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Sep 25

The Soft(er) Side of Stephen King By Richard Warburton

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Many of you will have noticed the posters for the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It.  Some feature a sinister red balloon being proffered to a small boy while others show the eponymous killer clown’s grotesque face – a malevolent grinning monster.  This sort of thing sends me bolting to the nearest Cineworld while others avert their eyes and try to think nice thoughts.  However, for all you cinephiles who don’t ‘do’ horror, then Stephen King’s cinematic canon does offer pleasures that are not so reliant on scares and gore.

It was probably the success of The Exorcist that gave King his break.  William Friedkin’s occult shocker was the second most popular film of 1974 eventually becoming the ninth highest grossing movie of all time.  Publishing houses took note and signed the likes of Anne Rice and James Herbert.  Over sixty cinematic adaptations of his work have been filmed which have varied wildly in terms of quality and revenues.  Nevertheless, amongst the horror classics like Carrie or The Shining there are several sensitive and thoughtful films that may interest viewers put off by the King brand.

Discussions of this subject usually begin and sometimes end with prison drama The Shawshank Redemption.  No supernatural monsters here, just the human variety in a film that accents perseverance and hope in the face of institutionalised brutality.  Instead, I would consider Stand By Me, a tale of four young boys who set out into the woods to search for the body of a missing child.  The film captures something that Stephen King renders so well in his prose, that is the exhilaration, vulnerability and confusion of what it is to be a kid.  Ironically King masters these themes in It and the latest film does a solid job of conveying childish camaraderie in the face of undiluted evil.

Of course It is not for the squeamish so next I would turn to Hearts in Atlantis which stars Anthony Hopkins as an elderly psychic who becomes the confidante of his landlady’s son.  It’s a curiously old fashioned film that played poorly in cinemas and divided critics.  However, its whimsical charms should win over the less cynical while its supernatural elements never dominate what is really a simple coming-of-age story.

Dolores Claiborne is a sombre and profound psychological mystery starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as the daughter of the eponymous Dolores played by Cathy Bates.  Dolores is the prime suspect in the suspicious death of her frosty employer and her estranged daughter is not convinced of her mother’s innocence either.  The mother / daughter relationship is delicately teased out.  King’s empathetic depictions of women, something rarely appreciated in his writing, are on show here.  And, despite the gothic gloom, Dolores Claiborne tightens its grip over two mesmerising hours.

Horror fans would no doubt be disappointed if they watched these films based on their familiarity of King’s signature output.  They might take some solace from another prison drama, The Green Mile, with its graphic execution scenes but the film spends more of its time examining humanity and dignity than revelling in shock and gore.

There is more diversity to Stephen King than his reputation suggests.  If you are willing to dip your toe into an unfamiliar genre then reading the long and terrific novel of It would be a rewarding starting point.  The film adaptation is the first of two with the second part due to go into production next year.  And, if you are curious as to why horror is such a popular genre then the upcoming book Why Horror Seduces by Mathias Clasen should provide the answers.