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Stephen King on how to properly adapt his books and which project went ‘entirely off the rails’

Stephen King in Paris in November 2013. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

In its own ironic way, Halloween has always offered a brief respite from real-world horrors. That might be even truer in 2020. And because we can expect fewer trick-or-treaters this year, we’ve got even more time to hunker down with scary movies — which, of course, probably means spending time in the world of Stephen King.

From “Carrie” to “It” — works so nice they made them twice — many of our favorites originated in the pages of his novels. But not all filmed versions of his prose were created equal, particularly in the author’s eyes. King famously hates Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel “The Shining,” calling it “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”

So what makes a good King adaptation?

Since “Mr. Mercedes,” based on a King trilogy, started streaming on Peacock this month, we spoke to the prolific author about how to make a good version of his books, whether he has any say in the content and which show just got it completely wrong.

Q: When you look at the adaptations of your work that have been made over the years, has your philosophy of what makes a good adaptation changed? On the flip side, have you seen a cultural shift when it comes to how people approach adapting your work?

A: In terms of the culture, there’s a lot more freedom. There’s a lot more ability to go where things didn’t used to go. When I think back to some of the miniseries that I did for ABC in the ’70s and the ’80s, even the early ’90s, things have changed considerably. There’s a lot more freedom and room to spread, thanks to streaming.

You can actually tell a novel now. “Mr. Mercedes,” [which follows detective Bill Hodges,] is a good example of that. The three seasons adapt all three books of the trilogy, which is an amazing thing.

Q: The gains of that might seem obvious — you can cover more material and not have to omit so much. What, to you, is the most positive aspect of having that time? On the other hand, can that time be a negative?

A: It’s a doubled-edged sword. If you give people too much time, they can squander it. It’s possible to do things that are dull and just take up too much time. You can see that on streaming, though I won’t name any names.

The real advantage is that, in conventional TV series, if you cast your mind back to the ’60s and ’70s, every episode was the same thing all over again. To some extent, that still holds true on the networks. There is a through story for shows like “The Blacklist,” but basically it’s the same thing over and over again. “Law & Order: SVU” is another case where every episode is a new case, but it’s the same people and they have the same kind of obstacles to jump over.

With a continuing story like “Mr. Mercedes,” you can have a beginning, middle and an end. You can carry through to some sort of climax. In some cases, you can continue on if you find another circumstance that will allow you to tell another story with those same characters. There’s a show on [Netflix] called “The Sinner” that does that pretty well. “The Killing” is another example.

Q: I think we would both agree that there have been very successful adaptations of your work and some that were a bit wanting. What makes something like “Mr. Mercedes” such a successful adaptation? Is there a through line, some quality that it shares with other adaptations you’ve really admired?

A: The characters seem true to me. They seem like they’re doing things I would do in those situations. … “Under the Dome” [on CBS] was one I felt like went entirely off the rails, because the people are doing things that don’t seem realistic. One thing that killed me was you never hear the sound of a generator anywhere. The electric power is fine. Everything looks clean. Everything is great, except that they’re cut off from the world. And that isn’t what would happen …

If you ask people to accept those ideas, there has to be a sense of realism that goes with it, that pulls you along.

Q: Earlier this year I spoke with writers and directors about the joys and challenges of channeling your fiction. Richard Price, the showrunner for HBO’s “The Outsider,” said something that really struck me: “The worst thing in the world you can do in adapting something is being too respectful of it because you’re being respectful of the beauty of the writing, the narrative voice, the sequences of events.” Do you think that’s right?

A: Yeah, it’s right. There are things in “Mr. Mercedes” — I don’t want to go into spoilers — but there are things that aren’t in the books that I really love. Let me give you just one: There’s a sequence in the third season where a guy gets his nose shot off, and that’s like an Elmore Leonard thing. It’s not in any of the books, but it works perfectly in the show. A lot of times, I think the things that actually work are things that respect [the intent of the novel] but at the same time are very visual.

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

Q: When someone’s adapting your work, how much are you consulted?

A: I had script approval over everything in “Mr. Mercedes.” After the first two or three episodes, I read the scripts because I enjoyed them, not because I was being critical of them. I’m now working with a very talented director named Pablo Larraín on a limited series for Apple Plus called “Lisey’s Story.” He’s got a lot of ideas that don’t depart from the throughline of the story but are beautiful visual things, with a lot of energy involved. It’s like having more depth perception, because I’m like one eye and he’s the other eye. … If you’re going to really succeed in this business, get people you know are talented and then say, “Okay, I’m going to step back. I’m not going to be looking over your shoulder and fiddling in your stuff. Go ahead and do the stuff you’re good at doing.”

Q: What do you feel is the easiest thing to lose when transitioning from the page to the screen?

A: One of the things I try to do in the books is play fair with all the characters and try to respect them and love them. What I really love to do, and I think I’ve had some success for this, is for readers to feel like they know all the characters. That they’re getting a feel of roundness in the characters, the good stuff the bad stuff. I want you to care about the people. The good people, I want you to fall in love with. … The bad people, I want you to see why they’re bad.

… A series like “Mr. Mercedes,” how many episodes are there total? Probably 28 or 29 in three seasons. That’s enough time so that if the characters are just cardboard cutouts after all that time, then you did something wrong, and the people you hired to adapt this thing and who were interested in it did something wrong.

Read more:

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

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