Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Seven)

De Laurentiis was the sole production company involved in the making of this film. They gave this movie a budget of $10 million dollars, which may have been risky considering their spotty past varying from Conan the Destroyer to Blue Velvet. Of their 22 productions four were released in 1986. The fact that they spread themselves so thin may have lead to the variance in the quality of the films and their financial success.
    

The distribution of this film is what really sunk it, as in almost no one saw this film. DEG didn’t have the distribution power even of a New World Pictures thus not many theatres ran the film. Even if they did get a decent amount of screens there was still the problem of bad timing. 
 

Maximum Overdrive got slammed financially and here’s why: it began slowly in June, (AIP would have called it I Was an ‘86 Blockbuster) and they rolled in: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School, The Karate Kid Part II and Ruthless People. Then on July 2nd and 4th Disney attacked with The Great Mouse Detective and Flight of the Navigator. OK, so there are a lot of comedies and family films what’s to worry … (gulp) … Aliens, the follow-up to the original blockbuster comes out and becomes the dominant film of the next few weeks beginning on July 18th. With the horror market cornered a small unassuming film directed by a writer involving trucks comes out, what do you expect to happen? Well, as that dude Murphy would say, if he had lived in the 80s, “Yo, it gets worse!” 
 

A fortnight after the truck expedition Rob Reiner released one of the finest King adaptations to ever hit the screen, Stand by Me. It was a film that caught everyone by surprise, including Stephen King, who later remarked, “It seemed to me that Stand by Me was the first really completely successful adaptation of my work.” (Stand by Me). I believe part of that comes from a true filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to involve himself in the text in handling the film. It wasn’t just a studio picking up his latest offering, or struggling writer maxing his credits cards to get a shot or a no-name director getting his one chance. 
    

Ironically, the marketing of Stephen King is only an issue when it’s a horror film. When The Green Mile came out he was the author of The Shawshank Redemption, with Hearts in Atlantis  he was the author of The Green Mile. Dolores Claiborne was probably also thrown in the mix at one point. It’s as if they think he’s only good when he writes something other than horror.

I’d seen Stand by Me as a child and had always liked it. It was one of those things I came to later rediscover in adolescence/early adulthood and when I found that King had written that tale it confirmed his genius in my mind. King and Reiner seemed to have come from similar upbringings and it lead to probably one of his most fruitful collaborations. King commented in 1990 that “Rob Reiner, who made Stand by Me, is one of the bravest, smartest filmmakers I have ever met. I am also amused to note that the company Mr. Reiner formed following the success of Stand by Me is Castle Rock Productions … a name with which many of my long time readers will be familiar.”  (Midnight, xiii). 
 

   

Often the relationship has not been as chummy. King is said to have had many a feud with Kubrick and has publicly aired his sentiments about The Shining over the years. Yet, he is quite an admirer of DePalma’s Carrie, as am I, while he finds no real amusement in his own book which he once threw out, I agree with that instinct but am so very glad his wife saved it from the wreckage. While I know it’s true that it’s usually the studio/distributor that makes the decision to plaster a movie poster with “Stephen King’s” or “From the producers of Independence Day” I sometimes hope that he stipulated that it be removed if he was unhappy with something, like Christine.
    

John Carpenter’s Christine is a galumphing piece of crap about an unsympathetic nerd that never should have been made. The book, however, is a fascinating, ominous, well-developed masterpiece told from three separate points of view and you can sympathize with all the characters. And like the master he is, you believe this scenario somehow because he makes you. 
 
   
To successfully adapt a book one must realize what makes each medium unique in order to capture the book’s essence on film without ruining it like millions of misguided dorks have done in the past. Ira Levin author of Rosemary’s Baby commented on Roman Polanski’s adaptation in a letter to King stating “There is a reason for his fidelity to the book, incidentally…His screenplay was the first adaptation he’d made of someone else’s material; his earlier films had all been originals. I think he didn’t know it was permitted – nay, almost mandatory! – to make changes.” (qtd. in King, Danse Macabre, 296). It is always wonderful when a film can be made that follows the book as faithfully as Levin feels his was followed. However, it’s not always a success like a Harry Potter or a Rosemary’s Baby the words ‘slavish,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘boring’ often come up in reviews. People who want drawn out movies that give you two to two-and-half hours to really examine the characters and the situation their in are rare, more and more studios are reverting to the 90 minute film length as opposed to the 120 and above.
  


 
The issue of time is one reason that Stephen King has found such a comfortable home on ABC writing mini-series’. In 1999 and 2002 he made two originals called Storm of the Century and Rose Red. In the latter he had the luxury of waiting 100 minutes before sending his protagonists into a haunted house whereas, in a feature film most producers would’ve already wanted the story to be over.
    

In the end, making Maximum Overdrive was a valuable experience for Stephen King. Since 1986 it seems that he’s taken a more active role in some of his productions and has ultimately learned to pick his battles. He’s since found a medium in which he can write long screenplays filled with rich, rounded characters and he has since become a producer. Thanks in part to Reiner’s success more accomplished filmmakers have since been attracted to his projects. The high-end Kingflicks are more frequent and there isn’t as much junk inbetween. He’s been involved with Frank Darabont on two occasions on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and Darabont has optioned the rights to a short story entitled “The Mist” [It has since been released], William Goldman has adapted three of his novels into films Misery and Hearts in Atlantis and the forthcoming Dreamcatcher. King wrote an episode for Chris Carter’s X-Files and is shopping an adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum to be directed by Jonathan Demme [This never came to fruition]. He’s also developing a television series based on Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom for which he will write pilot [This did happen].
    

Many readers who like to be scared by King, when they’re not going to court with Grisham or seeing the turbulence in Steel’s world, have fallen out of favor with King’s work. Stephen King is a writer who is constantly honing his craft. He is writing richer, more complex novels and has mastered other mediums along the way. A little over 36 years after his career in film began King’s legacy is only now beginning to show his true potency.

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Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Three)

The short story “Trucks” first appeared in Cavalier, a men’s magazine, in June of 1973, which probably means that no one actually read it, or very few people did anyway. It was later published in Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, in 1979. This was King’s first venture into automotive horror. It’s not a sub-genre many of us ever consider but as King demonstrates in Danse Macabre it certainly exists.
 

“Even such a much-loved American institution as the motor vehicle has not escaped the troubled dreams of Hollywood…” (Danse, 163-4) From this tone we can see we’re usually not going to be dealing with masterpieces even within the genre. He then goes on to discuss a movie starring James Brolin called The Car. “The movie degenerates into a ho-hum piece of hackwork before the end of the second reel (the sort of movie where you can safely go out for popcorn refills at certain interval because you know the car isn’t going to strike for another ten minutes or so).” (Danse, 164).
 

We later are given a sense of what would be a better tale and King makes reference to Spielberg’s Duel (164) but ultimately concludes that to find other interesting car stories one should look towards stories and novels (164).
 

So, if King was not actually told to do this story because it was the one that De Laurentiis was willing to buy from him, perhaps he thought he was better off going into territory that hadn’t been handled all that successfully in the cinema.
    

King’s tale is very short and obviously needed to be expanded upon in order to make it into a motion picture. While the short story isn’t perfect, there are areas in which it is much more successful than the film. First off, we get no moments of comedy in the tale, unless we’ve seen the film, and I like the way the characters interacted in prose better.
     

In the short story there was more of an emphasis on waiting it out and also on speculation of impact. The characters discuss how much food they have stored and start to fill jugs with water; these issues are not addressed in the film, it’s as if everyone knows they’ll only be trapped for two days at most. The impact of these trucks taking over may have plays itself in the mind of the narrator and occasionally through dialogue. When there is a debate over pumping gas; the issue of being slaves to the machines comes up. Billy imagines people all over the country pumping gas into driverless trucks. He imagines an escape to a cave a digression to near pre-historic times. The inability for the trucks to reproduce and the contrast of whether or not they were currently being assembled at that moment was also postulated. 
 

Where the story is similar in some places is meaningless because of the way King approached the short story. He starts with the people already stuck in the truck stop. Even if the studio would require the cockamamie comet excuse later on, fine but it is much more frightening without such an outlandish set up; a set up might I add that doesn’t logically lead to machinery working and thinking on its own. Another way in which the short story is superior is in the ending. Here’s the way it ends: “Two planes leave silver contrails etched across the darkening eastern horizon. I wish I could believe there are people in them.” (Shift, 142).  And it’s over. They’re stuck and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. It’s a great ending, but obviously not one many film production companies will want to have, so King had to change.
 

Stephen King has always been a fan of the unknown and while he knows it’s difficult he occasionally likes to leave things opaque like in Dreamcatcher. It may have been better if he had been allowed to do that with this film.
 

In fairness to the film, the characters were more drawn out than they were in the short story. It was just a case of having too many and not having enough time to deal with them all.