LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Exclusive Interview With Author Mark Browning
By James Whittington, Friday 17th July 2009 Stephen King On The Big Screen is a new book from respected writer Mark Browning and should be of great interest to both King fans and film fanatics alike. Through revealing fresh perspectives it’s a critically rigorous but also highly enjoyable read that looks at King’s work on the small and silver screens. We thought we should chase this academic down and see exactly one would approach such a project.
ZH: When did you first become interested in cinema? MB: I guess I’ve always been a bit of a film freak, either watching an unhealthy amount of TV or skulking around cinemas. Like most people in western society, most of us are exposed to 100s of films before we even reach puberty, so our in-built media knowledge is pretty extensive, even if we aren’t aware of it. About 20 years ago, I took an A-Level evening class in Film Studies, which was my first inkling that you could legitimately watch films, talk and write about them and call it work. In the years that followed, I kept working as a teacher in the day-time and gradually built up my Film qualifications with a Masters Degree and then a PhD and now it’s reached the stage where people are interested/foolish enough to publish what I think about film. ZH: What attracted you to write this book on Stephen King? MB: I was writing a book on David Cronenberg and while I was preparing the chapter on The Dead Zone (still a really great film), it just struck me how many adaptations of King’s work there were and how many were often seen as failures. King is, and has been for some time, the world’s bestselling writer and yet something seems to get lost in the translation to film and I was interested to think what that might be. It also seemed to me that many of the films were not as poor as often assumed and it was about time someone took a close look at all of them on a film-by-film basis rather than assuming they were either all terrible or neglected masterpieces. ZH: How did you go about approaching this as you cover everything that has been based on his writing, even sequels such as Carrie 2. MB: Basically, I tried to read everything that King has written, everything that has been written about his fiction and the film versions (which is quite a lot), look at the films again very carefully and then come up with something original (and hopefully readable). That’s all there is to it. I realised fairly soon that it was going to be very difficult to squeeze this mass of material into one book so Stephen King on the Big Screen (as the name suggests) is confined only to films originally shown in cinemas in a wide range of different territories as they are called, i.e. globally. There are a couple of exceptions to this- the 1997 remake of The Shining and Carrie 2 are included, simply because it seemed more sense to include overt sequels, even if they were shown initially on TV. Horror in particular seems to be the genre most open to sequelisation. Sequels can often bring out underlying ideas/tensions and can be very useful examples of why original decisions were made. In a way, we see the film the first one could have been (both in a positive and negative sense). ZH: Did you discover that some movies were so far away from the original text that they only resembled the work in title alone? MB: Yes but this really wasn’t such a discovery. Anyone familiar with The Lawnmower Man knows that basically the film version appropriates the title and the shadow of a premise but little more. It remains the only time that King has felt sufficiently strongly to resort to legal means to have his name withdrawn from a film but it begs the question why he hasn’t reacted similarly to other productions. His name is the key- it’s a marketing brand that film companies are falling over themselves to flaunt. But the premise of the question here is one of the key problems with thinking about adaptations- there is no reason why a film should follow the literary work upon which it’s based- it doesn’t necessarily make for a better film. The two versions of The Shining or Salem’s Lot are cases in point. The sequels attempt to restore all the King-related material that the original stripped out and what we have is a much longer film, now stretched to a mini-series or two-parter format, which, yes, is more “faithful” to the King text but as a result is a far less powerful film. Do people do impressions of Stephen Weber as Jack Torrance or Jack Nicholson? Do Mick Garris’ computer-generated hedge creatures stay in the mind or Kubrick’s tracking shots through the Overlook ? ZH: Why do you think some of King’s work has had such a poor reception at the box-office? Is it always down to poor script or direction or that maybe King’s work doesn’t always fall into the horror genre thus losing his hardcore fan-base? MB: The question here is basically the subject of the entire book, so there is a great deal I could write here but suffice to say, there are poor scripts, often in terms of structure rather than specific dialogue, there are examples of poor direction (including King’s own dismal debut in Maximum Overdrive) and there are certainly many examples where either films have been mis-marketed as horror (and I would include Cujo and Carrie here) or are overtly not horror (The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Hearts in Atlantis etc) which reach mass audiences, sometimes only over time, but are probably not going to figure in the top 10s of Zone Horror viewers. ZH: What themes or genres are the most successful at the box office? King seems particularly adept at writing about young boys around 10-12 on the cusp of adulthood, looking for some direction in life, often seeking some kind of father figure. This tends to produce the potentially-sentimental, heart-warming drama of the films mentioned above. In terms of more overt horror, Carrie, at the time, 1976, was a huge success, especially in terms of its modest budget. The Children of the Corn franchise, although widely scorned, has developed into a profitable subgenre of its own. To be widely accepted, directors/writers usually have to compromise the elements which make horror special to such an extent, that it no longer becomes recognisable as “horror”. Very rare exceptions, for me, would include Psycho, Alien or even Silence of the Lambs but mainstream cinema and the full range of what the horror genre can be, are really worlds apart. One reason, I guess for the very existence of a channel like Zone Horror, is because of the apparent “invisibility” of this entire genre. ZH: Critics are usually harsh about movies based on his work, why do you think this is? MB: Some of this is definitely down to critical snobbery. In this, King loses out twice- once as Stephen King, perceived by some critics as a purveyor of low-brow, populist trash and then by association with horror, a genre with historically low cultural status. Deriding King became commonplace in the 1980s, especially when there were “spikes” in the number of King releases, so that in certain years, 1983 for instance, several King films were released within months of each other. There was the impression of an assembly line in which anything King wrote would be adapted, regardless of content. That said, there is also something in this- the speed with which Christine or Firestarter were made for instance didn’t help them become better-crafted films. ZH: Are there any works of King that you’d like to see on the big screen or maybe ones you’d like to see attempted again? MB: “Rage”, one of King’s very earliest short stories, about a high school misfit who turns into a shooter, could be very powerful but post-Columbine, King is not keen to promote the story or develop a film version. Cell could be interesting, especially with Rob Zombie’s name attached, although its thunder has been stolen somewhat by 28 Days Later and The Happening. Under the Dome will probably appear at some point but its premise seems pretty close to John Wyndham’s Village of the Damned. The rumours of a remake of It don’t fill me with joy- the original, although overlong, has some hugely underrated elements, which I am currently writing about now. There are still some short stories, especially from the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection, which have probably been optioned but not yet produced, such as “Home Delivery” (a parody of a zombie narrative), “The Moving Finger” (a battle with a rogue body part) and “Suffer the Little Children” (a sadistic teacher is taunted by an alien). ZH: Do you prefer the original Salem’s Lot to the recent remake? MB: Yes, I do. There are some interesting elements in the remake but I think the original is vastly underrated. At the time (1978), there was nothing like this in terms of TV. Even with minor cuts, it still packs a powerful punch. Fans of the book often complain about the stripping out of elements like the social dimension of the book but what so many people forget is the basic fact of adapting a weighty King novel (and he talks about “giving good weight” to his readers) requires some brutal editing. If anything, the weaknesses of the films can often be attributed to where this has not gone far enough. A novel of several hundred pages has to be condensed to a screenplay of 90-120 pages with plenty of spaces around dialogue. So, the longer remake can put back a wider range of characters, clean-up some confusion around the ending and make Barlow closer to the figure in King’s novel but as with the Nicholson/Weber comparison earlier, you have to ask, which is more memorable? The contribution of James Mason as Straker as a very unsettling villain, often acting as if responding to voices off-screen that only he can hear, cannot be underestimated. The resurrection of Danny Glick, Barlow as closer to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and even the gradual build-up of dread, deriving from very careful pacing in the original, like Alien- all of this has no equal in the more recent version. ZH: Your book analyses each piece quite deeply, did it take long to research? MB: Probably about two years- there is a great deal of material out there but a lot of it is extremely repetitive and superficial. It is still strange to me that even in books purporting to deal with King’s films, so few of them actually do. Most are written by English lecturers at university who run courses on King and use the films to highlight their own views on the novels. ZH: Did you become weary of his work at all? Did you find any repetition in ideas etc? MB: I didn’t become bored because it felt increasingly that I was working in an area of film analysis which had not been touched on before. Strangely, unlike reading the novels, where you certainly do get a sense of déjà vu quite quickly (perhaps inevitable with someone who is quite as prolific as King, working often within one main generic area), with the films, there are very few individual directors who have made more than one King adaptation. Most of the big names of horror have “had a go”- John Carpenter (Christine), Tobe Hooper (Salem’s Lot), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone)- but so have weighty figures who have reputations outside horror too- Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) , Brian De Palma (Carrie) and Rob Reiner (Misery). The range of subjects (writing, telekinesis) and subgenres (prison movies, 1950s sci-fi) is wider than it might seem and basically, the subject is an interesting one to write about and, I hope, to read and think about too. ZH: Do you have a favourite Stephen King inspired movie? MB: I have a soft spot for Apt Pupil, in large part because I am a big fan of Ian McKellen but also because it deals with evil in an everyday context and changes the ending of the original novella but for the better, in my opinion. I think Creepshow, uneven though it is, is still underrated. George Romero’s experiments with a visual look paralleling the style of EC Comics, highly-stylised border effects on the frames of images, expressionist lighting, overt moralising and an animated MC delivering corny puns- it is resolutely not giving audiences the easy thrills of early video nasties (as well as including Stephen King’s longest on-screen role). I can appreciate the idea, if not the execution, of Pet Semetary; the wit and the in-jokes of Cat’s Eye and the sheer trashiness of Graveyard Shift. Basically, I like films that try to do something a little different- even the mess of Dreamcatcher has some effective shots and 1408, although far from perfect, takes the haunted house idea a stage further with an attempted twist near the end (and Samuel L- Jackson is always good value for money). ZH: What project are you working on at the moment? MB: I’m fairly busy. I’ve been immersed in the Alien quadrilogy, particularly Alien3, as I’m working on a book on David Fincher. I’ve also been looking at 28 Days Later again as I’m writing a book on Danny Boyle. But I guess the most exciting thing at the moment is a sequel for the King book, to cover all the material that was first shown on TV or made-for-video, provisionally and imaginatively entitled, Stephen King on the Small Screen. This will allow me to give free rein to my thoughts on Pennywise and It, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, Storm of the Century and even wade through the Children of the Corn franchise. Should be good. ZH: Mark Browning, thank you very much.
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