Toning Down The Terror – Stephen King At The Movies

By Ezra Stead 

carrieFew authors in the 20th century (or any time, for that matter) have been more frequently adapted for the movies than Maine’s favorite son, Stephen King. This Halloween season, instead of presenting a cross-section of my month’s viewing as I have in years past, I thought I’d 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, we’ll be exploring 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.

SpoilerAlertLet’s start from the beginning. Carrie was King’s first published novel and, within two years’ time, the first movie adaptation of his work. Brian De Palma’s 1976 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 see Carrie burn down her school and blow up a car on her way home, but in the book she pretty much destroys the whole goddamn town on that walk home. The novel actually includes an official body count of 409, “with 49 still listed as missing,” which seems significantly higher than what we see 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 reaches out with her mind and stops Mommy Dearest’s heart, but De Palma rightly concluded that there was no way to make that suitably cinematic. His solution? Carrie literally pins 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 is 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.

shiningThe most widely respected movie adaptation with which King himself has most famously been displeased is, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 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 King’s own Frannie Goldsmith in The Stand is basically a tear machine, for what that’s worth). It’s King’s feelings about the differences in the book and movies endings that makes 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, as so many of King’s do, has the explosive “Hollywood” ending, while Kubrick’s film has the subtler, perhaps even more literary conclusion. On the other hand (probably going to be using that phrase a lot), the movie actually ups the ante on the book’s violence a bit, in that Dick Halloran does not survive the movie, whereas in the book he becomes something of a surrogate father to Danny after Jack’s death.

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 are 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’s scary in a book doesn’t work so well onscreen.

cujoCujo is a great example of the opposite phenomenon—the movie captures the reality of being trapped by a rabid dog surprisingly convincingly, and it’s 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 dies 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 Frank Darabont’s movie of The Mist the “anti-Cujo.” It is a great, very faithful adaptation overall, but that faithfulness vanishes when it comes to the book’s ambiguous but at least cautiously optimistic ending. Darabont’s movie dispenses with all ambiguity and, above all, with all optimism when Thomas Jane’s protagonist uses 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 has already ended.

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 is one of the main creative forces behind the increasingly gory The Walking Dead, and even Shawshank actually ups the ante a bit when it comes 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 see him shot to death at Warden Norton’s orders.

Bryan Singer’s adaptation of Apt Pupil might seem, at first glance, to pull the punch of the source material’s ending—in which the teen protagonist goes 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”—but the movie’s ending is actually much darker, without spilling a single drop of blood. By using blackmail instead of guns, the movie’s Todd Bowden gets away with everything he’s done and, one can assume, goes on to be quite successful in life. A chilling prospect, indeed.

running-manThe 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 don’t know the other one, I’m surprised you’re even reading this). It also drastically alters the book’s very dark ending, which, involving the suicide bombing of a skyscraper as it does, we’d be even less likely to see onscreen now, in a post-9/11 world. To be fair, though, the movie pretty much alters everything else about the book as well. For example, in the book Ben Richards is described as scrawny and malnourished, but in the movie he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery is widely regarded as one of the best S.K. movies, and rightly so. It’s 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 is when Annie Wilkes “hobbles” Paul Sheldon, using a sledgehammer to break his ankles. It’s a painful, unpleasant moment, but in the book she cuts off his goddamn foot with an axe and cauterizes the stump with a propane torch! She later cuts off one of his thumbs, over practically nothing! Yet the book still manages to make Annie somewhat sympathetic, even more than the movie does; it’s truly a great work of literature.

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 avoids the weird sewer-orgy stuff (if you’ve never read the book, you’re going to now, right?), but it unwisely remains 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 provoke 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’s 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 is 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 manages to achieve this is by toning down the book’s frequent, bloody violence. The lower the body count, the less unlikable Leland Gaunt appears to the audience, and the more humor Max von Sydow is able to wring out of the performance.

needful-thingsActually, it’s not so much that the violent moments are toned down (in the case of the murder of Nettie Cobb’s dog, the violence is substantially increased), but there are fewer of these moments because the movie streamlines the narrative of the approximately 700-page novel, dropping many less essential characters and subplots. One character far too essential to drop, though, is Brian Rusk, the 11-year-old boy who blows his own head off with a shotgun in the book. That’s 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 spares Brian is interesting in how true to character it is. In the book, the only witness to Brian’s suicide is his seven-year-old brother, who obviously can’t do anything to stop it, but in the movie he’s 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 manages to deflect the gunshot (from a handgun rather than a shotgun in the movie) that would have killed Brian, it’s 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 takes a lesson from Kubrick’s Shining in the way it tones 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 doesn’t skimp on explosions the way Kubrick did with The Shining, and Gaunt definitely remains a supernatural being, but we never see him in any but a human form. This also serves to give the movie more of a dark comic tone that works quite well in contrast to the book’s horror/thriller ending.

sleepwalkersThe 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 1992’s Sleepwalkers, which showcases King’s penchant for Troma-style violence (one unfortunate is 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).

With new movie versions of It, The Dark Tower series, and probably at least half a dozen more in the works, in an era in which special-effects technology has never been better, it is possible someone could finally put an authentically scary version of that space-spider onscreen. The thought of Matthew McConaughey as King’s favorite Man of Many Names is also very promising. Let’s just hope the makers of these upcoming adaptations know when to pick their battles and show restraint.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.

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