Review: King on Screen Explores the Good, Bad and Scary Film Adaptations of Prolific Author Stephen King

Actor-turned-director Daphné Baiwir (2021’s The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland) clearly has a great affection for author Stephen King, but her latest documentary, King on Screen—as you might have guessed—is more about film and TV adaptations of King’s work and the reasons they may or may not be successful. To be truthful, Baiwir doesn’t dive nearly deep enough into the titles that don’t work, but she does give the subject matter enough space to make for a really enjoyable stroll through some fascinating movies.

With longer stops to discuss such classics as The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick), all three Frank Darabont adaptations of King works (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist), and Mike Flanagan’s genius stab at Doctor Sleep, King on Screen is a fairly straightforward look at the history of the array of filmmakers, genres and collaborations that have gone into decades of more than 80 King adaptations, making him the most adapted living author. Nearly all of her interviews are with directors, and all of them have their theories on what makes King’s written word so impactful and cinematic (even the stories that are supposedly "unfilmable"). Darabont probably best articulates King’s translatability to film, but folks like Greg Nicotero (the Creepshow series), Mikael Håfström (1408), Vincenzo Natali (In the Tall Grass), Mick Garris (The Stand), Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne), and Tom Holland (Thinner) add a great deal to the conversation.

As mentioned, Baiwir isn’t here to pass judgment on such works as Children of the Corn, Cell, The Dark Tower, or the host of other stinkers, and she even interviews the directors of some of those movies, if for no other reason than to prove that even the least successful of the bunch had pure intentions. There’s an extended sequence revolving around whether The Shining is the best or worst King adaptation to date, and it really comes down to what you expect out of anything translated to screen. The film is frustrating at times but only because you want to see more of some of your favorites, like Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, Christine, or even Carrie, which is acknowledged as the jumping-off point of the great adaptations, but not given nearly enough coverage in this movie. As much as I love Darabont’s work, part of this doc turns itself over to a Making Of… doc extra on a Blu-ray, which isn’t really relevant to the topic at hand.

Still, if you’re even remotely a fan of King movies, King on Screen is a gold mine of terrific, insightful new interviews, and a film-school-like analysis that is missing from today’s film schools. We all know there’s an art to horror, but there’s also an art to adaptations, with so many of them going sideways in a hurry. The film is a fascinating history lesson at times, nostalgia mining at other times, and a curiosity most of the time (including the awkward opening and closing sequences that bookend the doc). This doc could be twice as long and still not cover everything, but what’s here is pretty impressive.

The film has a limited run in theaters and will be available via VOD and home video on September 8.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.