King Of The Chill

‘Horror has not fared particularly well on TV, if you except something like the 6 o’clock news, where footage of black GIs with their legs blown of, villages and kids on fire, bodies in trenches, and whole swathes of jungle being coated with good old Agent Orange.’

That was writer Stephen King in 1981, talking about putting horror on television (thanks to my mentor and go-to for gothic television Helen Wheatley for the quote!). Despite King’s reservations, his horror stories have found a natural home in TV as series, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies in the last four decades. Ironically, it is precisely because television is so ‘full of real horrors’ that King’s work fits so well there. Perhaps it’s not vivid images of war on the news anymore, but there are still certainly plenty of reports of murderous violence, human cruelty and sexual abuse on an array of primetime infotainment programmes. King is particularly valid in this context since he is perhaps the writer most famous for bringing horror into touch with the contemporary world.

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

Anyone lose their childhood down here?

King has been adapted for the cinema significantly, but none of those movies quite captures the lingering terror of his writing as the miniseries versions. Something about having to stop and resume watching episodes of It and Salem’s Lot offers a prolonged, almost masochistic quality of fear unavailable in all but the books themselves, which, as Joey Tribiani has shown, are best stored in the freezer when not being read. Television has such affective qualities as a medium – many of which are connected to horror – that merely the act of televising can induce dread. What Pennywise the Clown can do to you in the cinema is no match for the monkeyshines he gets up to in and around your living rooms each and every night.

Genre aside, TV adaptations of King’s books give us pause to consider which visual medium is best suited to accommodate the novel. For best-selling authors like King, the natural route is feature films, not necessary because they are the best platform for his work but due to their popularity and potential (at one time!) for box-office success. But the bulkier novels suffer inside the constraints of a two to three-hour movie, and the best film adaptations of King’s writing have generally been those extrapolated from his short stories. TV series that want to appear classy and cultured often compare themselves to novels with episodes the equivalent of chapters. But when applied to King’s shlockier fare, we can see it’s about what fits not what elevates.

The symbiotic relationship between Stephen King and television was on my mind as I watched the Lifetime movie Big Driver based on his novella. The network that once bore the slogan ‘television for women’ doesn’t necessarily seem like the place for Stephen King adaptations but the subject matter complimented Lifetime’s penchant for celebrities, scandals and sex crimes in its programming perfectly. The target audience, which still more or less holds today, ensured that none of the rape scenes ever approached the voyeurism or perverse pleasure they achieve in many horror movies. Though fiction, it was fluent with the showbusiness biography strand of original movies on Lifetime. In fact, it’s quite striking how King’s work seems malleable to a wide range of TV genres and formats.

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

The Biggest driver of a Lifetime!

King’s novel Under the Dome has been adapted and expanded into a primetime CBS TV series, which blended into the current fashion for fantasy and science-fiction television in the network schedules. A decade ago, King developed a re-make of Lars Von Trier’s surreal medical drama Riget called Kingdom Hospital which heralded a trend for American versions of European (mainly Scandinavian) TV series that has yet to see an end. King’s short stories were regularly fodder for half-hour dramas in the revived series of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits during the fantasy anthology renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His contribution to the modern gothic even came full circle as King penned an original screenplay for Fox’s paranormal detective series The X-Files in 1998. The tribute is fitting as we can see the influence of Stephen King miniseries in contemporary TV horror such as the self-contained first season of The Walking Dead or the season-long anthology dramas that comprise American Horror Story. It might not be an affinity King is particularly proud to boast – although now would be the time to jump on the pioneer bandwagon – but it’s one that, like the repressed, will always return to haunt him.

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