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.

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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.

Review- Insidious

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in Insidious (FilmDistrict)

I am one who is wary to make premature proclamations about where a film stands when relative to the rest of the year and I believe I will be able to stick to that when discussing Insidious, however, with much difficulty. The reason that is so is that after seeing Insidious the kinds of comparisons I started to make were within the horror genre and comparing it to my favorite film in the genre from last year, or the year before or even further back.

And when I say in the genre I mean purely so, for if there’s one thing you cannot mistake in this film is that the makers most definitely intended to make an ode to old school horror tales but what is most impressive is that while keeping in mind classical elements, motifs and tactics there is still a concerted and successful effort to put a new spin on things.

Anyone who is very familiar with the genre will at some point start to be reminded of several different films such as Poltergeist, Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Haunting, The Amityville Horror and others but it’s always a passing notion that comes from a place that’s much more “Oh, isn’t that neat?” as opposed to “Man, what a rip off this is.”

While all these allusions and homages do exist there are some very refreshing elements to the tale as well. First of all, many horror films, especially those which have an element of the supernatural within them, struggle with the notion of belief. There needs to be a certain level of disbelief amongst the characters, when dealing with the supernatural, so that we can then suspend disbelief. This, however, is a very delicate balancing act for the audience of a horror movie is very aware that they are there to see a horror film and are very ready to believe. There are no such concerns here. Insidious has one of the quickest, deftest and most naturalistic dismissals of disbelief I can recall seeing and it is crucial to the functioning of the film.

Perhaps what’s even more impressive is that it is a twist and a take off on the haunted house tale, and you know that, the tag line for the film is “It’s not the house that’s haunted.” Having said that, however, the film perfectly follows a haunted house structure.

The cinematography is great throughout and is particularly effective during the first seance scene which is perfectly choreographed chaos but perhaps the most effective section is when Josh (Patrick Wilson) travels to an alternate dimension referred to in the film as The Further. This alternate plane is created entirely through cinematography and the use of negative fill. It’s been quite a while since a film in the horror genre has so aptly exploited the most primal of human fears, which is that of the dark.

Furthermore the sound design of this film is absolutely fantastic. There are disembodied sounds throughout the soundtrack that are later identified and everything sounds like what is should and it becomes a very fun guessing game and also hauntingly effective. What’s paramount in importance is that the sound effects enhance the visuals and aid scares as opposed to becoming the scares. There are several jolts within this film, one of which sent a tidal wave of goosebumps down my body and the sound effect accompanying the visual was an afterthought. “Oh yeah, that sound effect was good too,” I thought but the visual already struck home in all these jolts.

How scary one ultimately finds it is always a very personal thing. I found it to actually to be quite scary. The testament to that was later that night after having seen it unexplained noises within my house caused a lot more distress than they normally do. What cannot be argued is that screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan have crafted one of the finest examples of the horror genre to have come along in a long, long time.

10/10