Subverting the American dream: Why Stephen King’s novels still resonate

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STEPHEN KING is practically an industry unto himself. The author, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, has exceptional creative fecundity: he has written more than 60 novels and hundreds of short stories. While his oeuvre has been mined for adaptation since 1976—when the film “Carrie” was released—this year has seen a glut. As well as the films “The Dark Tower” and “It” (pictured), a 10-episode adaptation of the 1980 novella “The Mist” aired earlier this summer. “Mr Mercedes”, published in 2014, has also provided fodder for the small screen. Hulu, a streaming service, has begun working with J.J. Abrams, an American director, on “Castle Rock”, based on a series of novels by Mr King set in a fictional Maine town of the same name. Not all of these have been successful (the most enjoyable thing about “The Dark Tower” was the scathing reviews), but Mr King’s novels have a deep affinity with the cultural and political anxieties of America today.

The roiling stew of hate, despair and abuse that drives many of Mr King’s characters finds eerie echoes in recent atrocities. In the opening scene of “Mr Mercedes”, for example, a masked driver rams his car into a crowd of people queuing for a job fair. The killer—unmasked almost immediately—is a vengeful young white man (Harry Treadaway) shuttling between a soul-sapping job and an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Kelly Lynch). The episode aired three days before James Alex Fields Jr ploughed into a crowd at Charlottesville; the scene inevitably recalled other terrorist attacks in Nice, London and Barcelona. This marked a departure from the source material, though that too mirrored real life. In the book, the killer intends to blow himself up at a boy-band concert attended by thousands of young girls. On May 22nd, a suicide bomber did just that at an Ariana Grande show in Manchester. 

In the televised incarnation of “The Mist”—which has dispensed with most of the original plot points—the diverse cast of residents in the fog-bound town grapple with domestic dramas emblematic of America’s culture wars. Alex Copeland (Gus Birney) is a traumatised young teenager who believes she may have been raped while passed out at a party held by a high school football team. Her mother, Eve (Alyssa Sutherland), has recently been fired because her sex-ed lessons were deemed inappropriate by a self-righteous school board. Alex’s best friend (Russell Posner), meanwhile, is bullied for wearing makeup. 

Even the mist exacerbates divisions. A local legend tells of the Black Spring, when nature turns on the inhabitants and further reveals the town’s rotten core. From the moment the mist rolls in, it brings wafting with it a suspicion that a shadowy military organisation may be involved. This is a nice touch in today’s climate when any news event is simultaneously labelled as evidence of a conspiracy on the one hand and entirely fake on the other.

It is a trademark of Mr King’s to use supernatural events to expose and inflame wounds already festering in small towns. In “It”, the protagonists are dealing with homophobia, racism, sexual abuse and anti-Semitism before Pennywise the Dancing Clown emerges from the sewers and begins ripping limbs off children. (The film, incidentally, deals with only the tweenage half of the book, reserving the trickier adult half for a sequel.) But while Mr King takes care to leaven grim plots with earthy humour and reams of backstory, some adaptations are better than others at doing the same. In “The Mist” the characters struggle to become anything more than brittle ciphers. The mist, meanwhile, forgets itself entirely. Its brilliance as a plot device in the book is that it obscures and edits, corralling mismatched characters together. Powerless, starved of information and locked in its deadly white grasp, they become increasingly overwrought and unhinged. Christian Torpe, who directs the series, too often renders the mist translucent, forgetting to let the audience use their imaginations. As a result, it falls back on the cheap and ultimately unsatisfying thrills of CGI gore. 

It is another trademark to subvert cherished cultural touchstones, particularly those relating to childhood. “It” features a clown wearing a silver suit clutching a fistful of balloons (now, of course, everyone knows clowns are terrifying, so the new adaptation borrows visual motifs from classic horror films—“The Ring” (1998, 2002), “The Exorcist” (1973), the work of George Romero, even “Jaws” (1975)). When not working in an electronics store, the “Mr Mercedes” killer mans an ice-cream van (pictured above) and uses a gurning version of the classic yellow smiley as his emblem. Indeed, the fictional Maine settings Mr King has de-populated and defaced in his books—Derry, Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot—are creepy, hall-of-mirror distortions of the idealised small towns of the American imagination. 

Few adaptations manage to translate Mr King’s distinctive style to the screen. The ill-fated “Dark Tower” film, which sat in limbo for around a decade, has failed miserably. The seven books that made up the sprawling series were a characterful mish-mash of time-worn tropes lovingly refurbished. The adaptation squanders the talents of both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey and the goodwill of fans by lumpily repackaging the plot. The film evaporates from your mind as quickly as it unspools on the screen. 

So thank goodness for “It”. As well as being an accomplished adaptation, it is also great fun, providing ample scares and a thoroughly chilling incarnation of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, who will also star in “Castle Rock”). And while many liberties have had to be taken to refresh and compress the source material—the book is nearly 1,500-pages long, after all—Andy Muschietti, the director, has layered in enough references to please avid fans. Sticking with themes of homage and nostalgia, Mr Muschietti pushed the movie’s setting forward by three decades. The Losers are children of the mid 1980s (think bum-bags, Steven Spielberg films and early Winona Ryder fashions) rather than the 1950s, making the references feel both more familiar and uncanny to contemporary viewers. (Anyone who feels the need to brush up their “It” knowledge before seeing the film should listen to the sublime new audiobook version, narrated with great skill over 44 hours and 52 minutes by Steven Weber.)

If Mr King’s imagined America—a noxious stew of prejudice, entitlement and poverty—now feels a little too lifelike for comfort, the answer is unlikely to involve a retreat into a sentimental and fictional past. Instead it is worth remembering that in the books heroes are usually saved by friends, dogged bravery and their willingness to stand up to bullies and say unpopular things to powerful people. On these last points Mr King seems to be taking his own advice. “Donald Trump blocked me on Twitter,” he wrote in a tweet on August 25th. “I am hereby blocking him from seeing IT or Mr Mercedes. No clowns for you, Donald. Go float yourself.”

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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