Saturday, September 21, 2013

Guest Post: Stephen King and His Movies

Today is Stephen King's 66th birthday, and this week I will have in my hands our library's copy of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. I've been reading Stephen King for over 30 years, and I'm looking forward to this new book, out just in time for Halloween reading. So, when Brandon Engel asked if he could write a guest post here comparing two of King's books to the movie versions, I agreed, not only because I love Stephen King, but also because I'd like to support a fellow blogger who is making a living through writing blog posts. Brandon's post follows with some of my own thoughts and comments included in italics.

This September, author Stephen King will be celebrating both the release of his new book Dr. Sleep (a long-awaited sequel to The Shining) and his 66th birthday. Over the course of his career, King has authored over 50 novels, several of which have been used as the basis for feature length films -- with some adaptations adhering to King’s stories more closely than others.

Let’s take a look at two dramatically different examples…

The Shining

One film which still gets some Stephen King fans riled up is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining -- which Stephen King himself was incredibly vocal about disliking upon its release in 1980. In more abstract terms, the film differs from the book in that the film places greater emphasis on the instability of the Jack Torrance character, portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson. King’s stated intention was to portray the character in a more sympathetic light and to show his declining mental health as being more symptomatic of the corrosive influence of the spiritual entities who inhabit the Overlook Hotel. King’s chief criticism was that the Kubrick treatment made the film more about a domestic disturbance, and downplayed the supernatural elements of the story.

EB: I'm disappointed to discover that King disliked the movie version, although his reasons make sense. I love Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, one of the few that I still find terrifying, even though I've seen it many times. It's not as good as the book, of course, but as far as movies go, it's hard to beat.

There are several other key differences between the book and the film though. In the book, there are large topiary animals who come to life. Kubrick’s version does away with the topiary animals, substituting them with a hedge maze. 

EB: And I always wondered why he chose to do that. It seems like it would've been a great special effect in a movie. Those moving hedges were one of the things that scared me most when I read the book, circa age 15.

In the book, Jack Torrance dies when the boiler room explodes. In the film, he freezes to death in the hedge maze. In the book, Jack Torrance doesn’t actually kill anyone. In the film, he kills the Dick Halloran character (played by Scatman Crothers.)

EB: One of the things that always impressed me about the movie was how scary it was despite the fact that so few characters died, especially since it came out during the height of the slasher movie craze. It was a great lesson for me, who was just beginning to discover horror movies other than what was available on late-night TV: people don't necessarily have to die (or be turned vampires) in order for a movie to be really scary). 

The key difference here, though, is that so much of King’s work is permeated by his ambiguous spiritual beliefs, which usually seem to have some foundation in the Christian narrative, whereas a defining characteristic of most of Kubrick’s work is his biting cynicism and religious skepticism.

EB: Which is probably why I love both of them, because I have to admit I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to others' views about religion and spirituality.


Carrie was historically significant as it was King’s first published novel, and director Brian De Palma’s first feature. There were a couple of notable differences between the novel and the film. One was the appearance of the Carrie White character, who was described as being overweight in the novel, but was portrayed by the wispy Sissy Spacek in the film.

EB: This is a movie I haven't seen (I know. I know!), but I always wondered about that myself. Everyone who's read the book knows that Carrie is overweight. Also, everyone who knew me in junior high thought I looked like Carrie (Sissy Spacek), which was a terrible thing for a skinny, junior-high kid and made me (unfairly) hate Sissy Spacek until years later.

The most notable difference between the movie and the book, though, is perhaps the ending. In the end of the novel, Carrie destroys the entire town. In the end of the film, Carrie has essentially killed all of the teenagers from the town, but has left the parents to grieve -- which is, by this blogger’s estimation, infinitely more chilling.

EB: I had no idea that the movie ended that way, but I'd agree that that was a good change. 

On the whole, though, the film hits all the major beats from the novel -- the character is a social outcast; there is one sympathetic character who conspicuously arranges to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom (although both King and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen clearly attempted to lampshade this); and the vindictive teenage girl antagonists conspire to further humiliate Carrie for menstruating. What embellishments were made for the sake of filming were ultimately in the service of the same end as the novel.

EB: Okay, yes, I must see the movie version now. 

Thank you, Brandon, for this birthday gift to Stephen King.

About the author: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger for who is an avid consumer of gothic horror literature and vintage horror films. Among his favorite writers are H.P. Lovecraft, William Peter Blatty and, of course, Mr. King. Among his favorite directors are Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and John Carpenter.