Stephen King once said, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie", and it's hard to debate that idea, especially when it comes from one of the most influential figures in modern pop culture. It's hard to overstate the sheer magnitude of King's influence. At the age of 70, with over 60 novels, 6 non-fiction books and close to 200 short stories to his name, Maine’s finest is the shadow that looms over everything in modern film, literature, and television. Thanks to his compulsively prolific nature and seemingly limitless imagination, King has crafted some of the 20th and 21st century's most popular and terrifying tales.
Everyone's got their favorite work of his: Perhaps you're a sucker for his supernatural work, like 'Salem's Lot or Pet Sematery. Maybe your preferences lie with his impeccably crafted short stories, like the near-perfect collection Different Seasons. You might be one of the many die-hard fans of his foray into genre-bending epic fantasy, The Dark Tower. It may be that you’re influenced by his essential toolbox of the craft of literature, On Writing.
Even people who haven’t read a single Stephen King work probably like his work in some form, thanks to the countless adaptations across stage, screen, and music. Like the foreboding figures of classic horror, King’s iconography is distinctive enough to be recognizable even to the untrained eye. There have been more King adaptations than I care to count, but 2017 has presented a distinctly varied selection of the worlds of King across film and television. No fewer than five adaptations will have made their way to audiences once the year wraps up: The Dark Tower, IT Part 1: The Loser’s Club, Gerald’s Game, Mr. Mercedes, and The Mist. And that's just the beginning of what could be a whole new age of King’s power.
2017 has proven to be a good year for horrors. Perhaps the bleakness of real life has become the ideal canvas to express our fears for the future, or maybe we just want a more visceral escape from such agonies through the medium of fiction. Blumhouse Productions, the celebrated indie distributors, are helping to revive the horror market through a careful mix of high-concept stories and adoring homages to the medium, and it’s netting them major profits at the box office. While every studio attempts to launch their own Marvel-style expanded universe, Blumhouse quietly used those foundations to form a sturdy series of movies with their roots firmly in the influence of King and the works that inspired him. What is The Conjuring series if not a love letter to old-school haunted house movies, or The Purge trilogy – set to continue for many more films – if not a call-back to the dystopian tinged hellscapes of King’s Richard Bachmann period?
Where Blumhouse really dominated the horror conversation was with Jordan Peele’s social satire thriller Get Out, which has already become the most profitable film of 2017. Believe the hype: It’s a sharp, achingly precise and utterly terrifying tale of suspense with its roots firmly in our reality. Director Peele deserves all the credit for making such an incredible film. It’s the kind of story we’re often told won’t sell to a wider audience, but horror fans are always aware of the eternal appeal of the genre, and Stephen King has mined that for decades to eerie effect. Horror isn't just cool again in 2017 - it's critically acclaimed. What perfect timing for King to come back to the fold.
King has always had an unnervingly accurate knack for capturing our most primal fears: Completely losing control over your own body and mind, being forced to face an evil that cannot be reasoned with, the hopeless realization that you’re alone in your misery and nobody will ever believe your pain. That’s what lies at the heart of his work, even at its most high-concept and outlandish. Even some of his weaker works have that agonizingly human and all too relatable force at the center of them: Look at Dreamcatcher, a mediocre book (turned into a truly terrible film) with a graphic metaphor for colon cancer that unsettles even the strongest stomachs.
All great horror is defined by the ability to scratch away the horrors bubbling underneath the surface of the mundane, and nobody understands that better than King. There’s a reason the evilest people in his books are those who remain untouched by the taint of the supernatural: Carrie’s evangelical mother, obsessive fan Annie Wilkes, perennial bullies to the Loser’s Club, Henry Bowers, the silver-tongued and dangerously unstable zealot Mrs. Carmody. Encounters with the supernatural merely bring out the malice that was already there. Now, more than ever, that feels like a pertinent point to make about humanity – sometimes there are solid reasons for why people behave badly, sometimes they are driven to badness, but sometimes they’re just inexplicably bad, and our inability to control that terrifies us all.
That’s a driving force in many of the King adaptations this year, but most noticeably in the long-awaited big-screen take on what many consider to be King’s greatest work of horror – IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown may be the image most people remember when they think of the mammoth novel, with his status as the icon of coulrophobics everywhere. Once again twisting the picturesque fantasy of classic 1950s Americana into its horrific reality, King spins a yarn of a near-invincible force terrorizing a group of children, all of whom live with immense pain separate from the specter that exploits their worst fears. It’s the book that defined a generation of horror lovers, with King using every tool in his well-stocked arsenal to squeeze every modicum of fear from his readers.
It makes sense that IT would hit the big screen for the first time this year (it had previously been an ABC mini-series), and its producers will no doubt be thankful that it comes less than a month before the release of one of its most striking descendants. Netflix’s Stranger Things is the ultimate child of Stephen King’s work: A 1980s set horror-drama with all the markings of classic King, from the ‘kids on a mission’ story to the overwhelming sense of dread in a small town gone horribly wrong. The show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, haven’t been subtle in proclaiming their biggest influences, and savvy viewers can spot all the Easter eggs to King’s books, right down to the font of the opening credits designed specifically to evoke such memories.
Its surprise success, which included winning a SAG Award and netting 22 Emmy nominations, rekindled a mainstream fervor for King’s books, reigniting memories of what makes his work so good. It also further demonstrated his influence: Now, all the kids who grew up in the ‘80s reading King’s books under the covers at night are old enough to tell their own stories and they want to pay homage to that. Now, it’s come full circle, as the biggest influence on Stranger Things gets its own film, with the setting moved forward to the ‘80s, thus echoing that which it inspired. Basically, IT is here to show the kids how it’s done.
King’s influence can also be felt in less expected places. As every film franchise and TV series is forced into a Marvel-style expanded universe mold, for better or worse, studios and producers are scrambling to find familiar material to shape into a guaranteed money-maker of similar longevity. For Stephen King, this style is old hat. His work has always been an intertwining web of cross-overs, reoccurring themes and characters, and a decades-long build-up to a terrifying climax. King created a trio of Maine towns - Castle Rock, Derry and Jerusalem's Lot - which serve as the setting for a variety of stories, from The Dead Zone to Needful Things to IT to The Stand. Across nearly four decades of novels and short stories, King has crafted a living, breathing community that serves as the epicenter for a complex ecosystem of characters, ideas, and fears. Bringing that all together under one overriding narrative in film or TV show has always been a task of lofty ambition, but now it's one that none other than J.J. Abrams is ready to undertake.
In February 2017, it was announced that King, Abrams and Hulu would collaborate on Castle Rock, a limited series which would bring together much of King's canon under the umbrella of a new story. If this is a success, it could revolutionize a cross-media approach to storytelling that not even Marvel has cracked yet. Stephen King's influence may we wide reaching, but there were some areas where the rest of the world still needed time to catch up to him.
There’s still more to come from King. Netflix will premiere the adaptation of Gerald’s Game, one of King’s more claustrophobic efforts, and Sony is seemingly still going forward with their planned TV adaptation of The Dark Tower, despite the film’s sluggish performance at the box office. A production company has already snapped up the rights to his upcoming novel Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his son, Owen), a fairy-tale inspired suspense story about an incident that causes all the women in the world to fall asleep. Hollywood has barely scratched the surface of King’s work and there’s so much more left to untap, on top of the ways his immeasurable influence will inevitably be seen through the coming decades of pop culture. For now, 2017 offers us a timely reminder that one name looms large above all others in the genre. After all, he is King for a reason.