Monday, October 30, 2006

The desperation of Stephen King

When I was on vacation a couple of months ago, I finally got around to watching the screeners TNT had sent of the mini-series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, an eight-episode anthology, with each episode adapted from a Stephen King short story. I had planned to also watch the ABC King TV movie Desperation, which I recorded way back in March, and write up something on the declining quality of King TV adaptations (I even came up with a clever title, as you can see above). Well, things came up, as things do, and when I finally got around to popping in my tape of Desperation (yes, I write about TV for a living and still don't own a DVR), I discovered that at some point since recording it, I must have decided that I wasn't going to watch it after all and taped over it.

So I don't have any clever comparisons and contrasts to offer about the two most recent King TV productions, but I think that Nightmares & Dreamscapes itself offers a pretty handy distillation of what's wrong with King TV adaptations within its eight episodes. First of all, I like the anthology format and the idea that each short story can be adapted, essentially, into its own short film. Like Showtime's Masters of Horror series, N&D in its best moments proved that the 50-minute short can be an ideal venue for telling a complete story. King's written dozens of short stories, and even though I didn't love N&D by a long shot, I'd definitely be pleased to see TNT do another season.

But the first problem, here and elsewhere, is that almost all of King's best material has been adapted already, either for TV or film. And not only have most of his novels been brought to the screen, but a good number of his short stories, too (made into features, most of them, which is generally a bad idea). A lot of the source material for N&D is nearly as forgettable as the episodes themselves, and stretching silly conceits like "Autopsy Room Four" and "Battleground" into full TV episodes only highlights the initial thinness of their premises (although director Brian Henson does get credit for turning "Battleground" into an impressive bit of dialogue-free filmmaking). This dearth of material has also led to things like the new TV-movie versions of The Shining, Carrie and 'Salem's Lot.

Even when the stories are good, the TV producers often miss the point, robbing them of their creepiness via cheesy effects or stilted acting, or being too timid to deviate from the so-called master's source material. This is another problem - while King is often hands-off on feature-film versions of his material, he tends to have more involvement in TV adaptations, and thus many of the flaws in his prose get amplified in the transition to TV, where his homey turns of phrase and heart-on-their-sleeves characters don't necessarily play as smoothly as they do on the page. The original King teleplay Rose Red from a few years ago was excruciatingly monotonous and on-the-nose, something that might have worked in a novel (although I doubt it) but was tedious and false on-screen.

My favorite N&D episodes - the excellent "The End of the Whole Mess" and the decent "Umney's Last Case," saved by a great William H. Macy performance, work on their own as films, deviating enough from the short stories to carve out their own identities, but staying true to the core of what King was trying to convey. Too often, though, it seems like these TV productions just want to slap the King name on something to get people's attention, and don't care much about whether the source material was any good or whether they have anything to add by bringing it to TV (I thought Desperation was one of King's worst novels, and I can't imagine a TV adaptation being any better).

I'm in the midst of reading King's new novel, Lisey's Story, for a review in Las Vegas Weekly, and I'm already imagining it being made into a mediocre, overlong mini-series. I sort of wish that King would just learn to say no to these things, since he obviously doesn't need the money and so many uninspired TV movies (and, to be fair, many bad feature films as well) just dilute his generally well-regarded brand name. But King seems to be, yes, desperate for recognition and perhaps have some sort of inferiority complex that drives him to, no matter how many bestsellers he writes, continue to push these TV adaptations until he's as successful and well-regarded as a TV writer as he is as a novelist, which, of course, is never going to happen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I may disagree with you sometimes concerning matters on your blog, but I am in complete agreement with you regarding your Stephen King post. King remains one of my favorite writers, but his television and (of late) film adapations have been quite unsatisfactory. King's novels are so rich in deep character development that television and film adaptations could never truly capture the atmosphere and feeling that his books convey. It's lately been a sad event whenever I hear an announcement of a new King adaptation to screen. :(