The King of Television: Stephen King on the Small Screen

In a co-appearance event in 2012 the novelist Tom Perrotta said that Stephen King was the one author in America that everyone–readers and non-readers alike–had heard of. Regardless of how you felt about King or his work, you knew his name and you knew his works.

Few critics anymore dismiss King’s output, which has been prodigious and profound. And more than one commentator has acknowledged that King’s rise as America’s Favorite Boogeyman on the page coincided with a rise as America’s Favorite Horror Master on the silver screen.

the shiningIt’s very much worth noting that King is America’s most-filmed author, and that he had startlingly good luck at the beginning of his career to work with directors as talented as Brian de Palma (Carrie), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone) and John Carpenter (Christine).

What is often left unacknowledged is King’s dominance of another medium: modern television. Particularly, his spectacular success in the mini-series format, which has allowed him to adapt his long, complex novels for the screen and beam them directly into the homes of families across the country.

No other author has so successfully adapted their work for television over so long a span. King’s first appearance came with his second novel, Salem’s Lot, which was turned into a two-part mini-series directed by Tobe Hooper (director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in 1979.

Most recently, King has seen his 1,000-plus page novel Under the Dome  adapted into a three-season television show produced by Steven Spielberg. That’s over 35 years on the small screen, a pretty good run no matter how you measure it.

It’s easy enough to write off television as a medium, but only because TV is so utterly ubiquitous in our lives. Literally, 99% of households in America own a television.

Consider that statistic for a moment. The most popular movie in America last year was Star Wars: The Force Awakens,  which sold more movie tickets than any other film: over 88 million. Impressive, but that’s less than one-third of the populace. True, most people watch movies at home, but the numbers of home-movie watchers tops out around 67% of the country.  Movies, popular as they are, aren’t reaching 99% of the public (and in order to reach the majority of their audience, they need a TV).

Television, by contrast, is viewed for over five hours a day on average. When you crunch the numbers, the average Joe will spend (take a deep breath) nine freaking years of their life watching TV.

This, my friends, is how Stephen King has dominated America.

bag of bonesTake a look at some of these numbers:

  • The Stand:  19 million viewers per episode in 1994
  • Storm of the Century:  19.2 million viewers in 1999
  • Bag of Bones:  3.37 million viewers in 2012
  • Under the Dome Season One:  13.53 million viewers in 2013

This is a small smattering, but the numbers are pretty staggering. Even the low-man on the pole, Bag of Bones, only looks small when compared to its brethren. A novel that sold three-million copies in the course of a couple weeks would be considered a mega blockbusting bestseller.

Other numbers for comparison:

  • Finale episode of Breaking Bad:  10.3 million
  • Finale episode of Mad Men:  4.6 million

These are two of the most popular and critically acclaimed television shows in recent history. But Mad Men  barely eeks out the worst showing for King, and Breaking Bad‘s best-ever night is roughly half of what a King mini-series generally pulls down.

salem's lotThis isn’t meant to be a dick measuring contest, or a debate about quality. For my money, Breaking Bad  and Mad Men  are stunning. The point is simply that when it comes to television, Stephen King rocks it. When his name is attached to a project, America tunes in.

Just as Hollywood has produced both home runs and total duds when it comes to King’s works, television has been no different. The tremendously chilling and brilliantly cast Storm of the Century  is a high-water mark, an original teleplay which King has said worked so well he counted the show as one of the finest things he’s ever done, on par with his best novels.

Also excellent is the oft-forgotten Kingdom Hospital,  which must truly be one of the most bizarre shows ever to grace the screen. Rarely has macabre horror been mixed so splendidly with black, raucous humor. It is an oddly moving and genuinely surprising achievement.

nightmares and dreamscapesPerhaps the single best adaptation, however, is the serial show Nightmares & Dreamscapes,  which showcased multiple episodes from King short stories. It is a testament to what can be done with King’s writing when it is treated with respect, given excellent screenwriters, talented actors and highly-skilled directors. The versions of Battleground  with William Hurt and You Know They’ve Got a Hell of a Band with Steven Weber and Kim Delaney are amazing.

More often the results are somewhat mixed. The overall impression of IT  is disappointing, especially if one has read the novel, which is King’s most complex and powerful novel. Even so, Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the clown has left an indelible mark on both our culture and the minds of children throughout the world.

A similar mixture occurs in the case of The Langoliers, which for most of the series is a disturbing and freaky reworking of a cliched sci-fi trope. But the ending, in which the titular Langoliers finally arrive in all their sloppy awful CGI glory is so ridiculous that it nearly ruins the whole show.

And, of course, there are the total snoozers like Bag of Bones  and Golden Years, which really aren’t worth your time at all.

Regardless of quality, however, what remains is the fact that King and his works continue to speak to generations of filmmakers, both for the big screen and the small. And his particular success on television has granted King a unique place in the pantheon of Great American Authors. He is, as Perrotta noted, the one writer everyone knows.

And much of that is due to TV.

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4 thoughts on “The King of Television: Stephen King on the Small Screen

    1. I did watch King’s mini-series, although it’s been quite a while. I remember enjoying it, although it lacks some of the more memorable and distinctive cinematic elements of Kubrick’s movie. I re-read the novel recently, though, and was once again stunned by what a masterpiece the book truly is. Powerful stuff beautifully written.

  1. I sat through 8 hours of The Shining mini series with my VCR and remote stopping during commercials. I loved every minute of it! I also love the first movie. I see the differences, but as is true with all remakes. I love Shelley Duval and Jack. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, don’t cha’ know.

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