THE SHINING’s Mick Garris talks to DOCTOR SLEEP’s Mike Flanagan about what it’s like to bring the words of Stephen King to the screen.
Even in the age of Covid, there still cannot be a Fantasia Fest where we aren’t treated to some fun and insightful convo between a couple of cutting-edge horror filmmakers. Thankfully, the folks over at Fantasia Fest 2020 believed this just as much as I do and wrangled together a pair of directors who have made names for themselves by bringing the works of Stephen King to the screen.
As the final weekend of the festival wound down, attendees were invited to listen to the experiences of director Mike Flanagan. Along with Andy Muscietti, Flanagan has been responsible for the resurgence King’s works have enjoyed as dynamic and relevant forms of horror cinema. 2017’s Gerald’s Game took everyone by surprise, including the author’s many fans who firmly believed that was one of the few King books which couldn’t be adapted. Meanwhile, last year’s Doctor Sleep may have drawn lackluster box office, but was a critical smash, while a later-released director’s cut helped garner the movie a strong, loyal following who helped make it a bona-fide King classic.
Flanagan was joined on the virtual event by director Mick Garris. No stranger to adapting King himself, Garris is perhaps the filmmaker most familiar with what it takes to bring the author’s ideas to the screen, having helmed a half-dozen adaptations. While Sleepwalkers and Riding the Bullet didn’t set the big screen ablaze, his television takes on The Stand, Desperation and Bag of Bones earned him raves and high numbers. His 1997 mini-series take on The Shining was derailed by those too in love with Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 feature version (which King famously did not embrace), but was given praise by many for being a true adaptation of the novel in terms of plot and themes.
Throughout the visit, the two filmmakers talked about the art of film adaptation, what it’s like to tackle the work of an author as widely-read as Stephen King and those ever-elusive dream projects.
Here are some takeaways from the talk…
Mick Garris: How does the process work for you? Let’s start with the adaptation process first.
Mike Flanagan: First off, I’m so grateful to be having this conversation with you, Mick. I think just like you as well, I’m a constant reader. Before I had fallen in love with cinema, I had fallen in love with storytelling. I never thought much about what it would take to tell a story like that. When I started being able to actually make films for a living, the process was very much: How would I be able to take that visual process I had when I was reading a book and turn it isn’t something executable and cinematic.
Garris: With Gerald’s Game, that book was so internal. So to take something so innately literally, what were some of the changes you had to make?
Flanagan: The challenge was: How do you take the amazing words happening in Jessie’s imagination and show them to the audience? How do we protect all of that and give them a face we can anchor them with? The big change was just specific enough to be able to create avatars for these ideas. That way I could just take chunks of that book and put them in their mouths.
Garris: There’s got to be a way to externalize the internal, and that’s the job of the screenwriter. When you’re working from a novel it can be so hard. Are you working from the book when you’re writing?
Flanagan: Oh, yeah. I go page by page and indicate, underline and highlight as I go along. Eventually it’ll turn into this sprawling outline and every time I’ve tried it, the first draft is inevitably way too long and it becomes this sad experience of having to let things go.
Garris: With Doctor Sleep though, you had an interesting task at hand because King wasn’t a fan of the Kubrick film. How did you walk that tightrope, and did you have that in the back of your head.
Flanagan: Oh, it was in the front of my head. That’s a difficult book to approach anyways. It’ve very dense, there’s a huge canvas of characters, it takes palace all over the country. There had to be a way to protect Doctor Sleep, but try to marry it to the cinematic language of the Kubrick film. It’s impossible if you love the film to say that’s a good adaptation of the book. I think people can reasonably debate that it’s deserving of the iconic status that it’s gotten, but its lost the kernel of what the book was about.
Garris: Yeah, it took me a while to accept that it’s a great Kubrick film and a bad adaptation of a King novel.
Flanagan: And because of that, I had to keep asking myself: How do I protect that kernel of intent which colors the whole story? I was terrified. I also decided that if he didn’t like what I was going to do, I wasn’t going to do the movie. I wanted to faithfully adapt the narrative until the very end. I felt that we had an opportunity. We could keep the hotel alive, but abandoned, and let Danny use that in his arsenal as a weapon against Rose. Thematically, it was the same idea, but was expanded to use the hotel itself.
The pitch I used was: “I can give you the ending from The Shining, which Kubrick denied, and that would tie it altogether.” But it was the scene between Danny and Jack at the bar, where King was like: “Ok, you may go and try it.” I was petrified when I sent the script to King. But he really really liked it, gave his blessing and we were able to proceed.
Garris: It sounds like the most complicated sleight of issues to deal with in the screenwriting process; 2 books, a movie and a miniseries and an author still in his prime. It’s also a shift from The Shining; it’s not all about the buildup of tension and release like The Shining was.
Flanagan: The books were so different and that was something that I loved. If The Shining was about addiction and Doctor Sleep was about recovery, then these are two completely different stories. What I love is that Danny is not Jack and Doctor Sleep is descended from The Shining, but it’s not The Shining again. You aren’t trying to take a piece of work and turn it to something else. You’re just translating it to a different medium. The available real estate for character development is smaller, but if you approach a book and try to make it like something else, there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. Protecting what the book is at its heart is some of the most fun in adaptation.
Garris: If you’ve read the book, you know what to expect. How did you deal with audience expectation?
Flanagan: I think we lost a bit of sight of that, in retrospect. The story was really upfront and The Shining connecting at the end was inevitable, but it wasn’t the focus. It had to be able to stand up on its own, whether you were familiar with The Shining, or not. The studio fear was that the enthusiasm for King and shared universes was strong and they didn’t want to shy away from it. The thought was: Let’s make sure we put iconic imagery into the marketing materials. I think that despite the best intentions, it really had gotten very Shining-centric because of the closed, contained focus groups.
Garris: It’s easier to see something as a sequel rather than as an original
Flanagan: Yeah, in retrospect I think that hurt us. But at the time we didn’t realize how lopsided it had become. When the marketing hit, immediately everyone forensically started analyzing the Shining elements; and The Shining just eclipsed everything. When the film was released, there was this belief in the beginning that half of this audience was not gonna be happy that this movie existed. We’re going to alienate half the viewers with any decision we make.
Garris: Sort of like an election.
Flanagan: I decided that if we were going to lose them, we should at least lose them in a way that we’re proud of. King was happy, the Kubrick estate was happy and the audience was 70/30 in our favor. We thought: This is going to work.
Garris: Now you’re going to step into that realm again with Hallorann, which is not a book, but an original screenplay linked to two previous stories.
Flanagan: If it gets to move forward, that’s something that’s going to be fun. I’ve got sign posts on either side of that story where I know where I’ve got to land.
Garris: It’s also very freeing not to have a blueprint in front of you and to have King as a resource. Is there an outline?
Flanagan: Yeah, there’s a thorough outline and I’ve got pieces of a script. I don’t know if it’ll go any further, to be honest. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and the enthusiasm with which people would greenlight a film in the past has shifted. It’s such a different world.
Garris: You’ve done adaptations in many different voices. Tell me about your process into getting these different creative minds and then getting them to the screen.
Flanagan: Initially it’s about immersing yourself in the voice you’re trying to adapt. With King, it’s pretty easy because I read him almost every day. I can see how Stephen king is influenced by Shirley Jackson. They’re clearly very aware of each other’s work.
When it comes to protecting voice, that’s a lot harder. You’re always trying to write for the most inclusive audience you can imagine. You want everyone to relate to what we’re creating without sacrificing what makes it unique. Trying to protect the tone is something that’s always on my mind. It’s not that easy.
Garris: What are some of your favorite film adaptations?
Flanagan: The Innocents, The Haunting, The Shining. I’ve dissected those movies so much by this point. I think The Shawshank Redemption; the richness of that adaptation is so profound. The Stand, of course; I’m sure you’ve seen it. It was such a profound influence for me.
Garris: I have heard of it. What’s your dream story to put on screen? Mine was Gerald’s Game.
Flanagan: I will not feel bad about that.
Garris: And you shouldn’t because it turned out great!
Flanagan: My dream project? I mean, geez, The Dark Tower is forever the story I wish I could tell. I mean, talk about an adaptation challenge.
Garris: I adapted The Talisman into a two-part miniseries for Amblin that never got made because it’s too many expensive elements, namely King and Steven Spielberg.
Flanagan: I can see that. I don’t imagine that The Dark Tower could happen. That property is daunting. But growing up my favorite authors were King and Christopher Pike, who I’m adapting for Netflix. But in the meantime I’m lucky. I’ve gotten to play in the sandboxes that influenced my childhood as it is.
Garris: I know what you mean. I can say I did The Stand and The Shining and it’s like: What’s the point to aspire to after that?