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Is Stephen King Better Built for TV or the Big Screen?

CBS All Access’s ‘The Stand’ makes an argument for the former, but the truth is: Both have struggled at times to adapt the prolific author

Ringer illustration

For a good stretch of the late 2000s and early ’10s, the pages of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were filled with news about three Stephen King adaptations: The Stand, It, and The Dark Tower. Bringing them to the screen—big or small—was never going to be easy. Three of King’s most admired, most ambitious, and longest works, each brought with them the expectations of several generations of readers. Each was also massive in scope: The Stand stages a battle between good and evil in post-apocalyptic America. It spans 30 years and follows characters across two timelines. The Dark Tower uses seven novels published between 1982 and 2004 (and a gap-filling bonus novel published in 2012) to tell a fantastic story stretching across multiple universes and genres. Though there had been no shortage of disappointing King adaptations in the past, it was hard not to get excited by the prospect of new versions of these keystone King works, particularly as announcements rolled out about the casts and creative teams. For King’s admirers, it became easy to daydream about the golden age of Stephen King adaptations to come.

With the debut of The Stand as a CBS All Access miniseries on Thursday, all three of those projects have reached the finish line, each in different forms than originally conceived. It evolved from one movie into two, released in 2017 and 2019. The Dark Tower began as a shape-to-be-determined-later project to be shepherded by the Lost team of J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof, then became a trilogy of films sandwiching two seasons of television written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Ron Howard. In 2017, though, it ultimately arrived as a surprisingly short single feature directed by little-known Danish director Nikolaj Arcel. The Stand was, at varying points, a project from the Harry Potter team of writer Steve Kloves and director David Yates; a film directed by Ben Affleck; a film directed by Scott Cooper; a four-film series described asThe Godfather of post-apocalyptic thrillers” by director Josh Boone; then an eight-part Showtime series that would climax in a feature film, until assuming its final form on CBS All Access, developed by Boone and Benjamin Cavell.

It’s a curious moment for King adaptations. In fact, it’s been curious for a while, one in which the beloved, much-adapted author’s works seem to have no natural home in film or TV, and it’s unclear which titles make sense for which medium. This situation mirrors our current moment, in which major movie studios have increasingly focused on blockbusters and franchises, an approach to which—despite the number of books he’s sold—King’s work rarely lends itself. Television, meanwhile, has proved to be rich territory for the sort of long, complex narratives that King specializes in—even those that eschew happy endings in favor of darker conclusions. However, TV has yet to produce a truly enduring King project. So which medium will prove to be the better home for his works in the future? It might be helpful first to look at the past.

Few writers were as well served by film so early in their career as King, whose work inspired back-to-back masterpieces in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, popular successes that sometimes divided audiences but didn’t keep them away. The films that followed in the early ’80s largely kept that winning streak going, ranging from the solid genre work of Lewis Teague’s Cujo to distinctive spins on The Dead Zone and Christine from, respectively, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. It gets a little rockier from there, though the back half of the decade includes Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age classic Stand by Me and Mary Lambert’s memorably nasty take on Pet Sematary.

“I think that they got lucky with a lot of those ’80s films,” says film writer Scott Wampler, who cohosts the King-focused podcast The Kingcast. “Mary Lambert, for instance, turned out to be an outstanding choice to direct Pet Sematary, but she was largely untested outside of music videos at the time.” But while the ’80s produced some clearly lesser efforts (to say nothing of King’s widely reviled foray into directing, Maximum Overdrive), the ’90s and ’00s would prove even spottier, with adaptations like Lawnmower Man and Dreamcatcher outnumbering notable films like The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, and the overlooked The Mist. That was also the first era that movies had to share King with television.

As with movies, television immediately did well by King. Directed by Tobe Hooper, CBS’s two-part 1979 adaptation of Salem’s Lot, King’s vampires-in-small-town-Maine novel, brought as much spooky atmosphere to the small screen as ’70s standards and practices would allow. Not that King saw it that way. Speaking to The Bangor Daily News at the time, King complained, “They have turned the focus away from outright horror and toward suspense. Suspense is OK, but it’s not the same as horror. Suspense is diluted horror.” King also noted that television couldn’t accommodate his stories’ bloodiness, saying, “You can take Kool-Aid and pour in six gallons of water and it’s still red, but it’s not the same.” He wasn’t entirely down on the project however, continuing, “Considering the medium, they did a real good job,” but added, “TV is death to horror.”

Though King famously doesn’t care for Kubrick’s decidedly blood-drenched take on The Shining, this might explain why TV and King stayed away from each other for so long, apart from a few contributions to anthology shows. When they reunited in 1990 for a two-part adaptation of It, however, it set a pattern that continued throughout the decade with miniseries like The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers, and King taking a swing at original projects like Storm of the Century and Golden Years. Two of King’s most famous books received the same treatment via a second, Kubrick-free pass at The Shining and an ambitious (if unmistakably network-TV-scaled) and largely well-received attempt at The Stand. The ’00s largely kept the pattern going at a reduced pace, including two projects that looped around to the beginning of King’s career: a TV movie take on Carrie and a new Salem’s Lot miniseries.

If the ’80s were the golden age of King movies and the ’90s its TV equivalent, by the end of the ’00s, neither medium was regularly producing notable King projects. This decade has represented something of a reawakening to the possibilities of King’s fiction, thanks in part to King’s increased respectability and a new generation of creators who grew up on his work. “In the ’80s,” Wampler says, “King was still considered to be more of a pulp writer and less of an institution. Literary critics looked down on him. … That’s no longer the case. He’s an elder statesman now, and he’s earned the respect.”

That respect hasn’t always been easy to translate to film and television, however. On the film front, two of the more distinctive recent King adaptations have come from director Mike Flanagan, who successfully turned Gerald’s Game—whose woman-locked-in-room premise doesn’t make it particularly easy to translate—into a movie for Netflix and made a divisive but striking sequel to The Shining with 2019’s Doctor Sleep. Other widely released King adaptations, like Kimberly Peirce’s earnest but unmemorable version of Carrie and last year’s so-so second pass at Pet Sematary have had difficulty escaping the shadows of their predecessors.

Andy Muschietti’s It two-parter appeared to be an exception initially. Its first installment relies a little too heavily on jump scares but mostly mixes a rich ’80s atmosphere with fine performances from a young cast. It Chapter Two doesn’t undo that, but does little to build on it either, thanks to largely shallow takes on the now-grown-up protagonists or a deflating, never-scary climax. Its disappointments, however, have nothing on The Dark Tower, a true how-did-this-happen disaster that attempts to condense the book series’ world down to a 95-minute blockbuster. Part sequel to the books, part Dark Tower greatest hits compilation, it looks great but makes little sense to those who know the source material, and plays like a foreign film without subtitles to those who don’t.

TV has presented its own pitfalls, even though the past two decades have seen a flood of projects that owe a debt to King, from Lost to Stranger Things. King’s longer novels seem like ideal subjects for prestige TV adaptations, but they haven’t always been treated as such. Under the Dome, King’s high-concept comment on post–9/11 America, began as an ambitious project for Showtime but ended up serving three seasons as summer programming on CBS, where it fit right in. (Not exactly a compliment.) With someone other than a checked-out James Franco in the lead, Hulu’s handsome adaptation of 11.22.63—a time-travel story with the irresistible hook of sending a character back to stop the Kennedy assassination—might have done better by one of King’s best late-career novels. Mr. Mercedes, which aired on the little-seen Audience Network, demonstrates that actors like Brendan Gleeson sometimes have trouble with King’s banter-y dialogue. And one of the best King projects proved unfortunately short-lived. Castle Rock, another Hulu production, used King’s most frequent setting as an opportunity to create the TV equivalent of a remix, using bits and pieces from various King stories. HBO’s The Outsider, meanwhile, ended after just one season despite strong ratings and positive reviews. At least Castle Rock got two.

The movies laid early claim to King, while television recently presented a variety of intriguing possibilities, even if the series didn’t always live up to their potential or ended before they could fulfill it. But ultimately, the past decade of King adaptations have run up against problems in both formats: an incompatibility with the blockbuster model on the big screen and an inability to become a talked-about, must-see program in a flooded space.

So what does the future hold?

The Dark Tower makes a poor case for film, while the combined chapters of It end up making the project seem like something of a wash—though the list of in-development King movies contains a number of intriguing projects, including a second adaptation of The Dark Half, directed by Alex Ross Perry, and Lynne Ramsay’s film of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Meanwhile, the early installments of The Stand make a solid case for King on TV. In a decision sure to annoy purists, the series reshapes the chronology of King’s massive novel into a flashback-driven structure inspired by Lost. It’s short on standout moments, but works anyway, moving along at an agreeable pace and allowing a strong cast space to develop characters charged with surviving an apocalypse and then rebuilding civilization (or, for those otherwise inclined, destroying it for good).

In the end, the distinction might not even matter. The recent announcements by Warner Bros. and Disney confirm that the wall between film and television is collapsing. Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game, one of the past decade’s true King standouts, made its debut on Netflix and never seemed lesser for it. If Flanagan’s adaptation of Revival, one of King’s darkest novels, goes forward, who knows where viewers will watch it? And maybe the future will end up looking a lot like the past, even if neither medium prevails. King ends The Dark Tower with the suggestion that its events will repeat, only in a somewhat different form. That might be true of King adaptations as well. Maybe Pennywise the Clown will make a TV return. Maybe another creator—whether director or showrunner—will get a shot at The Dark Tower and not squeeze it into nonsense. In an era driven by recognizable preexisting properties, any King title could be in play, from The Talisman to The Tommyknockers to ones that are even more famous. “Warner Bros. still retains the rights to The Shining,” Wampler notes. “And there’s no way they’re just going to sit on those forever.”

Whether we end up watching the results in a darkened theater or curled up on a couch, however, remains to be seen.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.