Tony Magistrale, Hollywood's Stephen King (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
I have been a Constant Reader of Stephen King's work since I got my hands on a paperback copy of Salem's Lot back in middle school. The Stand was the first hardback book I bought that didn't have a picture of a dinosaur on every page. And I've seen just about every movie and miniseries based on his work, including a few sequels that I hoped would live up to the promise the name Stephen King offered, but never seemed to. But I have to admit that I've always been a passive fan; I've never delved past the basic themes and general threads that connect his stories. Oh sure, I've read a few critical anthologies, but that's because I enjoy reading what writers have to say about other writers. And as far as anything that has hit the big or small screen, I've absorbed those offerings as sheer entertainment, figuring that any real depth could only be reached by flipping pages. Hollywood could never hope to come close to the storytelling power of King's written word, or so I thought. I floated along on the surface of these films, knowing I was right to treat them as little more than bastard stepchildren. I knew what I was doing; hey, hadn't I been a fan for more than twenty years?
But I was wrong. Tony Magistrale's comprehensive but not all-inclusive review of King's filmography not only stirred my interest in the deeper meanings of these films, but sorted their various themes and connections. Hollywood's Stephen King shows that there are films in the author's oeuvre that are just as worthy of discussion and critical review, and in some cases the stories these films tell are just as important as the original works they were based on.
Magistrale, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, has an easy, readable style that lends itself well to the description of cinematic sub-text. He has a thorough knowledge of these films, and while his interest is apparent, he pulls no punches. He tells it like it is, the good, bad and ugly. His honesty is refreshing, and it lends a credence to this book that wouldn't really be there if it had been written by some rabid, worshipful fan. The book starts off at a light, brisk pace, and held my attention throughout. He describes the films and their subject matter in such a way as to provide even a casual reader with a decent understanding of the basic interconnections of King's films. For example, from the teenage harpies-in-training in Carrie to the mother figures in Cujo and Dolores Claiborne, Magistrale not only gives the reader a look at how female characters in these films compare with each other, but also sheds light on King's attempts to develop more well-rounded female characters.
The first chapter of this book is an interview with Stephen King that author David J. Skal says, "alone is worth the price of admission," and I have to agree with him. Magistrale asks a few questions that I had never heard asked before, and King answers them with his usual wit and honesty. Hearing King's thoughts on his various movies is a terrific starting point for a discussion of these works.
Magistrale breaks the rest of the book down into chapters dealing with specific archetypes: children, mothers, fathers and heroes. He also looks at technological horrors and devotes a chapter to the miniseries, which I would have like to have seen folded in to the other chapters. Separating the miniseries from the feature films is nice if you want to keep track of what is a movie and what is a miniseries, but they end up coming off as also-rans when in fact shows like Storm of the Century and The Stand are more complex (okay, I'll say it, better) than some of the movies he chooses to include in prior chapters. Of course, I may just be bitter that a few of my favorite works namely Needful Things and Creepshow were left out.
In his interview, Stephen King says that he hopes Magistrale intends to "pay some attention to the films that haven't been 'done to death,'" since that may lead readers to revisit films that weren't critically praised, but still may have value. Magistrale does discuss a few lesser known works such as The Mangler, Storm of the Century and Maximum Overdrive, and all I can say is mission accomplished, Steve-o. In looking at these films as more than just entertainment, they may or may not become better in the eyes of the viewer, but they do become linked to a greater whole.
Magistrale tends to repeat themes in the course of his discussion of each film; however, he brings so much information to the table that I was happy to be brought back to his initial ideas. In his discussion of Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, the author delves so deeply into the director's use of mirrors, mazes and other forms of symbolism in this movie that each time he mentioned their uses, I was glad to be brought back to the point. But then Kubrick was never one to miss an opportunity for symbolism.
There is one point I would have liked the author to have discussed in depth. Film is ultimately a director's medium, not a writer's. Except for Maximum Overdrive, the films Magistrale covers are all directed by other individuals. Although the basic storylines, characters and overall themes are King's, there are many instances where the movies veer sharply from the path the author started on. In citing themes that are taken from sections developed by other artists, these ideas could be (and probably are) the interpretation of the director, making it his or her vision, rather than King's. Case in point; discussion of Kubrick's The Shining felt overdone once Magistrale used Michael Colling's quote that we should "...divorce it from connections with Stephen King ... because it has ceased to be King's" (pg. 96). Then again, one cannot dismiss a film that has been on the receiving end of so much critical review in the past.
This is not a book for the advanced scholar. While Magistrale points out connections between characters, themes and storylines of various films and miniseries, developing ideas that are worth further study, the author himself describes this work as an "overview." But his ideas are thoroughly researched, and he uses many other critical essays to back up his ideas. In fact, his bibliography is a terrific starting point for those readers who would like to continue more scholarly pursuits. His filmography, however, is a listing of every single film he cited in the book, where a listing of King's films would have been more applicable. I applaud his thoroughness, but in this instance it seems unnecessary.
Even with my general concerns, this is a book that will stay on my bookshelf, right next to Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King and Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King. This book felt like a well researched discussion in a Special Topics In English class, one that I looked forward to attending, and one I was sorry to see end.
Those of you who can't get enough can read GMR's
Stephen King's On Writing, the Dark Tower series, and From A Buick 8.
Or you can take a peek at the omnibus review of anthology horror movies,
which include Cat's Eye, Creepshow and Creepshow 2