For forty years, Stephen King’s stories have been translated to the screen with almost as much frequency as Shakespeare’s. Judging by reports of current projects in development, that trend isn’t going to stop anytime soon. And if history is any indication, new adaptations will be re-imagined several times before we get to see them on our screens. Here are some early versions of King adaptations that got chewed up and spit out by Hollywood’s dream machine…
GEORGE A. ROMERO’S THE STAND
Director Mick Garris brought King’s most popular novel to the small screen in 1994 as an ABC miniseries, but THE STAND was George Romero’s pet project for more than a decade before that. Romero met King in the late 1970s, when Warner Bros. approached him about directing a feature film adaptation of SALEM’S LOT. Romero declined, but started scheming with King about making THE STAND as a feature film. The author wrote a (lengthy) screenplay for Romero’s company Laurel Entertainment, then recommended that they collaborate on a “tune-up” picture to establish themselves as a bankable production team. If their first film did well at the box office, King figured, they would have no trouble raising financing for their ambitious, sprawling adaptation of THE STAND.
Unfortunately, the tune-up project—CREEPSHOW (1982)—was only marginally successful at the box office, and THE STAND remained in limbo for many years to come. Romero lost his claim on the project when he left Laurel Entertainment in the mid-1980s, and his former partner Richard Rubenstein went on to make a deal with ABC. King’s script was embraced, but Romero wasn’t.
JOHN CARPENTER’S FIRESTARTER
On the long list of Stephen King movies, most critics list director Mark L. Lester’s adaptation of FIRESTARTER somewhere near the bottom. So it’s tempting to wonder what a filmmaker like John Carpenter would have done differently. Carpenter was attached to the property at Universal in the early 1980s, and his THE THING collaborator Bill Lancaster wrote an early draft of the script. King told journalist Pat Cadigan that Lancaster’s script was “pretty good,” although he nervously noted some departures from the source material—including the transformation of the villain John Rainbird (played by George C. Scott in the finished film) into a woman.
Then THE THING bombed at the box office. Universal got cold feet, and Carpenter reluctantly went on to make CHRISTINE for producer Richard Kobritz while producer Dino DeLaurentiis set up a lower-budget adaptation of FIRESTARTER. The new script, by Stanley Mann, was more faithful to King’s novel, but as the author says, the finished film is “flavorless—like cafeteria mashed potatoes.”
THE MIST, written by Dennis Etchison
Frank Darabont’s critically-acclaimed adaptation of King’s 1980 novella travelled a long road to the silver screen. According to King, he and Darabont spent much of the 1990s trying to come up with an ending that Hollywood producers would embrace. Even before that, producer Dino DeLaurentiis struggled for years to develop the property. Horror novelist Dennis Etchison, one of King’s favorite writers, wrote an early screenplay, envisioning the film as an homage to Roger Corman’s low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s. Casting prospects included Roy Scheider as David Drayton (the role that eventually went to Thomas Jane in Darabont’s film), Blythe Danner as his wife and Randy Quaid as neighbor Brent Norton. Etchison also came up with an ending for King’s open-ended story—a scene inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s unused final shot for THE BIRDS.
Because the special effects requirements were deemed too expensive, Etchison’s version of THE MIST was never produced on film… but it was produced as an old-time radio show. In 1984, Boston’s ZBS Foundation created an 80-minute recording in the style of Orson Welles’s famous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast. That adaptation remains available today—in 3D sound—from Simon & Schuster Audio.
THE RUNNING MAN, starring Christopher Reeve
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stephen King published five novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. When the secret went public in 1985, nobody was happier than George Linder, a wheelchair company CEO who years earlier had purchased the adaptation rights to Bachman’s fourth novel THE RUNNING MAN. Upon reflection, he said, “I felt like I’d found a Rembrandt at K-Mart.” The Bachman book may not be fine art, but it is unquestionably a fierce and unrelenting thriller, perfectly suited to the dark sensibilities of late 1970s American cinema.
Unfortunately, THE RUNNING MAN was made in the late 1980s. Taft/Barish Productions, the company that produced CUJO, bought the rights from Linder in 1985, and slowly transformed King’s dystopian thriller into a macho action movie. At first, there was a glimmer of hope. Director George P. Cosmatos (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II) hired Christopher Reeve to play King’s everyman-turned-terrorist Ben Richards. But then Cosmatos was fired, and Reeve was replaced by Arnold Schwarzennegger. Presumably there were some significant script changes as well. With action hero Schwarzenegger in the lead, Ben Richards could no longer be an everyman or a terrorist. Today, Richard Bachman’s bitterest novel remains undiscovered by Hollywood.
ALAN BRIDGES’ APT PUPIL
In 1998, director Bryan Singer delivered his adaptation of one of King’s darkest novellas to the screen. Audiences were generally enthusiastic—but the author expressed just as much enthusiasm for an earlier adaptation of “Apt Pupil” that never saw the light of day. In 1984, producer Richard Kobritz (JOHN CARPENTER’S CHRISTINE) optioned the story with the intention of making a Stephen King horror movie that had as much heart and soul as STAND BY ME. He commissioned a script from Jim and Ken Wheat, and hired British filmmaker Alan Bridges to direct. For his part, Bridges was thoroughly committed to telling a sophisticated and nuanced story. He told journalist Gary Woods: “Although it was about two—on the fact of it—destructive human beings, it had some hope to it. They had an affinity which made them rather better people once they got to know each other. That opened life up to them. Unfortunately, of course, it was a dead end.”
The initial plan was to cast James Mason (SALEM’S LOT) as Nazi war-criminal Kurt Dussander, but Mason passed away before Kobritz could offer him the role. And that was just the first tragedy that haunted the production. Ten weeks into filming, with Nicol Williamson in the role of Dussander and Ricky Schroder as precocious Todd Bowden, the production company went bankrupt and filming ended abruptly before the climactic scene could be shot. King said, regretfully, “I got a rough assemblage of about three quarters of the film [and] that sucker was real good!”