a brief fangirl pause: subtext in Stephen King books vs. movies

This originated with a discussion on the Stephen King bulletin board hosted by his publisher, examining why King's books have been hit-or-miss in the theaters, while J.K. Rowling's are nearly universally loved. It's a hard comparison because Rowling is writing one series, and King has written a great variety of works in several universes.

But that never stops me from shooting off my mouth.

I think King's movies have always been hit or miss because of the filmmaker's preconceptions. Unlike many horror authors, King's books are about one thing on top - usually a googly monster - and something far more serious underneath. Examples:

1. CUJO is about a rabid St. Bernard on top... and about the strains of failing marriages underneath.
2. IT is about a shape-shifting evil on top... and about the strength of childhood imagination and friendship underneath.
3. THE SHINING is about a haunted hotel on top... and about alcoholism as a personal demon underneath.
4. SALEM'S LOT is about vampires on top... and about the secrets and backyard politics that run a small town underneath, a theme he revisits in NEEDFUL THINGS and several other works.

I think the best movies come about when the filmmaker really gets what's underneath. The sucky movies come when they simply concentrate on the big bad and dismiss the rest as an "unassuming potboiler," which is what critics actually called CARRIE.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN, anyone? A terrifying short story about how religion can be perverted into violence, and look what we got? While the IT miniseries tried very hard to make that all work - and how tough is that, with a 1,000-page book to distill past TV censors - the reviewers still all talked about the evil clown. I would argue that it is nearly impossible to display the mental battle between Bill and It at the end of the novel - it takes place in some Otherspace and entirely on a metaphysical level. So instead, we got a giant spider. Many dismissed it as a terrible anticlimax.

Here's where I shade into heresy: Stanley Kubrick famously dissed the book of THE SHINING during production as a dumb haunted house story. I think his attitude shows in the movie. It couldn't help but be popular, because Kubrick was visually brilliant. But it lacks that other dimension, something to take it past being freaky and into something that actually touches our emotions. What makes a horror movie? Screaming people we don't care about running from an oogy monster? Or actual fear of something we can relate to, with real people up front that very well might succumb to it? Much of Kubrick's work has that distance to it, a remoteness that leaves me cold, as though I were watching this story from a dispassionate viewscreen instead of deeply involved in it.

That's why King hated the movie, and it was the first thing he wanted remade when they asked him. And you can see in the TV-movie version - while lacking Kubrick's visual brilliance - that there is something more going on than just a haunted house. In Kubrick's version, Jack Nicholson plays the same psycho he always plays, from Jack Torrance to the Joker. He starts off as a cold asshole and turns into a murderous asshole. No real change. Steven Weber starts off as a flawed but dedicated husband, a man with actual affection for his wife and child, and thus watching the hotel demolish him (in exactly the way booze demolishes an alcoholic) is a real loss for the viewer. When he goes after Rebecca DeMornay, it's more terrifying than Nicholson with the axe, because it's played and shot like real domestic violence, not "ooh, the hotel is coming to get her." (Plus DeMornay can act.)

When filmmakers dismiss the undercurrent in King's work, it shows in the movie, and that's how you get CHILDREN OF THE CORN 19: THIS TIME THEY'RE SERIOUS. In my humble opinion.

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