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 , Halloween , The Exorcist , The Omen , 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
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  John Carpenter; The Dead Zone’s  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  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.
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
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 , 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).
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