The year 2020 has been, by every indication imaginable, a nightmare. We’ve been hunkering down at home, waiting out the coronavirus, economy freefalling and anxiety skyrocketing as we dream of a return to the normal, perhaps even humdrum, lives we knew before.
Television has emerged as a key escape mechanism. And what sort of entertainment are we seeking out? For many, it’s more horror.
Stephen King, our own prince of darkness, is behind many series on air or in development. Epix, for one, is betting big on Chapelwaite, a drama targeted for a fall premiere that represents the first series from the network’s Epix Productions. Set in the 1850s, Chapelwaite follows a sea captain, played by Adrien Brody, and his children getting on after the death of the captain’s wife at sea. It is based on the King short story Jerusalem’s Lot.
“Genre fare has broad appeal, and while it might sometimes be too realistic and scary for some, it can also just as often offer an escapist catharsis for others,” Epix president Michael Wright said. “I’m pretty confident Chapelwaite sits on the latter end of that spectrum.”
Wright has worked on Stephen King adaptations before, including Salem’s Lot and Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, both of which aired on TNT. He said King’s novels have always worked great on television. “Stephen King is literally one of our generation’s greatest storytellers,” Wright said. “His books are so wonderfully rooted in great characters and great storytelling.”
Stephen King is all over television these days. There is The Outsider, starring Jason Bateman as a suburban father who may or may not have committed a murder, on HBO. There is Castle Rock, which has a second season in the works on Hulu. CBS All Access is developing The Stand, about society following the accidental release of a virus that kills much of the world’s population. Mr. Mercedes, about a retired detective (Brendan Gleeson) hung up on an unsolved mass murder case, has three seasons in the can on AT&T Audience Network.
Also in the works is The Institute, produced by Spyglass Media Group, which has David E. Kelley lined up to write and executive produce and Jack Bender to direct and exec produce.
Last week, AMC announced it will air season one of Creepshow, a series on streaming platform Shudder that is based on the 1982 Creepshow movie King wrote. King is not a producer on the series.
In the recent past was the James Franco limited series 11/22/63 on Hulu, about a time traveler trying to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Under the Dome, about a Maine town suddenly cut off from the world when a giant dome drops over it, which went for three seasons on CBS and Amazon.
Going further back, CBS did a Salem’s Lot series in 1979; ABC had It in 1990 and a miniseries version of The Stand in 1994; and USA Network aired The Dead Zone starting in 2002. A&E premiered Bag of Bones in 2011.
King’s novels have led to dozens of films too, including 1980’s The Shining, 1983’s The Dead Zone, 1990’s Misery, 1995’s Dolores Claiborne, 2017’s It and 2019’s Pet Sematary.
King yarns will likely remain in demand long after coronavirus dissipates. “People like stories that have uncertainty and there’s certainly a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability in the story we’re living in,” said Neal Baer, who was showrunner and executive producer on Under the Dome.
King’s next book, If It Bleeds, comes out April 28, published by Scribner. It is a collection of novellas, including Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat and the title story.
In our peak TV world, Stephen King is a bankable trove of intellectual property, network executives and producers agree. Veteran producer David Friendly, currently working on USA Network drama Queen of the South, noted King’s “preposterously good” batting average in terms of his novels making a mark on popular culture. “When you spend the amount you have to spend [to produce a series], you try to mitigate risk,” he said. “There are enormous financial risks and Stephen King is a very good bet — and one of the few safe bets.”
When so many shows are clamoring for viewers’ attention, it sure helps to have Stephen King’s name stamped on a project. “In the 500-show universe, a name like Stephen King always carries weight and always carries value,” Old Dominion University assistant professor of communications Myles McNutt said.
That King is still living and writing makes the author that much more desirable to producers. King has 5.8 million followers on Twitter. He’s active on the platform, tweeting on March 8: “No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.”
When King talks up a TV show on the platform, it drives viewership. “King is very prolific, and still active,” McNutt added.
Producers also note that King, known for his horror novels, is a very diverse author whose work goes well beyond horror. Hit 1986 film Stand By Me was based on the King short story The Body and has no real horror in it, minus a few pesky leeches. The 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, based on a King novella, is a taut emotional drama much more than it’s a horror flick.
Producers are drawn to King’s singular characters as much as any boogeyman the author dreams up. “Stephen King creates indelible characters — both Everyman characters and others who are wholly idiosyncratic,” said Bridget Carpenter, who was showrunner/executive producer on 11/22/63. “And, of course, terrifying villains and atmospheres! He is also a master of story — his plots move swiftly and unfold inexorably; they sweep you along. This is wonderful for TV.”
Neal Baer got a good look at King’s storytelling skills when he worked on Under the Dome. “His books are so visual,” he said. “He has all the things you look for when you’re developing a TV series or a movie.”
Popular books can be great TV fodder, bringing in pre-existing fan bases. But King has few, if any, rivals among authors in Hollywood. Harlan Coben has a deal with Netflix to develop 14 existing and future projects, including new drama The Stranger. Agatha Christie, who died in 1976, has her name on Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, which premiered on Amazon March 13. James Patterson had two seasons of Instinct and three of Zoo on CBS.
‘Dark Tower’ Goes Dark
Not every Stephen King novel TV tries to adapt turns into a hit series. The Mist, about a small town infected by a curious mist, lasted for just one season in 2017 on Spike. Joyland, about a college kid who spends a summer working at an amusement park and who confronts the legacy of a dreadful murder, was in development at Freeform in 2018 but did not make it to pilot.
The Dark Tower, an eight-book series about a gunslinger doing his thing in a magical American West, was a high-profile fail on Amazon. Executive producer Glen Mazzara shared on Twitter that his cast and crew “took big risks” on The Dark Tower, and “delivered big time” on a compelling adaptation. “We worked hard to honor this amazing story and bring it to life,” he added.
The future of Mr. Mercedes is uncertain. Audience Network is transitioning to a preview network for HBO Max. Mr. Mercedes may continue on the streaming network, which debuts in May. Audience Network did not comment.
An Author and a Gentleman
Producers who have spent time with King describe him as a stand-up guy who is deeply invested in his TV adaptations. On Under the Dome, King read and weighed in on all of the scripts. He would not pay a visit to the set in Los Angeles, but took on most everything else he was asked to. “You can’t ask for a better collaborator,” Baer said. “I’d love to work with Stephen King again.”
King declined requests to be interviewed for this story, saying through a representative that he was too busy working on his next book.
Having worked with King on a couple projects prior to Chapelwaite, Wright knows how to get the most out of the partnership. “If you’re smart, you run as much of it by him as you can,” he said.
Carpenter would love to work with King again, saying how much fun it would be to bring 1980 pyrokinesis novel Firestarter to series.
While coronavirus can seem like something King might have dreamed up for a novel, producers stress a key difference between a King project and COVID-19. Frightful as they are, King’s novels offer a resolution at the end. With corona, the resolution has not yet been revealed. “There’s an attraction we have to well told, thrilling stories, stories that have an explanation,” Baer said. “Human nature likes scary things, but where there’s a resolution — you kind of know things are going to be OK.”
Epix president Wright said the coronavirus crisis is having “a profound impact” on our entertainment choices. “It’s difficult to say how these current events will impact viewer preferences,” he said. “But interestingly, our post-apocalyptic series, War of the Worlds, which is running right now, is our second highest-rated series to date, and actually growing week over week.”
Wright hopes he has another hit on his hands when Chapelwaite gets to air. He likens King to a modern era Charles Dickens, able to create “relatable and recognizable” characters.
“The real genius of Stephen King is his characters,” Wright said. “That’s the necessary ingredient of every great series or film ever made. That’s why adaptations of King are so effective — they’re unforgettable characters that you care about.”
A look at some of Stephen King’s works that have been adapted to TV
The Dead Zone
Network: USA Network
Review: “Turns out to be an engaging new hour, boasting crisp writing, near-cinematic production values and an almost failsafe plot.” — Chicago Tribune
Bag of Bones
Review: “Handsomely shot and deliberately paced, it has a superficially cinematic quality, but it doesn’t have the storytelling juice to keep you engaged in Mr. King’s convoluted multi-ghost story.” — The New York Times
Review: “Casual horror fans may not really get the appeal of Creepshow, but it’s not made for them anyway. Horror aficionados, on the other hand, will find a lot to like.” — TV Guide
Review: “In every respect it’s the equal of, and largely superior to, any of the actual King adaptations that have come to television lately.” — Los Angeles Times