The imdb list this as King on Screen, but I guess a fuller title is required so that we know we’re not dealing with Regina, Don, Larry, Carole, Jonathan or Martin Luther. Last seen cheerfully decorating the walls of social media with the bloodied remains of a idiot podcaster who belittled him with hilarious inaccuracy, the writer Stephen King was, is and continues to be some kind of literary super-hero, keeping the flame for imaginative storytelling when many others seems to have given up the ghost. I’ve covered some 30+ King adaptations on this website to date, so I’m every bit as much of a fan as everyone else. But identifying why King has been hot stuff for nearly half a century is a little tricky; sure, he’s prolific, and working in a popular field, but there’s something about King’s unique approach that plays beyond horror; films like Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption didn’t gain their reputations by offering just monsters and jump scares.
Having previously directed a doc on Olivia De Havilland, it’s not immediately clear what encouraged director Daphné Baiwir to direct a film on King, and even more specifically on King on Screen, but she certainly puts her back into it; she’s gotten hold of a roster of the many directors who have adapted his work, from Frank Darabont to Mark L Lester (John Carpenter and David Cronenberg are the most notable omissions) and also stitched together some amusing pastiche movies which bookend the interviews. The films aren’t assembled in chronological or indeed any particular order; a key image sees the bloody elevator from The Shining reworked with bright red balloons, and Stephen King On Screen is best approached as a celebration of King’s work on-screen rather than an analysis.
Tales from the Dark Side’s John Harrison may not be the biggest name here, but he nails something about King when he says that the writer changed horror because he wrote less about rampaging monsters as ‘how people are affected by what happens’. King has a vice-like moral grasp that would put the old EC comic Cryptkeeper to shame, and based on the accolades here, King would also make a great social worker. Stories that deal with ‘how we treat each other’ and the impact of violent events on a wider community connected with many, but that’s where the analysis ends. Too many of the directors featured just relate anecdotes about the making of their films, material better suited to an promotional EPK, but there are bonuses like archive footage of a game King taking his place on the electric chair from The Green Mile. There’s also some cool details like a terrific cover for The Stand, and key talent Mike Flanagan in particular is good value. It’s horror lore that King didn’t like Kubrick’s stripped down version of The Shining, leaving Flanagan’s Dr Sleep adaptation with a unique tightrope to walk; pleasing King, or using Kubrick’s popular but specific iconography. Flanagan says he had to ‘parent trap’ the two together, a somewhat felicitous use of cultural tropes.
Let’s not drag royal language into this; King is a literary phenomenon, and Stephen King on Film is a useful primer on the great man’s work on screen. Like Room 408, it’s also rather woolly when it comes to killer detail, and doesn’t offer a fraction of the genre insight King himself provides in his invaluable 1981 book Danse Macabre. But as a record of how some very popular films where made out of some very popular books, Baiwir’s film is respectful and passes muster in terms of detail; when is comes to horror, quality is King, and this documentary shows us exactly why that is.
Signature Entertainment presents Stephen King on Screen on Digital Platforms 26th June & Blu-ray 18th September