Stephen King Goes to the Movies
Pocket • 2009 • 627 pages
A Collection Critique
Prior to the publication of Stephen King Goes to the Movies, the author had released seven collections of shorter works, give or take. That "give or take" addendum is due to the nature of King's writing. The Gunslinger, the first of the Dark Tower books, can technically be considered a short story collection - after all, the tales came out one at a time in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But are they stories or are they chapters? The verdict remains foggy. Same goes for The Green Mile, whose chapters were released in chap-book format over a period of six months. The collection is absolutely a novel ... but there are some who would disagree.
Then there's the curious conundrum of Hearts in Atlantis, whose cover categorizes it as "new fiction," thereby avoiding the question of its nature. It's a volume of five interlocked works, most of which can be taken alone (with the exception of "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling"), but gain a certain resonance when taken together. King here refers to it as a "loosely connected novel."
Then there are even wackier cases. The Bachman Books? Those were four individually-released novels before collected into an omnibus edition; now, many readers, only familiar with the omnibus, consider the four early Bachman novels short stories or novellas. And what of the Octopus Press anthology that includes Carrie, ‘Salem's Lot, Night Shift, and The Shining? Is anyone going to honestly consider The Shining a short story?
Conundrums, and plenty of them, but at least we can agree on some definites. Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Everything's Eventual, and Just After Sunset are definitely short-story collections. Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, and Full Dark, No Stars are King's three novella collections ... forgiving the fact that "The Langoliers" in Four Past Midnight is longer than Carrie, Rage, The Running Man, The Gunslinger, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Colorado Kid, and Blockade Billy. The divisions between novel, novella, and short story become increasingly blurred.
Now comes Stephen King Goes to the Movies, which is nearly impossible to classify. It's comprised of five ... stories? Taken in this context, perhaps "stories" is how we have to refer to them: "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (made into the film The Shawshank Redemption), "Low Men In Yellow Coats" (made into the film Hearts In Atlantis, which remains odd, as there is a story called "Hearts In Atlantis," and it has nothing to do with the movie), "Children of the Corn," "The Mangler," and "1408." Two of these come from Night Shift, and one each from Hearts In Atlantis, Different Seasons, and Everything's Eventual.
Which necessitates the question: why?
Each story is preceded by a short introductory note - a page or two, in general - regarding King's feelings on the stories and the movies that eventually sprung from them. The Amazon.com product description raves: "This collection features new commentary and introductions to all of these stories in a treasure-trove of movie trivia!" Except that there is no movie trivia in this book. At all. The closest the book comes to insider gossip is that King alludes to the fact that one of the movies needed a reshoot. Maybe. King offers some vague impressions of the movies made from these stories, which equates to a "treasure trove of movie trivia" in the way that his contributions to Faithful offer a "searing expose of baseball's dark underbelly." There's hyperbole and then there's outright lying.
However, there is some fiction trivia here, though, and it's pretty good. King talks a little - quite a little - bit about the genesis of these stories, along with some writing-process tidbits (it's fun to read him assert that, despite "Shawshank" pointing to the contrary, he's usually very good with titles; he also delivers a fantastic bad pun in "The Mangler" introduction). There's also a very exciting mention of the fact that Hearts In Atlantis, as a collection, is not quite finished: a new story-chapter called "The House on Benefit Street" remains to be written. Here, it seems, there are always more tales.
But what else? Unfortunately, not much ... and it's baffling trying to figure out who this collection is for. New readers who like King's movies and want to try out the fiction? It might just be easier to hand them Different Seasons and tell them two amazing films and one pretty good one came out of it. Maybe it's for completists who need to own everything by King that's been put between two covers? Could be, and for a paperback at $7.99, it's not really a huge investment (although really serious collectors can always pick up the Subterranean Press limited-edition hardcover for $75. But ... really?)
As a book, Stephen King Goes To the Movies just doesn't make any sense. There are three outright horror stories, one Dark Tower story, and then "Shawshank," which is neither. The introduction to "The Mangler" recalls a neat little story from King's days working at an industrial laundry; the story, however, had already been recounted in King's On Writing. This a hodgepodge of ideas spread across an entire career. It can't even rightly be called a "greatest hits" collection, because while most of these stories are essential to King's oeuvre, "The Mangler" is merely very good. Among these giants, it can only look small in comparison.
For a collection like this to work, it would need (a) longer, more in-depth introductions to the tales, and/or (b) a different line-up. How about "The Lawnmower Man," and a discussion about the controversy surrounding that? "The Woman In the Room," maybe, which was Frank Darabont's first King adaptation. Maybe a look into why Different Seasons has yielded pretty terrific results, but Four Past Midnight hasn't given us any films that rise above mediocrity. Or what about "Trucks," from which King's own Maximum Overdrive sprang, or some of the more interesting "dollar babies," like "Paranoid: A Chant," or "The Last Rung On the Ladder."
Putting out a collection of recycled stories without much in the way of new material (a Top 10 list of King's favorite movies based on his work is the best of the new stuff) seems destined to damage both King's reputation and the books from which these selections originate. While the new introductions and the Top 10 list are interesting, taken together they total under seven pages. At eight dollars, that's just not enough.