All Hail The King

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Though primarily a literary figure, Stephen King has enjoyed one of the most successful symbioses between publishing and Hollywood of any popular author, if not in box office and critical respect (those trophies would most likely have to go to Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling) certainly in terms of sheer quantity.

King’s first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, and the breakout success of Salem’s Lot, published two years later – the same year the movie version of Carrie was released – elevated him into the major commercial publishing ranks and ignited a revived interest in literary horror fiction as a whole.  King’s ascension to bestseller status roughly coincided with a surge in Hollywood horror fare (this was, after all, the era of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974], Halloween [1978], The Exorcist [1973], The Omen [1976], just to name a very few), and his early-won, long-held prominence in both print and film – with each venue reinforcing King’s status in the other – quickly combined to cement his reputation as one of modern horror’s leading lights.

Since the screen adaptation of Carrie, King-based horror movies have been so much a regular feature of studio slates it wouldn’t be unfair to consider the King-inspired creep fest as a genre unto itself.  Since 1980, hardly a year has gone by without a theatrical release or TV project connected to the author.  According to the Internet Movie Data Base, as of this writing there have been some 120 theatrical releases, shorts, TV movies, series and mini-series – including sequels and remakes – built around King’s novels, novellas, short works, and original screenplays, beginning with Carrie and up to and including over a half-dozen projects currently in various stages of development or production including adaptations of his most recent novels, Cell and Under the Dome, both tentatively scheduled for a 2011 release.  “Stephen King” is considered such a branded commodity among the major studios that the novelist’s name is not infrequently incorporated into the titles of screen adaptations and originals as a marquee draw i.e. Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift (1990), Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (1985), Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1999), etc.

What makes King so representative of movie horror over the last 35 years is that the extensive canon of King screen adaptations and originals encompasses nearly every approach, trend, and permutation of horror cinema the studios have explored over that period, from the industry’s 1960s/1970s surge in elegant, adult-oriented horror (The Shining, 1980) to the 1980s tidal wave of more modestly-produced shockers (Pet Sematary, 1989), and so on.  Stephen King thriller movies range from the insipid (Graveyard Shift [1990] – giant rat preys on mill workers; Maximum Overdrive [1986] – alien force takes over the world’s trucks) to the intentionally kitschy (Creepshow [1982] – anthology salute to the horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s) to the intellectually intriguing (Apt Pupil [1998] – disaffected teen becomes interested in elderly neighborhood man who might be a Nazi war criminal).  There have been King thrillers which were exhausted rehashes of the familiar (werewolf tale Silver Bullet, 1985), while others were refreshingly novel (Carrie and its portrait of adolescent frustration manifesting as telekinetic catharsis).  Some stories have been all “hook,” hung on a promotable premise but little else (Thinner [1996] — nasty lawyer is cursed by a gypsy to become thinner and thinner) while others have been so effectively drama-driven one is loathe to even consider them thrillers (Dolores Claiborne [1995] and its front story of a fractured mother/daughter relationship).

Productions have been similarly variegated.  Some King features have been prestige productions helmed by the strongest directors in the horror genre (Creepshow’s George Romero; Christine’s [1983] John Carpenter; The Dead Zone’s [1983] David Cronenberg), as well as some of the most notable directors in the commercial mainstream (Carrie’s Brian DePalma; The Shining’s Stanley Kubrick; Misery’s [1990] Rob Reiner).

Hollywood’s consistent interest in the “Stephen King” genre is understandable beyond the obvious hope the brand will bring a built-in fan base to movie houses.  King’s stories are mainstream-friendly as they are often clearly-defined morality tales with boldfaced villains and Everyman heroes who find some deep, inner, uplifting resource to take them to an ultimate triumph.  As well, by King’s own admission, many of his horror stories provide just the kind of grotesqueries – “…the gross-out” — which appeals to the horror genre’s youthful fan base and its appetite for visual shocks.

Also appealing to Hollywood in much of King’s work is his ability to take bankably familiar horror icons – vampires (Salem’s Lot, 1979), werewolves (Silver Bullet), the undead (Pet Sematary), hauntings (The Shining, Christine, Rose Madder [2002]), paranormal powers (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter [1984], The Green Mile), hexes and curses (Thinner), Jaws-like monster tales (Cujo [1983], Graveyard Shift), and revive them by marrying them firmly to recognizably everyday milieus.

King has a penchant for returning to certain story ideas and elements and reworking them into new but familiar shapes.  Thus, the homicidal blocked aspiring writer of The Shining becomes the homicidal blocked established writer of Secret Window (2004); the haunted hotel corrupting its caretaker in The Shining becomes the haunted vintage sedan corrupting its owner in Christine; The Faustian Needful Things (1993) becomes the Faustian Storm of the Century (1999); the relationship between a young boy and old hotel cook with whom he shares a special psychic connection in The Shining becomes the relationship between a young boy and middle-aged boarder with whom he shares a special psychic connection in Hearts in Atlantis (2001); childhood bullies are faced down tragically in Carrie and Christine, more triumphantly in Sometimes They Come Back (1991) and Hearts in Atlantis; in Salem’s Lot, a fatigued novelist returns to his sleepy town to find it plagued by vampirism, while in The Tommyknockers (1993), an alcoholic poet discovers his sleepy town is plagued by an alien force.  Such recyclings have only attracted a Hollywood enamored of  sequels, remakes and knockoffs, and which often seems less interested in forging iconoclastic successes than in cloning past ones.

Hollywood execs have no doubt also been attracted to the fact that most King theatricals have been produced for moderate budgets.  Up until The Green Mile ($60 million budget), the average budget for a King theatrical over a 20-year period stood at a little over $11 million.  Subtract the few top-of-the-line King adaptations from the roster – The Shining, The Running Man (1987), Misery (1990), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – and the average budget over the same period drops to a lean $8.7 million.

While these elements go a long way toward explaining Hollywood’s ceaseless mining of King’s material, there remains something paradoxical about the major studios’ fealty to the brand; a fact which, in itself, reveals something indicative about today’s Hollywood mindset.

King’s literary success has never found parity on the big screen.  While, as an author, he has been a consistent bestseller for decades, the canon of King screen works can boast only very few major box offices success.  Of 41 Stephen King theatrical movies released between 1976-2007 (including non-thrillers like the elegiac boyhood tale Stand By Me [1986], and prison drama The Shawshank Redemption), 19 either fell short of breakeven on their domestic release or were outright flops.  Most of the remainder were modest or mid-range performers with the average box office for those same 41 releases standing at a little over $30 million domestic gross per.  Only four Stephen King adaptations over that same period grossed more than $60 million:  The Shining ($65 million), Misery ($61.3 million), The Green Mile ($136 million – best performance of a Stephen King movie to date), and 1408 ($72 million).  The record becomes even more uninspiring the more parsed it gets:  only seven of these 41 features have grossed more than $40 million domestic; 18 grossed less than $20 million; seven earned less than $10 million.  The most recent big screen King feature:  2007’s The Mist, adapted and helmed by Frank Darabont (who had previously adapted/directed Shawshank and Green Mile), turning in a disappointing $25.6 million box office on a budget of $18 million (Hollywood rule of thumb:  a movie typically has to gross at least twice its budget to achieve breakeven).

To be fair, this performance rate may say more about Hollywood thriller-making than King’s material.  Many King adaptations pare down the pop culture texture and character drama which have helped the author connect so widely with readers, and, instead, emphasize the horror and gross-out aspects of his work.  Going one step further, some projects seemed to have been picked primarily for their quotient of bizarreness and the grotesque (Silver Bullet, Graveyard Shift, and Thinner offering prime examples), rather than their ability to sustain a movie feature.

Still, despite a box office record which could only be described as erratic, Hollywood’s devotion to Stephen King as a brand name franchise has been unflagging and surprisingly consistent over the last thirty-odd years, regardless of whether the industry has just experienced a King triumph or a string of King disappointments.  In this, Stephen King movies are a testament to an industry dedication to the concept of the brand name franchise bordering on religious fanaticism.  Particularly as time has gone by, the major studios have seemed less concerned about selecting just the right Stephen King property and matching it with just the right cast and director, then they have been in getting anything on a cinema marquee which begins with the descriptive, Stephen King’s….

– Bill Mesce

  1. PB210 says

    Update to list;

    The Stieg Larsson adaptation of the Elisabeth Salander Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that came out recently underperformed. They have an announced a sequel, though.

  2. PB210 says

    Lawrence Block based film Burglar produced no sequels

  3. PB210 says

    Add Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich

  4. PB210 says

    Add to list:

    Roger Simon’s Wine novels, one film

    Black Samurai by Marc Olden, one film

    The Specialist, one film (based on John Shirley novels)

    Cabot Cain, one film, Assualt on Agathon

    Stephen Hunter: only one Bob Lee Swagger film so far

    Malko Linge, two films

    Tony Rome, two films

    Ross Thomas: as I recall only one film, St. Ives

    I tried not to list too many foreign films

    I would have included James Patterson, but a third Alex Cross will come out reportedly soon

    Lawrence Sanders had but novels based on his work as I recall

    Whether you want to include Remo Williams, Robert E. Howard Dune or John Carter as adult literature I will leave unresolved, but as the Lord of the Rings did not receive such treatment, I would guess not (the hobbits did debut in a children’s book)

    1. PB210 says

      Update to list:

      The attempt to revive Alex Cross with Tyler Perry fizzled a bit

      Jack Reacher seems to have only done so-so

      Parker seems to have underperformed

    2. PB210 says

      Update: the 2014 attempt to re-reboot Jack Ryan seems to have met a less inspiring reception.

  5. PB210 says

    Incidentally, the list focuses on stillborn franchises. You will notice that few of the authors listed stand as considered horror authors, but in prose, horror series tend not to occur as often. TV Tropes tried to compile a list of long-running horror novel series, and found few other than Fantomas and Doctor Fu Manchu.

  6. PB210 says

    This article on King reminded me of a list on various message boards about authors who have had their works adapted to film in recent years. The list tried to stick with authors of adult literature-so J.K. Rowling and Tolkein stand as automatically excluded, as Rowling created Harry Potter for children and Tolkein created the hobbitts for children.

    King’s close rival (both horror authors) Dean Koontz has generally had little success with film adaptations of his work.

    Flight of the Intruder did not lead to adaptations of the other Jake Grafton novels.

    The Specialist did not lead to other adaptations of the Specialist novels.

    While Firefox, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the novel by the same name, resulted in novelist Craig Thomas writing additional stories about Mitchell Gant, it didn’t lead to any other film adaptations.

    The adaptation of Royal Flash in 1975 did not lead to other adaptations of the Flashman novels.

    Gorky Park did not lead to other adaptations of the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith.

    The Empty Beach did not lead to other adaptations of the Cliff Hardy novels.

    The Bone Collector did not lead to other Lincoln Rhyme films.

    Clive Cussler has seen two attempts to start film franchises based on his novels about Dirk Pitt, Raise The Titanic and Sahara. Neither produced sequels.
    Both had negative fan reactions, and Clive Cussler disowned both movie

    Stephanie Plum: One For the Money disappointed, not a sign for further Janet Evanovich adaptations.

    The last forty years have seen several examples of attempted hard-boiled detective/police/private eye films series that never reached more than one film.

    Larry Cohen intended to make a few sequels to his 1982 remake of I, the Jury. The script for one of them served as the basis for 1987’s Deadly Illusion, but as of 2010 no further Spillane based films have reached theaters.

    Kathleen Turner bought options on many of the VI Warshawski books. Only one film came out.

    Other authors who wrote various reasonably prolific series adapted into only one film-John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee (one theatrical film, Darker Than Amber), Walter Mosely and Easy Rawlins (one theatrical film, Devil in a Blue Dress), Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder (one theatrical film, Eight Million Ways to Die). James Lee Burke’s Heaven’s Prisoners featuring Dave Robicheaux only had a direct-to-DVD follow-up, In the Electric Mist, with Tommy Lee Jones taking over from Alec Baldwin.

    counterexamples (adult literature that produced a few sequels)

    Thomas Harris: multiple films, but these focus increasingly more on Hannibal Lecter, not the investigators out to stop him

    Tom Clancy: four Jack Ryan films

    Ernesty Tidyman: four movies about Shaft over 29 years, all R-rated at that

    Jason Bourne: the Matt Damon series adapted all of Ludlum’s Bourne novels, at least in name (already noted)

    Richard Stark (Donald Westlake): Westlake famously refused to allow anyone to use the name Parker in any adaptation of the Parker series unless they agreed upfront to do a series of films. However, despite at least four to five of his Parker novels reaching screens, nobody ever agreed to do a series of films about Parker, just one-shot adaptations of particular novels.

    Chester Himes: Coffin Ed and the Grave Digger appeared in three films from 1970 to 1991

    John Ball: Virgil Tibbs appeared in three films

    87th Precinct: similar to Parker, numerous renamed versions in film adaptations that ranged from Japan, Canada, Boston, etc. (note that the 1950’s also produced a few 87th Precinct films)

    Fletch produced one sequel.

    David Morrell’s First Blood led to the unplanned Rambo franchises-which, sadly for the studio, means since they did not plan on a franchise, means that they did not lock down the toy rights. Die Hard has a similar patchwork history.

    Some authors, such as Grisham, Elmore Leonard, Ellroy, Crichton, Puzo and Benchley had adaptations of either singletons or less profilic series, but generally to just moderate sucess. Regarding Benchley, the Jaws sequels fell off rapidly with the second sequel.

    1. Bill Mesce says


      1. PB210 says

        A discussion on the Latarnia Yuku Forum indicates:

        But those really well thought through heroes who emerge primarily from literature into mainstream culture do seem a little rarer. Maybe because most heroes that break across culture now seem to owe their origins to TV, films, games or comic books.

  7. Bill Mesce says

    Thanks, Joe. Without discussing the relative merits of any one King adaptation, as you go over the body of titles one is struck by the fact that there is no pattern to which films hit and which films missed. STAND BY ME was an out of nowhere hit; SHAWSHANK had reviewers behind it but couldn’t pull an audience. MISERY worked but DOLORES CLAIBORNE — which tried to work the same vein and was critically well-received — stiffed. The movie business has always been a crapshoot and King-related projects illustrate the point as well as any other body of films.

  8. Joe Nazare says

    An excellent article, Bill. It’s fascinating to read the statistics detailing King’s relative lack of box office success (for me, the fact that Darabont’s “The Mist” didn’t gross more money is what’s most mind-boggling–I can’t understand how such an entertaining film failed to attract a larger theatrical audience).

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