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Stephen King's 2017

Despite the release of a single novel and a few short stories, 2017 has to rank up there as one of the more Stephen King ascendant years. No less than four movies based on his works appeared, including one of the most successful horror films of all time, the first part of IT.
'The Mist' (Stephen King) by
Of course, with King, for every high, there are plenty of lows and 2017 also provided a number of examples of how to do his works wrong.

But let's start with the good stuff. The movie adaptation of IT, directed by Andres Muschietti and starring a number of talented young actors (including Finn Wolfhard of "Stranger Things" fame) really captured, for me, a lot of what I liked about the original novel. Being scary certainly helped, but with King, the horror slice is never really the whole cake. What makes King King, at least for me, is the combination of earthy, believable characters with lurid, "Tales from the Crypt" style horrors and an ever-present sense that the universe just doesn't care who lives and who dies. It's tough to describe any story with a homicidal, cosmically powerful murder clown as naturalistic but nevertheless, the best King works find a way of making both characters and gruesome scenarios plausible.

And that's what worked for me about IT. Compared to the source material, I think it's safe to say Muschietti's movie was considerably cleaned-up. However, the raucous, raunchy banter of the Loser's club did survive the translation. The movie also nailed the way horror is depicted in the novel, visceral and gross but with a strain of black humor. Similar to Stranger Things, IT seemed to understand what makes King's novels an inseparable part of the 1980s for a certain demographic.

I'd also rank "Sleeping Beauties," King's collaboration with this son Owen as one of the successes for this year. Which parts were Steve and which parts were Owen are tough to distinguish but the whole fit very comfortably within the rest of the father's works.

In the novel, a mysterious disease (perhaps curse would be a better description) causes all the women of the world to fall asleep under a fibrous shroud growing from their skin. Disturb this shroud and the sleeper awakens into a violent, murderous rage. As men adjust to the idea of a world devoid of women, violence and depravity grows more and more rampant. The themes here, concerns for the down-trodden of society and the ease with which prejudice breeds violence, would be familiar to any reader of Carrie, Gerald's Game, and Misery. The novel also marked the first time in a while I've read the 'bird's-eye omniscient' voice King used to employ regularly when describing carnage stretching across an entire society. Think of how King described the spread of the Captain Trip Superflu virus in the beginning of The Stand: King's authorial voice takes on the tone of a fiendish hyper literate eight-year-old narrating an impending pile-up of Hot Wheel cars. The ending (always a weakness for him) is serviceable here and resolves the themes of the story.

Finally, in terms of successes, I'd have to mention the two Netflix adaptions released this fall. Gerald's Game is the better of the two, but 1922 has its own grim pleasures. Both are interesting for how the producers tugged King's sprawling prose into compact and highly focused stories. "Gerald's Game" in particular really moves considering the source text contains long passages of interior monologue and hazy recollections. But perhaps that's the secret to any successful King adaption. You can't run from the prolix but you can't succumb to it either. The rambling, semi-stream-of-consciousness is what gives King's work its weight. In a story like "Gerald's Game," it's important to really understand Jessie Burlingame's past traumas to understand how her situation fits into a larger story. The past is really the present.

Which takes us to the two big failures for King adaptions this year. The first is Dark Tower which the less said about the better and the second is The Mist Television show which appeared on the Spike network.

The Dark Tower movie I've not finished. I think the basic problem is that the show-runners really wanted to have a movie called The Dark Tower but they didn't want to tell the actual story of The Dark Tower. The funding, actors, and production were all top-notch but The Dark Tower is not really like the other novels of King's work. This was King's conscious attempt at writing his own Lord of the Rings so even when compared to other doorstoppers like "The Stand" and "IT" the Dark Tower series is on a whole other level in terms of volume. It's also important to realize that The Dark Tower series weaves into all of his other fiction almost like a fictionalized concordance of the Castle Rock Universe. You cannot fudge that central role of the series in King's work through a series of half-hearted Easter Eggs. The subtext here is the text.

That's also the original sin of Spike's The Mist series. But really this series fails on so many levels I'm surprised I managed to get to the end of it. First off, The Mist novella was one of my favorite King stories of all time. The small town politics, mixed with the pressure-cooker setting of a super-market besieged by mysterious things prowling outside really worked for me. I think the movie version (2008) was nearly as good and as King even said, probably had a better ending than the novella did.

Now, imagine a team of writers and show-runners having this property turned over to them, scrolling through a page or so of the wiki for the movie and basically deciding, 'You know what? Let's do something completely different.' I will give them one thing, they definitely included the mist. There is mist in nearly every shot and the show runners seem convinced that the mist, whatever it is, is the real killer. There are no awesome parasitic spiders, no giant land crabs, and no Cthulhu monsters strolling over the landscape. There is the mist and the nightmares that each person seems to conjure out of it. It's one of those situations where everything that reminded me of the movie was done better in the movie and everything different from the movie either bored me or offended me. I'm going to mete out an extra dollop of outrage for the handling of the lone gay character of the series and his eventual reveal (SPOILER, but really what's the point? Anything I do to dissuade you from watching this is probably a public service) as murderous rapist. Besides not convincing me they've ever read the story, they also apparently went out of their way to avoid conversations with actual human beings.

So, in summation, for King 2017 was a big but also inconsistent year. Where creators adopted the overall theme and focuses of the author, their work tended to be more successful. Where they think they knew better than him, they tended to fall apart. I'm not saying that King is the greatest writer who ever lived or even the best horror writer who ever lived, but he does have a particular technique in telling his stories, and more often than not it's that technique which makes his stories work.


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