Stephen King notoriously hated Stanley Kubrick’s classic film adaptation of The Shining. King once said that Kubrick’s film was a “shiny, pretty car with no working engine.” In a recent interview with BBC, King expressed that Kubrick’s classic film is “compulsive, cold, and misogynistic.”
“I’m not a cold guy,” says King.
This, of course, makes King an even more polarizing figure than he already is. King’s novel was published in 1977 and it was only his third book, following the massively popular Carrie and ’Salem’s Lot. A thirty-year-old man who wasn’t quite yet the American master of contemporary horror stared down the great American director of 2001: a space odyssey and Dr. Strangelove and told him his movie was bad. Say what you want about Stephen King, but the guy has taken on Stanley Kubrick and President Donald Trump. He’s got balls. King was especially pissed off about Kubrick’s depiction of Wendy Torrance, played by Shelley Duvall. “She was essentially put there to scream and that’s not the character I wrote.” King, of course, is not the first person to call Kubrick’s work “cold,” but, he has dismissed one of the most beloved horror films of all time as a bad movie, what celebrated critic Pauline Kael called “The first epic horror film.”
With the sudden return of Stephen King to American cinema and television, the question is not so much, “Was King right about Kubrick’s The Shining?” but rather, “Does King know good cinema?” King has stated, across the board, that he has disliked every film and TV adaptation of his novels except for the recent adaptation of his epic, surreal eight part fantasy saga The Dark Tower. King has gone on record to publicly endorse The Dark Tower movie, starring Idris Elba as tortured gunslinger Roland Deschain and Matthew McConaughey as sorcerer and villain The Man in Black. Critics have panned The Dark Tower across the board and have raised concerns about the decision to cram all of the rich, complex themes and characters of King’s graphically violent epic saga into one PG-13 ninety minute young adult fantasy that earned itself an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes.
So, the question stands: Does Stephen King, the American master of contemporary literary horror, know good cinema?
I must confess, I am a big fan of Stephen King. His writing has all of the spooky, complex horror of Poe, Stoker, Shelly, Thomas Harrison, and Anne Rice with the depth of personality and charm of Mark Twain. He’s right, he’s not a “cold guy.” There is a particular level of warmth to his writing that I fall in love with every time I pick up one of his books. King doesn’t only write horror, however. He has also gifted us with treasures like Hearts in Atlantis, a vibrant collection of short stories, The Green Mile, a supernatural prison drama set in the Deep South, and the novellas Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, yet another prison drama, and The Body, a massively influential coming-of-age story that has been mimicked many times over. More recently, King gave us his fascinating story of time travel, 11.22.63. King’s characters are lovable and captivating.
King is truly a master storyteller. Many writers and filmmakers have attempted to recreate King’s stories and characters, as evidenced by early Steven Spielberg films, Stranger Things, American Horror Story, Zodiac, Shutter Island, Seven and hundreds of creepy clown books and movies. With last year’s miniseries of 11.22.63 on Hulu, The Mist being turned into a cable TV series, The Dark Tower in movie theaters, and part one of a two-part It film coming this September, a whole new generation of viewers are being introduced to the universe of Stephen King for the first time.
Both Rolling Stone and Rotten Tomatoes recently published their lists of the best and worst movie adaptations of King’s work. Both lists have the same films listed in their top six, although they appear in different orders. Carrie (1976), starring Sissy Spacek and based on King’s inaugural novel about a telepathic high school girl, is number one on both lists. It is followed, in one order or another, by Misery (1990), The Dead Zone (1983), Stand By Me (1986), The Shining (1980), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). All of these films are considered classic pieces of American cinema. Not only are they classic, award-winning movies, they are great movies.
King has disliked all of them, for one reason or another.
The Dark Tower is the only King movie adaptation, in recent memory, that he has openly praised. In fact, he wrote the director of The Dark Tower, Nikolaj Arcel, an email giving him very high praise for his work on the movie.
In my many conversations with friends who are literary types about King’s taste in movies, their argument has been, in a nutshell: “King knows story better than filmmakers know story. He likes movies to get down to the bare, elemental pieces of storytelling and get rid of all of the unnecessary bullshit.”
Another argument: “It must be so hard for a writer like King, who is intimately acquainted with the book he wrote, to actually enjoy a movie adaptation of her/his work.”
I do not believe King “knows story” better than filmmakers know story. That is an absurd point. Some of the greatest stories of our time have been told through the medium of film. Also, I am certain that it is difficult for every writer to watch their story become incarnate in the movies. Filmmakers are bound to “get things wrong.”The fundamental premise of these arguments, however, is flawed, and is, in fact, the wrong premise. Too often we have watched film adaptations of books and have demanded that they tell us the exact story found in the book. I believe King, and others like him, don’t leave room for movies to be their own medium with which to tell the story. For example: Cormac McCarthy’s bleak western novel, No Country for Old Men, is a good book. The film adaptation by the Coen Brothers is a great movie. The Coen Brothers do not tell the exact story, scene for scene, as it is told in McCarthy’s book. Joel and Ethan Coen understand that the movies are a different medium with which to tell a story. Kubrick understood this, as well. Every film Kubrick made was an adaptation of a piece of literature. Movies are not books. The story is subject to change when carried by different vessels. There are scenes in the book No Country that would not work in the movie. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a version of McCarthy’s character, but not the exact same character.
So, is it that Stephen King has put far too much pressure on filmmakers over the years to make movies that are, essentially, his books retold scene for scene? Maybe. If it were just that, it would be simple enough to dismiss King as another pretentious, stuffy writer who thinks he’s hot shit and no movie, not even an American classic, could ever possibly interpret his work correctly. But the problem runs deeper than this. King has taken to Twitter to openly praise The Dark Tower movie and he even advertises for it. He hosted a screening of the movie. The Dark Tower is not remotely faithful to the complex eight part fantasy saga it is based on. So, why does King love it so much?
I must make a confession: I have not seen The Dark Tower. I adore the books. I think they are some of King’s greatest achievements. When I read the reviews of the film from critics and friends I respect, I decided that I would not see the movie. I refuse to see it. Part of my reasoning is that I believe life is far too short to waste time on shitty movies panned by critics. Secondly, as a fan of the books, I am offended that Hollywood took a major risk on King’s magnum opus and screwed it up. Who thought it was a good idea to cram an epic dark fantasy saga into one movie? Some have said a sequel movie is on the way. I don’t care to know if that’s true.
The Dark Tower doesn’t only sound like a bad movie adaptation of King’s books, but, it just sounds like a bad movie. So, if it’s true what critics are saying about The Dark Tower, what the hell is wrong with Stephen King? How can he praise a supposedly terrible movie all the while trashing highly praised American classics like The Shining? Is it possible that Stephen King, despite his genius in writing, has no clue what a good movie is? King has always been an eccentric. He rarely gives interviews. It may be hard for the American public to admit, but, maybe his tastes are a bit odd as well. I will accept the fact that King wants to see the same small town heart and heroism that’s in his stories show up in movies based on his stories. Sure. I get it. Can’t King want to see “heart” in his movies while also respecting that they might be pieces of well-crafted cinema? The Shining is a great movie. Stand By Me is a great movie. Carrie is a great movie. Misery is a great movie. What is it that King can’t see?
I cannot answer this question. It’s a waste of time, I suppose, to constantly wonder where the defect is in King’s cinematic soul. What I can say, in answer to my own question and with utmost certainty is no, Stephen King does not appear to know good cinema. Perhaps this will change. King is seventy years old and among the most successful American writers in history. I don’t think he will change any time soon. Maybe he should stick with his strengths?
I look forward to the release of Andres Muschietti’s It in September. The book is a massive tome set in King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine and filled with plenty of “heart.” It is a fabulous book and one of King’s best. My guess is, if the film is any good, King will hate it. If the film is shitty, he might love it.