Another in the series of Stephen King Little Golden Book adaptations! This is for ‘Salem’s Lot, a real scary book and one of my favorite vampire stories of all time.
My idea for a Pet Sematary Little Golden Book. You know, for kids!
Sometimes I get an idea that’s too much fun not to do. In this case, it was a Little Golden Book adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. I took the character designs from the new film. I’d be very interested to work on a G-rated version of that story, if only for the creative challenge.
For a long time, I believed King’s own adaptation of The Shining, a rambling, cheesy TV movie starring that guy from Wings and Rebecca De Mornay, was the bottom of the King barrel. After discovering the three-hour TV movie The Langoliers was on streaming, however, I found out firsthand what a truly terrible King adaptation looked like.
Briefly, The Langoliers is about an airplane that gets sucked back in time and the unfortunate few passengers who fall back in time along with it. Instead of being able to watch the Gettysburg Address firsthand or ask Moses out for a beer, the past is a barren place quickly dissolving. When the passengers land the plane in the Bangor, Maine airport, they figure all this out through deduction and a blind girl who has some pale comparison of the shining. One of the passengers (Balki from Perfect Strangers, in the movie) goes crazy and kills the blind girl and the black guy before the Langoliers get him. What are the Langoliers?
Evil Pac-Men who devour the world as it slips into the past. The Langoliers are the plot device that get the passengers back on the plane. The Langoliers are the stupid story Balki’s dad told him when he was a kid and being bad. “The Langoliers will get you,” Balki’s dad told him when Balki wasn’t good enough at school or whatever. “Watch out for the Langoliers.” Then Balki grew up to be a corrupt businessman and then the plane he was on fell back in time and he gets eaten by the Langoliers. Are you terrified yet? Or confused? It doesn’t really matter. The whole story is dumb.
Written during King’s famed “verbal diarrhea” period from the mid-80’s to the early 00’s, The Langoliers must have been an exercise in patience for any King fan when it was released in 1990. Due to overwhelming demand (?), it was made into a TV movie in 1995. I cannot imagine sitting through this with ads. It must’ve been 5 or 6 hours. Long pointless scenes of people looking out the plane window, arguing with each other about what might be happening, looking distraught, punctuated by ads for trucks and sofas and fax machines. Now that I type that out, I realize The Langoliers must have been trying to make the viewer acutely aware of precious time slipping away. It was about time, but it was also made to kill time. How very meta.
You can’t blame the makers of The Langoliers for the awful special effects. It was clearly a low-budget affair. What you can blame them for is the creatively bankrupt cinematography and direction. When 95% of your movie is close-ups and the rest is an empty plane and airport, you’ve made some poor artistic choices. I’m sure Terrence Malick could have done something interesting with this script, but even an unseasoned director should have attempted more than what I saw, if only to relieve the tedium.
I do not believe The Shining is the worst King adaptation. It is not even second- or third-worst. The Langoliers, on the other hand, is so unbelievably bad I wonder if Stephen King blocked it from his memory so that he can continue writing without crippling self-doubt. If anything, it is proof that successful writers need editors just as much, if not more, than unknown or new writers. Sitting in silence for three hours would have been more rewarding than watching this existentially blank movie.
Stephen King has had good movies made from his books and some really bad ones. Someday I’d like to discuss why this is so, but I think the main reason is simply the vagaries of the movie business. When you have as long an IMDB list as King, you’re bound to have a few gems and a few duds. Just in time for Halloween, here is a quick rundown of some of King’s best and worst cinematic adaptations.
The Shining (1980) – Easily the best of all Stephen King’s movies. The fact that King has disowned this movie in favor of a far inferior version (see below) baffles me. Stanley Kubrick took one of King’s scariest books and made it into something weirder and more profound. Jack Nicholson’s signature role.
The Mist (2007) – Frank Darabont, who cut his teeth writing the screenplay for Nightmare on Elm Street 3, loves Stephen King like almost nobody else. And thank goodness King has a fan in Darabont. The Mist, based on King’s short story, is claustrophobic fun. People get terrorized by monsters from another dimension. Be sure to watch the black & white version, which completes the monster movie feel.
Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Another Darabont adaptation. Based on Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Darabont turned a somewhat hokey story about a jailbreak into a meditation on friendship and the nature of Truth. This movie coined the phrase “Shawshank Redemption good.”
Christine (1983) – Who’d’ve thought a car could be so scary? Christine, the titular car, takes hold of all-American nerd Arnie Cunningham and warps him into a sadistic greaser. Christine the movie is made great by a virtuoso performance of Keith Gordon (as Cunningham). This guy has been in only a few movies, but in Christine he showed us how it’s done.
Cujo (1983) – About halfway through this shaggy dog story I thought Cujo was one of those throwaway King adaptations. But when mother and child (played by Dee Wallace and Danny Pinaturo) become trapped in their car, look out. Cujo proves that horror doesn’t have to employ alternate dimensions, demon spirits, or massive CGI to work. Horror, like any good story, works best when it is told on a human level.
Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma directs and Sissy Spacek gets doused with pig blood. Besides that seminal scene and the final fright, there isn’t a whole lot going on here. Still, not bad.
Pet Sematary (1989) – Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall makes this movie worth watching. “Sometimes, Louis, dead is better.” I swear the TV version of the ending is scarier than the gross-out unedited version.
The Shining (TV miniseries) (1997) – 17 years after King tried to fire Jack Nicholson, he finally got The Shining he wanted. King wrote the screenplay for this craptastic farce. Watching the dude from Wings and the chick from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle bicker their way through a haunted house is about as scary as an episode of Divorce Court. Throw in another in a long line of terrible child actors, cheesy make-up, and the fact that they filmed the Boulder scenes in Denver, and you’ve got one of the worst movies I’ve ever had the pleasure to forget.
Thinner (1996) – I hardly remember this one. A fat guy hits a gypsy with his car because his wife is giving him a BJ. The gypsy curses him to become thin, which is awesome at first (free stomach stapling!), then gets scary because he keeps shrinking! The ending has completely eluded me, but I think he accidentally kills his wife. Whatever. This sucked.
Firestarter (1984) – Almost bad enough to be good. Drew Barrymore in the role that made her famous. She starts fires with her mind! They made a funny SNL skit about this: Firestarter Sausages.
It (1990) – Another TV miniseries best forgotten. Good job casting Tim Curry as Pennywise the evil clown/spider/demon/whatever. When a group of childhood friends begin dying as adults, they must return to the sleepy Maine town they all left as soon as they could. This is the Big Chill of horror movies, except the Big Chill was good. Maybe if they had used the cast from the Big Chill instead of Harry Anderson and John Ritter. Also: the only member of the group to stay in this tiny Maine town was the black guy? He was the only black guy in town! Of course the evil clown will find the only black guy in town!
The moral here is to not be so slavish to the source material. King has an amazing imagination. He has written some plots, the scope of which are unparalleled. In order to make these stories into movies, some things need to be left out. Some things need to be changed. You cannot make a cohesive movie if you’re following an 1100-page book to the letter. That said, I do find myself enjoying almost every King adaptation for one reason or another. They’re never boring (except Thinner).
Here’s to many more years of Stephen King movies. Happy Halloween, everybody!
When I’m asked about my favorite movie, there are actually two that come to mind. One of these is The Shining, a film by Stanley Kubrick based (loosely) on a novel by Stephen King. I first saw The Shining with my friend Curtis right after finals our sophomore year of high school.
It was one of those movies that are so culturally ingrained, I thought I’d seen all the best parts already. Who hasn’t seen the still of Jack Nicholson sticking his head through the door he just smashed through with an axe? To my great surprise, The Shining is full of secrets. Like Psycho, The Shining is really, really scary even if you know the key parts. Also like Psycho, The Shining is an unconventional horror story, where many of the scares come after you’ve seen the film.
Jack Torrance, the man charged with taking care of the Overlook hotel with his wife Wendy and their son Danny, is a struggling writer. For him, there isn’t much of a leap from trying to write a novel to trying to kill your family. The main question of the movie is, does Jack imagine all the horrific scenes, or is the hotel itself possessed? There is only one incident that supports the “evil hotel” theory; the rest can be explained by insanity.
And that’s what I like about The Shining: no matter how many times you try to formulate a theory, there’s always something that debunks it. To me, horror is best when it doesn’t quite make sense. You can’t follow a logical path.
It is sort of strange that one of my favorite movies has such strong ties to two places that I’ve lived: Colorado and Oregon. I never set out to live near The Shining. I want to say right now that I am not, nor will I ever be, as crazy as Jack Torrance. Ask my wife or any of my friends: I’m a peaceful guy. Think of it this way: neither the author of the book nor the director of the movie were bad people. So it goes with me. Okay, there’s my disclaimer.
The book was written by a guy my parents went to college with: Stephen King. You may have heard of him. He’s written a couple bestsellers. As the story behind the story goes, Stephen King was staying at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado and trying unsuccessfully to write a book about an evil rollercoaster. One day he looked around and realized, why not make it an evil hotel?
All the elements for a spooky setting were there. Estes Park is a wonderful little town; it backs right up against Rocky Mountain National Park. Here is the view King had from the front of the Stanley.
And here is what the Stanley looks like from the front.
Although not as isolated as the Overlook, the Stanley itself is quite creepy.
The blood-red decorating scheme, the antique furnishings, the dark, dark nights: once King had the setting, I bet the story fell right into place. Well, I’m sure it took him a while to write it, but geez, the guy must write like 100 pages a day or something. He makes writing hugely successful novels look like picking up the mail.
An indisputable law of nature: every Stephen King book gets made into a movie. The interesting detail is who bought the rights to this particular novel: Stanley Kubrick, director of such non-horror movies as Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Barry Lyndon. I wasn’t there, but I imagine nobody expected a conventional slasher flick.
And unconventional is what we got! Kubrick undercuts horror cliches at almost every turn. There is never a pop-out moment, when Jack surprises Wendy (and the audience). There are incredibly long tracking shots, relatively few special effects, and lots of dialog. I haven’t counted, but I bet there is more dialog in The Shining than in every single Friday the 13th movie combined.
The hotel Kubrick used is called the Timberline Lodge, located near the peak of Mount Hood in Oregon. The Timberline fulfilled the requirements of the Overlook from the book: it is fairly isolated, about an hour from the nearest sizable town and so close to the roof of Oregon you can hike there in the summer. Also, due to its altitude, there is snow on the ground almost all year. The Timberline boasts year-round skiing, which sounded impressive until I went at the beginning of September one year and saw the comically small amount of “snow” on the ground (it had been packed into ice during the course of the summer).
Though today the Timberline has lost a lot of that isolated quality it had back in 1980, I could still see the draw of using as an exterior.
There was a TV movie of The Shining made about ten years ago. For some reason beyond the comprehension of us mortals, Stephen King hated Kubrick’s The Shining. Is it possible to find nothing wrong with one terrible adaptation after another, but to detest one of the best adaptations of your work ever made? For Stephen King it is. King wrote the screenplay for the TV movie, and they even filmed it at the Stanley. Unfortunately, it is bad. The best part about watching it was that, when you turn on the DVD commentary, you can hear some of Stephen King’s stories about writing the book. I won’t say any more about it than that.
It has been a pleasure to be able to visit the locations of The Shining. It makes watching the movie even more of a visceral experience. I’d love to visit the location of my other favorite movie, but I don’t think the island of Waponi Woo actually exists.
I’ve long joked about changing my name to Stephen King. That way, when I do get published, all my books will be inadvertently mixed with his. The undiscerning reader may accidentally pick up one of my comics instead of the latest bestseller by the other King. I’d get sales without any promotion! All the work would already be done by Stephen King the First’s publisher. Then, if things start really going well for me, I could run for president under the name Zachary Taylor. He’s remembered fondly, right?