Stephen King: Unwitting Screenwriter Essay, Research Paper
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Movies are becoming more and more popular with new special effects and stories that are intriguing and gripping. Movies now have lasting effects on viewers, since the stories are becoming more involved and more in depth. Screenwriters are constantly trying to create better screenplays to have made into motion pictures, yet there are thousands, if not millions, of screenwriters out there trying to earn a wage. The Writer’s Guild of America reports that in one year an average of 40,000 screenplays will be submitted and out of those only 120 will be made into motion pictures. (Field 5) Stephen King, who has no affiliation to being a screenwriter, has written numerous novels that almost everyone knows without them having ever read one word. Stephen King has a way of writing that appeals to both readers and film lovers. King who is an author of books has beaten out millions of screenwriters in the movie business. What is funny is that King himself does not expect a movie adaptation when he writes his stories. Stephen King’s writing style is the main reason why King’s novels are almost always found on the big screen. King purposely uses images in his novels that tell stories themselves. These images help enhance the story as the reader reads King’s work. These images are ones made by the reader and are limited to just the images we see on screen. Of course some of the better King movies do have wonderful imagery that can be associated with the same image the reader would have made in his mind. One popular movie that was based on King’s work is Stand by Me, which has terrific examples of this imagery.
Stand by Me is based on King’s novella “The Body” which can be found in Different Seasons. “The Body” is a coming of age story about a boy named Gordie Lachance. Gordie is faced with the death of his brother, but is confused about his feelings. He knows he should be mourning for him, but he does not seem to have any remorseful feelings towards his brother. The story is about Gordie and 3 of his close friends on a journey through the woods to find a dead body. Throughout their journey they face all types of obstacles and go through a series of ups and downs. In the end they find the body and face a climatic altercation with the neighborhood gang. The four boys end up scaring the gang away and go home without ever telling anyone about their journey. The theme to the story is about losing one’s innocence, the transformation from being a child into being an adult. The film portrayed the theme very well and viewers did not lose much if they have never read the actually novella.
When a book transfers over to a film much of the content is usually lost. It is a very tough feat to keep everything that was in the book in tact and still portray the same effect. When a reader reads a novel, they take their time and they get involved with the characters and learn about them. When a viewer watches a movie, the director needs to pump out as much information as he can in two hours and still stay within the parameters of the book. What happens most of the time due to budget or time constraint is not everything from the book is transferred over to the film, which causes gaps in the story. Also, directors need to find actors that can portray the feelings of the character and at the same time complete the look of the character. Sometimes one thing is sacrificed for another and the character is not as magnificent on screen as they were in the book. The fact that the book loses a lot of content prevents many directors from trying to adapt books into film, but there are directors that try.
When writing a story and writing a screenplay the two are very much alike but at the same time very different. A screenplay is basically a movie on paper. Everything that happens on the screen would be put into words, from camera movement to dialogue. For example here is the opening sequence to The Green Mile which was a movie based on one of Stephen King’s novel. Frank Darabont wrote the screenplay.
WHISPERING VOICE (V.O.)
You love your sister? You make any
noise, know what happens?
And off that horrible voice, we
INT. GEORGIA PINES NURSING HOME- MORNING(PRESENT DAY)
A CLOCK RADIO spews the morning weather report, abruptly
pulling us into the present with a prediction of rain. PAUL
EDGECOMB, late 70’s/early 80’s, wakes to another day…
INT. PAUL’S ROOM – MORNING
Paul stands at his bathroom mirror, meticulously buttoning
his shirt. He picks up a hairbrush, starts tidying his hair…
INT. CORRIDOR – MORNING
THE OLD AND INFIRM haunt these corridors like ghosts. A WOMAN
inches along on a walker. A MAN shuffles by with a rolling
I.V. stand. The floor is a limey, institutional green.
Here you can see how screenplays are actually different. They are not written like normal novels, but instead have more a script feel to them. The scenes are really just given right away or set off and then built up. They do go details about the set, little details which help the complete image tell its’ story. The screenplay focuses more on the action of the characters. Dialogue is set up like a script instead of using quotations. These are some differences between a screenplay and a story.
When writing a story, the author obviously does not need to say what the camera does or where the characters should be standing in relation to each other. When an author writes a story it is basically composed of the plot, setting, characters, conflict, and a theme. The author most likely is not thinking like a director when they write their story. The advantage here is the author can create depth with their characters and you can get inside the heads of the characters. The reader can experience the thoughts of the character. The author does use a lot of description though when writing their stories, which is much like a screenplay. On the other hand, dialog would not be set off like it is and the scenes would not always be so evident as a screenplay makes it. Basically the major difference between a story made for a movie and a story made for a book is the structure.
King is quite possibly the best known author in the movie business. Right now more than thirty Stephen King books or stories have appeared as major motion pictures or television miniseries. (Wukovits 63) This itself is a very amazing feat on King’s part since whatever he writes seems to beat out thousands of screenplays. For a screenplay to actually make it all the way into a motion picture is very tough. Someone said, that a person has a better chance rewriting a screenplay 19 times than they do writing 19 separate screenplays hoping one will be successful. (Bergmooser 34) Why then are King’s stories so appealing to directors? For one his stories are very entertaining, especially his horror stories. A successful screenplay must usually follow a mainstream criterion in order to do well. For instance the three major successful themes in movies are action/adventure, horror, and comedy. Screenplays that are decent and fit into any one of these categories will most likely have a good chance at becoming a motion picture. Stand by Me was a story that was very thought provoking. At this time in America, audiences were looking for movies that were less commercial and less obvious, so that is the reason King’s non-horror story became a movie. (Field 12)
Second, his writing style is similar to a screenwriter’s style, which in turn can help the director can a better image. Also, when King conjures up these images a lot of them have film techniques which directors use to portray more than just the visual content. It goes along with the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Of course not to say that if anyone reads a King story they could turn around and make an Oscar-winning movie. John Wukovits who wrote a biography on Stephen King writes,
One problem movie directors encounter with King is that he writing style is very
visual – the reader can easily picture in his mind what is occurring on the page.
Directors experience difficulty trying to recreate the images on film, and when they
fail, the audience responds negatively. (63)
King has images that help the story even further. These images can be complex and the average viewer may not understand them, which is why some directors fail. With practice and a good eye, a viewer can take King’s visual imagery and understand the story better. This visual imagery is an example of how King writes like a screenwriter since he is into describing the image very well.
Other aspects of King’s writing style very much resemble a screenwriter’s style as well. In an interview with King, King began talking about the style in which he wrote the novel The Shining. King said,
Each chapter was a limited scene in one place-and each scene was in a different
place, until the very end, where it really becomes a movie, and you go outside
for the part where Hallorann is coming across the country on his snowmobile.
Then you can almost see the camera traveling along beside him. (Bare Bones 127)
Later in the interview King goes onto say that when he writes his stories after a while he begins to see things in a frame like a movie screen. (Bare Bones 128) It’s evident to see that King has a movie or an image set in his mind when he writes. Screenplays are all about imagery since it is a movie basically put to words. King takes this a step further by manipulating these images so the reader can get the most out of it. King uses techniques like staging and framing in his stories. What is peculiar is that these techniques are found in film and are not usually associated with writing. King’s “The Body” has examples of these techniques, which will be talked about later.
Along with giving wonderful images for directors to work with, King’s stories themselves are very well written. One of King’s favorite movies of his own books is Stand by Me which was directed by Rob Reiner. . Reiner stated the following about King,
King is a good writer, he pens wonderfully complex characters and great dialogue.
Yet when people adapt his books into movies they tend to…just concentrate on the
Horror and the Supernatural-all the things that seem to be the most overtly
commercial. It’s a grave mistake because they lose many levels of his work by
doing the obvious. (Wukovits 68)
King can provide a lot of content for a director to work with. Dialogue is done in a way that it seems real. The characters talk in a way that reader would talk. He targets his audience and transfers that over to his dialogue. The characters as well are ones that are easily related to, but at the same time have a lot of things going on at the same time. For instance, Gordie is the everyday kid, but has issues with death, his parent, school, and so much more. The director can use all this content and since there is so much the director has a lot of options. All these examples of King’s writing style and his focus on imagery can be found in many of his works.
Using “The Body” as an example of King’s imagery, there are several examples that can be found that did and did not make it to the film. For one King uses a technique called staging with his characters. Staging is the way the characters stand in relation to each other or other objects which is used as symbolism. For example, if a couple was standing close to each other most likely the viewer could pick up they are in love and are happy. On the other hand if another couple was standing ten feet away from each other with their backs turned to each other the view could most likely sense some tension between the two. In “The Body” King uses subtle hints to the reader about the characters’ staging, usually done in one sentence or phrase very quickly. Such as when the group of kids are walking, King may say who is ahead or who is lagging. King throughout the novel pairs up the four kids in the following way: Vern and Teddy are usually together and Chris and Gordie are usually together. Even in dialogue the pairs can be found throughout the novel with Chris always talking to Gordie and so on. This pairing up can be viewed as one group represents parents and the other children. In the novel Chris and Gordie are the ones that do all the saving of Vern and Teddy, representing parents protecting children. Chris and Gordie act like guardians, since they are the ones that are really growing up and Vern and Teddy act childish. When the reader sees this image in their head, this pairing can be seen and translated into the way just stated; parents and children. The pairing also shows Gordie going from what he used to be, a child, into what he is becoming, an adult. Staging is evident in other parts of the story as well.
At one point in the story, Chris begins to talk to Gordie about friends dragging him down. (King 384)) After this, King uses a different pairing for a short bit. King has the group lined up Chris, Vern, Teddy, and Gordie across with Chris and Gordie on the outside. The four kids are walking down the path following the railroad track. This image can be translated into what Chris was talking about with Gordie. Vern and Teddy are bringing them apart. This use of staging was transferred into the movie very well. Of course it may be a little harder to see the image for someone who is reading the book, but King does a wonderful job of giving these hints of staging. Since King has his stories set up in a frame already, he knows how to stage his characters to get the most meaning out of the image. Staging is just one technique King uses; there are other techniques throughout the story.
Another example of imagery that King uses is in his sub-story “Stud City”. King opens the story with a wonderful image of Chico, who is the main character of the story. This opening image can be interpreted well enough to learn a lot about Chico. King writes,
Chico stands at the window, arms crossed, elbows on the ledge that divides
upper and lower panes, naked, looking out breath fogging the glass. A draft
against his belly. Bottom right pane is gone. Blocked by a piece of cardboard.
He doesn’t turn. She doesn’t speak again. He can see a ghost of her in the
glass… (King 313)
In this image we can see notice first the broken pane replaced with cardboard. This symbolizes Chico’s financial situation, so we can learn he really isn’t well off financially. Then there is Chico himself and his posture that tells a lot about him. First, we see that his arms are closed. This signifies that he is being unsociable and not very open with his feelings. Usually when someone is open they will open themselves physically such as a hug or something to that nature. Having Chico’s arms closed shows that he does not want to be with this girl right now or does not want to deal with her. Second, we can see him looking out the window most likely we know he’s thinking of something. The rain outside represents what he is thinking about. In stories, storms are usually associated with negative things, such as evil or bad premonitions. In this case, we learn he is thinking of his deceased brother. Another example of use of storms is towards the end when the boys actually find the body. As they get close and tension rises, so does the storm. This is just one detail that can be interpreted in this one image.
The next detail we see is the girl in one of the windowpanes. The fact that she is in a pane is a technique called framing. Framing is when a person or object is set inside some type of framing which could be made from anything such as door way or even buildings in the background. She is set up in a box which is made from the window pane. This technique is used to capture the viewer’s eye and bring attention to it so that it can be overlooked. The fact she is in the image and on the window gives the viewer the idea that Chico is thinking of her in some way as well. So far we have seen examples of staging and framing by King, so it’s real easy to see that he really does have his story set up in a frame already. King’s images are ones that are made for a reason.
Another example of King’s imagery telling stories is his deer scene. When describing the deer, King describes the deer’s facial features very well. The reader can get a very good picture of this deer. King then states how Gordie is staring at this deer in awe. From this picture we see can connect the faces of the Gordie and the deer together, so we know they are related. In the movie, this is done in a way so that the eyes are used as a common connector. The two images of Gordie and the deer are switched back and forth, but the eyes stay in the same area. Either way, since we know they are connected we relate Gordie with the deer. The deer represents nature and nature is something that is innocent and uncorrupted. When the deer runs away that is the exact moment the theme of the story is conveyed, “fleeting innocence” (Mayer 59) Since we connected the deer with Gordie through imagery we know that Gordie is losing his innocence with this journey.
Another film technique that King utilizes in his work is the actual structure of the stories. Like films, the images are conveyed to viewers in a way that leaves the image in their head. King knows how to place an image into his reader’s head very well. When writing his stories King tries not to overburden the reader with too much of an image. King will let the image set into the reader’s head so that they can take the image and interpret it. For example, when writing The Shining King wrote it in such a way that each chapter is set in one place with a limited scene in that location and letting each new scene have a different location. (Bare Bones 137) This structure very much resembles the structure of a screenplay as seen above which gives more evidence of how King thinks like a director. When reading the screenplay each scene would be set by its’ location first, so the reader would have a setting in their head. This style helps the reader focus on the image at hand and not be confused with multiple images. This style is evident in “The Body” as well, with each scene allocated to one chapter. Most of the time when a new chapter is introduced a new location is introduced as well.
King likes to show his images so that the reader can get more out of the reading, given the reader can interpret the image. Analyzing images made from words can be difficult at time and might require a good imagination, but with King that task is as hard as it seems. Reading King’s works, he fills them with enough description to create a solid image in the reader’s head. It’s up to the reader to take this image and learn from it, which does take practice. Once accomplished, though, a reader can get so much more from King’s work and even get more of an eerie feeling.
It is easy to see that King almost thinks like a director when he writes. He uses images that can be interpreted to tell an even deeper story. King’s stories are really words that create images that the reader sees. In knowing King’s use of imagery, when reading any of King’s stories it is good to stop and actually take in the image that King is describing to us. The image that he gives us isn’t just for graphic purposes but actually to enlighten the story. A lot of symbolism can be found in the images King chooses, as explained above. King has a director’s mindset and uses images that a good director would use. It’s up to the reader to take these images and learn and analyze them to fill gaps in the story. A story can become much more complete when looking at a picture rather than reading in between the lines.
Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King, ed. Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (New York, NY: Carroll & Graff Publishers, 1992) 282.
Bergmooser, Mark. “The Outsider’s guide to selling to Hollywood.” Writer’s Digest Vol. 78 (1998): 34.
Field, Syd. Selling a Screenplay: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Hollywood. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1989.
King, Stephen. “The Body.” Different Seasons. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1982. 293-436.
Mayer, Geoff. “Stand By Me,” Metro (9/1/1992): 56-59.
Wukovits, John F. Stephen King. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., 1999.