Stephen King is the undisputed “King of Horror,” a prolific wordsmith who’s published 65 novels and nearly 200 stories, selling more than 400 million copies to date. He’s also the third most adapted author in history (just behind Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare) with innumerable page-to-screen versions of his work. And at 75, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down (his new novel Holly comes out next month and he’s become a biting cultural critic on social media).
Daphne Baiwir’s new documentary King on Screen takes on a large task, perhaps too large: exploring the movies and TV shows adapted from King’s writing. It’s a sincere attempt to understand the author via interviews with the filmmakers who adapted his stories, but unfortunately, there’s nothing incredibly consequential here.
The doc opens with Baiwir herself walking through set pieces filled with Stephen King easter eggs. It’s a charming sequence that sets the tone for a lighthearted affair before becoming a traditional assemblage of talking heads who comment on King’s work and what attracted them to his stories. Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist), Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep), and Mick Garris (TV versions of The Stand and The Shining), among many others, are interviewed alongside clips from the movie adaptations, personal stories, behind-the-scenes footage, and more.
As we quickly learn, King exploded into the zeitgeist of American letters and film after the movie Carrie. Apparently, most people didn’t know about the novel or the writer himself until Brian De Palma’s landmark film landed in 1976. King and his adaptations were discovered synonymously. After Carrie’s success, King’s name popped up in films and television miniseries at an excessive rate. The doc also makes the interesting point, albeit too quickly, that one can track the trajectory of the horror genre through his influence. Inadvertently, the horror writer helped divert the horror genre from stories about castles and monsters to those regarding everyday people. This is especially apparent in Salem’s Lot, which imagines blue collar townsfolk encountering a traditionally-rendered vampire.
Baiwir’s film gains traction when exploring the thematic elements of King’s work: his attention to politics, his fascination with adolescence, and the inner lives of his characters. However, it merely touches on these ideas before pulling us into less-interesting rabbit holes about how the filmmakers featured discovered his books. The movie chucks a thousand darts at a board in its 105-minute running time, so it’s impossible not to walk away with a couple nuggets of knowledge, but for the most part, a lot if it is common knowledge at this point, such as his fascination with small town America and his disdain for Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.
One wishes for experts with more depth of perspective, perhaps with takes on the overriding themes and metaphors in King’s work? Or a look at how literary flourishes reveal themselves in his films? Input from a film critic or professor could’ve given the narrative a little more gravitas. As it stands, the movie feels more like a panel discussion at a Fangoria convention instead of a deep dive.
With its lighthearted, jaunty tone, many King fans will probably enjoy the ride nonetheless. There are a few engaging moments, such as footage of the cast and crew of The Green Mile singing happy birthday to the genuinely surprised King when he visits the set. But it’s not clear what Baiwir is actually trying to accomplish. The movie pinballs between tons of interviews with filmmakers to behind-the-scenes footage and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the timeline, and narratively, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
There’s also the glaring absence of the directors who made the best King films. The doc would’ve been better, obviously, if it featured interviews with cinematic titans like John Carpenter (Christine), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), Brian De Palma (Carrie), Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, Misery) or Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary). Their absence might explain why the movie spends nearly ten minutes on Garris’ notoriously awful miniseries The Shining and only two minutes on a masterpiece like The Dead Zone. At the very least, it would’ve been interesting to see a profile of Maximum Overdrive, the 1986 shitshow that King admits he directed while addicted to cocaine. Now, that’s entertainment!
Ultimately, King on Screen is an amusing profile of an American treasure, but it’s simply not as intricate or intense as it should be. The man himself will surely be charmed by the film as it features his colleagues and friends paying homage, but for cinephiles and book lovers, it’s a little on the cute side and not enough on the creep side. It’s missing teeth, and for a spotlight on the guy who created Pennywise and Cujo, the lack of bite is missed.
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