Friday, March 18, 2011

Where Did All the Stephen King Adaptations Go?

I'm currently reading "Just After Sunset," one of Stephen King's most recent collections of short stories. I went through a King phase in high school where I devoured a huge chunk of his literary output, and it's been nice reconnecting with the work of the beloved horror writer who once bore an uncanny resemblance to my dear Uncle Rudy. And then I came upon a disturbing realization. Aside from an announced adaptation of the famous "Dark Tower" saga, and a few low-budget direct-to-video features, there have been scarcely any television or film adaptations of Stephen King's work for the past several years.

Despite flirting with retirement a few times, King is still putting out plenty of material, but Hollywood hardly seems to be in any hurry to film any of it these days. The last theatrically released movies based on his work were "The Mist" and "1408," both from 2007, and both decent earners at the box office. Before that, you have to go all the way back to "Secret Window" from 2004. Television has been better to him. 2010 saw the premiere of the Syfy series "Haven" based on King's 2005 novel, "The Colorado Kid," which has since been renewed for a second season. Syfy also rebooted "Children of the Corn" for a made-for-TV movie in 2009. However, there have been none of the once ubiquitous Stephen King event miniseries since 2006, when the ABC adaptation of "Desperation" got creamed by "American Idol" and the TNT anthology "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" failed to gain much attention. A miniseries adaptation of "Under the Dome," King's 2009 bestseller, is supposed to be in development with Dreamworks, but there's no telling when we'll see it on television.

A few years without a major Stephen King project may seem trivial, but not if you remember the sheer volume of King adaptations and originals that came out during the late 80s and 90s. His work was the foundation of cinema classics as diverse as "The Shining," "Carrie," "Misery," "The Shawshank Redemption," and "Stand By Me." The horror film industry loved him, churning out schlock based on everything they could get the rights to, and plastering his name all over video boxes and posters, even if the movies had nothing to do with the stories they were supposedly based on. For a while in the 90s, there was a new Stephen King miniseries for sweeps every year, some based on his existing work and some that he wrote the teleplays for himself. King's name was so recognizable and his output was so prolific, everyone was adapting his stories, and people flocked to the see the results. Why they were popular was hardly a mystery. Even if they weren't very good, I remember loving "It" and "The Langoliers" and their ilk when I was younger, because they were chock-full of irresistible genre devices like killer clowns, psychic kids, and time travel. Stephen King was and still is one of the best modern fantasists we've got.

So why the dropoff in adaptations? It was probably due to a lot of things. Miniseries fell out of favor with the networks and have slowly disappeared over the last decade, edged out by cheaper reality television. Supernatural scares went out of vogue when torture porn horror films reared their ugly heads with "Saw" and "Hostel." Finally, there were several high profile flops, like 2001's "Hearts in Atlantis" and 2003's "Dreamcatcher" that signaled to many that Stephen King's name might no longer be bulletproof. And I think that toward the end, we just got too oversaturated with the crazy religious doomsayers and the terrorized small towns in Maine. Projects based on King's work are still being greenlit, but far fewer than in the past. Wikipedia tells me that there's also an "It" reboot and an adaptation of "The Talisman" forthcoming, and several other projects are stalled or on hold. It's unlikely that we're going to see any new Stephen King films before next year. And it's only now that I've noticed the absence of his work on the big screen, that I've realized I miss him.

Hollywood is so seemingly starved for new ideas these days, I find it strange that they've been ignoring one of the biggest, most consistent names in horror and urban fantasy. I'd rather watch an adaptation of any of the stories in "Just After Sunset," or one of his recent novels than another "Paranormal Activity" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" retread. Don't like his newer stuff? There's plenty of King's older stories that no one's tackled, and quite a few of the schlockier adaptations that could stand to be improved upon. I'd love to see "The Stand" with a decent budget. Or someone else's take on "Christine." If the studios are looking for big recognizable brand names to revive, they could do a lot worse than bringing Stephen King's work back into the spotlight.

As for me, I need to finish "Just After Sunset" and go hunt down a copy of "Full Dark, No Stars." I've remembered how much I love Stephen King's short stories, and I've fallen so far behind in my reading.

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