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STEPHEN KING AT THE MOVIES ****

By Ian Nathan. Hardcover 224 pp

Out now from Palazzo Editions

 

Given the sheer volume of Stephen King adaptations since the emergence of Brian De Palma’s rarely matched CARRIE in 1976, we’ve already had various book-length studies of King on the screen, from breezy all-purpose guides like Stephen Jones’ “The Films of Stephen King” to more academic fare like Simon Brown’s “Screening Stephen King”. Empire magazine veteran / “Alien Vault” author Ian Nathan has hit a sweet spot somewhere in between with this pithy, handsomely illustrated coffee table sweep through almost five decades of TV and film King translations, cunningly timed for the current King movie renaissance, and the arrival of IT CHAPTER 2 in particular.

 

King once referred to the short stories from the oft-adapted “Night Shift” as one-reel horror movies, and Nathan’s intro highlights the “filmic syntax” embedded in King’s writing from the start and has naturally fed into (thus far) 65 movies, 30 TV shows and 7 individual televisual adaptations of his work. No single writer has been adapted more (unless you count, for instance, all DRACULA films as Bram Stoker adaptations) and Nathan’s enthusiasm for this (his words) unabashed entertainer is clear to see – albeit balanced by the acknowledgement that some (including those King adapted for the screen himself) can be generously called mediocre. One-off oddities are also briefly considered, including the rarely referenced German hardcore SHINING adaptation NASSE SCHLUPPER (put it on your Christmas list and watch it with the family when the festive revelry dries up).

 

Positioning King’s life’s work as an ongoing, genre-bending commentary on a changing America and the human condition, Nathan retreads very familiar biographical detail (Tabitha King retrieving the original draft of “Carrie” from the trash) but manages to find witty and interesting things to say about much-analysed movies, including the original CARRIE, here engagingly described as “a semi-satirical madhouse – push the visuals any harder and it’s CREEPSHOW”, with Margaret White the first in a sequence of terrifying middle-aged King religious fanatics on screen, to be succeeded by Bob Gunton in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and Marcia Gay Harden in THE MIST. The autobiographical trappings of so much of King’s work are considered throughout, starting with the tale of failed fatherhood at the heart of “The Shining” before Kubrick transformed it into an icier epic about a family going mad together, directing scenes unseen by loudspeaker and selecting the more outlandish of Jack Nicholson’s takes “partly as a joke about nutcase artists, even as Kubrick was driving his actors to insanity”.

 

The film-by-film analysis throws out an assortment of fun trivia, from Bill Murray as King’s choice for the Christopher Walken role in THE DEAD ZONE to the trend for King films to erode the warm cuddly legacy of E.T. by casting Dee Wallace as an adulterous mom in CUJO, Drew Barrymore burning scores of extras alive in FIRESTARTER and Henry Thomas abusing children in GERALD’S GAME. Nathan has a gift for funny, sharp summations of key films like CUJO (“a hot sour breath of a film – a disaster movie in miniature”) and John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE, which is defined as being “close to a baleful reprint of Disney’s anti-Beetle HERBIE”. While there’s no surprise that the CHILDREN OF THE CORN franchise – a major self-described embarrassment for King-  is given short shrift, it’s refreshing to read positive commentary on the self-parodic CAT’S EYE and even King’s famously cocaine-addled directorial stint MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, while Nathan makes you want to revisit the unloved GRAVEYARD SHIFT, King’s “most working class film”. The flaws of fan favourites IT (1990) and PET SEMATARY (1989) are honestly examined and, as always with a book like this, there’s fun to be gleaned from disagreeing with, for instance, the author’s dismissal of (arguably) undervalued movies like Larry Cohen’s marvellously off-kilter A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT and grisly anthology TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE THE MOVIE.

 

Along the way, recurring themes and tropes are acknowledged, alongside the impact of King’s personal horrors – notably his near-fatal 1999 road accident – and prominent influences from Frank Capra to Shirley Jackson. Chances are that you may have forgotten that THE DEAD ZONE TV series ran for six seasons and erased memories of expensive failures like DREAMCATCHER…and many will come away with a desire to reacquaint themselves with genuinely impressive 1990’s adaptations like APT PUPIL, DOLORES CLAIBORNE and THE NIGHT FLIER. THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 and King’s written-for-television STORM OF THE CENTURY receive overdue critical praise and there’s an astute critique of 2013’s misfired CARRIE remake as Nathan captures how the filmmakers overthought everything (including the strategic mapping of the pig’s blood sequence), turning it into a story of an “irritated superhero” at work with a badly miscast lead actor.

The book brings the long journey of King on screen up to date, positioning the unprecedented success of 2017’s IT as the point where King’s status as a literary giant was truly confirmed, ushering in a renewed interest from major studios, |TV networks and prominent streaming services like Netflix. The IT remake saw the studio marketing machine, King’s long-established reputation and the none more powerful social media network combining to produce horror’s biggest ever box office hit, creating a communal experience that Nathan likens to a “a  collective group hug of America’s most cherished author”.

 

Well presented, accessible and punctuated by useful soundbites from King, THE FILMS OF STEPHEN KING finds a perfect endnote with J J Abrams’ new CASTLE ROCK series, depicted as “a love song, a critique and overview of King’s entire mythology – almost an adaptation of this book”.

 

Steven West

 

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FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018