Horror Films and Stephen King (Part One)
Plenty of movies reek, especially horror films, they may have their moments that stick in your mind and cause them to be somewhat memorable, but every once in a while a movie comes along that makes you say, “What the hell happened there?” One such case is Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive.
Stephen King can write just about anything he wants and make it work. Not only will it work but it will sell, as a book anyway. Due to the fact that King, through no fault of his own (if you call it fault), redefined popular fiction. Hollywood has always drooled at the opportunity to turn both his tomes and tales into film. They’ve done this with varying degrees of success, but have usually fallen on the lower end. Regardless of all that the films that have been made out of his literature have added to the already enormous King lexicon, a list of titles that is so huge that one can easily get lost and a few small unassuming films do slip by and are actually quite good.
While Maximum Overdrive hardly takes the cake as the best Kingflick it certainly isn’t the worst and it does hold the distinction of being the only one he not only wrote but also directed. Many things went wrong in the making of this film everything from production problems to distribution issues, which in my opinion contributed to making this film less than perfect. It ultimately led King to believe that his film wasn’t the greatest and he had better stay off the set for a while. I believe that what happened with this film doesn’t rest completely on King’s shoulders and there would be much worse things than having him direct again such as another Britney Spears movie (isn’t one painful enough?).
When we’re dealing with horror films onscreen there are certain conventions that some people will constantly follow. These conventions often come in direct conflict with the way Stephen King writes. The first thing we will recall is that most horror films rely on plots that are similar in construction to what King phrases as “The Tale of the Hook.” It’s a story we’ve all heard. Basically, it goes a little something like this: It’s the one with the guy and the girl who are making out in a car and there’s a report on the radio about a killer with a hook for his hand. During their make-out session the girl keeps getting distracted by a noise she hears. The guy persuades her that it’s all in her mind then when she gets dropped off at her house and slams the car door a hook is dangling from the door handle. It’s the stuff of urban legends that has been somewhat literally interpreted and turned into films such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
King is not simple-minded, however, and understands that the “Tale of the Hook” is a basic form for much of horror fiction in both film and literature. “The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit.” (King, Danse, 21). This is the type of plot construction that dominated the horror of the 1980s and pretty much defined the slasher sub-genre and in fact still does ‘til this very day.
This Hook Mentality is prevalent only in film because the genre is a completely different creature than horror in literature. Often the best horror literature is impossible to adapt because we delve so deep into character and wander into such supernatural areas that film can’t do it justice. The target audience for horror literature is usually much larger than it is for movies in terms of different demographics. Producers usually do whatever will get the kids to show up.
And this is why the “Tale of the Hook” works for them: “Stupid, simplistic and transparent are also perfectly good words to describe the Tale of The Hook, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story is an enduring classic of it’s kind – in fact, those words probably go a long way in explaining why it is a classic of its kind.” (King, Danse, 139).
King rarely works with the hook picking at his brain. When we think of his novels and even films we often think of names: Jack Torrance, Gage Creed, Randall Flagg, Andre Lenoge, Roland, Bill Denbrough, Carietta White, Jessie Mahout Burlingame, Dolores Claiborne, Tak, Pennywise, Bobby Garfield, Bart Dawes; I could go on but I think you get the idea. King is about character first and foremost. He takes his time and builds them slowly and steadily allowing the plot to flow out of them. This tactic in film while it’s also effective is time consuming, costly and not easy to do.
A mistake many filmmakers have made in handling his material is focusing on events and only slightly introducing characters and assuming the audience has an understanding of what makes these people tick. This is the case with Needful Things whereas in the book we always had a distinction between the characters, in the film things are blurred and many characters disappear. This is a question of logistics, considering that it was a novel that was 731 pages long and had to be transformed into a film script which at the maximum was 140 pages long. Aside from the condensation issue there were also certain unexplainable changes and bad casting decisions.
While King contends to this day that he hates Kubrick’s version of The Shining (he even wrote a mini-series remake) one thing both King and Kubrick understand is that to adapt one needs to use the basic structure of a tale and expand on themes and not necessarily events. Adaptation is hard to do. That in mind one should be wary when venturing into a territory that has swallowed many a scribe whole. King can adapt his own stuff as he’s done it successfully in the past (Pet Sematary, Silver Bullet) but with this film I feel that he was under pressure because he would be required to shoot it. This may have caused him to emphasize the wrong elements in this tale, despite that fact that there is some structural similarity it doesn’t seem like King. When reading The Talisman, a book he co-wrote with Peter Straub, I remember thinking to myself ‘This all sounds like Stephen King.’ Yet in Maximum Overdrive the dialogue rang true to my ears like his but the story didn’t. In my mind I can just imagine an exec from the Dino De Laurentiis Entertainment Group phoning him up and saying, “Steve, I’ve got some notes for you.”
In this film, Stephen King made a real attempt at telling a multi-character tale on screen in his own way. In later years he would take on the role of producer in his mini-series’, and I think it’s the direct result of the difficulties he faced with trying to make this film the way he wanted. In this film, he did flesh out his characters more than he did in the short story but as we’ll see bringing them to life is another story.
Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments.