I love Stephen King.
I love his novels. I love his short stories. Hell, I love pretty much everything he's ever written. Of all the writers I've encountered, his his work has had the greatest influence on me. He's been called "a master storyteller", amongst many things, and I agree with this up to a point. I see him as the closest thing we have to a modern Mark Twain in his ability to capture the essence of small town America in populist fiction while spinning a great yarn.
So why on earth do almost all movie adaptations of his work suck?
Wait, let me just explain myself here.
I'm not saying all, I'm saying "almost all". There are exceptions. I would say (and yes, this is just my humble opinion) that the better movie adaptations are, in no particular order, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery, Stand By Me, The Dead Zone and a few others. There are many other movies/tv mini-series such as the original Salem's Lot, which have been "okay", but beyond that it's a pretty poor show for one of the most successful novelists working today. The reason for this post is that I recently bought a boxset of King movies which contained three purported "classics" which for some reason or other I had never seen before: Maximum Overdrive, Silver Bullet and Cat's Eye. Well, I'd seen Cat's Eye on tv many years ago and my memory of it was pretty positive. Of the three movies in this particular collection, it was definitely the best. The other two offerings, however, were woeful to say the least.
First up was Maximum Overdrive. I was incredibly naive in my anticipation: A King movie directed and scripted by the man himself with an AC-DC soundtrack and a pretty funky idea about motor vehicles coming to life. What's not to like? It's often been documented that King was unhappy with many of the film adaptations of his work and so here he had the chance to set the record straight, to show them all how it was done.
Well, all I can say is, what the hell happened?!
I can say, without reservation, that this is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It's not even good in a "so bad it's good" sense. It just didn't work on any level that mattered. It was like a Cannonball Run movie without the laughs with some poorly-executed gore thrown in. What a wasted opportunity. And it started so well.
Silver Bullet was only marginally better. Taking the material a mite more seriously, the film is still horribly dated. The werewolf scenes (with creature design by Carlo Rambaldi no less) were just poor, especially as this film was made after such revolutionary SFX films as American Werewolf in London and The Howling. In Silver Bullet, the poor old lycanthrope was nothing more than a big hairy oaf. So disappointing. And the story itself just limped along to its trite and predictable conclusion. Possibly the longest 90 minutes of my life.
So why does this happen? The examples I've just given have their own reasons for being bad and they are exceptional in their badness. What I'm wondering is why the vast majority of his adaptations just don't make successful movies. I think part of the reason is down to King's plotting. King has said that he likes to create a unique situation, throw in some interesting characters and then let them work it out on the page. This works well for readers, but when it comes to transferring these things to the screen, it's problematic. Horror movies have a certain dynamic, and often adhere to a rigid template, something that King's fiction doesn't always fit into. I believe this often leads to big changes being made to try and shoehorn King's sprawling plots into a form horror movie fans would expect, when really King's books are not just straightforward horrors. That, I think, is where the aforementioned problems occur.
Famously, Frank Darabont has been most successful at adapting King's work for the screen: Shawshank, The Green Mile and The Mist are good, in my opinion, because they respect the source material and don't try to turn them into something they're not. (My only exception here with regard to Darabont's adaptations would be the 'shock' ending he added to The Mist which is a bone of contention for many. The original story had no ending and worked fine without it. For me, Darabont's ending, whilst shocking and disturbing, doesn't follow on from what's gone before. These people risked everything to try and survive...I won't say any more for spoiler reasons.) Anyhow, I would love to see someone like Darabont adapt all of King's work for the screen, because there is so much more to his novels than mere 'horror'. Come on moviemakers! It's been far too long since we had a damn fine King movie in the multiplexes.
Having said all that, there is no excuse for Maximum Overdrive.