Culture

The generation that grew up on Stephen King is taking him back

The author is going through a cinematic renaissance, thanks to directors who grew up as fans.
Culture

The generation that grew up on Stephen King is taking him back

The author is going through a cinematic renaissance, thanks to directors who grew up as fans.

Stephen King is one of mainstream fiction’s great shapeshifters, producing work encompassing squeamish horror, pulpy crime, half-baked sci-fi, tender drama, and much more. He’s as obnoxious as he is scary, prone to bursts of bad humor and long-windedness. He’s carved out a gilded throne for himself in horror’s zeitgeist, but despite his ubiquity, his relevance ebbs and flows, his visibility disappearing for years on end before his shadow reappears, longer and darker than ever before. In these regards, he’s not all that unlike Pennywise, the ancient, cackling clown at the center of It, though without all the literal child murder.

And, after years of relative hibernation, we’re in the midst of the author’s biggest renaissance yet. Credit its origins with the commercial success of CBS’s Under the Dome, the critical acclaim of Hulu’s 11/22/63, or the clear homage emanating from Netflix’s Stranger Things, but it was last year’s seismic It that truly catapulted King back onto the A-list. In its first weekend, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation had the best September opening of all-time, the best opening ever for a Stephen King adaptation, and the best opening for any R-rated horror movie. Currently, the flick’s worldwide gross resides at more than $700 million (on a $35 million budget), with both its critic and audience Rotten Tomatoes scores hovering around 85 percent.

Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game and Zak Hilditch’s 1922 adaptations followed shortly thereafter Pennywise’s return, as did the announcement of Hulu’s King-inspired anthology series Castle Rock. As the latter’s premiere date looms, the projects keep on coming, with It’s anticipated sequel now shooting, David E. Kelley’s Mr. Mercedes TV adaptation returning in August, and Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary slated for release early next year. (Also recently announced, and in the works: Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep and James Wan’s The Tommyknockers.)

King’s enjoyed numerous renaissances since Carrie put him on the map in 1973 — the era following Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation; the early ‘90s one-two punch of Misery’s Oscar win and Tommy Lee Wallace’s It miniseries; the two-year spell at the turn of the millennium when he dropped the final three Dark Tower books. This one, however, is markedly different than those that came before, due not only to its scale and scope, but also because it’s unfolding in a generation that’s succeeded at both commodifying and intellectualizing nostalgia. The extended universes of Marvel and Star Wars are made by creators grew up on the myths of these texts, and subsequently worked to massage the industry into embracing a similar mode of cross-functional, long-form storytelling. Despite the specter of Hollywood’s soulless corporate suits, there’s devotion in that approach, a level of fidelity that could only have emerged from a lifelong fan. Now, something similar is simmering among this generation’s Constant Readers, King’s pet name for his diehards.

The frankly horrifying Pennywise the Clown from the 2018 It remake.

The frankly horrifying Pennywise the Clown from the 2018 It remake.

No other author is as preternaturally gifted as King at the elevator pitch — a 1958 Plymouth Fury starts killing people, but it’s actually about the death of friendship — a quality that’s served him well in securing mass appeal, even as it’s opened him up to no shortage of parody and criticism. He’ll give you killer cellphones, killer beer, and killer laundry presses; he’ll give you killer cars in abundance, whether it be in novels like Christine, shorts like “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” or films like Maximum Overdrive, his first (and only) directorial effort.

All of this is to say that King loves horror’s simple pleasures as much he does its existential, satirical possibilities. As we learned in Danse Macabre, his treatise on the genre, he grew up devouring Tales From the Crypt comics and watching The Outer Limits. It’s not controversial to say that everyone inevitably returns to that which shaped our tiny, susceptible minds, and that today’s adults grew up during the mass proliferation of media is answer enough for why we live in a nostalgia-obsessed culture. But though it informs the current King renaissance, it doesn’t fully explain it.

When he hit the scene, King’s work became a playground for genre’s best and brightest — Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg — with their adaptations emerging as populist art pieces that, for the most part, transcended their horror roots. Anthologies like Creepshow and Cat’s Eye, meanwhile, charmingly paid homage to his lowbrow roots. But, as King’s output increased — he released 14 novels and two collections in the ‘80s, not to mention three additional books under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman — so, too, did his currency in pop culture. His name became synonymous not with storytelling, but with a digestible brand of horror. Subsequent adaptations spread out over TV and film reflected that: Children of the Corn, Silver Bullet, Graveyard Shift, The Mangler, The Running Man, and The Lawnmower Man, all released between 1984 and 1995, bore little resemblance to their source material in story or tone, instead using King’s central gimmick as a vessel for modern genre trends. The message was clear: King’s name was a selling point, but his writing wasn’t. The cover mattered, not the pages.

There are bright spots: Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary from 1990 is a worthy adaptation, if for no other reason than Fred Gwynne’s iconic performance, and though neither has aged particularly well, The Stand and It were made into ambitious, heart-in-the-right-place TV miniseries. Their contemporaries — The Tommyknockers, The Langoliers, Rose Red, and that dreadful 1997 remake of The Shining — were less successful, serving to make King look lame and chintzy. In trying to be scary, they came across as silly. The Langoliers look more like meatballs than they do spectral devourers of time and space.

But ask any Constant Reader and they’ll tell you the same thing: They don’t just read King to get scared. They read him for the characters, the settings, the story. It speaks volumes that the only King adaptations to make an impact after 1983 were of non-horror books like Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Misery. What speaks even louder, however, is that directors Rob Reiner and Frank Darabont, the minds behind these films, were also Constant Readers whose adaptations hewed extremely close to their source material. Darabont’s long identified himself as a “rabid and devoted” fan, while Reiner named his Castle Rock Entertainment after one of King’s favorite fictional towns.

“I obsessed over it for years.”
Mike Flanagan, on his quest to adapt King’s ‘Gerald’s Game’

Today, they’re in good company. Having previously interviewed Muschietti, Flanagan, and Hilditch upon the release of their respective films, I began noticing a connecting thread coursing through each of them: They’ve been reading King their entire lives. Muschietti, for example, told me that reading King as a kid taught him “the value of characters and story and depth,” later noting that the author was part and parcel of his “upbringing as a storyteller.” Flanagan and Hilditch recalled being barely in double digits when they first read It (“I’m a rabid fanboy,” Flanagan added), and they spent years cultivating their King adaptations, which were of stories that few thought suited for film. Hilditch searched high and low for someone to produce 1922, while Flanagan recalled bringing a copy of Gerald’s Game to his earliest pitch meetings. “I obsessed over it for years,” he said.

As with Marvel and Star Wars, the fans are now the ones ushering King to the big screen, that sense of fidelity remaining at the forefront of their visions. But King has another commonality with those franchises: an interconnected universe. Via The Dark Tower series, King has strung threads between dozens of his novels, creating a multiverse that connects books both old and new. What it has the others don’t, however, is a greater sense of freedom. King’s multiverse isn’t built on character so much as it is place and mythology, meaning that the stories will continue in lieu of its characters. Certain characters resurface, but King makes it abundantly clear that no one is safe. You can’t say the same for the MCU, who, in Infinity War, gave us a climax that “killed off” half of its ensemble, despite the fact that most of them have movies slated to come out next year. Without them, there is no world (and, by extension, lowered stakes).

King’s multiverse began sprouting in earnest in the mid-80s with tomes like The Talisman, and, as it’s blossomed in the intervening years, become a source of perpetual fascination for Constant Readers. This sprawling, malleable world also has had an impact on the current crop of King adapters, who are treating the universe with a more mythic touch than a winking one.

Flanagan, for example, kept a reference to King’s Dolores Claiborne in his Gerald’s Game, despite the fact that, for viewers unfamiliar with either novel, it raises more questions than it answers. “I wanted to take excellent care of my little corner of the King universe, and I really so desperately wanted to kind of fire off little flares into the other areas of that universe that are already connected to this story,” he told me. “There were a couple that I tried to squeeze in just as a geeky fan, but the Dolores one … when it came by in the book, it was like, ‘How do I not do that?’” What he’s referring to is a moment of cosmic connection that occurs between Gerald’s Game’s Jessie and the namesake of Dolores Claiborne during an eclipse, an event that’s integral to both novels. What’s wild is that, even for the uninformed viewer, it still works, serving contextually as a moment of fleeting, dreamlike comfort for a character that desperately needs it.

Contrast it with The Dark Tower, Sony’s failed attempt to explicitly bring King’s expanded universe to the big screen, and the sole misfire amongst recent King adaptations. On its surface, Nikolaj Arcel’s film functions similarly to many of the ‘80s and ‘90s-era King adaptations, with the author’s plot mostly cast aside in favor of molding the story into that of other modern-day blockbusters. Were this a different era, it may have been a huge success. But, for a generation raised on King, the lazy, offhand nods to Cujo and It — which, along with the film’s abundance of supplementary King references, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the multiverse — felt appropriately shameless. It didn’t appeal to newcomers or King stans, and the film’s domestic gross failed to recoup its $60 million budget.

Maybe that’s why now is the right time for a show that elaborates upon King’s myth. Hulu’s Castle Rock, which premieres on July 25th, isn’t a straight King adaptation, but it does fold in a few of King’s most iconic characters and locales, and is unabashedly beholden to the events set up in previous books. Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s original series tells the story of a death row prosecutor’s confrontation with both the troubled childhood he spent in the title’s New England town and the strange prisoner (played by It’s Bill Skarsgård) who’s brought him back to it. Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half, and Needful Things, among other stories, also took place there, and the impact of each resounds. Having seen the first four episodes, though, I can affirm that it’s more than mere fanfiction. Castle Rock embodies the multitude of King, from the B-movie horror to the terrors of childhood to the belief in a pure, sentient body of evil. But what’s particularly fascinating is how the show explicitly attempts to ensure his myths live on, even as the 70-year old King remas as prolific as ever.

We’re seeing that on film, too. It isn’t as good as Gerald’s Game or 1922, but it still remains the greatest achievement of the current King renaissance, and not just because of its astronomical box office. Muschietti made a big, bloody horror movie, one that also understands that King’s story isn’t about a killer clown, but rather the bonds and traumas of childhood. It’s hard to call an artist as ubiquitous as King misunderstood, but to see the fusion of his grandest and most base sensibilities fused so seamlessly is, for a Constant Reader, deeply satisfying.

Critics pondered over the secret to adapting King, who, despite being a sure thing for publishers, often floundered on the big screen. The answer is a deeply held appreciation, an understanding that horror is a facet of King, not the whole package. Whether this lesson will reflect in future adaptations is yet to be seen, but there will be plenty of opportunities: James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter behind The Amazing Spider-Man movies, is currently prepping for his adaptation of King’s The Long Walk; the writers behind A Quiet Place are making the 1978 short story “The Boogeyman”; German filmmaker Fatih Akin is remaking Firestarter; novelist and The Wire writer Richard Price is turning King’s latest, this year’s The Outsider, into a TV series. Hell, some guy is adapting a narrative poem King wrote. The list goes on, and with every new entry the myth of King takes on richer, more mystifying dimensions. Forty-five years into his career, the creator’s shape continues to shift.

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Randall Colburn writes about pop culture for The A.V. Club, The Guardian, and Consequence of Sound, where he also co-hosts The Losers' Club: A Stephen King Podcast.
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