Stephen King has always had a complex relationship with Hollywood. Studios adore the writer’s offbeat verve and creativity, yet have often balked at the more transgressive corners of his back catalogue. The latest Kingism to be left out of a big-screen adaptation is the infamous teen sex scene in the novel It, the movie adaptation of which has just wowed the global box office with a frightening $179m on its opening weekend – a new record for a horror flick. In the book, the six male members of the “Losers Club”, battling to destroy the murderous titular villain, realise they can only win by having sex with their only female comrade, 14-year-old Beverly Marsh King describes the encounter in excruciating detail.
Given the youngest Loser, chubby Ben Hanscom, is aged just 11, it is unsurprising that Andy Muschietti and his team chose to avoid the scene altogether. The written word may retain an immersive quality that even the most hi-tech 3D screenings would struggle to match, but authors will always be given more leeway than their counterparts in film and TV. For the most part, this is a good thing – imagine the outrage at Game of Thrones’ more taboo-busting moments if the younger characters from George RR Martin’s original books had not been radically aged up for the HBO adaptation. Or imagine if the icky-sounding version of It originally imagined by True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga, who left the project over creative differences, had made it into cinemas.
If we accept that Muschietti’s take finds the right balance between staying true to the novel and ensuring that studio execs find the film palatable, the question becomes how Hollywood can repeat the trick. There is a real buzz for King-style fiction on both the big and small screens (see Netflix’s Stranger Things), but when is filing off the author’s spikier corners a matter of necessity, and when is it simple sacrilege?
The enormous early success of Muschietti’s film has sparked a rush of gleeful talk that Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Clown could be Hollywood’s next great recurring horror villain, 2017’s answer to the noughties’ Jigsaw or any of the 1980s’ iconic trio of Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. This, surely, would be an enormously wrongheaded approach. Moreover, it rather ignores the fact that King’s novel is best adapted in only two parts, with studio New Line now keen to push the sequel into production as soon as possible.
Talk of an It “universe”, or indeed anything that tries to spin the world presented in Muschietti’s film into multiple new episodes would be a violation of King’s multilayered, warm-hearted source material, even if some would argue the Argentine director has already repositioned Pennywise as a common-or-garden horror boogie man rather than the symbol of childhood fear and repression that he represents in the novel.
Hollywood has already shown that it gets King wrong far more often than it gets him right, especially since those twin victories, Carrie and The Shining. The Dark Tower, perhaps the writer’s most eccentric and indulgent work, was at one point conceived as a trilogy of movies with two seasons of a linked TV show to join the dots. But after JJ Abrams and Ron Howard were both forced to admit defeat in their efforts to adapt the sprawling eight-book saga, it finally emerged as a single effort from the lesser-known Danish film-maker Nikolaj Arcel last month. The film was roundly criticised for shaving off most of King’s intriguing quirkiness and muddling up elements from across the series into a lifeless mulch of interminable ennui.
Are there areas of the writer’s back catalogue that Hollywood might be able to plunder more successfully? One of King’s greatest novels, the 1977 school gunman thriller Rage, will almost certainly never be filmed, as the author has allowed it to go out of print after it appeared to inspire a number of real-life shootings. However, it would be intriguing to see a remake of The Shining, given King himself has spoken so scathingly of the allegedly misogynistic framing of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation. A better take on the excellent dystopian sci-fi novel, The Running Man (filmed in 1989 as an Arnie cheese-fest) would surely be welcomed in the post-Hunger Games era, and Muschietti has spoken about remaking Pet Semetary.
Given the reception the director has received for It, few would argue against that proposition, especially if it means we don’t have to put up with an interminable run of ever-weaker sequels starring Pennywise the Clown. Some things are not meant to last for ever, and most of us would agree that classic horror rarely fares well when it has been hacked to bits and cynically reanimated in episodic form.