Whether you’re a book reader, a film watcher or a combination of the two, the odds are good that you’re familiar with Stephen King. The history of King adaptations is almost as long as the writer’s career: Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” hit the big screen in 1976, just a few years after the original novel’s publication. It set the bar high for any filmmaker looking to translate King’s dark and complex fictional worlds for cinema-going audiences, and while many have fallen short of De Palma’s classic, the duds are often as intriguing as the masterpieces in their own ways.
Actor-director Daphné Baiwir (“The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland”) tackles the history of King adaptations in her new documentary “King on Screen,” one of the many features at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Gathering an array of filmmakers including Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) Mike Flanagan (“Doctor Sleep”) and Mick Garris (“The Stand”,) the film delves into King as a writer and the many film and television adaptations of his work over the past fifty years.
As with many fans, Baiwir’s own exposure to Stephen King began at an early age. “I discovered Stephen King by reading “The Shining” for the first time when I was ten,” she recounts. “I’ve read absolutely everything he wrote; seen all the movies; because I started early. So I’ve had time to see everything.”
Naturally, there are quite a few featurettes and documentaries about King’s books and the films based upon them to be found across DVD bonus discs and streaming services. But it goes without saying that there’s a lot of ground to cover; more than a lot of these features are able to touch upon.
“I saw a couple of documentaries about his work,” Baiwir explains, “but they were quite short. I wanted to know a little bit more, and I felt it could be interesting to have the directors’ point of view, because we don’t hear them a lot. It could be great to know a little bit more about what happens behind the scenes and how they managed to work with the author.”
With so many adaptations to date – more than eighty, across film and television – there are bound to be a mixture of masterpieces, decent attempts and some outright stinkers. So what exactly is central to the adaptations that do work?
“I think it depends on how the directors work,” Baiwir explains. “For example, we had the chance to meet Taylor Hackford (“Dolores Claiborne”) and he was telling us about working with the screenwriter. The screenwriter sometimes took a different direction in the process of writing the script, and it was interesting, because he did that to have a story that would translate well to the screen. It’s not always easy to do.”
Compromise is often the key to finding that balance between faithfulness to the original text and an effective cinematic experience, and Baiwir reflected on the risk of a certain spark being lost in the transition from page to screen. “I think about stories that Agatha Christie wrote that are so great when you read them; it’s something very special. But if you want to put it on the screen, it won’t have that same thing. You really have to adapt.”
One of the major subjects of the documentary is Frank Darabont, who helmed the acclaimed and award-winning King adaptations “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” and “The Mist”. Darabont is arguably the most consistently successful filmmaker to adapt Stephen King’s work for the big screen.
After a very long and painful legal conflict with AMC over his involvement in their television series of “The Walking Dead” (for which he wrote, directed and produced in its early seasons,) Darabont hasn’t returned to Hollywood since departing 2016’s “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” during that film’s production. But it appears he was more than happy to discuss his past work with Baiwir.
“It was amazing, because he made three movies that are – to me – masterpieces. “The Green Mile” is my favorite, but “Shawshank” is amazing. “The Mist” is so great as well, with the ending that he came up with.” (The infamous ending, of course, that even King himself agreed was superior to that of the original short story.) “Talking with someone that is so passionate about cinema and movie-making, it’s like you are literally having a master class,” she laughs. “It was such an incredible experience.”
With “King on Screen” making its debut on screens big and small for Fantastic Fest’s 2022 edition, we were curious as to whether Baiwir might have already considered tackling another author in a follow-up documentary feature. She is, in fact: John Steinbeck.
“I really love his writing. In some ways, it’s close to what Stephen King does: it’s about telling great stories with characters and talking about how they work in their environment. Everything you do has an impact; not just on you and your family, but the world we are living in. I think these two authors are doing this so well. That’s why they are my favorites.”
More specifically, the documentary is set to focus on John Steinbeck’s relationship with Alfred Hitchcock: “They worked together on the film “Lifeboat”. It’s really exciting to work a little bit on that too, because it was in a very particular context of propaganda, etc. I really love to go deep into the author’s work, because you find some incredible stories there.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KING ON SCREEN is currently screening at The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. Dates can be found on the official Fantastic Fest website.