Hollywood pounced on Stephen King as soon as his first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974. Over four decades, filmmakers have continued to take his words off the page and on to screens, scaring and delighting audiences in equal measure. From the terror of Misery to the bittersweet charm of Stand By Me, King is one of cinema’s biggest forces, his work lending itself to endless interpretations. So what is it that keeps the industry coming back for more? What exactly is that Stephen King magic that makes for such chilling entertainment, and what is it that makes him tick? We asked some of those who have brought his greatest creations to life.
‘He’s got a great sense of how children think’
Tim Curry (Pennywise in It TV mini-series, 1990)
I’d read most of his books before doing It; he’s such a great storyteller. I love that he is more likely to quote Springsteen than Shakespeare. He’s got a great sense of how children think and speak. And a feeling for landscapes. I think he knows that everyone is vulnerable to something. I haven’t met him. I wish I had.
I read It when I got the role and I thought it was wonderfully scary, because clowns are scary. It’s the exaggeration. Pennywise always understood what each character was scared of, and provided it. And I could see what fun it would be to be that scary. They came up with such a great makeup. There’s the classic scene where little Georgie floats his paper boat down the gutter and puts his hand down to try and get it back, and is grabbed by Pennywise, who says: “Down here we float …” The boy playing Georgie [Tony Dakota] yanked his hand away and said, “You’re scaring me!” I said, “I’m sorry, I’m supposed to.”
I was very disappointed by the ending, when I turned into a rather unconvincing spider. But some people are obsessed with Pennywise. I went out to dinner last night, and I’m currently in a wheelchair because I had a stroke five years ago. And a guy saw me and stood up and said, “I’ve seen the original Pennywise!” And I said, “Well, good for you.” I think whatever scares the pants off you when you’re a child is an image that always stays with you.
‘Making it was like reliving my youth’
Rob Reiner (director of Stand By Me, 1986 and Misery, 1990)
Stephen King’s obvious reputation is as a great horror writer, but to me, it was always the quality of his writing – the character development and the dialogue. It kind of gets overshadowed. For Stand By Me, I just focused on the characters and this experience that Stephen King actually had when he was young. To me, what was so good about the story was that it is real things that boys do, and experiences that they have, which is summed up at the end when Gordie says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” That to me was what resonated. I was one of four, growing up. I felt the same way.
In the book, Gordie was an observer of the whole thing, the writer – basically, Stephen King. But I looked into it further and thought, “What if I make him the main character and make it about his transformation?” And I started picking things out of the book, how his father and his mother were bereft over the fact that his brother had died and Gordie was feeling like an outsider; they weren’t really looking at him. And I started relating to it as how I felt, vis-à-vis my own father – he was focused on his work and sometimes I felt like I was not there. There’s the scene where they find the body, and Gordie is sitting there and he starts to cry, because he hadn’t cried at his brother’s funeral, because his parents were so bereft, he couldn’t really express himself. I remember writing that scene by myself in the hotel room in Oregon. He says, “My father doesn’t love me,” and Chris replies, “No, he just doesn’t know you, he does love you.” And I’m literally crying as I’m writing the scene. I could relate to Gordie. I knew what he was feeling.
The making of it, being up in Oregon for 60 days with these young kids, was like being at camp, this otherworldly experience, it was like reliving my youth. I took the kids river-rafting, it was just really fun. I’ll never forget it. The scene where they’re at the campfire, and Chris is talking about the milk money being stolen and him getting blamed for it when really it was the teacher that had done it – we did that scene a couple of times. River was such a wonderful actor, but he didn’t quite get it, and I took him aside and I said, “You know, River, you don’t have to tell me what it is, but I just want you to think about an adult in your life who let you down.” And then we did the scene again, and that made him cry, and that’s the shot. It’s one of the most incredible scenes. I love the movie.
‘His characters are unique and quirky, like he is’
Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes in Misery)
I was a big fan of Stephen’s. I’d read a lot of the books. I love his gift for observation of human beings, his characters. They’re unique and quirky, like he is. I once ran into him and said, “Stephen, how are you?” And – he’s quite tall – he looked down at me and said, “You’re in the pink.” Which was something that could come out of one of his characters’ mouths.
In the book, after Paul is hobbled, he realises he has become Scheherazade, and thus begins The Thousand and One Nights of Paul Sheldon. He has to write the story chapters for Annie in order to stay alive. In order to accomplish that, he has to fall into “the hole in the paper”. When I read Misery, I fell into the hole with Paul. I tumbled into his world. I became Annie. There was no going back. For the film, Rob Reiner told me not to take Annie home with me at night, but that wasn’t possible. I was in it.
In the book she’s very much his muse, as well as his tormentor. She was insane of course. There was a scene where she mows the sheriff down with a lawnmower, and Rob decided to leave that scene out because he thought it would be jumping the shark. I remember being very upset about that. I was new at the movie business, and he said to me, “The book is written. Now we’re making the movie.” I was a stickler to doing everything that was in the book. But his wisdom prevailed.
I think when Stephen wrote Misery, maybe he saw himself in the character of Paul, that he had written all these murder mysteries and thrillers, and he might have fantasised about writing something different. But thank God he didn’t. I heard that at the first screening of the film, when Annie comes back in with the gun, Stephen said, “Watch out, she’s got a gun!” He’s really into it, and there’s a joy about it. He’s like a little kid.
‘It can literally become your worst nightmare’
Andy Muschietti (director of It, 2017)
I was 13 when I grabbed Pet Sematary one summer. It blew my mind. And then I read everything, Skeleton Crew, Night Shift. The short stories were my favourite because they were intense and you could switch from one crazy story to the other. And then came It, which was terrifying and delicious, but the thing that landed deepest was the love story between Bill and Bev, and all of the other emotional elements in the story. I was a little older than the Losers were, and I was going through the usual things that kids go through at that age; the first time you fall in love, the first time you come into contact with violent situations, or are bullied. So it really resonated with my life at that time.
In developing the film, I was retrieving my emotional experience reading the book. I wanted to communicate the feeling of intimacy and innocence of the Losers. It wasn’t that difficult. It’s almost like smelling; those smells that stay with you for so long. And the other thing that was very important to me, because it had shocked me, is that It was a shapeshifting monster. He can literally become your worst nightmare, your worst fear. In the book King is doing a portrait of being a child in the 50s, and their fears are very tangible – they’re monsters from Universal movies like Dracula and Frankenstein and The Mummy. I wanted to bring a fear that was deeper, more related to trauma.
The 1990 TV version of Pennywise is a classic 20th-century clown. I wanted to go for something more layered, weird, and ancestral, a stranger and unpredictable kind of horror. There’s a passage in the book that stuck with me forever – Bill Denbrough saying, “What if this monster is eating kids because that’s what we’re told monsters do?” So it might be a case of, “this character is alive as long as it’s alive in the imagination of children”. My first sketches of the clown were very childlike. I wanted to bring that look to him because he might be made of children’s imagination. It’s a dog that eats its own tail.