In 1975, Stephen King published his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, about a writer who returns to his childhood hometown in time to confront an infestation of vampires. Four years later, CBS premiered a two-part television adaptation directed by Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper’s movie was among the first filmed King adaptations, preceded only by Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 1976—but the time when you could count King adaptations on one hand didn’t last much longer. By the end of the ’80s, King’s word had been adapted into 16 feature films, a handful of shorts, and he himself had begun contributing to screenplays via films like Creepshow; by the end of the ’90s the collection had swelled further as TV miniseries entered the mix, and at this point, the number has become even harder to calculate thanks to King’s Dollar Baby Program, which allows student filmmakers to adapt a select number of short stories for a one-dollar fee. Meanwhile, this past weekend brought a new version of Firestarter—and there’s still much more on the way. King’s IMDb entry is now nearly as long as one of his novels. (OK, maybe one of his novellas.)
This is what happens when massive popularity combines with absurd prolificness. King keeps writing. His readers keep buying his books. Adapters keep adapting. But there are a finite number of King novels and short stories, and though that number will probably continue to grow as long as King is alive, at some point, hopefully many years in the future, that number will be capped, even after factoring in the seemingly inevitable posthumous releases. (King’s 1998’s novel Bag of Bones features a novelist with writers’ block who’s able to buy time by giving his publisher a spare book he’d written and then stashed away for a rainy day; there might be a Prince-like amount of material in the King vault.) There must come a day when King will have published everything he’s going to publish and there are no new stories to adapt.
At this moment, however, King’s output currently stands at 87 novels and novellas and 136 short stories. That’s a lot of material to get through. Our strategic Stephen King reserves would appear to be strong. But this isn’t just about numbers. There might be a limited amount of viable material left untouched in the catalog, even as some material risks being worn out from overuse. Consider, for starters, ‘Salem’s Lot. The feature film set for release this September will be the book’s third adaptation, joining both Hooper’s miniseries and a second TV miniseries from 2004 starring Rob Lowe. Beyond this, the town and story elements of ‘Salem’s Lot played major roles in the second season of Castle Rock in 2019, a Hulu series that drew on works from across the King bibliography. And last year saw the premiere of Chapelwaite, an Epix series inspired by “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the short story that serves as a 19th century prequel to the novel. Alternatively, look no further than this past week’s premiere (in theaters and on Peacock) of Firestarter, a second feature film version of King’s 1980 novel of the same name (which also served as fodder for the 2002 sequel miniseries Firestarter 2: Rekindled). Even if there are great movies and shows to be made from untouched King properties, creators are seemingly stuck on telling the same stories over and over again.
“It’s like a double brand when you’ve written novels as famous as Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, The Stand, Pet Sematary, and Christine,” says New York Times culture editor Gilbert Cruz, a King completist who, in 2014, performed the herculean task of ranking every King book released to that point. In a moment in which it’s far easier to sell a film or show built around a familiar name, having two familiar names doesn’t hurt. Simply by virtue of being adapted before, Stephen King’s Cujo, for instance, would likely have an easier time finding traction than, say, Stephen King’s Summer Thunder (though neither appear to be in the works at the moment).
There’s also the issue of what will and won’t work on the screen, which sometimes boils down to the quality of the raw material. “I admire the guy a lot. I love his work. I am pretty sure I’ve read all his novels,” says Tasha Robinson, Polygon’s film and streaming editor, “but there’s a lot of King I don’t like.” It’s not always easy to turn strong material into an effective adaptation, and even harder when the source is flimsy or requires embellishment to the point that it becomes unrecognizable. King’s 1975 short story “The Lawnmower Man,” the ostensible inspiration for the 1992 film of the same name is, in Robinson’s description, “about a naked man mowing the lawn and then killing people. … The movie is weird. The story is weird. They’re weird in completely different ways that have no relation to each other.” (In fact, in a rare move for the author, King sued to have his name removed from the title.)
Some King stories might also just be easier to adapt than others. The reason ‘Salem’s Lot is so frequently turned around might be because ‘Salem’s Lot is relatively easy to, well, turn around. “The novel,” Robinson says, “is a very straightforward vampire story with a very clear-cut ending. It contains some good, interesting moral stuff and converts very easily to action.” Conversely, it’s much more difficult to imagine other King books having as easy a journey to the screen. Both Cruz and Robinson single out King’s 1994 novel Insomnia as being essentially unadaptable, despite their shared admiration. “It’s about an old man who has insomnia who starts to see little men running around his town of Derry, Maine,” Cruz says. “There’s a major abortion plot and the book is sprawling, almost a thousand pages. It features an elderly protagonist and nothing happens for the first several hundred pages.”
Still, the evolving media landscape suggests there’s hope for even the toughest-to-adapt King projects. Outlets both well-established and on the relative fringes of the streaming world need material with name recognition and King offers a deep well from which to draw. Hence, King projects have appeared on HBO (The Outsider), Apple TV+ (Lisey’s Story), Epix (Chapelwaite), Hulu (Castle Rock, 11.22.63), Netflix (In the Tall Grass, 1922, Gerald’s Game), Lifetime (Big Driver), and CBS All Access/Paramount+ (The Stand). On the theatrical front, King adaptations of the past decade have landed at Sony (Carrie, The Dark Tower), Universal (Firestarter), Paramount (Pet Sematary), and Warner Bros. (It, Doctor Sleep, ‘Salem’s Lot), with many more films and series in development.
But that list raises another question: Just how strong is the Stephen King brand at the moment when it comes to film and television? The roll of recent King adaptations contains some hits and standouts, but at least as many half-forgotten projects of little distinction and outright flops. (After all those years that’s the version of The Dark Tower we got?) Look no further than Firestarter. Its simultaneous debut in theaters and on Peacock makes it hard to gauge the film’s box office performance using the usual metrics, but it’s tough to feel good about any widely released film that debuts to less $4 million at the weekend box office and earns dreadful reviews. In theory, Firestarter should have been the perfect storm of a 2022 King movie: it’s a second pass at one of King’s best-known novels following a 1984 original that left room for improvement. In practice, viewers just didn’t seem to care, suggesting the combined power of King’s name and that of a familiar property can’t alone create a hit (despite King’s own enthusiasm).
That’s not necessarily a recent development. Despite King’s famous distaste for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the first wave of King adaptations—from Carrie in 1976 through Christine in 1983—is pretty unimpeachable. But the years that followed have produced everything from undeniable classics to, well, Dreamcatcher and everything in between. (And there’s been a lot of the in-between.) The King name summons memories of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, but also sprawling mediocrities like Under the Dome. It’s an evocative name when it comes to adaptation, but one not always evocative of quality. But however variable the end results, King’s is still a name that gets projects developed, which counts for something as the churn of the content mill chugs on. Yet because of the vastness of King’s catalog, the power of King’s name (however variable its associations), and the effectiveness of so much of his storytelling, it’s hard to imagine a future in which the King catalog has been completely tapped.
There certainly remain some gems that seem to elude adaptation. Cruz brings up The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, King’s 1999 novel about a 9-year-old trying to survive threats both real and (maybe?) imagined while lost in the woods, which was at one point to be a project for King’s friend and past collaborator George Romero. (It’s currently in development for Lynne Ramsay to direct.) Cruz and Robinson both mention The Long Walk, King’s pseudonymously released 1979 novel set in a dystopian future in which teenage boys perform a death march for public entertainment. “It doesn’t require big special effects, it doesn’t require much of anything,” Robinson notes. “It just requires really good character acting and an interest in dialogue and human emotions.” Nonetheless, The Long Walk has burned through every filmmaker who’s attempted to make it, though Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is still currently attached to the latest attempt.
Even if we are unlikely to run out of King stories to adapt, there’s a chance we might have reached peak King. Much of what remains unadapted might be too weird or hard to translate to film and television (or perhaps just bad). Some works deserve second chances, but it will likely be awhile before anyone returns to The Dark Tower or The Stand after the former’s flame-out and the latter turning a landmark King novel into just another pretty good TV miniseries. A future of King on screen that’s a mix of recycling what’s been done before and making semi-functional versions of adaptation-resistant works is a hard one to get excited for. It could be kind of like an intellectual property version of The Long Walk, a trudge that ends only when all involved become exhausted by the task.
Then again, the right adaptation could change everything. Maybe Gary Dauberman’s Salem’s Lot will offer a take on the material so fresh it will inspire other would-be adapters to take up the mission. Maybe King’s work will find another filmmaker as sympathetic as Mike Flanagan, whose earnest, committed adaptation of King’s The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep couldn’t help but be a bit overwhelmed by its predecessor but who cracked an arguably even tougher nut with his adaptation of Gerald’s Game. Maybe it will be Ramsay, or Ovredal, or Edgar Wright, who’s currently working on a version of The Running Man. Or maybe Stranger Things creators the Duffer brothers, whose in-the-works adaptation of The Talisman might pay back some of the (freely acknowledged) debt their work owes to King’s. Or maybe, in the cold calculus of show business, a new King adaptation will create the sort of demand that opens the door for others.
But that’s a lot of maybes. Most likely, there will always be King stories to adapt, and some will always work better than others. But it still feels like we might be at a turning point defined by market-friendly creative timidity and repetition of what’s come before. The future of King adaptations looks a little uncertain—just like one of his stories, there’s no obvious happy outcome in sight.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.