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What Will Stephen King’s Cinematic Legacy Be?

One of the horror industry’s most influential talents might also be one of the hardest writers to pin down at the end of his career.
By  · Published on July 18th, 2017

One of the horror industry’s most influential talents might also be one of the hardest writers to pin down at the end of his career.

This past weekend, the horror community bid an unexpected and heartbreaking farewell to genre icon George Romero. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most imitated films of the last twenty years, has been remembered as both a pioneer for social-minded horror films and as a harbinger of the independent film scene. More than that, though, he was a beloved member of the horror community and someone revered by his fellow creators. Horror luminaries like Tom Savini, Eli Roth, and Stephen King have all shared their memories of the man, and what quickly became obvious to many was something horror fans have known for decades: as great as Romero was behind the camera, he was even better in a crowd.

And perhaps owing to the fact that Stephen King worked directly with Romero on their 1982 film Creepshow, or the fact that King will have two feature film adaptations of some of his most beloved books hitting theaters in as many months, I found myself wondering about King’s own legacy as a Hollywood icon. If you’re looking for a simple recounting of the many, many, many films spawned from King’s imagination — either as a novelist, a screenwriter, or, in the case of Maximum Overdrive, a delightfully coked up first-time filmmaker — this won’t be the piece for you; countless blogs, magazines, and books have dedicated endless words to King’s works. I only mean to ask this: when the sun sets on King’s career a few decades from now (fingers crossed), how will he be remembered as a Hollywood icon?

It goes without saying that there has never been, nor will there ever be, another writer both as prolific and as popular as Stephen King. Ask someone to name a handful of horror luminaries from the past century, and Stephen King’s collection of bestselling and genre-bending novels will undoubtedly be at the top of everyone’s mind. Most readers have read at least one King novel; the diehards, like myself, wish he’d slow down for ten minutes so new titles don’t keep falling through the cracks.  That’s the easy part; it’s considerably harder to pin down how Stephen King will be remembered in the world of film and television. When adjusted for inflation, King’s films have grossed nearly $2.2 billion dollars at the domestic box office, a number that could be one mediocre The Dark Tower and It performance away from matching the $2.5 billion dollar adjusted gross of every Star Trek movie ever made. He provided the source material for Kubrick’s The Shining, De Palma’s Carrie, and Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, widely considered to be three of the finest films of the last several decades. And he’s also played mastermind to a slew of popular television shows and miniseries, including long-running shows like The Dead Zone and Haven.

Read More: 10 Stephen King Short Stories That Should Be Films

And yet, despite all of this, King’s work has always been overshadowed by the talent who adapted him. The authorship of King’s best movies is always attributed to his collaborators; Kubrick brought a cold horror to King’s novel, for example, or Darabont found a sense of closure in an adaptation that the original work lacked. Furthermore, the films that King himself did have a direct hand in writing — Creepshow, Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet, etc. — fall somewhere on the scale between ‘lesser work’ and ‘cult classic,’ to say nothing of King’s sole directorial project with Maximum Overdrive. When your work attracts talents like John Carpenter, George Romero, Stanley Kubrick, the narrative around your film will no doubt coalesce around the skills of the filmmaker over the skills of the source material. For one reason or the other, King was never quite able to make the leap from novelist to cinematic auteur, and that makes him less the driver and more the vehicle itself.

King himself is partially to blame here. More than a little of the author’s power comes from his willingness to avoid being placed in any single supernatural or paranormal box. My personal three favorite King novels, for example, deal with the concepts of gods old and new (Desperation), a parallel and darkly frightening universe (Insomnia), and a small New England town that becomes host to the devil’s playthings (Needful Things). These are all easily identifiable as King’s novels, but the few thematic elements that clearly bind them together —the slow poisons of jealousy and mistrust that erodes fragile relationships between characters — are a much more difficult thing to nail down than the boogeyman in the background. As such, King’s collection of work avoids the easy thematic grouping of, say, the dangerous futurism of a Michael Crichton. King’s films become more of a vague grouping of horror and horror-adjacent films than an established and respect horror canon itself.

Maybe that’s the primary issue: a question of canon. Plenty of film critics have written extensively about the collection and formation of film canons; as streaming services have established a new norm for cinema, we’ve also come to be wary of the ways in which new canons exclude almost as much as they elevate individual works. Should King ever leave our world behind — and, like Clyde Bruckman with Dana Scully, I’m not so certain that’s a foregone conclusion — I imagine it will take years for film critics to unpack his 236 (!) film credits into a cohesive list that speaks for King’s work as a whole. There will also be countless adaptations and re-adaptations of his work, movies like the upcoming It that try and update King’s sensibilities for contemporary movie audiences. But whereas we can see racial commentary in Romero’s films or elements of religion in Wes Craven’s work, there’s no easy through-line for the films of Stephen King. Maybe that’s the most damning thing about auteurism as a mode of film criticism: when (if) we lose horror’s most influential storyteller, we may not be prepared to do his cinematic works the justice they deserve.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)