We need more Stephen King movies done right

Why it’s about time we saw studio-backed movies of Stephen King’s epics already

Stephen King It

Stephen King ItIt’s hard to get Stephen King right. For every Shining or Shawshank there’s about a dozen films or TV shows that don’t manage to pull it off. It doesn’t stop us from getting excited about the prospect of another new King movie, though. Because when you do get it right, the results are spectacular.

Which makes the recent news that Cary Fukunaga has apparently left the It remake over creative differences and apparent budget cuts particularly disappointing (although it should be noted that Bloody Disgusting reports that the budget cuts have been exaggerated). Leave aside the standard knee-jerk “I just slammed my head into a f***ing cupboard door!” remake rage for a moment and think about the idea that the director of Jane Eyre and True Detective was going to tackle one of King’s best works with studio backing. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen very often.

It’s a common complaint among filmmakers and critics now that the era of prestige, studio-backed horror movie is gone. They’ll point to The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, films that won Oscars (as prestige as get it gets), and bemoan the fact that those kinds of films just aren’t getting made anymore, at least not with the support or acknowledgment they deserve (unless you’re Guillermo del Toro, apparently). That’s another blog post for another time, but the dearth of big-budget Stephen King movies feels like a decent place to start.

The Mist
Thomas Jane leading survivors through The Mist

There are plenty of great examples of King’s work being adapted beautifully on what is a relatively low budget. Take Frank Darabont’s The Mist, for example, a film that was both (mostly) faithful to the novella and showcased the director’s love of classic monster movies. You’ll get some people complaining about the ending but it remains one of the best examples of King done right and it was made for $18 million. Similarly, the strangely overlooked 1408, directed by Mikael Håfström, was made for $25 million (weird to think that 1408 cost more than The Mist, but there you go), and was a tense, spooky chiller with a superb performance from John Cusack at its centre.

We’ve chosen those two examples in particular because they fit (relatively) nicely into our complaint. Both films, (both made in 2007, interestingly enough) while certainly ambitious, are based on shorter King works and are mostly set in one location. Stories like It are…well, they’re just bigger. The journey of The Losers Club is a terrifying doorstop that weighs in at over 1000 pages.

Danny Glick returns in the best scene in Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot mini-series
Danny Glick returns in the best scene in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot mini-series

We’ve seen books like It and The Stand adapted for TV, and Salem’s Lot (twice). Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot is one of the finest adaptations of King’s work but just imagine how wonderful it could be if given the big screen treatment with a creative team that knows and loves the material and a budget to match their dedication. The same goes for both It and The Stand. There’s a lot to love about both miniseries (particularly the former) but we wouldn’t say that they were perfect.

Given the impact that King has had on not just the horror genre but the landscape of literature, film and TV in general, it’s frustrating to think of the number of times that attempts at new, ambitious takes on his material have stalled. The Stand and The Dark Tower seem relatively close to production but we’ve been here before. Remember when Javier Bardem was set to play The Gunslinger? Or when Ben Affleck was going to follow Argo by directing the post-Captain Trips tale of good and evil? And just what has happened to the Pet Semetary remake? While we ourselves don’t think that Mary Lambert’s film could be improved upon, we’ve underestimated remakes before. Who’s to say the Creeds couldn’t be brought up to date by the right team?

The brilliant cast of the batshit Dreamcatcher
The brilliant cast of the batshit Dreamcatcher

Admittedly, a bigger budget and a name director are no guarantee of success. Take the $68 million Dreamcatcher (2003), directed by Lawrence Kasdan, written by William Goldman, and boasting a cast that fit their characters perfectly (Damian Lewis, Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant and Jason Lee). While we may have a strange affection for this endearingly daft, muddled oddity, it was a big-budget flop that came in for a critical beating.  Examples like Dreamcatcher might be held up as a cautionary tale, but that’s shortsighted (and really, you’re never going to see another Dreamcatcher. That film is unique).

Still, it does feel that King’s been absent from our screens recently. Efforts like Mercy and A Good Marriage skipped cinemas, and the only King film since 2007 to get a cinema release was Kimberly Peirce’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed Carrie remake, which was inevitably as influenced by Brian De Palma’s film as King’s novel. It’s hard to see Mark Romanek’s planned Overlook film missing a theatrical showing but that will almost certainly be looking to Kubrick’s  The Shining as much, if not more than, the book (if it ever happens). Still, we’ve got our fingers crossed for Tod Williams’ definitely-filmed movie of the entertaining (if not hugely memorable) Cell, which will see John Cusack return for another round of King.

John Cusack contemplates a way out of 1408
John Cusack contemplates a way out of 1408

So it does feel like there’s a gap where films like a new version of It could go. Where the stories may have been tackled before, but perhaps not with the budget and resources to support the filmmakers’ vision. Because while King definitely works well on TV (as evidenced by the plethora of King-related works in development at various networks), we’d love to see more of his work on the big screen and we’d love to see them directed by filmmakers like Cary Fukunaga who obviously aren’t lacking in vision, ambition and talent.

Find anyone who’s interested in the genre and they’ll almost certainly have a story about their first experience of reading a Stephen King novel. He’s inspired a generation of writers, directors and artists, and we want to see his work through the eyes of the best filmmakers around who have the budget they need. We’re alway happy to check out films based on his short fiction, but dammit, we want to see his epics. More importantly, we want to see them done right.

Don’t suppose Guillermo del Toro’s got room in his schedule…

Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.