Monday, October 14, 2013

Stephen King: From Page to Celluloid (Part 1)

I have to catch myself when I speak about reading Stephen King’s works because I always come close to saying I’m his number one fan. Not only do I know there are bigger fans than I, but I cannot forget that same line of the character of Annie Wilkes from his novel, “Misery.” A lot of his fans will travel miles to see him and to get his autograph; I haven’t gone that far yet (I stress yet). I will pick up each and every book he releases on the very date it’s on the store shelves, usually the hard covers, but once or twice I’ve waited for the paperbacks. So I guess I can say that I’m a big fan, just not at the very top of the list.

Yes, I can brag that I’ve read around 40 of Mr. King’s novels—both as Stephen King and Richard Bachman—and a number of his short story collections, as well as a story he had released online a while back called “The Plant” (even though, to this day, he hasn’t finished it). All his books have taken me to a different world for weeks at a time. Hell, I’ve felt like I’ve been to Maine before when I’ve never visited the state in my life. But that’s how well he makes his readers visualize the world his stories take place, whether it’s a story that takes place in the world we all know so well, or the nether regions of the territories many of his books are part of.

Since the 1970s, the library of Stephen King’s books was the well most filmmakers visited to adapt onto film. It was almost a no-brainer to use one of his stories to put onto celluloid and it usually worked. Most times, the name alone of Mr. King’s titles was enough to get people in the seats. Half the time, filmmakers weren’t able to translate the work well enough and critics had their day with what they gave us. But they were always fun movies and critics never really get that, do they? Nevertheless, the oeuvre of films based on Stephen King’s novels—especially the films during the decade of the 1980s—are enjoyable to this day and I have a large portion of my Blu-Ray and DVD library dedicated to the man’s stories.

So, what I’d like to do is go over the books and translated films, one by one, from his earliest to latest, giving my opinion on how well the stories were adapted to film.

Back in 1974, King’s first novel, “Carrie,” was published. Of course, being only around 6 years old at the time, I didn’t read those types of books—I was more of a “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” kind of kid back then—and it wasn’t until recently that I decided to give it a look.

Usually, if I’ve seen the movie version of one of his works, I don’t read it afterwards. But…”Carrie” was a quick read for me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. At 199 pages, the story went from the narrative to what was going on with the main characters, to flashing forward to news reports and conjured book passages, as well as excerpts of witness testimonials of a fictitious trial that took place after the events of the book. It was a very interesting read, playing out much like the subsequent movie by Brian DePalma in 1976.

The story is about a young girl in high school, not very well-liked and has an overbearing mother who is a religious zealot. She begins to notice that she has telekinetic powers and it never really comes to fruition until prom night.

Now, in the book, Carrie discovers the power early on and begins to exercise it because it exhausts her at first. In the film, she discovers it and seems to be okay with doing little things with it right away until it goes full force on prom night. I’m sure we’re going to get the book version of it in the upcoming remake, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, where Carrie destroys the whole town and not just the school. Besides the book describing some awesome visuals that weren’t in the original film and that can be included in this new reworking, the remake is not needed.

So obviously, in 1976, the limited field of special effects couldn’t duplicate what was described in the book, such as the multiple levitations of objects, the raining of stones, and the total destruction of the town within the story. Otherwise, the story plays out much like the book, all the important plot points are there and the film is very entertaining. The cast is very well known and most of the actors and actresses you’ll recognize. Sissy Spacek plays the title character of Carrie White. Piper Laurie does an incredible job as Margaret White—Carrie’s mother, Tommy and Sue are played by William Katt and Amy Irving respectively, Nancy Allen convincingly act s like the biggest bitch as Carrie’s antagonist Chris Hargensen, and John Travolta—before hitting it big in Saturday Night Fever and Grease—as Billy Nolan.

The differences between how the characters are described in the book compared to De Palma’s film are very minor, but it’s worth noting that the character of Carrie is described as a little portly with some acne, losing both by the time the climax comes around. I also find it odd that Billy Nolan was described as a kid who decides to dress like a greaser from the 50s, and that’s maybe because I can’t forget how John Travolta personified the character nicely in the film and made Billy Nolan his own.

The only nitpick I have about this film is the tuxedo shopping scene. It seems as if this was a little bit of filler to fluff up the film a bit. Maybe it was to add a little comedy to the film, what with the actors—along with their voices—being sped up for a little laugh…I guess. But the film as a whole is a great nostalgic piece, looking back at high school days during the 1970s.

Salem’s Lot
A year after the novel, “Carrie,” was released, Stephen King followed it up with a great and modern take on the vampire lore, titled, “Salem’s Lot.”

I first became familiar with this story through the television movie back in 1979 and remembered it being quite scary for the ilk of TV horror films back then. Not long after it became available on DVD, I purchased it to gain a bit of nostalgia and to see if I remembered any of it from my childhood. The only scene I had vaguely remembered was the boy, who had been turned, floating outside of another child’s window in the dark. But that was all. Needless to say, the film still holds up a bit, especially when you understand the standards of television in the 70s.
Most of the killings and bloodsucking are done off-screen or the film pauses with a scary music cue just as something bad happens. A few years back, I picked up the hardcover of this novel and, although I was familiar with the story, read it through and really enjoyed it.
The story really takes you back to that era and King excels in taking you out of your body and putting you in the pages of the story you’re reading. It's much better (of course) than the TV movie, which gives you a very different vampire than the one depicted in King’s novel, and that was what surprised me most. Because in the telefilm, the vampire is some monster that doesn’t speak and looks a bit like the vampire from Nosferatu—bald, ugly and kind of buck-toothed. In the novel, he’s intelligent and looks like anybody else, much like the character of Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night. Either the book or movie will keep you entertained, but I highly advise anyone to pick up the paperback and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Shining
In the 80s, the name Stephen King really became a household name because of all his works that were adapted to film. In total, 15 films were made based on—or featuring—Stephen King’s stories.

1980 brought one of the most frightening of his stories to celluloid, as well as a bit of controversy, thanks to Mr. King himself. The release of Stanley Kubrick’s take on King’s 1977 novel, “The Shining,” was one of the scariest I had seen at that time and I really don’t understand the animosity it receives from King fans, as well as Stephen King himself.

The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall as his wife, Wendy. It’s a very spooky and claustrophobic story of a man, along with his wife and son, caretaking for a hotel during its offseason in the wintertime. The Overlook Hotel, being a haunted entity, wants to seduce Jack to kill his family and be part of the hotel forever.

The novel and movie differ in that last sentence, as in the story, the hotel wants the son, Danny. While in the movie, it wants Jack. There is also a subplot in the book of alcoholism that’s not really touched on in the movie and that’s where the controversy lies. It seems that Mr. King was a little upset about how the film turned out and expressed his feeling openly in some media forums. A lot of fans agree, but I believe that films hardly ever get it right anyway, so what’s the fuss?

For a few years, after watching this movie, I was frightened of Jack Nicholson no matter what role he played. I remember seeing him in an old war film, where he played a good guy. However, remembering him from The Shining, and out of sheer fright, made me want to change the channel.

Nevertheless, both the book and film are equally entertaining, so give them both a looksee.

One of my favorites from both Stephen King and George Romero is the film, Creepshow.

The film is an anthology—one of the best in my opinion—and features five vignettes of horrific tales, some with a taste of comedy mixed in. Two of the yarns are based on Stephen King’s short stories, while the rest were written by King specifically for the film.

For my complete and in-depth view on this film, as well as its sequels, check out my review back near Christmas of 2012.

Bottom line, it’s a great nostalgic flick and you can’t pass up checking out Ed Harris’s dance moves!

Although the 80s were big for Stephen King, 1983 was a big year for him for he had three of his novels adapted to film.

At this point in my life, I hadn’t read a single book of his, yet I knew his name and that he was known for horror stories, and when I saw the trailer and TV spots for Cujo, I knew I’d become a fan of his in time. I remember seeing those advertisements on television and being really creeped out because you couldn’t tell what the film was about, only that people in the film seemed to be frightened of someone—or something—named “Cujo,” as they cowered away from whatever it was.

As it turned out, Cujo is a dog—a Saint Bernard—that is chasing after a rabbit one day and follows it to a burrow in some field. He sticks his head in and, frustrated at not being able to get to the rabbit, barks in defeat inside the hole. Well, the hole turns out to be filled with sleeping bats that become awakened at the sound of Cujo’s woofs and growls. They begin to fly around the small cavern and towards the dog’s head. One bites the dog near the nose, making the pooch retreat. Soon, the dog becomes rabid, starting to attack and kill anyone or anything that gets in his way.

Now, that’s the simplified plot for King’s novel, but there’s so much more that can’t be translated to film.

You get the dog’s point of view, what he’s thinking and feeling as he becomes infected with rabies, and you sort of understand how he’d feel with his head pounding and body aching, getting angry at noise and wanting it to stop. Then there’s the tie-in with King’s previous novel, “The Dead Zone,” where a minor villain who offs himself in that story appears in “Cujo” as a malevolent spirit that takes over Cujo at times. But that’s the trouble with adapting books—there’s just some certain aspects you need to leave out and just enjoy it only in the book.

Nevertheless, Cujo is a solid horror film that stars Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) as Donna Trenton and Danny Pintauro (TV’s "Who’s the Boss?") as her son, Tad. After some kills by the dog and drama between Donna and her husband, the main crux of the story takes place when Donna takes a car to be fixed at the local mechanic—Cujo’s owner—only to be broken down on the driveway inside the small car with her son while the dog terrorizes them.

Cujo is a good flick with a great performance from Danny Pintauro (I really think the filmmakers actually terrorized that kid…otherwise he puts on a hell of an act for a seven-year-old), do yourself a favor and rent this from your local DVD rental shop (are there any still in business?) or Red Box.

I’ll stop here after giving you my take on these first five Stephen King adaptations. Most of them were fun popcorn movies and can be enjoyed any time of the year. Typically, I watch films during the time of year that they take place. For instance, Carrie takes place during the end of the school year when prom season begins, so I’ll usually pop in the DVD in May or June. The main plot of The Shining is during the winter, and even though it doesn’t snow around my neck of the woods, I view it at that time as well. But most of King’s stories/films can be experienced any time because, whether it’s summer or autumn or spring or winter, you’re going to enjoy most of his tales regardless.

Stay tuned for the second part of my Stephen King retrospective and, as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any comments, I welcome them any time.

You can also tweet at me on Twitter: @CinemaBits

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