The ups and downs of all those Stephen King adaptations...
The horror film 'It' is causing a big stir, but is just the latest in a long line of Stephen King adaptations, writes our film critic, and not all of them met with the prolific thriller author's approval
I can't remember a horror film that's been more eagerly anticipated than It. When concrete plans for a movie based on Stephen King's 1986 novel were announced last year, fans took to social media in their droves to furiously debate the choice of director - relatively untested Argentinian film-maker Andy Muschietti - and worry out loud about who should and would play Pennywise the Clown.
That character, a madly grinning bogeyman who lives in the sewers and lures unsuspecting children to their doom, is beloved by King fans. Mark Rylance, Hugo Weaving, Ben Mendelsohn and Tilda Swinton were just some of the big names considered for the part, and not everyone was delighted when producers announced that lanky Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard would be playing him. Then, late last year, the clown sightings began.
After a small boy in South Carolina told his mother that two scary clowns had tried to lure him off into the woods, clown sightings started to be reported all over America, prompting parental panic and accusations that some sort of publicity stunt was afoot, an idea New Line Cinema robustly denied.
"It's a kind of low-level hysteria," author King commented, adding that "the clown furore will pass". In recent weeks, however, clowns have been spotted again.
It even has a political subtext. Donald Trump, not a fan of dissenting voices, blocked King on Twitter a few months back: the author had previously described the 46th US President as "unhinged" and "dumb as dirt". On August 25, King posted an amusingly spiteful tweet in which he 'banned' Trump from going to see It. "No clowns for you, Donald," he wrote, "go float yourself."
This is the kind of publicity studios dream of: It opened here and in the US yesterday, cost just $45m to shoot and is likely to make a fortune. And while it's not a perfect film, it's a perfect example of why film-makers love King's stories so much.
King wrote It way back in 1986. Already a bestselling author on the back of books like Carrie, The Shining, Dead Zone and Salem's Lot, he was battling drink and drug addictions at the time, which may explain some of the book's more grotesque elements. But no one is better at tapping into childhood terrors than King, and the character of Pennywise was a stroke of genius.
A grinning clown with a hypnotic voice and shining yellow eyes, Pennywise was described in the novel as an ancient, shape-shifting entity that targeted and terrorised children by feeding on their fears. It lurks in the sewers beneath the small town of 'Derry', Maine, searching for isolated children it can trap, and eat. Their fear, it says, "salts the meat".
In the film's brilliant opening scene, a six-year-old boy called George Denbrough watches while his older brother Bill makes him a paper yacht to play with in the flooded drains. George then runs out into a rainy evening to watch the boat skid along, and when it disappears down a storm drain, he reaches in to rescue it. A pair of gleaming eyes appear, and Pennywise offers the boy a red balloon. He has the good sense to refuse, but the clown keeps talking, and times his attack perfectly.
It's a shocking moment, and sets up a gothic coming-of-age drama which is set in the 1980s and deliberately evokes iconic childhood films of the era like Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, which was adapted from another King story. A group of young teenagers led by Bill Denbrough try to find out more about Pennywise, and in doing so will be forced to confront their darkest fears.
Throughout his career King has been dismissed as a hack shock novelist by snooty critics. When the National Book Awards decided to honour him with a lifetime achievement in 2003, esteemed critic Harold Bloom described him as "an immensely inadequate writer", while publisher Richard Snyder called his work "non-literature".
Odd, then, that King's books have sold an estimated 350 million copies, and odder still that more than 60 movies and 30 television shows have been inspired by his work. So either the world is full of idiots, or King's work has huge cultural, societal and - yes - literary resonance. It's also intensely cinematic, full of jaw-dropping imagery that's been inspiring movie-makers for decades. Inevitably, a lot of those 60-odd films are passable at best, the recent, dire adaptation of his Dark Tower stories being a case in point. But what's more remarkable is how many classic films his books have inspired, even if my personal favourite has always been vocally despised by King himself.
The young writer must have been flattered when the great Stanley Kubrick expressed an interest in adapting his 1977 supernatural thriller The Shining for the screen. But King would soon discover that the process of working in Kubrick's orbit was not a happy one when he began fielding phone calls at three in the morning to ask whether or not he believed in God. And King hated what Kubrick did to his original story.
Jack Nicholson hammed his socks off as Jack Torrance, a would-be novelist who loses his marbles during a long winter as caretaker of a Rocky Mountain hotel and runs amok with an axe. And while King rightly complained that Jack was nothing like the writer he'd described in the book, Nicholson's performance seemed to match Kubrick's grand guignol scenarios perfectly.
Those steadicam shots of little Danny riding the lonely corridors on his scooter, the dead twin girls who want him to play with them, rivers of blood gushing from the hotel lift - Kubrick's film is full of unforgettable images, and genuinely unsettling to watch. It's my favourite King movie, but the great man himself was not amused by the finished film, and said it was the only adaptation of his work he could "remember hating".
Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) was more faithful to its source, and much closer in spirit to the febrile atmosphere of a King novel. The first ever King adaptation, it was charged with dread, boasted a sublimely brittle performance from Sissy Spacek, and had a memorably explosive climax. The only child of a Christian fanatic (Piper Laurie), Carrie White is snubbed and bullied at high school, and when she mistakes her first period for a biblical curse, things get rapidly out of hand.
Because Carrie is telekenetically gifted, and when she loses control, her enemies at school would do well to watch out. De Palma's film perfectly caught the neo-gothic tone of King's original story, and Spacek is almost too convincing at the unfortunate Carrie. King has always had a soft spot for this film, and when a remake appeared a couple of years back, he said "the real question is why, when the original was so good?".
He's rather keen on Misery, too. King has always been fond of using writers as protagonists, and surely none are more unfortunate than Paul Sheldon, who crashes his car in a snowstorm and ends up getting abducted by his "number one fan". In Rob Reiner's film, James Caan played Sheldon, whose plans to abandon his bestselling series of historical romance novels are dimly viewed by lonely nurse Annie Wilkes, who teaches him a nasty lesson. Kathy Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her unhinged portrayal of Annie, and King lists Misery among his 10 favourite adaptations.
Bates was, for me, even better in Dolores Claiborne, Taylor Hackford's somewhat underrated 1995 drama set in the austere splendour of rural Maine. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-starred as a nervy New York journalist who returns to the coastal town where she was raised when her mother is accused of murder. Dolores Claiborne (Bates) was housekeeper for a wealthy and notoriously difficult old woman, and when she's found standing over her employer's dead body brandishing a rolling pin, a local detective sets out to prove she killed her. As his investigations dredge up the past, Dolores and her daughter must face some uncomfortable truths.
It's a splendidly evocative melodrama, and so is The Shawshank Redemption, which is now much loved but barely recouped its $25m budget when it was released in cinemas in 1994. Frank Darabont's epic drama stars Morgan Freeman as Red, a wily insider at a brutal 1940s prison who takes bets with his colleagues about how long a new prisoner called Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) will survive. Andy is in for murdering his wife and her lover but insists on his innocence, and over the years Red develops a new respect for this dogged 'college boy'.
Darabont seems to have a very special understanding of King's writing. He also directed the 1999 box office hit Green Mile, as well as a shamefully underrated 2007 version of The Mist, King's story about a sinister fog that envelops a lakeside town bringing misery in its wake. And if you haven't seen it, don't worry, because Netflix have released an entire TV series based on the same book. It seems the King craze will never end.