The Poppies of Terra #12 - Fit For a King?
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Daphné Baiwir’s documentary King on Screen, about film and television adaptations of the famous author’s work, recently had a short theatrical run leading up to its availability on streaming platforms. Made curious by the trailer, I attended a screening.
The documentary is parenthesized by a somewhat inane dramatic wraparound, which tries to evoke King-esque ambiance and brings to mind old-timey horror anthologies or perhaps a lost segment of Creepshow. Then we move on to the meat of the affair, which consists primarily of extended talking by Mike Flanagan, Frank Darabont, Tom Holland, Mick Garris, Josh Boone, Vincenzo Natali, John Harrison and a couple of others. I’m pretty sure Greg Nicotero was present too, though I don’t see him officially credited. Anyway, these folks recall their experiences making their adaptations and also talk about what makes King’s material special, and why it continues to resonate with audiences.
The first half moves along swiftly. We touch on movies like Carrie, Stand By Me, and Misery, along with some less obvious choices. One of the best early moments occurs when we quickly cut from talking head to talking head and there’s practically no overlap in the speaker’s chosen favorites; that’s an impressively deep catalog. As the documentary progresses, we spend good chunks of time on The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist, including footage of King visiting the set of the The Green Mile. The pace slows, and the insights become repetitive. A late-occurring highlight is Mike Flanagan discussing what it took to get King’s support on the movie Doctor Sleep, which for my money remains one of the most artfully handled “impossible” sequels ever–who in their right mind wants to follow up The Shining? That's almost as bad as remaking it for TV! (Incidentally, Holland’s Psycho II is on that short list of unlikely sequel successes). Crammed in towards the end is the mention of this being a Kingassaince of sorts, when one considers all the recent miniseries and television adaptations underway, but their coverage is scant. In fact, calling the title cards that flash by for a fraction of a second “coverage” is generous.
About fifteen or twenty minutes in, I realized I’m wasn’t the target audience. I count just over fifty films adapting King’s work and I’ve seen all but two of them (and many of them multiple times). I’ve also explored special features on collector’s editions, sought out interviews and so on over the years, so the bulk of the documentary’s material was already familiar to me. But what if one doesn’t have this background, and is just looking for an overview; is this a good place to start?
Certainly, King on Screen informs viewers of the volume of work out there, and it does provide in-depth coverage of a few exemplary adaptations. If you go in with these modest expectations, and understand that this is a low-budget production, you’ll enjoy yourself. But in my opinion, if you don’t know much about King’s filmic universe, this presentation will give you a lopsided impression, for two reasons.
One, the films we spend a lot of time on are not always the milestones. With over fifty movies to discuss, comprehensiveness would surely be self-defeating (unless one made a 4-hour documentary like 2019’s In Search of Darkness), but the structure could have been tightened up by having the people who were available talk more about movies by other hands that merit the attention. You can’t get David Cronenberg to wax on cerebrally about The Dead Zone? John Carpenter’s not interested in discussing Christine again? Andy Muschietti doesn't have time to sit down and humblebrag about how his It duology broke all kinds of box-office records? Understandable. But the general audience should still come away knowing that some tales from the darkside glow more brightly than others.
The second issue is that after a while the blitzing positivity overshadows any chance of an honest, critical appreciation of the body of work as a whole. Maximum Overdrive happened, though you wouldn’t know that from watching this documentary. And yet, what it King’s freshman film-helming gig had been fantastic? He might have had a second career as a successful director. For decades, fans clamored for an adaptation of King’s epic Dark Tower book series…and Nikolaj Arcel directed a movie with that title in 2017, starring Matthew McConaughey (after, it should be noted, winning his Oscar) and Idris Elba, compressing thousands of pages of ideas into an hour and thirty-five minutes of something. The movie came and went, satisfying few. That also happened, but again, you wouldn’t know it from watching this documentary.
When it comes to television, I can appreciate the need to be concise. But even on this front, Lisey’s Story is a glaring omission. Stephen King himself wrote all eight of the miniseries’ screenplays, and critically-celebrated auteur Pablo Larraín directed every single episode, starring Oscar-winner Julianne Moore at the top of her splendid form. Most importantly, it’s King’s favorite of all his works. On top of which, it provides insights into his own thoughts on the creative process. In any piece on his adaptations, it merits at least a few minutes…
In the end, aesthetic specificity is king. It’s mentioned in King on Screen that The Shining is a great Kubrick film but not a good King film. No. The Shining is a great Kubrick film–period. Does it substantially repurpose its source material? Sure. But that has no effect on said source material, which remains intact (a point astutely made, in a different context, in the doc). There is no such thing as a good, bad, or indifferent King film–there can’t be, because he’s not a filmmaker. This strikes me as a category error we should stop perpetuating. Literature and film are different forms; confusion often arises on this because commercial film is mostly representational and narrative-driven. But examples with other media make it clear. A painting by Wassily Kandinsky may be a great Kandinsky, or not, but it can’t be judged as a composition by Arnold Schoenberg. The best piece by Debussy can never be a good–or bad–painting by Watteau. The most consummate Glass opera has no point of evaluation on the continuum of Edgar Allan Poe’s bibliography. Mike Flanagan will hopefully get the opportunity to direct a new version of The Dark Tower; regardless of how it turns out, it will be Flanagan’s work.
“Don’t be obtuse,” you tell me. “What people mean when they say ‘a good King film’ is a film that aligns with his vision, transmits his intentions, that kind of thing.” I know. To which I respond: why should we care about that? Why should it weigh so heavily in our discourse? The only thing that matters is the quality of the finished film, not its extrapolated fealty or lack thereof to the intentions of someone who didn’t make it. Daphne du Maurier’s dislike of what Hitchock did with her book The Birds shouldn’t become our dislike, and is irrelevant when appraising the merits or faults of Hitchcock’s picture. Perhaps the word “adaptation” is partially at fault for this bias; if we said “reinterpretation,” expectations of fidelity would be tempered and things might be clearer.
At any rate, this is why we shouldn’t shy away from exploring King-inspired works that aren’t successful on their own terms–or even simply the often-overlooked entries, like Hearts in Atlantis or Secret Window, for example, neither terrific nor terrible. Looking at a mixed bag can shine a light on what makes a full one.
All of this is largely beside the point, which is that King adaptations continue and will likely do so for decades to come, a phenomenon compounded by his own unceasing literary productivity (he’s just published a big new novel titled Holly as of this writing). King on Screen, at its heart, is a racounterish celebration of this vitality. March of this year saw the release of a new Children of the Corn reinterpretation (just as tawdry as you might expect); in June, we got The Boogeyman; October reaps Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a prequel to the remake of a previous adaptation; Gary Dauberman’s reimagining of Salem’s Lot has been confirmed; as has Welcome to Derry, a prequel series to Muschietti’s It flicks, boasting his own involvement; the second season of Chapelwaite has also been announced; on and on and on. Just think, two or three new movies per year, and King might live long enough to see his crown encrusted with a hundred plus of these diamonds, a feat likely never to be duplicated.
The work, as they say, speaks for itself. And in this case, ever-vaster, it also speaks to itself. As King wrote in Needful Things, “The devil’s voice is sweet to hear.”