Stephen King on the Big Screenby Mark Browning
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From 1976 to the present day, there have been over 45 films adapted from the spine-tingling works of Stephen King. In Stephen King on the Big Screen, Mark Browning addresses the question of why some of the film adaptations of the world’s best-selling author are much more successful than others.By focussing on the theoretical aspect of genre, Browning brings an original approach to familiar films and suggests new ways of viewing them. Although often associated with the macabre, King’s stories form the basis for dozens of narratives, which are clearly not horror from Stand By Me to Hearts in Atlantis. How are The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption successful as prison movies? How do Cujo and The Shining work as family dramas? Are Dreamcatcher and Christine merely updated 1950s B-movies? The book is the first written by a film specialist to consider every Stephen King film given a theatrical release, including work by Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and George A. Romero and the first to consider in detail films like Creepshow, Sleepwalkers and 1408. The style, whilst critically rigorous, is designed to be accessible to discerning readers of King and fans of films based on his work.
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Stephen King on the Big Screen
By Mark Browning
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Mind Over Matter: Telekinesis
Public interest in psychic powers did not suddenly begin in the 1970s, but the decade produced a number of powerful cultural expressions of it from the emergence of entertainer/illusionist Uri Geller to the development of new cinematic subgenres. William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) reanimated religious horror and virtually single-handedly created the subgenre of the possessed child narrative. Along with The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978), The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978) and Scanners(David Cronenberg, 1981), Carrie and Firestarter were amongst the first films to popularize the terrifying, possibly world-destroying, potential of telekinesis. In The Medusa Touch, John Morlar (Richard Burton) has the power to induce destruction on an increasing scale by power of mind alone, culminating in a political warning as, from a hospital bed, he scribbles 'Windscale' (the site of a nuclear power plant) on a pad. The Fury and Scanners also feature a shadowy government organization seeking to harness psychic gifts for malign ends. Perhaps because of its focus on the spectacular and the apparently impossible, the telekinesis subgenre had innate comedic potential, previously identified by such mainstream TV fare as I Dream of Genie (NBC, 1965–70). The protagonist in Zapped (1982), Barney Springboro (Scott Baio) gains telekinetic powers after a lab accident but then proceeds to use them for a range of puerile jokes, like undressing girls, echoing Carrie's shower scene but more precisely for prurient heterosexual viewers. Roald Dahl's novel Matilda (1988) and the film version in 1996 are benign versions of Carrie, where tables are turned on the bullying teacher Miss Trunchball by a number of telekinetic tricks (including tipping over a glass of water with a newt in it) but no real physical harm befalls anyone.
The key question considered in this chapter is how King adaptations attempt to dramatize the possession of psychic power. Cinematic representations of the subject tend to oscillate between the supposedly-scientific (and thereby undramatic) or the spectacular and performative, which rely on special effects to convey phenomenawhich viewers can find convincing. In On Writing, King describes writing as a form of telepathy and in his early works he explores telepathy as a form of art. However, for King, a psychic gift seems to be only of limited value to the one who has it. Indeed, it seems more of a curse than a gift and cannot prevent an unjust and even sacrificial death (The Dead Zone and The Green Mile) or exclusion/exploitation (Firestarter and Hearts in Atlantis). Those King narratives focusing on psychic gifts seem to have at their centre a figure who is gentle, selfless but ultimately destined to meet a tragic end as the harsher realities around them exact a terrible price.
The approach in this chapter is predominantly an auteurist one as it is largely the input from directors Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg in their creative choices over camera placement and movement, and their ability to coax particularly powerful, even career-defining performances from their protagonists (Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken respectively), that set Carrie and The Dead Zone apart from Firestarter and Carrie II. This is not an uncritical auteurism, but it is these areas of production upon which the chapter will focus and it is easier to attribute them to a director than constantly qualify any analytical comment made. It is ultimately what is on screen and how it works (or not), which is significant, rather than quibbling about who put it there.
Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
'Blood, fresh blood. Blood was always at the root of it' (King 1974: 137).
Robert Stam builds upon Steve Neale's model of an interdependent tripartite structure of needs and expectations between film and artist and audience model, and defines genre via four inter-related threads: blueprint ('a formula that precedes, programmes and patterns industry production'), structure ('the formal framework on which individual films are founded'), label ('a category central to the decisions and communications of distributors and exhibitors') and contract ('the viewing position required by each genre film of its audience'). However, it can be seen that, in terms of the films discussed in this book, there are often tensions between, in Stam's terminology, the 'blueprint' of a King adaptation based on assumptions about previous films, the generic 'label' which is often inaccurate or fails to deliver what audiences might expect and because of fault-lines in the 'blueprint' and 'label' terms, the 'contract' is subsequently also flawed.
Carrie, both in terms of the book and the film, was marketed squarely as a horror narrative – bloodied images of Sissy Spacek adorning video covers, movie posters and book reprints. The bloodshed at the prom; the infliction of a slow death on her mother from multiple stab wounds; the sudden shock ending with the hand rising into the frame; a screaming female character unable to sleep – there are certainly features of horror at the end. However, this overshadows the film up to that point. For a good 80 per cent of its length, i.e. until the climactic prom scene, we have a greater generic emphasis on a high school narrative. It perhaps should not really surprise us that Carrie was a Broadway musical, albeit with a very short run. For most of its length, we have a darker, more mature version of Porky's (Bob Clark, 1982) or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982). We see Carrie as an ostracized victim of peer group bullying; a school leadership uninterested in her (reflected in the mistakes with her name); one sympathetic teacher trying to help; snapshots of lessons and preparations for annual rituals, like the prom.
The success of Brian De Palma's 1976 feature Carrie, the first movie based on a King novel, established King as a Hollywood player and effectively re-animated the horror genre. However, Carrie is very different in nature from the slasher narratives of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street cycles, foregrounding the anguish of US teen life, particularly around rituals like the high school prom. It would be another 26 years before there was a sequel to Carrie and the narrative in the first film, as scripted by Lawrence D. Cohen, is extremely linear and sequential, rather than the episodic nature of most slasher pictures. Cohen took King's original novel, constructed, like Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula, in fragments of different communicational devices (such as interviews, letters, reports, and textbook entries) and recast it with a clear focus on one individual, trying to find a way to accommodate the religious demands of home, the physical/sexual demands of her own body and the social demands of school.
The standard criticisms of De Palma at this point of his career (of which Magistrale appears unaware – see discussion in the Introduction) is that his work is derivative (particularly of Hitchcock), and his representations of violent acts on and around women amount to a directorial (and possibly personal) attitude to women that can be seen as misogynistic. Both criticisms are not without some foundation but, often, such references constitute a critical cul-de-sac, ending debate rather than starting it. In particular, for the purposes of this book, more relevant is how De Palma creates scenes of effective horror. Despite a fairly modest budget ($1.8 million) and a demanding shooting schedule (50 days), De Palma's film was a critical and commercial success. Part of the reason for this was that Carrie, the novel, was fairly short (just over 200 pages), especially in the light of later King works (often 500–600 pages). Closer to a novella, the pared-down source text made Cohen's job that much easier. The novel has little suspense – we know who will die before the end. By contrast, the film displays a depth of artistry that makes other adaptations look extremely 'flat'. This is not just an emotional term – De Palma creates depth within his shots through a close understanding of film form. Take almost any sequence in the film and you can see painterly picture composition, elaborate camera positioning and movement and the creation of space across and through the frame, giving a greater sense of being involved in the action (and thereby more unsettled when unexpected things happen).
Allied to this is an extremely allusive style, self-consciously making intertextual references, which need to be teased out if we are trying to explain the impact of the film. Almost any discussion of De Palma in reviews mentions Hitchcock: the final split-screen ending, and the sudden dream ending. It is a further critical commonplace to say of De Palma's work that it is stylish (often with the implication of 'too-clever-by-half') without precise analysis, i.e. intertextuality is recognized as important but not specifically how. Whereas Body Double (1984) 'borrows' plot elements wholesale from Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954), Carrie wears its Hitchcockian influences a little more lightly. Both Carrie and Psycho use mirrors as a symbol of a divided self and there is some obvious visual name-checking – for example Carrie attends Bates High School. The birds-eye shots of Carrie locked in her closet; of her mother walking around the kitchen table, contemplating the murder of her own daughter; and indeed the final blow itself – all evoke the shot above the stairwell in Psycho just before the murder of Arbogast. The opening camera positioning, perching bird-like on the rim of the basket above the volleyball court, has similarities with the cool, distanced, god-like point of view shot (POV) sometimes favoured by Hitchcock in films like The Birds (1963). As an image of indifferent fate, the shot is reprised at the end from high above the bucket apparatus set to drop over Carrie, suggesting that prowess or otherwise in ritual school events like the prom foreshadow the chances of success in later life.
Carrie's opening sequence and the bath after the prom trick that has covered her in blood mean that the film is 'book-ended' by parallels to the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960). Both scenes have overtones of baptism, but whereas Hitchcock's heroine, Marion Crane, could be said to be trying to wash away a genuine sense of sin (in reference to the money she has stolen), Carrie seeks to wash away a sense of sin that is projected upon her: first by her mother and then by her so-called school friends. The murder weapon, the assailant and the method of attack (hiding behind a form of screen – here the bathroom door), are all similar, but whereas Crane meets her end by being stabbed by 'mother', Carrie completes her ablutions without interruption, only to be attacked afterwards by her real mother whom she destroys by telekinesis.
One of the more subtle links with Hitchcock here is De Palma's association with long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who had already worked on Sisters(1972) and Obsession (1975). De Palma used Herrmann's music when he was putting a temporary music track on Carrie, and the final scene does still use a few bars from Sisters. De Palma openly uses a scaled-down version of Bernard Herrmann's speeded-up violins to signify an outburst of Carrie's murderous rage. One of the most unsettling moments in the film occurs when Carrie is in her closet peering into the mirror, which seems to distort and buckle, and is accompanied by a just a single violin note, making the viewer wonder if they heard it correctly. As De Palma admitted, 'the flexing sound is very Psycho'. It is as if there is a hidden force pushing just beneath the surface, struggling to erupt into the everyday world, which by the end of the film, it has. Years before the kind of liquid, CGI-produced, special effects as seen in Stargate (Roland Emmerich, 1994) or Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 1991) to signal borderline states between different dimensions of reality, Carrie's low-budget alternative is arguably just as effective.
However the closest link with Hitchcock is not in superficial similarities of situation but in the meticulous composition of shots and sequences and their subsequent editing together. For example, early in the film, Carrie is waiting outside the Headteacher's office. She sits facing us and we can see through a window into the office as Miss Collins, the concerned PE teacher, discusses with the Head what happened in the lesson. In a following shot, Carrie, still waiting, is in the extreme foreground but now placed at right angles to a rather frosty-looking secretary. At the same time we still hear the conversation continuing in the office. In the first shot we see a figure in the extreme foreground being discussed in the extreme background and in the second we still see the character but only hear the character being talked about. In both cases, in a way, we are placed in a position to see and/or hear the relationship between the different planes of meaning, which the individual characters themselves are not, making them appear lost and helpless. Later, by contrast, we are prevented from hearing phone dialogue when Mrs White takes a call from school. From her facial expression and subsequent violent striking of Carrie, we deduce that the school has just informed her about the incident in gym class.
A further example of how planes of meaning are constructed in conjunction with the soundtrack occurs later in Sue's mother's house. Mrs White has managed to talk her way into her neighbour's house when the phone rings and Mrs Snell goes to answer it. She walks away from the camera out of focal distance, becoming blurred. However, we still hear the conversation that she has with a friend, asking her to call her back; making it clear from her tone that she has a local nuisance to deal with. At the same time, a TV off-screen is showing a film featuring an argument between a couple in which the man cries 'I'd like to kill you'. Visual information and differing sound perspectives in the fore and rear-ground interact simultaneously with apparently random dialogue to coalesce around the central figure – here, Mrs White. Her presence as an unwanted, possibly threatening, figure is emphasized by the raised-hand gesture which she gives on leaving, praying that Mrs Snell find Jesus. A wish for spiritual health is accompanied by a gesture which seems closer to a threat and is echoed later when she raises the same hand to her daughter, this time carrying a large knife and with the clear intent to kill her, convinced that she is a witch.
The earlier secretary shot works a little like the Abba video 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (Lasse Hallström, 1977), although that uses crash zooms to switch attention from foreground to background or vice versa, whereas De Palma sometimes keeps both in focus. In school, Tommy's grinning face in the extreme foreground is connected to Carrie, who is shyly looking down at her desk in the background, embarrassed about her positive comment on the poem he wrote, suggesting there could be some kind of connection between them if peer pressure did not exert such a powerful hold on his weak character. De Palma also keeps both figures facing the camera so that we can see their full facial expressions even though they cannot see one another. Written text is also used in conjunction with purposeful framing for dramatic effect. When Carrie looks in the window of the gym, we can see a janitor inside cleaning away graffiti, including the prominent words 'Carrie White eats shit'. Looking through the literal frame with the quasi-subtitle emphasizes how little sense she has of the gut-hatred some girls feel for her. Similarly, in the coda, the line 'Carrie White burns in hell' daubed on her pseudo-gravestone continues the hostility beyond the grave.
Excerpted from Stephen King on the Big Screen by Mark Browning. Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Mark Browning currently lives and works as a teacher and freelance writer in Germany. He is the author of David Cronenberg: Author or Filmmaker?, also published by Intellect.
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