THE most-adapted author alive introduces himself on the phone as “Steve King.”
More than 60 of Stephen King’s novels and short stories have been made into movies or TV series over the past 40 years, with a bumper crop of recent and forthcoming releases hitting screens.
A cinematic take on “The Dark Tower” and a TV adaptation of “Mr Mercedes” launched in August. Netflix will premiere its adaptation of King’s novel “Gerald’s Game” later this month, and his novella “1922” in October. And a big-screen version of his epic scary clown tale “It” hits theaters on Friday in US.
The celebrated author, who turns 70 this month, talked about his scariest writing experiences and how Hollywood handles his work. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How important is it that adaptations are faithful to your original work?
A: Well it’s not that important to me, really. I think that they’re the best when they stick close to the books because, I don’t know, I feel a proprietary interest in that. I always think that some of the adaptations that don’t work that well are ones where they buy the concept, the basic concept, but then say well yes but we’ll do this, that and the other thing to it. So I always feel a little bit like they bought my launching pad and put their own rocket up, and sometimes the rocket explodes... The ones that I like the best are the ones where they stick close to the story and where I see changes and things that have been altered and I say to myself, “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Q: Do the stories still feel like yours when you see them adapted for the screen?
A: Yeah, they still feel like mine. “It” feels very much like mine because it sticks close to the book... I think some of the reviews are going to say this is “Stand by Me” with monsters. But kids don’t change that much... And the nice thing about “It” as a movie is that as a horror movie, it works. But one of the reasons it works — the only reason that this kind of story ever works — is that you care for the people that are involved. I mean, you go to a movie like “Friday the 13th” and, let’s face it, you’re sort of rooting to see 12 good-looking young people killed in 12 interesting ways. This movie isn’t like that. You don’t want to see any of them die! You want to see them survive.
Q: Can you ever scare yourself while you’re writing?
A: Yeah, from time to time. There are a couple of scenes in “It” that aren’t in the movie... There’s a scene in the book where they find this dumping ground where there are all these discarded appliances, and there’s a refrigerator... And one of the things I remember is we were all told: If you’re playing and you see a discarded refrigerator, don’t go in that, because kids can get in there and get locked in there and die. So I put a discarded refrigerator in the book and when one of the kids opens the door of it, it’s full of these leeches that come out... And that scared me. So sure. But a lot of times you feel more powerful than scared because you feel like you’re the one engineering the frights.
Q: It’s almost surprising that you could scare yourself, since you know what’s coming.
A: It’s a little different with me because I’m kind of an instinctive writer. I don’t plan much in advance. I sort of know where I’m going, but the specifics, I let those appear as the writing goes on. So a couple of times I’ve been able to scare myself. I know that when I was working on “The Shining” and writing about the woman in Room 217 when the little boy Danny goes up and sees her in the bathtub. That scared the hell out of me.
Q: Do you like it when that happens?
A: No, not particularly. But it’s kind of a strong experience. In a way, I do like it. There’s something exhilarating about it. But that’s the way that it is with any kind of horror fiction, whether it’s a book or a movie: There’s an exhilaration in it, because on one level, you know you’re safe, but on another level, the stronger the imagining is, the more it’s really scary. So it’s like building rides at an amusement park.
Q: Many see you as one of the great storytellers of our time, in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do you ever consider yourself in that context?
A: I’ve read all those people and I respect their work, and I do my own work as best that I can. And I try not to think too much about the past because there’s so much of it to think about. And whenever I hear that I influenced somebody or made them want to be a storyteller, that makes me happy.