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Friday, December 4, 2015

Should King's Books even BE Adapted to Film?

The man and woman in both pictures are the same characters. No, really.
Book geeks exist in a strange dichotomy.

When one loves a book, and I mean, really loves it, there's a substantial part of that love that translates into wanting to actually see this story come to life before your eyes in film form.

However, this is usually coupled with a well-justified fear that by the time a movie is made of their beloved book, the finished product will not only bear little resemblance to the book they loved, but will more closely resemble something that was recently excreted from the south end of a male cow.

I say well-justified because movies based on popular books get made all the time, but only about half the time do they produce anything worth watching, and often as not have about as much in common with their source material as an 18-wheeler has with a minivan.

Let's stick just to examples from Stephen King adaptations for now, since this is a Stephen King blog. As of this writing, 57 of Stephen King's stories, including novels, novellas and short stories, have been adapted either into feature-length films or were adapted for television in some form. Being as generous as I can be, and taking general consensus primarily into account, only about 16 of them were really worth watching, and out of those 16, all of them feature changes to the story, in some cases rather sweeping changes.

I've already talked at length about how Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was quite different from the novel, and that's not even the most striking example. Several films out there look so little like the books they're based on that The Shining looks slavishly devoted. Today, The Shining is one of the best known and most well-loved horror movies of all time, and even among King fans there are those who love it, despite how different it was.

And there's a reason for that. Changes, by themselves, aren't bad things. They tend to be, because all too often little thought is put into them, or they're done because the director or screenwriter didn't understand, in most cases even care to understand, the source material.

Nine times out of ten, popular books (and other sources) get turned into movies because studio suits know that they come with a built-in audience and therefore are safe(r) bets than a purely original material. They don't care about the source material. They don't care if it's even good. All they care about is, will it make enough money to justify the expense put into it. This leads to short-sighted decisions guaranteed to piss off the very audience this movie is allegedly for. "Needs more babe-age. Let's turn the best friend into a woman and have her fall in love with the hero." "What, the hero and the bad guy confront each other and just talk? Let's have them fighting in this scene." "What about the robot sidekick? Couldn't he be gay? I want a gay R2-D2 with attitude."

Even if they survive the input process from the man with the money, they tend to be given to hack screenwriters and/or hack directors hired mainly because they were available and cheap, and then there's the re-writing process, with cut after cut made to the original story, necessitating still more changes, until by the time it's filmed, we end up with something that, in a half-assed effort to please a general audience, pleases precisely no one.

And there is no film more likely to get the half-assed, jerked-around, screwed-with, hack-laden treatment than the "genre film", which is to say, science fiction, fantasy and of course, horror. Even one based on the works of a long-time best-seller like Stephen King.

This is where we get studios making ludicrous demands, such as that 1400-page monsters like The Stand and It be adapted as three-hour films. Seriously, you can thank a studio suit who only cares about money for Cary Fukunaga's departure from the new (and probably now dead) It film. More on that in another post.

There are good genre films that get made, as if by some miracle the right director and screenwriter not only managed to get on the project but managed to get out from under the studio boss's thumb. Sometimes they have to be snatched from the clutches of those studio bosses who demand gay R2-D2's and that Sam Gamgee become Samantha Gamgee and boink Frodo on the road (I'm not kidding; that was one of the suggestions Peter Jackson was met with), but when they manage to do so, we get Stand By Me, or The Shawshank Redemption, or The Green Mile.

But then, sometimes a movie is made with the best of intentions by everyone on every side, and yet we still end up with something less than satisfactory. Stephen King himself did the screenplay for the mini-series version of The Stand, and at best that series is just okay, when it should be something earth-shattering and Emmy-dominating. Great books should not have "just okay" films based on them.

It's enough so that readers, when faced with the idea of Hollywood (or anyone) turning their beloved books into films, start screaming "No! Don't ruin it with a movie! Just leave the good books alone for once!"

These are often the very same people who, while reading, think "this is such a good book, I'd love to see a film version made of it."

How is that possible? Simple. They don't want a film version made of their favorite book. They want their film version made. They want their head canon to be captured on celluloid just the way they pictured it while reading. They want the actors that sprang into their heads while reading to be cast, even if there's no way the actor in question is right for the part (I've seen absolutely ludicrous suggestions for various characters in the past, making it obvious that the person doing the suggesting never really read the character's description) or perhaps would have been right for it 20 years ago but are now too old. They want their favorite scenes left in at all costs and scream to the heavens if such a scene is left out (I can relate; one of my favorite Aragorn scenes is where he tells Frodo "If I were after the ring, I could have it. Now!" Jackson left that out). They want the film to match the book word for word and scene for scene, even if doing so would make for a plodding, unwatchable, and possibly 40-hour, film.

Examples? Well, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film series is one of the biggest franchises in film history. It was more faithful to the books than we had any reason to expect, the actors made the characters leap off the page as if birthed straight from Tolkien's imagination, the effects were incredible and for once showed that CGI didn't have to seem fake or cartoonish. It made tons of money, critics loved it, all three films received Best Picture Oscar nominations, and the third film won!

And yet even today, you will find Tolkien fans that loathe those movies. When asked why, they immediately talk about all the changes that were made. And there weren't even that many changes! (Note: I am talking about the Lord of the Rings films. I am not talking about the Hobbit films.)

The TV series Game of Thrones, at least for its first couple of seasons, departed from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire only where absolutely necessary to streamline the sprawling epic into a smoother narrative. Fans of the novels cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war because the Targaryens didn't have violet-colored eyes. Among other things. So-and-so wasn't tall enough. Such-and-such didn't happen exactly that way.

So when a reader says "Don't ruin it!", they don't mean "don't cheap out, hire hack writers and directors who don't care and only put it out to make money". They mean, don't change anything. Don't cut a single scene. Don't alter a single line of dialogue. Don't cast a black actor if the character was white in the book. Don't amalgamate two characters together, no matter how seamlessly it works.

I've seen readers that say "cut, don't change." In other words, they realize that not every detail from the book can translate to the screen, but while they're okay with cuts, they don't want any changes made. Except, cuts require changes, and sometimes, not just minor ones. Also, and I've mentioned this before, sometimes what works on paper doesn't work so well onscreen.

Can you imagine how silly it would be if Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, or any actor, had been forced to say these lines?

Sam: I had a funny dream an hour or two before we stopped, Mr. Frodo. Or maybe it wasn't a dream. Funny it was anyway.

Frodo: Well, what was it? I haven't seen or thought of anything to make me smile since we left Lothlórien.

Sam: It wasn't funny that way, Mr. Frodo. It was queer. All wrong if it wasn't a dream. And you had best hear it. I saw a log with eyes!

Reading them, they don't seem all that bad. Now close your eyes and picture the actors from the film saying those lines out loud. Now they seem a bit off, don't they? A bit clunky, stilted, not like how real people talk. But still, people complained that Tolkien's "high speech" style of dialogue wasn't translated to screen unaltered.

I don't know how many times I've seen a comment left on a page about plans for a film adaptation of numerous works, including the currently planned King-related projects like The Stand, It and The Dark Tower, where a fan is beyond positive that any attempt to film these is going to result in disaster, that they should remain books and not even attempt to be filmed, because for certain this is going to "ruin" the story.

In response to that, I really like what James Cain had to say about them "ruining" his books by making them into movies. "“People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”

I'm reading The Stand right now. It's as fantastic as the first time I read it, and I'm sure it's as fantastic as the first time anybody read it, despite the existence of a decidedly less-than-great TV adaptation. People still love the novel It despite an adaptation that sucks so much that having a copy in your house places you in danger of spontaneous maelstroms. I've said much about both adaptations of The Shining, one is a movie that took a lot of liberties and ended up being very good on its own, while the other only changed a few minor things and yet was terrible. The book, however, remains awesome.

So right off the bat I think that people suggesting that a movie would "ruin" the books are probably not being genuine; they'd love a film, as long as they get the film they want. Others want a film to be made, but are terrified of it sucking. Those people I can relate with because God knows we've been burned before. A lot. That's part of why I started this blog.

But right away we run into problems, because you pretty much can't adapt a novel straight, without any changes, even if it's really short. And I don't think fans really want that, anyway, despite claiming they do, because in online discussion after online discussion I've seen fans talk about changes they would make, most of which are shouted down by other fans talking about how they would change it.

Probably the most faithful adaptation I have ever seen, and certainly the most faithful King adaptation, was The Green Mile, which changes next to nothing, but even that movie makes the odd change here and there. Characters are older than their book counterpart, one character described as never having children is now the father to children who don't live with him. A line concerning proof that would hold up in court that John Coffey is not a murderer was completely removed. Nearly all the Georgia Pines scenes are removed, as is the character of Brad Dolan. Curtis Anderson and Hal Moores are turned into a single character, and various other changes.

But that movie does the novel proud. It's one of the few movies out there that one can say, if they've seen it, that they "know what the story is about." I'd only go that far with two other King adaptations: Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Because those three movies (and a couple of others) had something that most adaptations, Kubrick's The Shining included, did not have: respect for the source material.

That's the key. A filmmaker and screenwriter working on an adaptation of someone else's work needs to respect the fact that this is not their story and therefore they need to handle it with care. If a child borrows a toy from another child, they may not play with it in exactly the same manner, but they do play with it in such a way as to make sure when they return it to their friend, it's in the same condition. So a film production needs to understand that when they deliver their finished product, the spirit and intent of the original work must be represented.

If I may speak for Stephen King, I gather that his biggest problem with Kubrick's The Shining is that the movie is about a hotel, in which there are people getting stalked by a crazy man with an axe, while the book is about a family struggling to hold together despite demons from without and within trying to rip them apart. The movie is about things; about visuals, about scene staging. The book is about people.

I've said a lot about that, but compare that to The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Both change quite a bit, including changing the character of Red from an Irishman with red hair into Morgan Freeman, changing Andy from a nebbishy short guy into the towering Tim Robbins, amalgamating the three wardens Andy worked for into just one, and having Delacroix and "Chief" be inmates on the Mile already by the time Coffey got there, despite Delacroix arriving later in the book and Chief going to the chair before Coffey arrived.

But the spirit of the original work is heavily present in both films. Same with Carrie, 'Salem's Lot (the 1979 version), The Dead Zone, Christine, Pet Sematary, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, The Mist and a few others, give or take. These films all made changes, and were all of varying quality, but for the most part they got it right.

Face it, no matter how irritated you get at the thought of your favorite Stephen King novel being turned into a movie, you likely really enjoyed several of the films that resulted. I strongly doubt that the nay-sayers of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies really out-number, or even come close to equaling, the fans of the book that loved the movie. Most likely you really enjoy the idea of a film adaptation, but you want to see it done right.

You want the people who work on it to be skilled.

You want them to respect the source material, and have that respect evident onscreen.

You want the right actors cast; actors that can bring the characters to life, rather than be a different interpretation of the characters.

The only reason you don't celebrate the idea of movies being made is how frequently the movie version falls short.

So it's tempting to type into comments sections in all caps "DON'T MAKE THESE BOOKS MOVIES! DON'T RUIN THEM!", but I don't believe for a second that you don't really want a movie, unless you're the type that just doesn't watch movies. I believe that in fact, you feel the very opposite, that the book deserves a movie, because it's just that good. But you also know how much it would suck if some hack screenwriter and director, hired because they were cheap, made a mess of your favorite book. You know how much that hurts because it's likely already happened to you more than once.

That is the purpose of this blog. This is a King fan reaching out to other King fans and saying "here's what I think it would look like if every King story got the movie it deserves." That doesn't mean I will never make a change to a character or recommend that something be done a bit different in the adaptation. But it is all about showing Hollywood how this should be done; having respect for the writer and honoring the story not just on the surface but at its core; the movie should be about what the novel is about.

So, yes, I do believe that King's world should be on film. As long as the filmmakers respect the source material. And let the fans see it.


  1. Great post! I agree that King's world belongs on film, and I agree that it takes just the right person to do it justice.

    I like more of the King movies than you do, it sounds like; I count 28 of them I'd give a passing grade (some of them by only a hair or two, granted). But of those, I'd say that only a very small handful of them actually manage to measure up to the source material. By that, I mean that they are as good at being movies as the books are at being books. Ain't many of 'em, that's for sure.

    But that's always the case. I suspect King has actually fared relatively well compared to many writers. Consider poor Alan Moore, who is handily one of the great writer of comic books in history but who has had zero adaptations that lived up to the source material. (I like the movie version of "Watchmen" just fine, but it's thoroughly inferior to the comics).

    Increasingly, the "Lord of the Rings" movies seem like minor miracles. Maybe not even that minor. That was a case of everyone involved having the best of intentions, plus the talent to back up it up, PLUS the financial backing to support it all. And even all of that wasn't enough to cause lightning to strike twice with "The Hobbit" (though I do mostly like those movies).

    What Hollywood needs is a King-movie creative committee similar to what Marvel Studios and Pixar have. I volunteer for service, Hollywood -- give a brother a ring, won't you?

  2. I agree that there have been more Stephen King movies I liked, but they're still not great, or even good. You agree with me; I've read your list. There's several that are so bad they're good, and several that are only "good" in the sense that they're based on something I like. Desperation was a good book. The scenes from the mini-series that were done well had me nearly giddy. But then it would turn Garris on us.

    I admit mileage may vary as to which King movies were good and which sucked (I still hear people talking about how good It and The Stand were, and I think both are "just okay" at their best moments and utter shit at their worst), and heck, I have even come across defenders of the Shining mini-series and you and I both agree that one was crap. On a personal note, I don't have the seething hatred for Dreamcatcher that you do (not that I think it's a good movie, but then, I didn't think much of the book, either). My final number was an attempt to address the general consensus. There are probably only 16 films that nine out of ten King fans love, and most likely fewer that non-King readers even like.

    One thing I meant to make a bit more clear in the post was that books and movies are two very different mediums. I'm not even sure how well King recognizes that. When he writes a screenplay, he writes it like he's writing a book. Sometimes it works, often it does not, at all. When it works, you get Pet Sematary, which still is far from a good movie. When it doesn't, you get...nearly everything else he's done. I also don't share your love of the Creepshow movies. They're not bad, they're just silly.

    As for Alan Moore, the biggest problem with his works is that they're comics, and it's only been VERY recently that any studios anywhere take comic book adaptations seriously enough to put genuine effort into them. Even today, however, they seem to think they're just summer entertainment and as long as there's a lot of action, whether or not it's well-acted or well-scripted or anything like that isn't of any concern to them. This is why they took a brilliant idea like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and basically screwed around with it, turning it into a brainless action movie that didn't understand its source material or the classic literature it was based on. Watchmen fared better, and I still think it was a very good movie. But there really wasn't a way to translate something that layered and have it be even halfway as good. I don't even think a series of movies could have really done it justice.

    I also liked The Hobbit movies, but the LOTR movies weren't just movies; those were revelations. I still don't know why Jackson didn't just make one Hobbit movie and resist the urge to expand it to three. There was so much that just plain didn't work.

    And yes, I could not agree more with your last sentence. I'm not sure Hollywood would ever hire average joes with no experience in film to be on such a committee, but as long as they put Sai Darabont at its head, I trust him to pick the rest.

    1. To clarify; I'm talking about screenplays King wrote based on his books. I could feel you getting ready to mention Storm of the Century. When King writes something directly for the screen his results are hit and miss, but when he writes a screenplay based on a book or story of his, well, I tend not to like them, and the same is true for general audiences.