Carrie', there's been a Stephen King adaptation at least once every couple of years. 1980's 'The Shining' was followed two years later by 'Creepshow', a horror anthology movie written by King himself and directed by George A. Romero of 'Night of the Living Dead' fame.

1983 was a banner year, with John Carpenter's 'Christine', David Cronenberg's 'The Dead Zone', and Lewis Teague's 'Cujo' all arriving months apart from one another. Up until 1989, Stephen King had two movies a year in the cinemas.


The '90s weren't much different. Television miniseries like 'The Stand', Tommy Wallace's adaptation of 'It', obscurer works like 'The Tommyknockers' and even another adaptation of 'The Shining' were mounted. In the cinemas, Rob Reiner's 'Misery' received Academy Award recognition with Kathy Bates picking up a Best Actress gong for her performance as Annie Wilkes.

'The Shawshank Redemption', written and directed by Frank Darabont, became a phenomenon - despite the fact that King himself didn't necessarily think the novella could be turned into a movie. For Darabont, however, he believed it was obvious. Darabont would work with King again for 'The Green Mile', adapted from the serialised novels of the same name.

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes / Credit: MGM


By 2000, King's work had been translated from page to screen a total of 36 times - including a Hindi language adaptation of 'It', titled 'Woh', for Indian television network Zee TV. 11 derivative sequels had been rendered from King's original works, including a total of seven sequels to 'Children of the Corn'. The tenth movie in the series, 'Children of the Corn: Runaway' was released on home streaming service in 2018.

For all of these adaptations, the quality and critical acclaim have careened wildly between ecstatic and horrific. 'The Shawshank Redemption' is cited by many as Morgan Freeman's greatest performance and is almost always at the top of IMDb's Top 250.

'Misery', as mentioned, won Kathy Bates her an Oscar and is a deeply twisted, funny, horrifying examination of addiction. 'The Shining', meanwhile, is a terrifying story of horror in the family and is classed by many as the greatest horror movie ever made.

And yet, 'Cujo' - released the same year as 'The Dead Zone' and 'Christine' - is largely forgotten. On television, 'The Tommyknockers' was slated by Variety as "hokey whoop-de-do", while 'The Shining' TV miniseries, which King personally adapted, was described as "recycled trash" by the Washington Post, ending their review by urging readers to avoid it "like the plague, because it is the plague."

There appears to be no common factor that catches on with audiences when it comes to adaptations of Stephen King's work. 'The Dark Tower', a more recent example, featured a cast that included Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba and was directed by Nikolaj Arcel, in his English-language debut following the Oscar nomination for 'A Royal Affair'.


The movie had been through numerous directors, with JJ Abrams and Ron Howard both attempting to mount a production and failing in the process. 'The Dark Tower' was, of course, a failure both critically and commercially.

The same year as 'The Dark Tower', 'It' was released in cinemas and was a box-office smash and a critical success. Directed by Andy Muschietti and starring a cast of relative unknowns, the movie went on earn just over $700 million at the box office with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 86%, surpassing 'The Dark Tower' and its 16% score.

'Gerald's Game', a lesser well-known novel by King, was adapted by Mike Flanagan for Netflix and won huge acclaim for handling a movie that was long thought to be impossible to adapt to the screen.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise The Clown / Credit: Warner Bros.


By King's own admission, he's not all that pushed whether they work or not. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, King laid out his feelings on his adapted works. "The movies have never been a big deal to me. The movies are the movies. They just make them. If they’re good, that’s terrific. If they’re not, they’re not."

Yet, his works seem to automatically lend themselves to the screen. No other author in recent memory has been adapted to screen so prodigiously. The question, then, is why is that the case?

One argument is that the adaptations of King's early work - 'Carrie', 'The Shining' and 'The Dead Zone' - were so successful that Hollywood knew his work would translate easily to screen. Not only that, the fact that King's work regularly topped bestseller lists and was gaining a huge following meant that his work had name recognition. Another is that King's work itself inherently lends itself to adaptation because of its characters.

Movies like 'Misery', 'The Shawshank Redemption', 'The Green Mile', or 'Stand By Me' were defined by the performances of the actors and bringing King's characters to life. In that sense, it's the work of the actors and directors that make it come to life, though King's hands are over it.

In his own words in a 1978 interview with Cinefastique, "I am pleased that all the people involved are very good in what they’re doing. But, ultimately, they can’t mutilate anything that I wrote because the writing will stand on its own, one way or another."