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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The Flip Side: Seeing the Movie Then Reading the Book

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (Paramount)

Recently I re-posted a series of articles I wrote on The Site That Shall Not Be Named (no it’s not the Dark Lord’s site) about how to divorce oneself from the source material when you’re watching an adaptation of a beloved book, comic, TV Show or what have you. If you want to read that series start here, otherwise bear with me.

In that series I really tackled a problem many face but mainly it pertained to books and their readers the most. To be more specific people who happened to have read the book prior to watching the film, which is a tough transition.

However, a twitter friend of mine and blogger in his own right, recently posted this intriguing entry:

People who follow me at all know I read a lot.

I read books now more than ever, used to read more newspapers and magazines.

But, I hear all the time, I want to see say “Hunger Games” but I need to read the book/books first. I personally prefer seeing the movie first.

Books are a totally different format, richer, longer, have subtext, a medium of words. Film is a medium of images and sounds, and quite a bit shorter at around 90-120 minutes. The average screenplay is 95-125 pages long, the average book is around 300 pages. It’s simply different.

For me a good example of this is Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. Although the book the “Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick is very cinematic, and the look is in the movie, Scorsese adds scenes, depth of character and a few other things I don’t see in the book. I did see “Hugo” before reading the book, and think if I read the book first I would have used my image of the book to cloud the movie and not loved the movie for what it did well but get trapped in comparisons.

An example of a book I did read first which clouded my judgment of the movie is “Jurassic Park.” I quite enjoyed Micheal Crichton’s novel, and I missed several scenes (especially the river scene) that were in the book in the movie. Although Spielberg does a good job with it, I find actually the monster movie “The Lost World” to be more fun. I think this is partially because my view of the book hurts the movie.

Another example for me from a recent movie is “The Hunger Games.” My wife has read through this series twice already, and I am still around 20% in the first book. I quite enjoyed the movie, and wonder if my judgment of the book would have clouded how I see the film.

Basically movies and books are entirely different mediums. If you try to make the movie just like the book you get boring movies like Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter 1 and 2, which although good and nowhere near as rich to me as Cuaron’s version that shares the vision of the book but doesn’t feel the need to get everything in Harry Potter 3 (still the best of the series to me.
What do you think?

The general points up there I agree with almost without exception. I wanted to quote the post mainly for context and also as shorthand to expound on my observations on this opposite phenomena I didn’t examine.

I completely agree with the assertion that one musn’t read the book before seeing the movie. The book is not Cliff’s Notes to the film. The film has to sink or swim on its own merits. With regards to The Hunger Games, I liked it but I knew innately that there was backstory and subtext from the book only being hinted at on screen, however, it didn’t ruin the film for me.

With regards to subtext allow me to make a minor semantical point: yes, many films are surface only but when you study them you learn to read them (I’m not being poetical, we say that) and seek the subtext. Some films are what they are; vapid or brilliant there’s not much else going on, those are few. There will be more forthcoming dialogue simply because the examples are ones I so closely relate to but I will transition, believe me.

Another thing that even I didn’t really examine in the prior series is that there really isn’t a direct correlation between pages in a book and a screenplay. One can make it, and I have, for a mathematical argument but truly the literal conversion of book to film can have so many more variables. A good example would be Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I stuck with it and finished it and liked, despite it being the most challenging read of my life. Such is the stream of consciousness and transition from reality to memory to fancy to dream that it makes it a very involving and exhaustive experience. Were you to take certain pages out of the book and transcribe them to screenplay form you could have so many changes of time and location that one novel page could be three to four screenplay pages. Again, if you’re a completist and being literal. A good film of the book would have some of those montages implied in the writing but not all of them.

Certain writing styles do imply montage as Eisenstein talks most about in the book of his I’m in the midst of and what can be done in a paragraph of prose may take a page or more in a screenplay depending on how you decide to exploit it cinematically. This is just further food for thought when thinking about taking something that’s purely text and turning it into visuals.

With regards to the example of Hugo above it’s amazing that we both reached virtually the same conclusion about the film having inverted reading schedules. I took The Invention of Hugo Cabret out of the library and devoured it because it was a quick read, liking the story much better than the presentation thereof and then though I knew Scorsese and Logan made certain changes I felt they enhanced the film and made it the best of 2011.

Sam Niell in Jurassic Park (Universal Pictures)

With regards to the Jurassic Park films, I actually tried to read the book and I failed to complete it despite needing to write a book report on it. That did not diminish my desire to see it or affect my view of it. I absolutely adored every second of it. Being a budding cinephile and a kid who at more than one point wanted to be a paleontologist it was, and will remain, one of the most exhilarating movie-watching experiences of my life. It’s magical. On the other hand, I didn’t try and read The Lost World, I disliked it a lot. How much? This much. I was pleased to learn in my Spielberg class that part of the reasoning behind his doing The Lost World was that Universal had been begging him for a sequel since 1982 and he would not hear of it being E.T.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

As for the Harry Potter films: I love them and I love the books. My love for both is separate but equal, to re-appropriate an old phrase. I always read them before I saw them but with the few production delays they had the gap between reading and viewing grew as the films moved on. My favorite is The Half-Blood Prince, it’s the apex of the story cinematically and in the books I feel so much of what was built in the series lead to that point. The Prisoner of Azkaban is great but like many of the films they stumble at the goal line, metaphorically speaking but that one just loses the ball entirely with the very last image and piece of voice over. Only part of the issue with the first two films is Columbus. The other part is that the books steadily grew in size through the course of the series. Slavishness to the novel was easy, and maybe a requisite to establish the franchise at the beginning. As the books grew slavishness became more difficult to accomplish, nearly impossible, thus the films truly came into their own as a separate but equal enterprise.

So having said all that in the interest of piggybacking and elaborating on points I previously made; What about seeing the movie first and then reading? I am very intrigued by the idea but I do not have much practice with it. I have a few candidates in mind to try it with but let’s see what case studies I have (Yes, we are quite literally discovering it together, hence why I wanted to write this post).

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Warner Bros.)

The Shining

I decided to pick up a Stephen King book because I saw The Shining. I was just into High School and it was the first time I enjoyed being scared. I was averse to horror before then. I learned from King and went on to read many that he read. However, the film and the book are very different beasts. I had no problem with having a cast in my head, King even acknowledges that in a foreword or afterword of one of his books, but like I said it was different. I didn’t dislike it. I don’t disagree with King’s comments about Kubrick either, yet I still enjoy Kubrick’s riff on the story more than the book or the mini-series. Do I skew to the movie for having seen it first? Yes. However, then there’s The Hunger Games. I tried to read it as a library book. Hardly started. I then saw the movie still knowing next to nothing and would likely enjoy the book more.

Pet Sematary

Miko Hughes holding a copy of Pet Sematary

Here’s one where if you make me pick which one I like I’ll kick, scream and refuse. I love them both so, so much.

Storm of the Century

Colm Feore in Storm of the Century (ABC)

Ha, I’m such a cheater because this is a screenplay but regardless I may be in a minority but I really enjoyed it in both incarnations.

Hellraiser/The Hellbound Heart

Doug Bradley in Hellraiser (New World Pictures)

Clive Barker brings such imagination and originality to everything he does it’s hard to be disappointed but it is a somewhat different interpretation of the vision than the one he put on screen I find. Similarly, he’s working on a comics series of Hellraiser now, which is incredibly good.

The Exorcist

Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

With all apologies due William Peter Blatty the movie rips the book to shreds quality-wise. However, the reading experience was just fine.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption/The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

It wasn’t a tainted reading experience in any way and it’s evidence of why Frank Darabont is Stephen King’s best adapter.

The Body/Stand by Me

Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman in Stand by Me (Columbia Pictures)

In a similar way to Stephen King’s reaction to Darabont’s The Mist he also loved this one because of a crucial change Rob Reiner made for the better. Reading it was fine, watching it more lively. In this case it might’ve tainted it in my mind from having seen it so much.

Apt Pupil

This story as written is outstanding. Yes, the cast remained the same but the story delves into the psychology of the situation in ways the film scarcely attempts. You should read it.

The Langoliers

The Langoliers (ABC)

Augmented by having seen it first in part because I love the mini-series up until the very end. It’s like King says, the story just falls into place so smoothly and that translates on to the page and the mini-series is great until one of the worst third act blunders, and effects shots ever.

Misery

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery (Columbia Pictures)

How can having Kathy Bates in your head not make it better?

Cycle of the Werewolf/Silver Bullet

The Cycle of the Werewolf (Signet/Berni Wrightson)

It’s a totally different beast entirely. It’s a short little book with Berni Wrightson working his magic illustrating it, giving you new images to focus on.

Creepshow

Creepshow (Berni Wrightson/Signet)

Quite frankly with the premise of Creepshow being tales in the style of old EC Comics how can it not be a good comic book, seriously?

Burning Secret

Burning Secret (Vestron Pictures)

I’m surprised I had forgotten this one. This tale is quite literally the perfect example of this list. I saw this film by chance on Netflix. I was rather intrigued by it and was curious to read the book. The book was rather short and a quick read. The adaptation is great because it develops cinematic subtext without using any of the inner-monologue inherent in the prose. What this does is create an air of mystery and a questioning of motives, at least to an extent, which never happens in the book. The strength of the book is that you get explicit detail about the thought processes of each character. In short, you get slightly different but very well-realized renditions of the tale. In each version the medium is exploited brilliantly.

These are likely the only examples I can be completely certain of. Having thought on them: Yes, the argument does have merit. It can be better and more enjoyable to watch and then read. This might mean that The Hunger Games and A Song of Fire and Ice are in my future.