Stephen King on TV, from 'Salem's Lot' to 'Bag of Bones'
In some alternate universe, there’s a TV network dedicated to nothing but the tales of Stephen King, showing not just the famous movies but all the bombs, near-misses and the few genuine classics produced for the small screen.
On Sunday, the two-part miniseries “Bag of Bones” premieres on A&E, the latest in a very long line of efforts to bring King’s unique vision to TV. It’s a list that includes adaptations of novels and short stories, some with teleplays penned by King himself, as well as original work created by King for TV, such as “Storm of the Century” (1999) and the 13-part “Kingdom Hospital” (2004), an American riff on Lars von Triers’ miniseries “The Kingdom.”
Given King’s abiding love for pop culture, it’s surprising how often the made-for-TV versions of his tales seem like marriages of convenience, beginning with the first: Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of “Salem’s Lot.” Shot in Northern California, Hooper’s version is too sunlit to evoke the crepuscular atmosphere of the novel’s small-town Maine setting. David Soul is an equally poor stand-in for novelist Ben Mears, though James Mason camps it up merrily, and there’s a neat visual take on the vampire Barlow, who appears here in full Nosferatu drag.
The 2004 TV remake featured another decadent European, Rutger Hauer, as Barlow, and a fine Rob Lowe as Mears, here reimagined as a reporter captured by the Taliban during the Afghan war.
For tax reasons, few Stephen King tales have been filmed in his native Maine. “The Langoliers” (1995) is an exception. Shot on location at the Bangor International Airport, this underrated miniseries anticipates “Lost,” with its depiction of an inexplicable event that causes the disappearance of all but 10 passengers on a red-eye from L.A. to Boston. Survivors include Bronson Pinchot as an increasingly unglued banker responsible for the loss of $45 million and David Morse in a nicely understated performance — perhaps the only understated performance in all of King’s oeuvre — as the pilot who calmly guides the plane back through a temporal storm.
“The Tommyknockers” (1993) is in the running for Worst King Miniseries Ever. Sample dialogue: “Something is happening to this town, and I’m telling you it has something to do with that thing in the woods in there.” “It” (1990) isn’t much better, though redeemed by Tim Curry’s Bozo-Goes-to-Hell turn as Pennywise the clown. (“Come on up, Richie — I gotta balloon for ya! Doncha wanna balloon?”)
And then there’s the 2002 pilot for a projected series of “Carrie” in which Carrie survives to become a psychic investigator in Florida, something even Patricia Clarkson as Carrie White’s grim-faced mother couldn’t save. “You ever see something you can’t explain?” asks one prom-night survivor. “I’m not talking about a strange light in the sky, or Jesus’ face on a tortilla. I’m talking about something that’s not supposed to happen. Like, in reality.”
One of the very best versions of a King story is also one of the briefest: Brian Henson’s wonderful “Battleground,” a one-hour episode in the 2006 King anthology series "Nightmares and Dreamscapes." With a teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson (based on a King story that first appeared in "Cavalier"), “Battleground” stars William Hurt as a hitman who, after killing the CEO of a toy company, finds himself attacked by a battalion of toy soldiers. Hurt’s icy performance is brilliant, as are the fantastic digital effects by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, in a high-tech chamber piece all the more remarkable for having no dialogue whatsoever.
Director Mick Garris is King’s most established collaborator on TV projects, directing “The Stand” (1994), “Quicksilver Highway” (1997), “The Shining” (1997), “Riding the Bullet” (2004), “Desperation” (2006) and now “Bag of Bones.” A&E’s two-night miniseries focuses on the story’s deeply felt emotional elements as well as its supernatural ones — a writer dealing with his wife’s sudden death; a single working mother in a custody battle with her child’s grandfather; the legacy of racism in a small New England town. These are the specters that give Stephen King’s work its power.
“So often the [horror] genre is treated like the redheaded stepchild,” Garris said in a telephone interview. “It’s a ghetto, and people always want to say, ‘It’s really a psychological thriller.’ And it is. But it’s also a literary work. That’s the exciting thing about ‘Bag of Bones,’ and that’s why I’ve tried for five years to get it on film. I did the best work I could do, and with the most respect for the material that I could give it.”
When asked about his affinity with King, Garris mentioned that both men came from blue-collar backgrounds; and while King is a few years older, both grew up steeped in mid-20th century American pop culture — movies, rock ’n’ roll and TV. Garris directed the 1992 film “Sleepwalkers,” based on King’s original screenplay, but some of his strongest work has been on television miniseries, a medium generous with the time it takes to develop the intricate levels of narrative that characterize King’s more complex novels.
“We were going to do ‘Bag of Bones’ as a feature film first and it didn’t work out. In a way, that allowed us to make the script better and fuller,” admitted Garris. “With TV, you have increasingly less censorship than there was historically…. A&E was really quite liberal with what they allowed us to put into this adaptation. So even though there’s less time and money in doing television, it allows you the luxury of telling a story.”
Garris remains the only television director yet to dare tackle “The Stand.” King’s post-apocalyptic epic seemed to defy adaptation for many years, because of its length and irredeemably grim subject — an experimental virus destroys most of humanity, leaving survivors to take their cues from the book of Revelation and duke it out in the ruins.
Garris’ version (originally released in six one-hour segments in 1994) had a teleplay by King and showcased gripping performances by a cast that included Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ed Harris and Kathy Bates. (In October, Ben Affleck was reportedly tapped by Warner Bros. to direct a new film version.) Even after repeated viewings, the first scene remains one of the most frightening ever televised, along with the now-famous opening credits set to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Three years later, Garris took on a three-part adaptation of “The Shining,” a move decried as heresy by the legions of filmgoers who regarded Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, with Jack Nicholson’s career-defining role as Jack Torrance, as one of the high-water marks of horror cinema. (King himself had been unhappy with Kubrick’s film.)
In Garris’ production for which King wrote the teleplay, Steven Weber beautifully embodies the self-loathing and guilt that undermine Jack’s efforts to stay sober and Melvin Van Peebles as head cook Dick Hallorann hews closer to the character in King’s novel. And the Stanley Hotel, original inspiration for the Overlook, gets to play itself, complete with croquet court and topiary animals.
While King has never been above going for the gross-out, his best work confronts atavistic terrors: fear of the encroaching wilderness; the loss of a child or beloved spouse; a deep distrust of those in authority, whose own weaknesses and fears too often cause them to betray or destroy those whom they should protect. Garris, who laughingly refers to King’s remarkable 40-year career as “literary Viagra” and describes the author as “our Dickens,” honors King’s work by never condescending to it.
-- Elizabeth Hand
Photo: Pierce Brosnan in "Bag of Bones." Credit: A&E