Always very nerdy, sometimes a little gay.

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Monday, May 4

On the bookshelf: The Stand, by Stephen King

I know some people who insist that Stephen King is a poor writer. I've often heard his work talked about as being the literary equivalent of a meal from McDonald's. It's a description the disarming author would probably not mind, indeed it's possible he may have used it himself in one of his hugely entertaining pieces of non-fiction. In many cases, these impressions have been based on the many cinematic adaptations of his work rather than from any first hand reading of the novels. Which is a shame, as the cinematic adaptations cross a wide spectrum, from low budget trash to glossy Oscar winners made by directors ranging from auteurs like Stanley Kubrick to journeyman-for-hire Lewis Teague.

But I think King has penned a few masterpieces in his time. For me, he even has a Holy Trinity of sorts in his work - 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), and The Stand (1978). The Stand was re-issued in 1990, this time with King being able to re-instate material that was edited out of the original publication to bring the hardcover price down to one the market could bear. It is this expanded edition that I recently finished reading. I had forgotten - until I came across the first one - that it had illustrations by long-time Stephen King collaborator Bernie Wrightson, so that was a pleasant surprise.

I love seeing how different film-makers have tackled the challenge of successfully translating a Stephen King novel to the screen. I've read a lot of the books and seen most of the adaptations, and it's fascinating to see the variations in fidelity to the source text, budget, director, and format - feature film or tv mini-series? - and how examples that have both worked and failed can be found across the whole spectrum of variables. And the fact that several novels have been adapted more than once, often in different formats, makes if even more informative.

I'm gonna digress for a moment here. I've just paused to wonder who would find this stuff informative, and why I find this stuff interesting. Which takes me to the purpose of this blog - an attempt to kickstart my own thought processes and get the rusty mental machinery of actually writing to work. So maybe it's the wanna-be-screenwriter like myself who could be interested. Or not, let's see where the hell I'm going with this...

Carrie was adapted into a feature film by director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen in 1976. It was fairly faithful to the novel and captured the spirit of Stephen King's nasty schoolyard - if anything the film gave the material an even harsher edge. The film was a huge success, launching several careers - even Stephen King's, arguably - with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both receiving Oscar nominations for their performances, no mean feat for a cheap horror movie in one of Hollywood's best ever decades. The novel was adapted again in 2002, this time as a 132 minute telemovie. It has an interesting cast and hews much closer to the novel than the DePalma version, yet is much less effective.

And even bigger contrast is demonstrated by the two versions of The Shining. Stanley Kubrick's film absolutely guts the source text - the shell of the narrative remains, turning Stephen King's crazy spookshow into an intimate look at three people cracking up. And the film is an all-time great, undervalued at the time of release but now receiving due recognition. It's an unsettling film, right down to its very form, with the opening titles scrolling up the screen in a manner usually used for end credits - nothing has happened yet and we're already thrown, not quite knowing what to make of the film.

In 1997, The Shining was adapted again as a three part television mini-series directed by Mick Garris from a teleplay - Christ, how I hate that word, it's still a screen, why can't they use screenplay or just written by - a teleplay, I say, by Stephen King. This one was slavishly faithful to the novel and fumbled every ball on the way to the screen, not helped by silly things like rocking chairs gently rocking by themselves to lead into commercial breaks, as if to remind the audience - before the messages from the sponsors - that something spooky is going on in the Overlook Hotel. Big set pieces like little Danny Torrence being stalked by the hedge animals (a large lion, rabbit, and dog) - which Kubrick wisely avoided completely in 1980, but could have been realised wonderfully in 1997 - are ineffective and flat. Stephen King writes in vivid images and contrasts the total silence of the sunny late Autumn day with the soft clump of snow falling off the animals as they move, unseen. It's all there - the pictures (and even the soundtrack) are so clear, and work so wonderfully. Yet the mini-series smothers the whole scene with "hey guys, this is a spooky bit" music, and is too eager to get to the (not that great) CGI hedge animals, leeching everything effective from the scene. If the money to write and record the music had gone into a smaller number of CG shots (which would be more effective for the extra budget per shot), the scene would have been terrific. A similar "less is more" approach would have improved the entire mini-series, which has a good cast and is technically proficient but misses King's moods and tones completely.

'Salem's Lot became an effective television mini-series in 1979, directed by Tobe Hooper from the teleplay - there's that word again - by Paul Monash. Monash, who had previously adapted Peyton Place (one of Stephen King's admitted influences on 'Salem's Lot) for television, plays fast and loose with King's narrative and characters, yet the end result is much more memorable than the more faithful 2004 mini-series.

The Stand made it to the screen as a four part mini-series for television in 1994, directed by Mick Garris from a script by King. It's a decent enough show, probably ranking as one of the better television adaptations of a Stephen King novel, and it had a sensational cast including Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer, Laura San Giacomo, and Rob Lowe, but it fails to capture the epic scope and sense of doom of the novel. Reading the novel again, it's so hard to decide which sort of adaptation I would like to see more - a HBO series running over three years to get every little detail in there, or a stripped-to-the-bone and bigger-than-life cinemascope spectacular, leanly racing through the narrative with vivid imagery? Not that it matters now that the ultimate adaptation of the novel has arrived.

Marvel Comics have embarked on a large scale comic book (or shall I say 'graphic novel'?) adaptation of King's novel. It comprises six books, each made up of five issues, and is everything a fan of the novel could want. One of King's goals when writing The Stand was to create an epic story that would play like a dark Americana version of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If there are other fans of The Stand like me out there - and I suspect there are many - King succeeded. The Stand is, for me, a beloved story that is always a joy to dive into, the beats of the story as familiar as the back of my hand and pleasurably anticipated whenever I read the book. And the Marvel Comics adaptation is - so far - absolutely nailing the story.


Vancetastic said...

I look forward to picking that up. I've thought about getting back to The Stand again, but I just feel like there are so many things I haven't read that I should read first. (Having read both versions of The Stand already). I'm apparently a more-is-more guy when it comes to King, as the two novels of his that hit me hardest were The Stand and It. (The Stand is his best, I think -- It may be better described as having struck me at the perfect time in my life to have maximum effect on me, though it's probably not better than Salem's Lot, Misery, The Dead Zone and a couple others that I think are the cream of his crop).

I've heard and understand the criticisms of King as a writer -- and do sometimes get frustrated with him (happened several times during Cell) -- but one of the things he does most effectively is make you care about and live with his characters. I think that's part of the reason I loved The Stand and It as much as I did -- I lived with those vividly created characters for so many pages that I felt seriously emotional when some of them died.

Lord Vader said...

Again with the mind-reading - I'm halfway through re-reading 'It' as we speak, and enjoying it immensely. But I have to say, I think 'The Stand' remains his great masterpiece.