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Why the horror of Stephen King’s words don’t translate well to film

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Horror, like comedy, is a visceral genre: We don’t choose what to laugh at, just as we can’t really choose what scares us. It’s an individual, subjective experience. Horror movies, however, can’t cater to every individual fear, and so they tend to present visible, generally frightening threats—from the Draculas and Frankensteins of Universal Horror in the 1930s to the purges and human centipedes of the ’00s. Even when the threat is unspecified or hiding offscreen for part of the film, there’s almost always a visual reveal, a final manifestation of the jumps and misdirections we’ve succumbed to throughout the movie. For example, Paranormal Activity, one of the best horror films of the ’00s, keeps its visual threats to a minimum, only to finally expose its demon at the end. Film is a visual medium, and the horror genre often demands a tangible menace, which is why the novels from one of horror’s greatest storytellers, Stephen King, consistently falter when adapted for the big screen.


Ever since Carrie was published in 1974, King has been a significant name in horror fiction. He’s not only published 53 novels in the 40 years since, but also worked on bringing a handful of his stories to television and film. While there are certainly exceptions (most notably, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), the most revered and awards-decorated of King’s adaptations tend to be dramas. Stand By Me (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay), The Shawshank Redemption (nominated for seven Academy Awards), and The Green Mile (nominated for four Academy Awards) contain certain horror-inspired ideas, but largely explore the elements of the human condition most often associated with drama. The accolades these films received can be attributed to the fact that horror is, to an extent, a niche genre, and awards bodies gravitate toward celebrating dramas over just about any other genre. But part of the reason that King’s big-screen dramas succeed where his horror films flounder is the inherent demands of the latter genre.

King’s horror fiction often focuses on internal threats, those that can’t be seen or predicted. His best novels explore very human fears and anxieties, elements that are difficult to bring to a visual medium. The novel isn’t inherently a superior storytelling medium (we’ve moved past that reductive argument long ago, especially with the second Golden Age of Television), but it does seem more suited to King’s particular take on horror, where the internal, human terrors are privileged over the external ones. His novels are certainly filled with creatures and monsters of all types, but his most poignant works muse on themes that are of this world, hardly supernatural or ghostly.


While the wish-fulfilling shop in Needful Things is run by a demon, Leland Gaunt isn’t the real threat to Castle Rock. Instead, it’s the violence of capitalism and materialism that threatens to devour the town and everyone in it. Human horrors are also present in Pet Sematary, a haunting vision of how we handle (or mishandle) the idea of our mortality, and the grief we feel when a loved one dies. The Creed family’s cat coming back to life isn’t necessarily scary. What’s scary are the implications of such rejuvenation powers being put into the hands of a grieving husband; it makes us aware of just how helpless we are in the face of death. Likewise, while the miniseries It features the frightening and fanged Pennywise The Clown, it fails to find space for the thematic exploration of childhood trauma and the overwhelming nature of adult responsibility that permeates the book. In all of these films, and countless others, the medium demands an external, visible threat, one that can make an audience jump, shiver, or scream; such a necessity runs contrary to what makes King’s novels so poignant.

The closest a film has ever come to adapting King’s internal-horror aesthetic is a film King himself has publicly lambasted: Kubrick’s version of The Shining. It’s the most artful, scary, and beautifully directed of the King adaptations, and even excludes some of the novel’s more overt (and potentially silly) visual elements, such as the hedge animals that come to life and stalk the family in the yard. Yet, the film never tackles the serious human horrors that infect Jack Torrance throughout the novel, specifically his alcoholism, along with the themes of cyclical abuse and mounting financial pressure. King’s criticism of the film is that Torrance, as played by Jack Nicholson, is portrayed as unhinged right from the start, whereas the novel slowly unravels the man’s sanity, the haunted house he occupies pushing him deeper into madness and violence.

The Shining is a gorgeous, frightening horror film, and yet it can’t possibly convey the human horrors that make the novel such a durable statement. That doesn’t mean The Shining, or any of the films mentioned above, should be considered lesser achievements, but rather that King, over many years, has continually crafted stories that feel at home as books. Horror films demand a physical, external trigger, the monster to give us a good jump scare or that moment of catharsis. We need to see Michael Myers ripping through the closet door to get to Laurie Strode. King’s best horror books just aren’t that interested in such external threats. Instead, they explore one of our most potent fears: the fear of ourselves.