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STEPHEN KING - THE 2000's

The first major Stephen King film of the 21st Century was Hearts in Atlantis. Despite the title, the film was only based on the first and last part of King's complex book of the same name. The bulk of the film is an adaptation of Low Men in Yellow Coats, though obviously any mention of The Dark Tower has been removed (the director apparently thought the book was about aliens!). The film is well made, with good performances from David Morse and Anthony Hopkins, but with much of the story from the book missing, the end result is somewhat underwhelming for King fans. King himself was pleased with it, though.
Big things were expected from Dreamcatcher, since the director was Lawrence Kasdan and the screenplay was by Kasdan and William Goldman (who also penned Misery). The film, which follows a group of childhood friends reuniting in the woods, is certainly watchable, but degenerates into silliness too soon (a criticism that could also be levelled at the novel). The most disturbing scene is the birth of the shit weasel (an obvious allegory for bowel cancer and other diseases that dare not speak their name).
After that, Morgan Freeman's silly eyebrows (his character is called Curtis, a nod to crazy Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) and an alien that speaks with a posh English accent do much to lessen the scares. The extra-terrestrial virus (named Ripley, for Alien fans) threatens to overtake the world, but thanks to a mentally-challenged man, the surviving friends somehow manage to defeat the aliens in a way that's not exactly clear. Much of the film is similarly foggy - Tom Sizemore's military man believes the hero's story and helps him without much reason. If you ignore the many ridiculous plot holes, though, there is some fun to be had with the movie.
More successful was Secret Window, based on the novella from Four Past Midnight and starring Johnny Depp, hot off the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. The opening shot goes through a mirror, hinting at the duality theme of the film. It stayed pretty faithful to the book, which concerned a writer's encounter with a man (who may or may not exist) accusing him of plagiarism. Annoyingly, the pet cat in the book is changed to a dog, as if the audience can't feel bad about a cat being killed.

The director was clearly influenced by The Shining in the scene where "Shooter" is written everywhere in the house and changes to "Shoot her". The twist ending is more drawn out (Mort actually gets away with the murders, a change from the novella), but it works fairly well. He buries the bodies in a cornfield, though we only see them in the deleted scenes on the DVD.

The same year saw a low budget adaptation of Riding the Bullet, which was originally released as an e-book. Directed by King favourite Mick Garris, it was an entertaining and occasionally campy film about a hitchhiker being offered a terrible choice by death himself (affably played by David Arquette).

The film has lots of filler and a clumsy rollercoaster metaphor but at least it offers something different. A nice touch for fans: the nurse in the film is called Annie Wilkes.

It would be three years before another feature length adaptation of King's horror work and, typically, you wait a long time and the two come along at once. The first released was an adaptation of the creepy hotel room short story, 1408 (no prizes for working out what the numbers add up to). The movie was shot in London by acclaimed director Mikael Håfström.

Unlike most films based on King's shorter works, it didn't feel too padded out. It sticks pretty close to the original story of a writer trying to survive the ultimate scary room, apart from adding more action (since the original story is just the meeting with the hotel manager and the time spent in the room) and a subplot with the writer's wife and deceased daughter. There's even a scene where the protagonist attempts to escape the room by going out the window that recalls "The Ledge" story from King's own Cat's Eye movie.

The film builds the suspense slowly as Mike Enslin receives a postcard from a person whose identity we never learn, warning him not to stay in 1408. Of course, as a writer who makes money writing about haunted houses, this is all the incentive he needs. Things seem normal at first, but soon we are treated to some pretty unsettling imagery once the alarm clock tells Enslin he has an hour to survive the room.

It's refreshing, in this age of unnecessary remakes designed for audiences too young to remember the original (I'm looking in your direction, Rob Zombie) and "torture porn", to see a film that recalls the old school thrills of classics like The Shining and Jacob's Ladder. The scariest scene is where the protagonist gets chased through an air vent by a dead man.

1408 is also aided by a small but talented cast, which includes John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (cast against type, since you know is he' s scared of the room, it must be bad). Cusack in particular does a really good job holding the film together during the long part of the film where it's just him talking (or shouting) to an empty room.

At one point I feared the filmmakers were going to use the dreaded "it was all a dream" ending, but luckily it twists that around and opts for a more dramatic conclusion. However, the final scene is left open for a number of different interpretations about the true fate of Cusack's character. The director's cut is less ambiguous, as Mike dies burning down the room and his ghost is trapped there forever. The theatrical ending is actually closer to King's story, since Enslin lives (unless you take it to mean Enslin and his wife are still trapped in the room).

The direction is stylish and the scares are efficiently handled. There are lots of claustrophobic shots looking out of mailboxes, keyholders, locks, etc. The special effects are little overdone in the second half, though. It may make you think twice about staying in a hotel room again, at least on your own. The film proved a critical and commercial success.

Later in 2007, Frank Darabont released his third adaptation of a Stephen King film, The Mist - based on the apocalyptic novella originally released in 1980. Darabont's screenplay stays very true to the novella for most of its running time.

The opening scene has a nice reference to The Dark Tower with the subject of David's painting (by famed artist Drew Struzan). The setup (there's a storm, the mist rolls into town and a group of people are trapped inside a store with something horrible waiting for them outside) is handled very efficiently, though it'd odd that there's no farewell scene between the protagonist and his wife when he and his son leave her (for what they don't know will be the last time). There's plenty of humour in the film, which makes some of the plot absurdities easier to swallow.

When the creatures do start to appear, they're fairly successfully realised. The CG effects look a little ropey in parts, but the prehistoric creatures from another dimension are pretty damn creepy (especially the spiders which burst out of their cocooned victims). As in the novella, the religious zealot Mrs. Carmody makes a very hissable villain who's even scarier than the monsters in some ways. We also get to see her sacrifice a soldier to a monster in the mist (who looks suspiciously like the boss from Monsters, Inc.), something not done in the book. She gets her just desserts, though.

When the survivors finally leave the store for good, Darabont veers away from the novella and manages to give the film an ending that is somehow more hopeful (the woman who left the store finds her kids and is rescued) and yet far bleaker than the original ending. In a way Mrs. Carmodey was right - David' s sacrifice does drive the monsters away.

It left a bad taste in many viewer's mouths, though the ending is hinted at in the book, when David muses that they only have three bullets left. King said he actually wishes he had used it.

Despite that, this is definitely one of the more successful King adaptations in recent years. As he showed with The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Darabont is one of the few directors who really understands King's writing, and is able to transfer the author's voice to the screen intact.

The acting is generally good - Thomas Jane makes his second appearance in a King film after Dreamcatcher and the supporting cast make their characters stand out.

The film manages some impressively apocalyptic visuals with its low budget (I was especially happy to see the haunting image of the giant, Lovecraftian monster from the novella makes it into the film). The film ranks with the best monster movies, just don't expect an upbeat Hollywood ending.

There are constantly Stephen King properties in development, and some of the ones we can look forward to in the future are another Creepshow, From a Buick 8 and Bag of Bones and Cell. As to whether anyone will be brave enough to undertake an adaptation of King's seven book epic, The Dark Tower, that remains to be seen (though Lost creator JJ Abrams reportedly owns the rights). King's stories have had a huge impact on horror moviemaking, and it's easy to imagine films of his work still being produced long after he's gone.

Perhaps it's best to leave the last word to King himself, when asked about a (as then) unproduced adaptation of The Stand: "I think it's best for [the characters] to belong to the reader, who will visualise them through the lens of imagination in a vivid and constantly changing way no camera can duplicate . . . The imagination . . . moves with its own tidal flow." Put simply, films - good or bad - are no substitute for the books they're based on.

Bibliography:

Barebones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King

The Complete Stephen King Universe

Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide by Stephen Graham Jones

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Fear Itself: The Early Works of Stephen King

Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King

Hollywood's Stephen King by Tony Magistrale

Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King

The Lost Work of Stephen King by Stephen J. Spignesi

Reign of Fear: The Fiction and Films of Stephen King by Don Herron

Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia by Stephen J. Spignesi

Stephen King: Art of Darkness by Douglas E. Winter

Stephen King at the Movies by Jessie Horsting

Stephen King Companion by George Beahm

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