The talented and prolific Stephen King is 65 years old today! Now we can celebrate with an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ, written by John Kenneth Muir.
Although the horror film has frequently adapted literary material in its long history, from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to Thomas Harris and Dean Koontz, perhaps no writer has seen his work translated to the silver screen more often the oft-named “master of horror,” Stephen King (1947– ). King is a longtime resident of Maine and sets most of his stories in that region. And as a young man, the author was reportedly inspired to become a horror writer by the works of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937).
The writer of more than 50 novels and 200 short stories, King has written books selling more than 350 million copies worldwide. He has earned multiple honors, including the Bram Stoker Award and, controversially, the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Suffering an identical fate to many authors who choose horror as the avenue for their storytelling, King’s work is often dismissed out of hand as lowbrow when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. King’s work often deals directly with the American blue-collar experience and the interfacing of that experience with the supernatural or paranormal. His protagonists are often a circle of friends reckoning with something outside the human experience but using their bond of friendship to defeat it.
Since 1976 and Brian De Palma’s cinematic adaptation of King’s novel Carrie, several dozen of King’s works have been adapted to film, television, and even the stage. “The simple fact is that King’s stories and novels have provided a wealth of materials for filmmakers,” writes King biographer Michael R. Collings. “Almost every novel published under King’s name has been produced as a film, is in production, or has been optioned.”
Furthermore, writes another King scholar, Tony Magistrale, “Between box office receipts and film rental distribution around the world, the Stephen King movie business is now worth well in excess of a billion dollars.” Tellingly, King’s most critically acclaimed film adaptations have emerged from outside the horror genre. Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Green Mile (1999) have all been met with kudos and award nominations, whereas the horror films have achieved far less acceptance. In the eyes of judgmental, “elitist critics,” writes Mark Browning, “the films are associated with a cinematic subgenre with historically low status [horror] and secondly, the films are adapting overtly popular, best-selling writer who is commonly associated with this particular genre in literature.”
Clearly, however, the horror-film adaptations of Stephen King’s literary works have created a dilemma of “authorship” for many who admire the books. Audiences familiar with King’s novels bring high expectations to the theater that often can’t be met since film is a different art form than literature, and settings, events, and characters are sometimes eliminated, combined, or changed to so as to vet the cleanest, most concise narrative.
Secondly, many of the directors who have crafted films based on King’s work are of an unusually high caliber. As auteurs, they inevitably bring their own creative aesthetic to any filming of a King story. Thus King’s vision is changed or sublimated to accommodate the vision of the director in question. The result is that the images onscreen abundantly represent a hybrid vision: Stephen King through the lens of Brian De Palma (Carrie), Stephen King through the lens of Kubrick (The Shining), or Stephen King through the lens of John Carpenter (Christine).
Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).