“King on Screen” – King me [MOVIE REVIEW]

Stephen King and Frank Darabont. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Daphné Baiwir has compiled an admirable bench of 1st and 2nd string directors who discuss their collaborations on the adaptations of Stephen King novels. King’s vast backlog of novels, 65 and counting, has been the source of innumerable films and television series, possibly as many as 50. He even publishes under a pen name, but that’s something to be discussed and dissected at a later date. Prolific doesn’t come close to describing the habits of this man who has influenced countless filmmakers who have nothing but kind words to say about him. He even credits his wife of 52 years as being an important part of his success. What is most remarkable about this documentary is that, on a technical level, it’s not about King. That’s not entirely true because there is no movie without the adaptation of a King novel and there is no novel without a King. 

I must confess that I have never read a Stephen King novel and in many cases I was unaware of watching a movie based on one of his books. It came as a major shock to know that “Stand by Me” (1986) was based on his autobiographical coming of age story entitled “The Body.” That I loved the movie still did not inspire me to read his novels because, stubbornly, I held to the notion that he was a horror master. And that is where I went wrong, as “King on Screen” cheerfully pointed out. Now don’t get me wrong, many or most of his novels have a horror/thriller aspect that sometimes trespasses into the realm of fantasy, but that, as you will come to learn in this marvelous documentary, is but one element, and usually not the main one.

As we learn from many of the directors interviewed, all of whom have a King tale to tell of work both on and off the big screen, the key element in a King novel and the best film adaptations of his work is all about character development and depth. And upon learning that, it was apparent to many of the top tier actors who have worked in his films that there were roles to relish. His first novel and first to be made into a movie in 1976, “Carrie,” directed by Brian de Palma, attracted a stellar cast, led by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, both of whom were nominated for Oscars; but even in the supporting roles as the mean kids, you had John Travolta (pre-”Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”), Amy Irving (pre-”The Competition” and “Crossing Delancey”), William Katt (“pre-”Greatest American Hero”) and Nancy Allen (whose greatest career benefit from “Carrie” was marrying the director, at least it was until they divorced). It was a veritable who’s who of soon-to-be 70s movie and television stars. As a side note, King, dissatisfied with the book, threw the manuscript in the trash. It was his wife who plucked it out and saved it. The rest is history.

Many of the directors mentioned De Palma as an important influence on how they would go on to approach King novels. All, of course, mentioned the bloodbath that unleashed Carrie’s telekinetic force but, metaphorically speaking, they found the blood as representative of her hormonal period (yes, I meant to say that) that led to her power as a woman. De Palma understood that “Carrie” was a character study first, horror second.

Would you consider “Misery” a horror film? I wouldn’t and neither did its director Rob Reiner whose production company figures heavily in the King filmed oeuvre. Granted, “Misery” is horrific in its depiction of the deranged Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who holds Paul Sheldon (an effectively terrified James Caan) captive. A psychological portrait of a woman gone mad is all the more terrifying because of Kathy Bates’ frightening portrayal. It enters the realm of nightmares because it borders dangerously close to plausible. The supporting cast, including Frances Sternhagen and Lauren Bacall, is almost as impressive as the leads. For her efforts, Kathy Bates won an Academy Award.

Frank Darabont. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Frank Darabont, now most famous for creating “The Walking Dead” (2010-22), was a writer primarily known for his screenplays “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3”  (1987) and “The Blob” (1988) (what can I say; it was a living and good one at that) but when he read “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by King, he knew he had to have the rights and appealed directly to King. It took him a few years before he considered himself a good enough writer to tackle the material but when he finally had a script to show for his efforts, it landed on the desk of a development executive at Castle Rock, Rob Reiner’s company. Reiner, who had already directed two King classics (the aforementioned “Stand by Me” and “Misery”) loved the script and wanted to direct it himself. He offered Darabont “all the money in the world” for the rights but Darabont said no. He wanted to direct it himself. Paraphrasing him, no one remembers how much money you got but they always remember the art you make. “Shawshank Redemption” (1994) made nary a ripple on the box office when it opened but when it garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Morgan Freeman, people finally took notice. 

Darabont went on to direct two more King novels “The Green Mile” (1999), another psychological drama that, like “Shawshank Redemption,” yielded a nomination for Darabont in the adapted screenplay category, but also one for neophyte Michael Clark Duncan in his supporting role. “The Mist” (2007), combining horror, Sci-Fi and thriller aspects, is more what one would associate with a King novel and yet it is still an in depth look at the psychology of people trapped together under dire circumstances and how they react to the terror in front of them and within them. It also may be the film that led him down that Zombie path from which he has yet to emerge.

Taylor Hackford. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Yet another A-List director who found his way to Stephen King is Taylor Hackford who directed “Dolores Claiborne”(1995). Starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer and David Strathairn, among other outstanding actors, it never occurred to me at the time that this was Stephen King material. Hackford recognized the depth of character in this dramatic mystery and feels, like many of the other directors interviewed, that this is King’s primary strength, or at least it’s what draws so many to his work.

But I’ve only spent time discussing the movies I’ve seen and appreciated. It may be heresy, but, like King himself, I’ve never been a fan of Kubrick’s interpretation of “The Shining” (1980). As King mentions, he thought Kubrick got it all wrong in terms of the adaptation. In the book, Jack Torrance is a normal father who, while trying to bond more closely with his family, slowly goes insane. Kubrick, instead, made Jack deranged from the beginning and upped the nutso factor. Character development was diminished in favor of the horror factor.

I will readily admit that I haven’t seen movies like “Christine” (1983), the car with the evil mind (much, I suppose, like a self-driving Tesla); or “Cujo” (1983), about the St. Bernard who goes ballistic after contracting rabies; or “Thinner” (1996), directed and adapted by Tom Holland who concentrated on character in this horror fantasy about an obese lawyer cursed by a Gypsy.  

Greg Nicotero, special effects, talks of the skills needed to create the cadavers and puppets he used on King features. Dan Attias, a director I much admire, in his feature film debut directed “Silver Bullet” (1985), a film that could be relegated to the horror pile with werewolves, but, again, he focused on character and thus, like King probably intended, made this an intensely psychological thriller with horror elements. 

But these are just a few of the directors and films discussed. King is always present. Sometimes he plays a cameo in his films, sometimes it’s just his consulting services that are called on; but always there is a King (literally and figuratively) in the background.

“King on Screen” is more than the sum of its parts, so much so that you can forgive the director the lame imitation of King in her opening foray before she dives into the meat of the issue with the director interviews and fun film clips.

Showing August 28 and 29  as part of the Culture Vulture series at the Laemmle Monica.



comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.