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Why Hollywood Keeps Coming at the King

2017’s ‘It’ and its sequel out Friday are just one piece of the current boom of Stephen King-related IP making its way to screen

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Roy Lee was 10 years old in 1979—about as old as Mark Petrie, the protagonist of Salem’s Lot, the Stephen King–inspired, vampire-infested miniseries that aired on CBS that fall. That made Lee the perfect age to be terrified when he watched the undead Danny Glick hover outside his former school friend’s window and whisper, “Open the window, Mark.” That scene, Lee says, is “one of the scariest things I remember from my childhood.”

That’s saying something, because Lee was no stranger to scary stories: He got hooked on King’s books before he hit high school, and read nightmare-fuel novels like The Shining and Pet Sematary not long after he saw Salem’s Lot. Lee was still consuming all things King in the early ’90s, when a wave of miniseries based on King’s books and stories brought It, The Tommyknockers, and The Stand to the small screen and made a major impression on the college and, later, law school student. And now, 40 years after being scared by Salem’s Lot, Lee is one of the producers adapting King’s 1975 novel for the third time (and the first time as a movie). It’s one of eight King adaptations Lee has worked on or will work on soon. And those are just the ones he’s at liberty to talk about.

Salem’s Lot, It, and The Tommyknockers were the three that really affected me the most, and the fact that I’m working on all three film adaptations is a dream come true,” Lee says.

Mining King’s work for TV and movie material is a dream harbored by many in Hollywood in the wake of 2017’s It, which cost $35 million to make and grossed $700 million worldwide. Lee, the cofounder of production company Vertigo Entertainment, produced that film and its sequel, It Chapter Two, which comes out on Friday. Those movies might never have happened if Lee hadn’t sent an email with the subject line “IT” to then Warner Bros. executive Dan Lin early in the morning of April 11, 2005. “Can you check with legal to see if Warners can make a feature film based on the Stephen King novel?” wrote Lee, who says he had read every King book published up to that point. “They produced the television movie fifteen years ago. If so, it [sic] think we can make the scariest clown movie ever.”

It took 12 years and multiple passes at a screenplay, but Lee’s idea paid dividends. “Scariest” is subjective, but “most profitable” isn’t up for debate. That breakthrough paved a path for Lee to take on more King-based projects: In addition to the It duology, Salem’s Lot, and The Tommyknockers, he’s attached to upcoming adaptations of The Eyes of the Dragon, Doctor Sleep, The Stand, and the latest to be announced, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

Lee is just one of the industry leaders driving the most recent, pronounced apex of onscreen King content, which by the end of the year will include eight movies and three TV shows released since the start of 2017. And the King craze seems set to continue, with at least five more movies (The Long Walk, From a Buick 8, Firestarter, Rest Stop, and Mile 81) and at least three more TV series not tied to Lee (The Dark Tower, The Outsider and Lisey’s Story) in the works.

“He is a very prolific writer of incredibly cinematic material, and then coupled with the success of It, it’s just the perfect storm for a renaissance not unlike what went on with Stan Lee after the emergence of comic book movies,” Lee says. The comparison extends further. “Sort of like comic book movies are a genre in and of themselves, it feels like Stephen King is a genre in and of itself,” Lee continues. “Because you can have stuff from heartfelt teen coming-of-age movies like Stand by Me to the gory slasher movie. … It runs the gamut of different types of genres within the Stephen King universe.”

That universe is expanding faster than ever, but the current King binge is only the latest in a cyclical series of spikes and lulls; although King has never stopped pumping out adaptable books and short stories, Hollywood’s appetite for his work has waxed and waned. The graph below displays the number of King adaptations on the big and small screens—not counting King-created originals or non-book-based sequels to King adaptations—in each year since Carrie started the trend in 1976.

King is easily the most frequently adapted living author, and he’s quickly climbing the all-time lists; if we counted each adapted work once, rather than adding each incarnation of Don Quixote or A Christmas Carol toward the total, he’d place even higher. With that many movies and shows in the cultural library, cataloguing, chronicling, and ranking King adaptations has become a cottage industry of its own. A new book by Ian Nathan, called Stephen King at the Movies, comes out this week and aims to provide, as its subtitle says, “a complete history of the film and television adaptations from the master of horror.” As Nathan explains via email, King and Hollywood were a good fit for each other from the start.

King arrived in the mid-70s with Carrie, just as a host of hot young, revolutionary horror directors, and I include [Brian] De Palma in their number, were ready to transform the horror genre,” Nathan says, adding, “The likes of [David] Cronenberg, [John] Carpenter, [George] Romero, and Tobe Hooper … made their name with King and equally helped send him to the top of the bestseller lists. It was an era of excellent adaptations, mixing the freshness of King’s approach to horror archetypes with a modern, highly stylized approach to scares.”

Although Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was an auspicious start to the ’80s (unless you ask King), the latter half of the decade wasn’t kind to King adaptations, aside from Stand by Me. In 1986, a cocaine-addicted King, in his first and last directorial effort, contributed to the downturn directly by making a mess of Maximum Overdrive, which Nathan calls his creative low. Dino De Laurentiis—who handed King the camera for that man-vs.-machine flop—and other budget-conscious, opportunistic producers snapped up the rights to King’s books, and watered-down adaptations soon saturated the market.

During the same period, Nathan notes, “Other, even less scrupulous producers, exploiting the author’s name and grabbing the floating rights to short stories like ‘Children of the Corn’ and ‘The Mangler,’ turned them over to tawdry schlock. All told, King’s reputation began to sink, and Hollywood backed off. Meanwhile, horror itself and those young turks moved away from the traditional underpinnings of King into the realm of slasher movies. He passed, to an extent, out of fashion.”

The quality of King adaptations ticked up in the early 1990s, but only to an extent. As Nathan points out, King, still steamed about Kubrick’s reinterpretation of Jack Torrance, tended to grant screen rights to more compliant—and often, less talented—directors who would uphold his vision. The resulting run of mostly mediocre miniseries contributed to what Nathan calls “the blandification of King.” King adaptations weren’t Razzie bait, but they weren’t prestigious properties, either.

A few films from the ’90s shifted the prevailing, horror-centric conception of King—which King had reinforced through his ’80s public persona—by drawing on the author’s most emotionally resonant, genre-crossing work. King asked Stand by Me director Rob Reiner to make a movie out of his 1987 novel Misery, whose autobiographical undertones, a New York Times reviewer condescended to say, made it “more than just a splendid exercise in horror.” Reiner’s second King adaptation, bolstered by a William Goldman screenplay, was well reviewed when it arrived in 1990, and Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Oscar—still the only Oscar win by a King adaptation—for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes.

A few years later, King found another gifted translator in Frank Darabont, a committed King fan who like Reiner, Nathan says, “wasn’t concerned with any accepted view that King only did horror, and invested purely in his power as a storyteller.” Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999)—which were nominated for seven and four Academy Awards, respectively—reminded studio execs that King could make audiences smile, think, and cry, not just cringe and cower.

Darabont, like Lee, belonged to a generation that grew up loving King, and as directors, producers, and studio decision-makers increasingly came from that demographic, King projects got bigger budgets and more respectful, sophisticated treatment. “In this era of IP worship and brand value, the name Stephen King was reborn in financial terms,” Nathan says. “Simultaneous to this, television had its great renaissance, and what were once plastic ABC three-parters became classy renditions of Mr. Mercedes, 11.22.63, 1922, and Gerald’s Game. The epic qualities of King, his sheer length, found a natural narrative equivalent with seasonal Netflix-style adaptations.”

King’s early editor, Bill Thompson, once said, “Stephen King has a movie projector in his head,” and King (whom Nathan describes in his book as “a writer raised on the movies”) claimed, “I am interested in the kinetics of the world, which is why so many of my books have been adapted to the screen.” As Lee observes, it also helps that “horror is one of those genres that lends itself to a theatrical experience more so than anything else, just because it keeps you in a confined, dark environment that is more conducive to scares.” Horror movies remain a reliable draw during a turbulent time at the box office; horror maven Jason Blum, the master of making profitable films on a budget, has also entered the King business by producing Mercy and Firestarter.

Last year, Variety alluded to the It copycat effect, reporting that “every studio with any sort of King IP has fast-tracked each property into pre-production.” Asked to estimate how much of his production time these days is devoted to King adaptations, Lee first guesses about 20 percent, then concedes, “It may be actually higher.” Although his track record and relationships insulate him from the crunch of competition for King’s work, he says it’s getting harder for new names to break into the market, and the amount of unclaimed textual territory is dwindling.

“I don’t feel like there’s much left,” says Lee, who’s done deep dives into previously unpublished or uncollected short stories in search of hidden gems. Nathan lists the 2008 novel Duma Key and the 1984 novel The Talisman among the most likely first-time adaptation candidates; the former was rumored to be in development earlier this year, and Steven Spielberg has hoped to make the latter for years. In April, Entertainment Weekly published a list of 15 un-adapted King books. A few months later, three are off the board.

Author Bev Vincent, a Stephen King scholar and occasional King collaborator, warns the suits besotted with King to remember the mistakes of the past. “Ebbs in King adaptations happen when there is a glut of substandard material,” he says. “We went through a period when there were several mediocre or poor adaptations, and that bursts the bubble after a while. The quality declines as filmmakers cut corners, don’t honor the source material, and rush things into production. So people stop showing up at the theater.” True duds have been scarce so far (if not nonexistent), but the current run on adaptations could create the conditions for another King recession.

As the streaming wars intensify, though, the need for new scripted series is still soaring, and IP-hungry, risk-averse executives hope King’s name can cut through the clutter and yield subscribers or strong ratings. “Why adapt a little-known book, or an unknown author, when there’s King material available?” says George Beahm, author of The Stephen King Companion.

Fortunately for those studio heads, the history of King adaptations will soon span six decades, which means that many early examples are forgotten and ripe for remakes. Under the terms of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, King is gradually reclaiming the rights to books published after 1978 as they turn 35, which gives him the power to redistribute the rights to stories whose first adaptations displeased him. Nor has the source of fresh stories run dry. The 71-year-old author’s output on the page hasn’t slowed; his most recent novel, 2018’s The Outsider, was optioned almost immediately, and King is cranking out a follow-up. Next week, King fans will welcome another new bestseller, The Institute, and according to Lee, it’s been optioned already. “It’s impossible to keep up,” says Nathan, whose brand-new book is about to be missing a movie or three. “I’m already laying down the notes for a new edition.”