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SYFY WIRE Fantasia International Film Festival

Fantasia Film Fest: Mike Flanagan on expanding Bly Manor for Netflix; 'impossible question' of adapting Stephen King

By Rick Mele
Mike Flanagan

With adaptations of Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep already under his belt, and more on the way, Mike Flanagan is uniquely qualified to opine on the sometimes fraught process of adapting beloved horror stories for the screen. That was the idea behind a special virtual conversation held Sunday afternoon between Flanagan and fellow filmmaker/Stephen King aficionado Mick Garris – who directed The Stand, Sleepwalkers, Bag of Bones, plus the ’97 Shining miniseries that the author famously preferred to the iconic Stanley Kubrick version.

The event was held as part of this year's Fantasia International Film Festival, after the annual Canadian genre festival went fully digital for 2020 as a result of COVID-19. (Other highlights from this year’s virtual fest, which runs until September 2, have included a masterclass with genre legend John Carpenter.)

During the hour-long conversation, the pair of filmmakers touched on Flanagan’s approach to adaptation – “The priority for me is always about trying to answer that impossible question of what do you keep, what do you lose and what do you change,” explained Flanagan – as well as the tightrope he walked while attempting to appease both King fans and Kubrick fans with Doctor Sleep. (“I was petrified when I sent the script to King,” he recalled.)

Flanagan also dropped a few hints on what to expect from his upcoming projects, including The Haunting of Bly Manor, his much-anticipated follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. 

Whereas the first season tackled Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror story, Bly Manor is inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The 1898 novella has been already been adapted for the screen numerous times since its publication, most notably for 1961’s critically-acclaimed The Innocents and most recently as The Turning, which released earlier this year. So, with Bly Manor, Flanagan explained, “It’s not about doing a straight adaptation anymore – that’s already been done.” Even if he wanted to do a strict, to-the-letter version, anyway, it would never be enough story to fill an entire season of TV. “We’d cover two episodes, and then we’d have eight episodes of filler,” he joked. “I need to make a 10-hour version of this.”

Similar to his approach with Hill House, that meant remixing the original elements of the story original elements to create something new: “That way, I can hopefully honor the source material but do it in a way that’s constantly surprising. And what I learned with Hill House was that [the show] takes on a life of its own rather quickly.”

For Bly Manor, Flanagan and the writers’ room expanded their scope, pulling not just from Turn of the Screw, but James’ entire body of ghost stories. “When the show launches, you’ll see each episode is actually the title of one of his stories. They’re all braided together and made to work in one (hopefully) cohesive story.”

Still, updating James’ prose for the season’s 1980s setting proved challenging. “His language is not something that’s as easy to relate to for a contemporary reader or viewer. And certainly not easy to adapt,” said Flanagan. The more they dug into the author’s work, however, the more they uncovered echoes of modern horror.

“There’s a story Henry James wrote called The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, which is a phenomenal short ghost story, and if you strip away all of the proper language and all of the context of the time, underneath it, you see the DNA of The Ring, The Grudge,” he said. “They’re all there. And he was one of the first to be playing with them.”

The busy writer/director also touched on the status of a few other pending projects during the event, including another King adaptation: “I don’t know where it will go, but I adore Revival,” he said, calling it “the closest to a viciously cynical ending that I think I’m capable of.” 

He’s also got The Midnight Club upcoming for Netflix (not to be confused with Midnight Mass, the original horror series Flanagan is producing for the streaming giant). It’s another dream project for the filmmaker – in college, he wrote an (unauthorized) adaptation of the 1994 Christopher Pike novel and sent it to Pike’s agents. “They sent me a cease and desist letter,” he recalled, laughing. Similar to Bly Manor, the series won’t just be based on the titular novel, but inspired by elements from several of Pike’s books.

Flanagan also gave an update on his dormant Shining prequel, Hallorann, which centered around Dick Hallorann, who appears in both The Shining and Doctor Sleep and was first portrayed by Scatman Crothers in the 1980 film. So far, Flanagan has a “thorough outline” and pieces of a script, but the project is on hold indefinitely, a result of both the Shining sequel’s underwhelming box office and now COVID. “I don’t know if it’ll go any further, to be honest,” he admitted. “I hope someday it gets back on track, because I really liked it.”

“There’s this huge chunk of [Hallorran’s] life where King just never provided anything, and that’s where we want to play. The fun part about that is I’ve got signposts on either side of that story,” said Flanagan. “I know where he begins and I knows where he ends. It’s all about getting him from that little boy at the beginning of Doctor Sleep, who’s talking about his evil grandfather and learning about the shining and the lockboxes and getting him to be that man who takes the job at the Overlook Hotel. And who clearly, as referenced all over the books, had some kind of very traumatic experience in Room 237, or 217 in the book.” 

“That would be an incredible job. I don’t know how to approach that. I do know that I would need to touch base with King constantly, to make sure that we’re not messing up his character.”

As for whether the writer/director has any other dream projects still left on his ever-growing to-do list? “I’ve got the answer that most Stephen King fans are going to have,” he said. “The Dark Tower is forever going to be the story I wish I could tell. That would be the Holy Grail. I mean, talk about an adaptation challenge… So many very talented people have poured so much time and heart and soul and blood, sweat and tears trying to crack that.” (The most recent attempt didn’t make it past the pilot stage at Amazon earlier this year, following the poorly-received 2017 film starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba.)

“That for me would be the one. I don’t know how that would happen, or if it could happen. That property, it’s daunting. Just to think about even taking first steps toward it.”

Whether he ever gets a crack at The Dark Tower books or not, Flanagan knows he’s already been extremely fortunate on the adaptation front. Looking back at 2019, he says, “We started the year in Hill House and ended it in the Overlook Hotel. Just as a horror literature fan, I don’t know that I’m ever allowed to complain about anything ever again.”

You can watch the hour-long panel for yourself below: