Stephen King is a prolific writer — so prolific he makes already prolific writers look lazy. In the time it's taken to write this introduction, he's probably written a book, sold the rights, made the film, cameoed and started work on a completely new book. His work has been put onto the big screen for decades since Brian De Palma took his debut novel Carrie — the story of a tortured young woman who gains supernatural powers — and turned it into an iconic horror film. Since then, some of the most famous and respected directors have taken his novels and turned them into iconic films.
Daphné Baiwir's documentary Stephen King on Screen sits these directors down and discusses the works, the themes, and the recurrent motifs of his adaptations and examines what it is about the man from Maine that has thrilled audiences for decades.
Stephen King is one of the most adapted novelists of all time. What is it about his writing that is so malleable to the big screen? There are other genre writers like Peter Straub who don't have the number of adaptations. What is it about his writing?
What fascinates me about Stephen King is the way he has been able to write all these novels through time and be in the moment. The fact that his characters are so appealing to directors, the universes he's creating. It's true we don't have a lot of adaptions of Peter Straub, it's a shame really. I think he's a great author and the work he wrote with Stephen King. I think it's the fact that King had a few adaptations that worked really at the beginning, and he's so cinematic.
As with most of the film industry, the majority of the directors of his work are white men. Do you think there's a stigma with taking on a brand like Stephen King that stops women and people of colour from directing his work? So far there's only been two women.
I think it's kind of a problem in Hollywood in general and not a link to Stephen King. When you are watching Marvel films it's always directed by men, except for one which is about a woman. I think it's something that is problematic about cinema in general and not specific to Stephen King. I think it's a shame, he writes beautiful female characters. If you are reading Sleeping Beauties it's a very feminist book, and it's wonderful to read. I think it's more a problem in the industry in general than something linked to him.
It's true that with the film I wanted the women who had adapted King's work to be in the film but unfortunately, they didn't want to participate, so I had to deal with that. I hope that in the future we will see more adaptations directed by female directors and minorities for sure.
We're at a point where Stephen King adaptations are going back to previously adapted works — The Stand, It, Salem's Lot — what is it about those works that directors keep going back to?
Yes, Pet Sematary as well. I don't know exactly what it is. It's perhaps a question of rights with the studios. But I think it could be interesting to see adaptations of things that have not yet been made. He's written beautiful books, beautiful novels that we've not seen on screen. For example, Duma Key could be a wonderful film, and Joyland. It seems to be for the moment books that have been done before. Except for The Boogeyman that is coming. But I think it could be interesting to see more unique material. Things that have not been adapted yet.
On the subject of re-adapting, your film discusses Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which is probably one of the greatest adaptations. But you also spend a good amount of time talking about Mick Garris' TV version. Is The Shining one of those works that because the Kubrick one is so iconic, going back to the novel, do you feel it would be pointless even with the advances in CGI and “elevated horror?”
I think it could be interesting to do The Shining again today, but I don't know how it would be received. Especially when you look at how people are conflicted when we talk about the Kubrick version for sure. Mike Flanagan did something quite similar when he adapted Doctor Sleep trying to stick to the Kubrick universe but pretty much sticking to the book as much as he could and consolidating both. But with The Shining, it's always a subject for discussion. With the book there are so many great things we don't have in the Kubrick version, I think it's interesting to talk about it. Perhaps doing The Shining today in a TV series could be interesting, it could be something else. The background, talking about other characters in the past. But for sure something like that should be written by King himself.
You spend some time talking to Taylor Hackford about Dolores Claiborne which I've always felt is underrated. Was it important to talk about some of the lesser-known works and not just the Shawshanks and Shinings?
Absolutely, I really love Dolores Claiborne. I think it's one of the best movies because it's so character based. The work Taylor Hackford did on this is incredible, there are only characters who are women. I mean, the main characters are all women. It's not really present in today's films, in cinema in general. I think he did impressive work with that and the screenwriter. It doesn't stick to the book that much, it took liberties but it works well at the end. It's one of those adaptations that people talk about but when you talk about it in particular people think it's a brilliant film. It's kind of a little pearl that people tend to forget but we all agree it's an amazing film.
Even though it's not a horror film, it feels like such a Stephen King story because it deals with those themes of abuse and incest that King goes back to time and time again. Do you feel there are key themes in his work that directors gravitate towards?
Yeah, and I think Stephen King in general, when we talk about him as the horror guy, what's more horrifying than incest? What humans are capable of doing is more horrible that all the ghosts you can imagine. Sometimes humans are the real monsters, so it's a theme that we have a lot in Stephen King and all these works. It's something that most directors understood when they adopted him and tried to translate it into the work. We have those kinds of films that are linked somehow.
With the documentary for example I didn't want to do one film one after the other, in chronological order. It didn't make sense actually. I wanted to go film to film talking about one topic after the other, and the topics are answering each other. It was something that seemed more logical to me to have a more organic structure. Not going this film was made in 1990 and this one in 1991 because it wouldn't make sense. It's truly a discussion with the directors, that's why we're going through different topics and talking about those films that are linked together somehow because of those films.
What struck me was that there weren't any Stephen King interviews, despite the fact that he has adapted his own work [Maximum Overdrive], was that to put the emphasis on other people adapting his words or was he not interested?
It was a big question — should we have Stephen King in the documentary? I didn't want to have him in the film answering questions, even if he directed one of his stories. But I didn't want to have something like “Oh look even Stephen King is in the documentary,” so like he's sponsoring the documentary. I think it would not have been great for the film, because it would have taken all the credit from the directors, taking the light. I didn't want that. I didn't want people to think directors are saying Stephen King is great because he's in the film. We decided it wasn't the best thing. I wanted to see him from time to time but not interview him.
It would have been great to have him in the little narrative at the beginning but it wasn't possible in terms of schedules, unfortunately.
Everyone has their favourite King story and adaptation. I'm curious what's your favourite King novel or short story, your favourite King adaptation and which story do you think should be adapted that hasn't?
The film is an easy question for me because I've always been a fan of Frank Darabont and The Green Mile is, I think, a film you can watch over and over and still get goosebumps. It's something so moving, the story, the characters, the actors. Everything in the movie is perfectly done. It's one of those films that you can remember forever. For me, it's for sure The Green Mile.
Regarding the books, I think it's harder because there are so many great books. I really love The Green Mile for sure, but thinking about it — Gerald's Game is an incredible story. The Stand as well, The Shining for sure.
With the adaptation that could be made and should, Duma Key for sure. I think it could be great on the screen, and Joyland because it's one that has not been done before. I'm sure it could make a huge thing.
I agree with you on The Green Mile, that and The Mist, are probably my two favourites.
The Mist's ending is one of the great endings of all time. It's incredible.
Stephen King on Screen arrives on Digital Platforms from 26th June.