No author alive has created more movie magic than Maine’s own Stephen King. In fact, you have to turn to the dearly departed – as King’s stories often do – to find a writer whose work has spawned more film and TV projects than King.

When the latest silver screen version of King’s “Pet Sematary” opens in theaters nationwide Friday, it will be at least the 44th film his writing has inspired, along with at least 35 TV projects. Scouring the Internet Movie Database, author websites and other online resources, it’s hard to find another author alive who has even a quarter of that kind of output.

Fans, scholars and filmmakers say King’s work is such attractive movie fodder because the stories are compelling and visual, and because any King project can attract publicity and millions of his fans. And his movie catalog just keeps on growing. At least two more films based on his work, “It: Chapter 2” and “Doctor Sleep,” are set to hit theaters this year.  Some two dozen other movie or TV projects are reportedly in the works as well.

“It”

Spy novelist John le Carré is one of King’s closest contenders in the page-to-screen sweep, with at least 10 films and eight television series or episodes based on his work. Nicholas Sparks, author of “The Notebook,” has 11 films he can say he inspired. Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond franchise, had more than 60 screen works based on his writing, but he died in 1964. Long-dead authors like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens have more than 800 and 300 film and TV credits, respectively. In Shakespeare’s case, he had a 400-year head start on King.

“The Shawshank Redemption”

King’s books have been the basis for a string of influential and massively popular films over the past 40 years, including “The Shining” (1980), “Misery” (1990), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “The Green Mile” (1999) and “It” (2017). The latter was one of the highest-grossing horror films ever. King, 71, has long been praised for his prolific writing – some 60 novels and more than 140 stories, essays and shorter pieces. But the pop culture power he wields by saturating movie theaters and TV screens with his content is not as widely talked about. Except, of course, among all the filmmakers who salivate at the prospect of being able to attach the words “based on a book by Stephen King” to their work.

“The way he writes, he can make horror fun and scary and exciting. Nothing is a throwaway in his books,” said Dennis Widmyer, who directed “Pet Sematary” with Kevin Kolsch. “He’s the king of telling stories, and I think that’s why so many filmmakers want to adapt his work.”

King’s movie business endeavors have helped make him one of the richest authors in the world. Money Inc. and Forbes have consistently listed him among the top five money-earning authors each year, with a total estimated wealth of more than $400 million. He’s sold more than 350 million books, and his movies have generated more than $2 billion in box office sales, or an average of $56 million per film, according to Fortune. What percentage of his wealth comes from his individual film deals is unclear.

“The Shining”

By comparison, J.K. Rowling is usually ranked as the richest author, with a wealth of more than $1 billion. Rowling has just eight movies to her credit, but she makes massive amounts of money from the licensing of Harry Potter products. In 2018, King was listed by Forbes as the third-highest-paid author that year, at $27 million, and the magazine reported that figure was greatly enhanced by King’s cut of the revenue generated by “It” at the box office – more than $700 million worldwide.

King sells options to his work cheap, often for $1, he told Deadline Hollywood in 2016. But he demands approval over the writer, director and cast. Then he makes it clear to the producers “what I want is a share in whatever comes in, as a result, from dollar one.” King declined to be interviewed for this story.

WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO MAKE A STEPHEN KING MOVIE?

So why do so many King books become screen gems? A couple of big reasons are King’s prolific output and his huge fan base, said Shawn Rosenheim, a professor of English at Williams College in Massachusetts who focuses on film history. Filmmakers know they can count on a built-in audience of millions for their movies if they base it on a King work, and they have lots of stories to choose from. King’s works are usually written with very detailed visual descriptions of settings and characters, making them especially appealing to directors, said Rosenheim.

Plus, even though King often deals with supernatural happenings, his characters are relatable everyday folks, said Kendall Phillips, a communications professor at Syracuse University who teaches about horror films and American culture.

“While his plots involve monstrous entities, sometimes cosmically monstrous, the basis of the plots are often in the most mundane aspects of our everyday: buying a car (‘Christine’), looking for a job while pursuing our dreams (‘The Shining’) or growing up while feeling like an outsider (‘Carrie’),” said Phillips.

“Pet Sematary” is based on King’s 1983 novel, which was inspired by his own day-to-day situation at the time. He was living in a rented house in Orrington and working as a writer in residence at the University of Maine in Orono. The house had a pet cemetery nearby, and when the family cat died, they buried it there. In the book, a doctor named Louis Creed comes to UMaine to work and rents a house on a busy road where living things get hit by cars and where there is a nearby pet cemetery.

The book was first made into a film in 1989 with Dale Midkiff as Creed and Fred Gwynne as the Maine codger neighbor, Jud Crandall. The new film stars Australian actor Jason Clarke, who played Ted Kennedy in the recent “Chappaquiddick,” as Creed and veteran actor John Lithgow as Crandall. The film was shot mostly in wooded areas around Montreal, because Canada’s a cheaper place to film than Maine and because the woods look like Maine’s, the directors said during a joint phone interview.

Directors Widmyer and Kolsch found that having King’s name attached to a movie is both a curse and a blessing. King’s name brings a ton of interest and publicity, but it also presents the massive challenge of trying to satisfy, or at least not alienate, his fans. The directing duo found this out because they decided to make a fairly significant change in the story and announced it ahead of time. (Not wanting to spoil the film for viewers, we’ll just say the change has to do with various characters who get killed or don’t get killed.)

Jason Clarke as Louis Creed in “Pet Sematary,” the latest Stephen King book to become a film. Kerry Hayes

On social media, many fans questioned the change and said it would hurt the film. But many others say no film adaptation of King’s books can ever capture every nuance, so the film will still be worth seeing.

“The roots of the story (in ‘Pet Sematary’) are still intact, I think. In the same way there are wine snobs and coffee snobs, there are book snobs as well, who make up their mind that they are not going to like an adaptation based on the trailer, or the casting, or apparent story changes,” said Chris Nicolai, 54, of Citrus Heights, California, a member of the online Stephen King Constant Reader Fan Club, in an email interview. “When ‘The Shining’ was released I absolutely hated it because of that. I watched it again about seven or eight years later, though, and decided that despite the changes (director Stanley) Kubrick made to the novel, it really was not a terrible movie. I look at the changes to ‘Pet Sematary’ the same way.”

Kolsch and Widmyer said they made the change to “Pet Sematary” because it made sense to them and because they didn’t want their film to be an exact replica of the first one. One other element of the film that may be surprising, given the proliferation of technology in films today, is that the scary cat seen in trailers is not computer-generated: It’s a real cat, trained to do scary things, the directors said.

MORE TO COME

King has a new novel due out in September called “The Institute.” No word yet on whether it’ll also become a film, though odds are high. Also due out in September is “It: Chapter 2.” In November, Warner Bros. is planning to release the horror film “Doctor Sleep,” a sequel of sorts to “The Shining.”

The Shining

King announced in January another TV project: CBS All Access will produce a 10-episode series based on his 1978 work “The Stand,” which is expected to air next year. This summer, the second season of “Castle Rock,” based on various King characters and settings, will begin streaming on Hulu.

According to King’s website, he’s got at least five other TV or film projects in production or pre-production and not yet scheduled for release. They include an HBO series based on the 2018 book “The Outsider.” IMDB.com lists more than two dozen King-based projects as being planned or in the works, including a “Dark Tower” series for Amazon, a film remake of “The Tommyknockers” and a film of his short novel “Mile 81.” The latter, like “Christine,” is about an evil car.

King’s growing film and TV catalog can’t help but secure his legacy. Who knows how many people have seen a King movie first, then picked up the book?

“I think King deserves to be ranked alongside the greats of English literature, like Dickens and Shakespeare. He is America’s greatest Gothic writer and, like this literary tradition, he has found the poetic possibilities within the light of everyday life and in the dark corners of our nightmares,” said Phillips, the Syracuse professor. “This ability to be both absolutely ordinary and fantastically extraordinary is what makes King’s stories so appealing for film and television producers.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier


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