No, this is not an obituary, because Stephen King is not dead. Although there probably are a few preachers out there saying that God smote King down for his evil stories on the eve of the millennium for a reason (and pass the plate, brother).
The close call he had, an accident that left him with multiple serious injuries, made me pause and think about King's literary and, tangentially, cinematic contributions over the last twenty plus years. It wasn't that we take King for granted, but the suddenness with which his life could have been ended was quite unsettling. Why? Because King is the single most influential novelist in movies and popular culture in the last twenty years.
He is known for his phenomenal output (he has at least twenty four novels in print right now, not to mention several superlative collections of short stories). Almost every novel he has written has been turned into a film or miniseries for television. He has written a number of screenplays, adapting his own work in some cases, and developing original screenplays as well. He has even directed a film (anyone remember "Maximum Overdrive"? Anyone? Anyone?) and occasionally acted. Beyond that, several of his short stories and novellas have also been sources for film treatment, notably the films "Stand by Me" and "Shawshank Redemption," both excellent non-horror topics. There have even been sequels to films made of his short stories, some that went straight to video ("Children of the Corn" Part Ad Nauseum). And in one instance, a remake, "The Shining", it's a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and, more recently, a four hour miniseries on ABC. Of course, for those who've read the book, many think that Kubrick really misfired and the miniseries was correcting a major disservice visited upon fans. I'm waiting for the first film based on something King mumbles in his sleep.
Aside from the obvious observation that King is wired differently from the rest of mankind, what is the hook - the fascination - with his stories, especially, why do they lend themselves to film treatment? King has been a fixture of the cultural landscape for so long that we have taken him for granted. The novelist of the baby boomer generation. He is still a bestseller author, not as popular as he used to be. Think about it. You could probably stop anyone on a street somewhere who can name one or several of his books. Perhaps it is also the impression that he is, apparently, unspoiled by his success. He still lives in Maine. He has a wife and family. He doesn't live extravagantly. He seems like a more or less regular guy (although we know that's not true), which may explain his ability to tap the shared experiences of people.
It's the shear volume, the fact that King is almost a genre onto himself (or at least his own section at the bookstore), that his name so aptly describes his dominance in popular literature. But what are the elements that make King's books sell millions and millions of copies?
I think the strongest aspects to King's stories that connect with readers are: 1. An overpowering sense of setting 2. Multiple ideas, connections, thoughts 3. He knows how to get under our skins 4. King taps internal conflict better than almost any other writer 5. King can describe a person to the point where you feel like he's your next door neighbor, then kill him off, all within ten pages. 6. Depth of characterization 7. His books are accessible to horror and non-horror readers 8. He describes every day people in his books which makes the impact of his horror even greater 9. His books have a vivid cinematic appeal
And just how good is King as a writer? Let's take an example. The minor miracle of the book "Misery", aside from the phenomenal suspense it builds, is the ability of Stephen King to write as the main protagonist, Paul Sheldon, including excerpts from Sheldon's latest romance! This, the ability to be a chameleon in terms of his writing style, convinced me of his overwhelming writing ability.
I've read a number of King's novels and I've finished them all, with the exception of "The Stand". I've also seen a number of films and miniseries based on his stories and talked to fans, and there seems to be a common lament.
They (the film people) just don't seem to get it right.
But they keep trying and hopefully King will be able to supply them with more attempts very soon.
Just for the record: Favorite King book: The Shining
TIM CLIFTON is Renaissance Online Magazine's staff movie reviewer.