In accordance with the upcoming seventieth birthday of Stephen King, author extraordinaire, the British Film Institute (BFI) are launching an entire season of adaptations of King’s work running throughout September and October. As the living author with the most prolific oeuvre of adaptations, King has had not only an impact on the literary world but also in that of the silver screen. While King is a man with undoubted skill in the realm of horror, his work does attain of a status of being more than just a master of fear. His work is atmospheric and meaningful, and King utilises horror to explore a myriad of human qualities as well as dynamics within society; this is no doubt the reason for his hypnotic draw of reader and audiences alike. Through this season, the BFI will be celebrating how King’s stories were brought to life on the screen and displays that while King may predominantly excel at horror, he has crafted an aesthetic within his literary work that far exceeds that, a feature that people who have adapted his work have relished in seeking out.
The BFI are not just hosting screenings but also a selection of events in order to encourage debate and discussion about the “Kingian” – taking glee in allowing people to discuss the side selection of his films and to put forward their arguments as to the importance of adaptations. One such event titled “Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Stephen King on Screen” really highlights this season as an actual exploration into the adaptations of King rather than just a showcase of his films. The event bills itself as an effort to discuss the entirety of his work, not just those films being screened in order to ignite the passions of King film fans. This talk, hosted by BFI’s cult programmer, Michael Blyth, promises to be equally rewarding for both King veterans and newcomers. What better way to introduce yourself to the weird, terrifying, wonderful world of King’s mind than to throw yourself into the deep end with his most enthusiastic devotees?
Let’s delve into the films on offer for a start. The bigger and more well-known titles are here including Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986), Misery (1990), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). But this is just the tip of the iceberg with the whole season including fourteen other titles including my personal favourite, The Mist (2007) in its wonderful black and white iteration. But we’ll get onto that later because first we need to explore what binds these films together. Yes, in quite obvious terms, they are all Stephen King adaptations, but you would be hard pressed to finding all of these films sitting in a screening season together in anything other than one covered by the umbrella theme of Kingian adaptations.
What makes this material so richly Stephen King other than there source material? What do these films have in common that binds together not just a common aesthetic across King material, but across King adaptations?
It is most widely recognised that King is a master of horror, but his particular skill – as hinted above – is in creating atmospheric horror that has implications as to the exploration of humans and humanity. A lot of King’s work, and this flourishes in the adaptations, are related to ideas and concerns around power. While he does have a focus on supernatural power, just consider the telekinetic powers of Carrie, The Shining, or The Green Mile, these are regularly used as conceits as to the corrupting abilities of power and the corruptibility of humanity, and its cruelty. King often uses this theme to explore the benefits of power in the hands of the right people, and the cinematic adaptations certainly take these aspects on, especially Carrie and The Green Mile.
Carrie portrays a young woman, who has certain telekinetic powers, and who is bullied and ostracised from her peers. Isolated and alone, pushed into the very depths of despair by her time at school and at home, with an exceedingly religious and abusive mother, Carrie’s powers erupt upon being humiliated at prom and covered in pig’s blood. While the chaos that ensues is emblematic of the horror King loves to use, it is not without meaning. One can’t help but ask as to whether the conclusion of the film would have unfolded without the cruelty of those around her.
Contrast this with The Green Mile however, and there are semblances of common themes. John Coffey, possessed with a power to heal could be a force for an ultimate good in the world and while the supernatural element is important, the film’s explores the world around Coffey, the implications of race, and the history of America are important factors in the film rather than Coffey’s supernatural abilities. John Coffey becomes a symbol for the prejudiced society around him, implicated in a crime he did not commit because of his physicality and race, two things that make it impossible for him to defend himself.
The Shining, while certainly a film worthy of comment and exploration, is quite difficult to wrap up into similar themes. Indeed the power of the mysterious hotel is a corrupting influence but King himself disavowed the film in its flagrant disregard for the happenings of the novel. Instead the film is very much Kubrick-esque rather than Kingian, using the source material as a minor foundation for a much more expansive, mysterious, and aesthetically-driven cinematic experience. The focus becomes the Overlook Hotel, it’s appearance and space being the motivating factor for much of the film’s narrative intricacies and paradoxes – its claustrophobic and isolated visuals accentuated in order to intensify the psychologically twisting powers of the hotel, in the walls of which we watch Jack Torrance succumb to madness.
These entries contrast with the other titles such as Misery and The Shawshank Redemption in the latter’s lack of supernatural elements conventional to most of King’s work. Indeed King himself faced backlash for a large majority of these entries when they were released as written works due to this absence and the fervent dedication of fans that were so keenly intrigued by his utilisation of supernatural horror. But a brief analysis shows these works are intertwined with his supernatural interests, merely singling out and focusing on the aspects that he accentuates over horror in most of his work anyway – humans.
In a way, the film Misery could also bridge our discussion of the prominence of the supernatural and the human in King’s work. Almost definitely taking up the themes of the abuse of power, Annie’s (Kathy Bates) dominance and control over the injured Paul (James Caan) not only explores the obsessive qualities of fans but also links neatly to The Shining. This idea of this isolated cabin in the middle of a frozen forest has some clear connections with the Overlook Hotel but it’s how this setting fuels the characters’ motivations. Both Annie’s and Paul’s characters are comparable with Jack: Annie by the psychological twisting she has incurred through her loneliness and Paul through his occupation as a writer. Like The Shining, Misery is tangibly claustrophobic and plays with audiences through tension. The final confrontation between Paul and Annie as they tussle over the burning manuscript and Paul attempting to escape certainly mimic the desperate escape efforts of Shelley, and eventually Danny, while being pursued by Jack. These are much more features of King’s work than just the supernatural. Their focus upon humanity, cruelty, and evil as well as the isolation in their locales tie these films together. Once one starts to look for the connections in King’s work, one often finds them in unexpected places.
The Shawshank Redemption coalesces with The Green Mile in more ways than simply its prison setting. The films both represent profound, and tragic characters, incorrectly found guilty of crimes they did not commit. One is sentenced to death, the other to life, but again you have this repeating a prisoner’s exploitation by a system. John Coffey was sentenced due to the bigoted and presumptuous society around him combined with racial stereotyping ensuring he never stood a chance. And while circumstance actually implicated Andy Dufrense, he is exploited while trapped within the prison system itself, exposing a microcosm of the exploitation of a lower class by a ruling class and the corruption that is inherent within the American prison system.
The BFI, in showcasing these films is providing a platform to explore these Kingian themes, and in doing so is opening a dialogue in celebration of King’s birthday as well as the serendipitous release of It (2017). But these are just the most well-known films on the offer, BFI is also screening the likes of Christine (1983), Salem’s Lot (1979), Pet Sematary (1989), and 1408 (2007). These perhaps lesser-known and less critically-renowned entries into the King film oeuvre are no less Kingian, taking the themes discussed above and using them in more unique patterns, such as an evil murderous car or land owned by the Mí’kmaq being used to revive lost family members in a father’s desperate attempt to keep his family together. While questionable in its appropriation of a Native American theme and associating it with evil, it is definitely a dark tale, and one King almost didn’t publish. This is what really shines about the Stephen King on Screen season: it’s breadth, variety, and willingness to open up discussion of the films rather than just screening them. With several introductory segments before some films such as Misery, Christine, and The Dark Half, the BFI is gearing up to bring fans together and to let the spotlight shine on some of the lesser-known King adaptations.
One standout pick from the programme for me personally is the decision to screen the black and white version of The Mist. If anything is emblematic of King to me, it’s this film. From the supernatural chaos that reigns around them to the slow drive to insanity and cult-like status within the confines of the supermarket the mist surrounds. This film is claustrophobic, supernatural, and yes, it does evaluate the psychology of panicked and desperate human beings when put under duress. But the black-and-white tones to this version of the film really accentuate the moral ambiguities of the film, and how confusion begins to reign of over the people in the supermarket. We feel at a point where such monochrome retrofits are about to become more popular, and The Mist definitely feels like a launching point for that movement.
This isn’t all the BFI offering. Stephen King has especially selected some films to screen that will no doubt act as a bit of insight into the psyche into a literary master and begs the question as to whether film can influence a writer. The Changeling (1980), Night of the Demon (1957), Village of the Damned (1960), The Hitcher (1986), and The Stepfather (1987) have all been chosen and while I haven’t seen them all, I hope to do so by the end of the season.
This screening season is promising and hopes to bring together fans and enlighten new and younger fans as to the wonders of King, both his novels and his adaptations. Alongside this, the programme of lectures and panels will encourage people to engage with the films on more than a superficial level. While horror is undoubtedly his specialty, King’s material has an earnest wonder about it that makes transcend other horror flicks; during September and October, enjoy it while you can.
- 3rd Sept: The Shining, 17:15, NFT2 (also showing at different times)
- 4th Sept: Preview: It, 20:40, NFT1
- 6th Sept: Creepshow and Discussion (hosted by MCM Cominc Con), NFT1
- 7th Sept: Christine and Introduction by Simon Brown (Kingston University), NFT1
- 9th Sept: Stephen King from Story to Script, 10:00, Studio, General Admission
- 11th Sept: Carrie, 18:25, BFI IMAX
- 14th Sept: The Dark Half and Introduction by Michael Blyth (season curator), 18:10, NFT3
- 24th Sept: Sleepwalkers, 17:30, NFT3
- 2nd Oct: The Mist (B&W Version), 18:20, NFT2
The BFI will be screening films and holding events as part of “Stephen King on Screen” from 1st September to 3rd October. For more information and tickets, see here.