It starts with a drive — a car with a passenger traveling through New England, their destination a small town in Maine that holds abundant mysteries. For director Daphné Baiwir, the ideal way to open her new documentary King on Screen was with a prologue in which the homages to Stephen King’s work appear faster than you can count them.
Given the subject of Baiwir’s film, an opening segment that plays out like an amalgamation of King’s work feels entirely fitting. Some writers have seen their work adapted for the screen countless times, but few have seen as many of their works turned into films as Stephen King. In a 2017 article at Literary Hub, Emily Temple wrote that King was the most-adapted author living today, with 34 of his works having been turned into films.
That number has only increased since then, and it’s even larger if you include television adaptations like the version of IT that starred Tim Curry, either screen adaptation of The Stand, or The Langoliers. (The last of these is probably an odd choice, but the scene in which CGI spheres devour Bronson Pinchot is permanently etched into my brain.) All of which makes King on Screen a welcome addition — both to the overall discussion of King’s work and as a way of seeing how a disparate array of filmmakers have wrangled with one writer’s imagery and running themes.
“Most of the work happened in the editing room,” Baiwir recalled. “I didn’t want the documentary to look like a list of all Stephen King films and to be exhaustive — it wouldn’t be possible — but I wanted to pull a string between the different topics to have an organic feeling throughout the film and to really tell a story.”
Baiwir’s previous films as a director have included documentaries about Olivia de Havilland and the Deauville American Film Festival. (She’s also acted in several acclaimed films over the years, including Catherine Breillard’s 2009 Bluebeard.)
A crowdfunding campaign helped to pay for the documentary’s ambitious introduction, which features brief appearances by several actors known for their work in King adaptations. This includes the likes of Amy Irving and James Caan, among others.
“Since the beginning of the project, I wanted to make this fictional introduction that allows viewers to be fully immersed into the Stephen King universe,” Baiwir recalled. These scenes were shot in Bangor, Maine; in keeping with many a King yarn, the prologue does a fine job of channeling a subdued New England gothic mode.
“We built an entire store that we named The Creepshop, and at the end there are something like 300 different references to Stephen King’s works,” she added.
One of the joys of watching King on Screen comes from the ways in which several of the filmmakers discuss their long-standing connections to King’s work. Director Josh Boone, who co-developed the 2020 miniseries adaptation of The Stand, recalled the ubiquity of King’s books when he was growing up. “I knew the logo for Stephen King’s name before I could read,” he said.
He wasn’t the only filmmaker to share memories of their early encounters with King’s books. Mick Garris, who directed a number of King adaptations for film and television, spoke about one of the qualities of King’s writing that helped him to stand out among his peers — and gave his work a lived-in quality that meshed with the uncanny elements. “He put brand names in,” Garris recalled.
Some of the other interviewees took on a more overarching perspective when it comes to King’s fiction. Vincenzo Natali, who directed the 2019 adaptation of In the Tall Grass, spoke of King’s work pointing to “the darkness at the heart of America” — a quality that, for Natali, helps explain why King’s work continues to resonate.
Some of the most insightful comments in the documentary came from Mike Flanagan, who has adapted King’s novels Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. He spoke about the horror genre more broadly at times, arguing convincingly that horror stories can act as “an exercise for courage.” A later segment in the documentary found many of the filmmakers discussing King’s female characters, with Flanagan citing Tabitha King’s influence on her husband’s work.
One of the documentary’s other highlights is the presence of Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist. Darabont is, as the saying goes, a raconteur of the highest order, and has many an anecdote about his work bringing King’s books to the screen — including his decision to change the ending of King’s novella, and what King himself thought of it.
Darabont’s own contributions to the Stephen King cinematic canon are particular favorites of King on Screen’s director. “There are a lot of great adaptations and it’s hard to pick one but I’ve always been a huge admirer of Frank Darabont’s work,” Baiwir said. “Especially The Green Mile which is my favorite film of all time. I love the humanity it has which is something that is truly present in Stephen King’s work in general but it’s particularly profuse in this film.”
Not surprisingly, a sizable portion of the documentary also addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to Stephen King adaptations — Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which recently placed 88th on Sight and Sound’s list of the best films of all time. King, infamously, was not fond of Kubrick’s film — which led to his work on adaptation made for ABC nearly 20 years later.
Frequent King collaborator Mick Garris, who directed the second iteration of The Shining, appears in the documentary to talk about his experiences — which included assembling a significant number of horror filmmakers for cameos in one scene. (Also, this is a slight digression, but: I’d completely forgotten that Elliott Gould was in Garris’s film.) And Mike Flanagan, who directed the film version of Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to The Shining, spoke about the task of trying to find a way to be faithful to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film in his own work. From a craft perspective, this was where the documentary was most interesting — both elucidating the potential conflicts between writer and filmmaker and offering a number of ways to find a compromise.
Arguably the two highest-profile names absent from the interviewees are John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Baiwir also spoke of her frustration at not being able to speak with two filmmakers who hold a particular distinction among the array of directors who have brought King’s work to the screen. “I would have loved to interview the only two female directors who adapted Stephen King but unfortunately they didn’t want to give their perspective on his work,” she explained.
Baiwir also spoke of the ways in which the filmmakers she spoke with formed something of a social circle amongst themselves. “I was very lucky because I had the feeling of entering into a real family when meeting the directors,” she said. “It was kinda magical to see how generous they all were and how much they helped us to get in touch with other directors. I think it’s because most of them have a real connection with Stephen King’s work.”
That connection can manifest in a number of ways — and King on Screen offers readers and cinephiles a way to see how those different ways can play out.