A Book Review by Tony Williams.
During my final year in what was soon becoming Thatcher’s “green and septic isle” even before Blair and Tessie, I read quite a number of early Stephen King novels such as Carrie (1974), Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), Cujo (1981), The Dead Zone (1979), The Stand (1978), and Pet Sematary (1983) less for their horror fiction generic connections and more for insights into contemporary fears of lower class and middle class Americans. I naturally found the film versions far superior to the actual novels though I understood Jack Torrance’s fears of downward mobility in King’s treatment in The Shining and depictions of dysfunctional family lives and relationships that existed in his novels. In England we were fortunate to see the original CBS TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot (1979) that gave a better appreciation of characterization and mise-en-scene than the edited American version as well as appreciating what Tobe Hooper attempted to do within the constraints of television following his disastrous brief encounter with Spielberg on the compromised Poltergeist (1982). I’ve since become familiar with critical writing on King as well as his status as a commodified “brand name” both in contemporary popular literature and film and television adaptations of his work. But whether he will last as a writer despite his huge popularity or be forgotten like former best-selling authors Rex Beach (1877-1949), Winston Churchill (not the politician recently played by Gary Oldman but the 1871-1949 American writer), Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), and Gouvernor Morris (1876-1953) or that already forgotten Academy Award-winning director of the equally justifiably forgotten Life is Beautiful (1999), is a question only time can answer. The listed writers were all bestselling authors in their time so making a lot of money in the marketplace as a former “brand name” is no guarantee of deserved longevity.
This is a question that Screening Stephen King (University of Texas Press, 2018) chooses not to answer and the author has every right not to do so because his focus is not on evaluation and more on commodification and brand name status that forms the main interest of Variety and other trade journals. Some critical observations do occur, but they take secondary position to the marketing aspects of King as a brand name during different types of cultural, historical, and industrial media transformations in the time covered. It would be unfair to ask of a book something that it has chosen not to consider, but one wishes for some answer to the cultural and ideological status of a “reactionary” author as defined by Robin Wood in his essays on the horror genre as well as other significant questions that would be the province of a valid film critical enquiry. But such is not the focus of Simon Brown and one must review his work accordingly in the manner in which it was intended. His role is to focus on what Philip Simpson aptly describes in his “blurb” as “the unruly mess of King adaptations” with Brown noting its transformation “into one coherent package” transcending ideas of authorship into becoming his own version of a “literary, cinematic, and televisual brand.”
Bookmarked by introduction and conclusion, the study contains five chapters: “Mainstream Horror and Brand Stephen King”; “Stephen King from Vietnam to Reagan” (the latter reference rather inappropriate in terms of its “purloined” source that raises more deep issues that go beyond marketing): “The Early Adaptations and the Establishment of Brand Stephen King on the Screen”; “The Mainstream Adaptations, 1986-2007”; “Stephen King as Low-Budget and Straight-to-DVD Horror”; and “Stephen King as TV Horror.”
In the introduction Brown follows the lead of two adaptation scholars who “recommend that adaptations be explored within their own set of intertextual and industrial relations” (17), which is fair enough for the type of approach he chooses to take. He notes the “hybrid” associations existing between Carrie as novel and De Palma’s film version (32) that are true enough because when King succeeds, in my opinion, he emphasizes hybridity in terms of contemporary human and social relationships (see 42) and makes the supernatural almost irrelevant. Brown succinctly sees that both Cujo and The Shining “are stories of a family in crisis” (35), making one wonder why he has chosen to ignore studies on the family horror film, the work of critics such as Christopher Sharrett, and how many of King’s themes relate to directors in the above tradition, such as Larry Cohen, who at one point was going to direct his version of Salem’s Lot and later contributed his own iconoclastic take in A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987). Both director and film remain curiously unmentioned in this book. One way this study could have been interesting would have been in applying a revised version of John O. Thompson’s Screen article “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test” in envisioning how different directors, such as Cohen and Romero, could have treated King’s work. (1) Creepshow (1982) is irrelevant here since it is more E.C. Comics in inspiration. However, such considerations would have taken us far away from the historical marketing issues of King as brand name.
Another aspect that is not treated in this book, due to its emphasis on brand name and marketing, is the question of fidelity in adaptation. Many books have appeared on this issue and Christopher Orr’s comments on “fidelity criticism” and “the discourse on adaptation” could have formed an interesting supplement to the historical issues of marketing and “brand name” conceptions raised in this book. (2)
Chapter Two is informative on the changing face of horror and how this affected adaptations of King’s work with illuminating sections under sub headings including “Avoiding Splatter in Development Hell…1976-1983”; “Brand Stephen King on the big Screen, 1983-1985”; and “Brand Stephen King from Literature to Film.” Cinematic and Television Marketing Values abound in this and other chapters, but it is interesting to learn that Barlow’s changed appearance in the TV mini series was due to the producer’s desire to avoid another debonair vampire such as George Hamilton and Frank Langella. Although King criticized Kobritz for using the Nosferatu model, Brown exhibits a fairness to the producer’s rationale that King rarely does to different adapters of his work. “Yet, for all that Kobritz’s decision may have been derivative, neither version of Nosferatu would have been as familiar to American audiences in 1979 as Langella’s or Hamilton’s take on the vampire” (153).
Although Brown mentions that the ABC TV mini-series adaptions of King’s work are successful because they “tap precisely into those aspects of King’s writing, that…make his work so successful” (164), I still reserve grave doubts as to whether the TV version of The Shining, “with King in full creative control, not only writing the script but also getting Mick Garris to direct” (168), is in any way superior to Kubrick’s better realized cinematically altered version.
Screening Stephen King is a reasonable accomplishment within the limits this author has chosen to explore and he provides yeoman service (as one traditional scholar referred once to my contribution to a particular area) to those who are interested in this avenue. However, I cannot remove from my mind the associations of the term “Brand” by remembering my former frequent exposure to UK ITV commercials comparing a supposedly superior washing powder to “Brand X”. (Unfortunately, the term “brand” occurs so often in this book that I cannot erase the title of a work created by a director ignored in this book. ) If the eponymous founder of a long established Western once said (or someone inspired by him?) “In my father’s house, there are many mansions,” then film study has room for many approaches despite the fact that one convert to “reader-reception” once proclaimed that it was the only way (Now where have we heard this before?) and he was never any good as a critic anyway, so one detects more than a hint of defensiveness in this type of assertion.
In terms of wider issues of evaluation and valid longevity, one feels obligated to end this review by quoting Andre Bazin’s concluding question to his very valuable essay “La politique des auteurs” – “Auteur, yes, but what of?” One misses the supplementary contributions that could have been made by expert critics such as Andrew Britton, Christopher Sharrett, and Robin Wood as to whether the issue of “brand name” is worthy of any “Common Pursuit” in the first place as opposed to more evaluative and interesting investigations.
- John O. Thompson, “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test,” Screen 19.2 (1978): 55-70.
- See Christopher Orr, “The Discourse of Adaptation,” Wide Angle 6.2 (1984): 72-73; “Written on the Wind and the Ideology of Adaptation,” Film Criticism 9.3 (1985): 1-8. “Cain, Naturalism, and Noir,” Film Criticism 25.1 (2000): 47-64. Unlike long forgotten and obsolete Screen essays such as Colin MCabe on the Classic Realist text and Peter Wollen on Ontology and Materialism in Film, Orr’s limited output is still refreshing and relevant to read.
Tony Williams is author of Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film (1996/2014) that contains one chapter on King; Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an American Filmmaker (1997/2014); and The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (2005/2015). He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.