Comfortable and Furious

Toning Down the Terror: Another look at Stephen King at the Movies

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Few authors in the 20th century (or any time, for that matter) have been more frequently adapted for the movies than the favorite son of Maine, Stephen King. This Halloween season, I wanted to offer a look at some (not nearly all) of those movie adaptations and the ways in which certain elements were changed from page to screen. More importantly, I wanted to explore why those elements were changed (at least, to the best of my speculation). Specifically, many of these movies tend to tone down two things: violence (especially directed at children) and overtly supernatural elements.

Starting from the beginning, Carrie was King’s first published novel and, within two years time, the first movie adaptation of his work. The 1976 Brian De Palma film is still the best adaptation that has been made of the book, and one of the best of all S.K. movies in general. However, even bloody Mr. De Palma softened the blow of Carrie’s destructive rampage a bit, though probably more for budgetary reasons than anything else. In the movie, we saw Carrie burn down her school and blow up a car on her way home, but in the book she pretty much destroyed the whole goddamn town on that walk home. The novel actually included an official body count of 409, “with 49 still listed as missing,” which seems significantly higher than what we saw in the movie.

On the other hand, De Palma increased the violence of the scene in which Carrie kills her overbearing mother. In the book, she simply reached out with her mind and stopped Mommy Dearest’s heart, but De Palma rightly concluded that there was no way to make that suitably cinematic. His solution? Carrie literally pinned her mother to the wall with kitchen knives.

The one element of Carrie to which no movie adaptation has yet had the guts to remain faithful is the physical characterization of Carrie herself. In the book, she was overweight, ungainly and unattractive, but each movie version has seemingly gone out of its way to cast more and more attractive stars, culminating in the very cute and obviously well-adjusted Chloe Grace Moretz being most recently and egregiously miscast in the role.

The most widely respected movie adaptation with which King himself has most famously been displeased is, of course, the Stanley Kubrick-directed version of The Shining. King has complained that the characters of Jack and Wendy in the movie have no arcs, that Jack is clearly “bonkers” from the start, and that Wendy is “basically a scream machine.” These are fair criticisms (though Frannie Goldsmith in The Stand is basically a tear machine by around the middle of the book, despite some strong characterization in the earlier chapters). The feelings King has expressed about the differences in the book and movies endings make for a more interesting comparison.

King has said that “the basic difference that tells you all you need to know is the ending. Near the end of the novel, Jack Torrance tells his son that he loves him, and then he blows up with the hotel. It’s a very passionate climax. In Kubrick’s movie, he freezes to death.” Another way to say this would be that the book had the explosive “Hollywood” ending, while the film had the subtler, perhaps even more literary conclusion. On the other hand (probably going to be using that phrase a lot), the movie actually upped the ante on the violence a bit, in that Dick Halloran did not survive the movie, whereas in the book he became something of a surrogate father to Danny after Jack died.

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The wisest alteration Kubrick made to the source material, though, was changing the hedge animals in the novel (which come to life and inch closer to you when you’re not looking, eventually actually attacking and maiming Halloran) into the famous hedge maze of the movie. While the animals were effectively creepy in the book, they just look silly onscreen, as King himself (with the help of Mick Garris, his most frequent adaptor) proved 17 years later in the TV miniseries version he wrote. This is just the first of several more examples of budgetary and/or technological limitations actually improving movie adaptations by not even attempting to replicate King’s wild imagination. Sometimes what is scary in a book fails to work so well onscreen.

Cujo is a great example of the opposite phenomenon, the movie captured the reality of being trapped by a rabid dog surprisingly convincingly, and it is one of King’s favorite movie adaptations of his work. It is also, all in all, very faithful to the source material…with one not-so-minor exception: the kid died in the book. Ultimately, the filmmakers must have felt that, after an especially harrowing 90 minutes, the audience needed a little relief from the relentless brutality that had come before, a concession even mean old Mr. King (who regularly imperils and more than occasionally kills kids in his books) apparently had no problem with.

In this way, we could call the Frank Darabont-directed movie of The Mist the “anti-Cujo.” It was a great, very faithful adaptation overall, but that faithfulness vanished when it came to the book’s ambiguous but at least cautiously optimistic ending. The movie dispensed with all ambiguity and, above all, with all optimism when the protagonist used his last bullet to take out his own son before facing the nightmare just outside the car in which they were sheltered…only to find that the nightmare had already ended.

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This unambiguously dark ending might seem surprising at first glance, coming from the director of the more family-friendly (relatively speaking) King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Then again, Darabont was one of the main creative forces behind the increasingly gory The Walking Dead, and even Shawshank actually upped the ante a bit when it came to violence; in the book, there’s no reason not to believe that Tommy Williams actually did get transferred to a minimum security prison, but in the movie we saw him shot to death at the orders of Warden Norton.

The Bryan Singer-directed adaptation of Apt Pupil might seem, at first glance, to pull the punch of the source material’s ending—in which the teen protagonist went on a killing spree beginning with his high school guidance counselor, and “it was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down”—that the movie ending was actually much darker, without spilling a single drop of blood. By using blackmail instead of guns, the Todd Bowden of the movie got away with everything he had done and, one can assume, went on to be quite successful in life. A chilling prospect, indeed.

The Running Man has the distinction of being one of only two movies starring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and his fellow action-star-turned-politician Jesse Ventura (if you are unfamiliar with the other one, you are probably not even reading this). It also drastically altered the book’s very dark ending, which, involving the suicide bombing of a skyscraper as it did, we’d be even less likely to see onscreen now, in a post-9/11 world. To be fair, though, the movie pretty much altered everything else about the book as well. For example, in the book Ben Richards was described as scrawny and malnourished, but in the movie he was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Rob Reiner-directed adaptation of Misery is widely regarded as one of the best S.K. movies, and rightly so. It was very faithful to the book, which is one of King’s very best, but perhaps the most notable difference is one we see time and again in King adaptations—they had to tone down the violence a bit. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie was when Annie Wilkes hobbled Paul Sheldon, using a sledgehammer to break his ankles. It was a painful, unpleasant moment, but in the book she cut off his goddamn foot with an axe and cauterized the stump with a propane torch! She later cut off one of his thumbs, over practically nothing! Yet the book still managed to make Annie somewhat sympathetic, even more than the movie did; it’s truly a great work of literature.

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Understandably, television adaptations have to go even further in toning down certain elements of King’s books, and the 1990 TV-movie of It is a great example. Along with significant amounts of violence from the book, the movie avoided the weird sewer-orgy stuff, but it unwisely remained faithful to the other key element so often lessened in S.K. adaptations: the overtly supernatural. In visually depicting Its true form (a sort of giant space-spider) with an early ’90s TV budget, the climactic scenes of the movie undoubtedly provoked more laughter than chills. Certainly no one of my generation remembers that goofy stop-motion spider with the same terrified reverence many of us still have for Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. Like the hedge animals in The Shining, some things are scarier on the page than on the screen.

One of the most interesting cases, though, comes from one of the most commonly overlooked movie adaptations. Despite containing a good deal of graphic violence throughout, the movie version of Needful Things was able to maintain a more darkly comedic tone than the book, which King himself has said is the tone he wanted to create. One of the ways in which the movie managed to achieve this is by toning down the book’s frequent, bloody violence. The lower the body count, the less unlikable Leland Gaunt appeared to the audience, and the more humor Max von Sydow was able to wring out of the performance.

Actually, it was not so much that the violent moments were toned down (in the case of the murder of Nettie Cobb’s dog, the violence was substantially increased), but there were fewer of these moments because the movie streamlined the narrative of the approximately 700-page novel, dropping many less essential characters and subplots. One character far too essential to drop, though, was Brian Rusk, the 11-year-old boy who blew his own head off with a shotgun in the book. That is a pretty tall order for a Hollywood movie, where young kids get killed even less frequently than dogs. Well, the makers of the Needful Things movie may have been even crueler to the dog than King was, but they spared the kid.

The way in which the movie spared Brian was interesting in how true to character it was. In the book, the only witness to Brian’s suicide was his seven-year-old brother, who obviously could do nothing to stop it, but in the movie he was lucky enough to have Sheriff Alan Pangborn there with him. Pangborn was established as especially quick and graceful as early as his first appearance in King’s novel The Dark Half, so when he managed to deflect the gunshot (from a handgun rather than a shotgun in the movie) that would have killed Brian, it was very believable and true to the spirit of Pangborn’s character, if less true to the spirit of King’s brutal, uncompromising book.

The Needful Things movie also took a lesson from Kubricks Shining in the way it toned down the overt demonization of Gaunt. Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, the Gaunt of King’s book has become a literal monster by the climax. The Needful Things movie did not skimp on explosions the way Kubrick did with The Shining, and Gaunt definitely remained a supernatural being, but we never saw him in any but a human form. This also served to give the movie more of a dark comic tone that worked quite well in contrast to the book’s horror/thriller ending.

The omission of literal monsters, extreme violence and such from Stephen King movie adaptations, as we can see, in many cases constitutes wise-or at least mass-market-friendly-decisions. When allowed to write directly for the screen, King tends to indulge in borderline self-parody, as in Sleepwalkers, which showcased King’s penchant for Troma-style violence (one unfortunate was stabbed to death with a corncob) and cheesy post-mortem one-liners (“No vegetables, no dessert-those are the rules”), as well as box-office-suicide elements like the incestuous relationship between the main cat-person and his cat-mom (though Game of Thrones proves that, in that respect, maybe this movie was just ahead of its time).

In an era in which special-effects technology has never been better, it is possible someone could finally put authentically scary versions of some of the more overtly supernatural elements onscreen. With King adaptations coming at a furious rate to screens of all sizes, it is to be hoped the makers of these upcoming adaptations know when to pick their battles and show restraint.


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