Why Stephen King Film Adaptations Keeping Failing the Source Material
Firestarter is the latest in a string of recent, failed remakes of Stephen King adaptations. The new film has gotten overwhelmingly negative reviews, labeling it as even worse than the critically panned 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore. Adapting novels is already difficult, with the pressure of fan expectations and having to follow an existing story. Adapting something that has already done it once and failed usually gives you a template for what not to do—but that doesn’t guarantee success.
Big-screen adaptations of King books have always had mixed levels of quality. For every Carrie, The Shining, The Green Mile, and Shawshank Redemption, there’s also been a The Dark Tower, Firestarter ’84, and It Chapter Two. What makes a good adaptation of King’s work and what leads to a flop?
When the new It came out in 2017, it was an overwhelming success. There was praise for the young cast, the storytelling was great, and it had some legitimately good scares. It knew what to cut (child orgy scene) and what to keep. I remember watching it in theaters and then feeling a rush of excitement to re-read some of my favorite King books.
Then It Chapter Two came out two years later and it was a dull drip of a movie. The casting was perfect, but some of the heart was missing. It also had to pad itself and bring back in the kids from the previous installment because of how popular it was. When you make a hit, the pressure them comes to make something bigger and bolder—not something honest.
The first installment had a budget of $35–40, the second got $79 million. While flashy, King’s works aren’t powerful because of big loud moments, but because of the emotional stakes. The moments of pure terror that are more human than supernatural. The honesty of human brutality.
2019’s Pet Sematary took one of the most emotionally wrenching King novels and stripped it of every true moment of depth. It made lazy choices and benefitted from the success of It despite not (a) being scary (b) reducing every female character, and (c) changing the ending from one of pure horror to one of almost domestic zombie bliss.
In many ways the problem is that for many, horror is just about the scares. That safe tension one can feel watching a character get stalked by a silent killer. While there is a place for that and I am certainly a slasher girl, the best works of Stephen King are about transforming the domestic into the terrifying. About subverting expectations about who are the most innocent among us.
They are character studies on a middle class that has darkness in its roots and eventually comes forward to haunt the next generation.
My favorite part in Carrie (1976) isn’t the revenge scene, it is when Carrie is announced as Prom Queen and the slow walk she and Tommy make towards the stage. That superb Hitchcockian tension of knowing that something terrible is about to happen and no one knows. Other than the sound of clapping all you really hear is the score vacillating between fairy tale moment and thriller. It is the build up to it all. The inevitability of sorrow.
Carrie 1976 does that with a nothing budget of $1.8 million (adjusted for inflation that would be less than $10 million today). Not because it is a perfect adaptation, but because it is committed to the art of horror, of tension, of conflict. Same is true for The Shining.
Storytelling matters, not just a big budget.
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