There is a certain inbuilt snobbery in literature and it is really only a matter of time before you end up coming across it; whilst hardly as prevalent as it was a few years ago – it is still there. What I’m talking about is how genre defines how a book is perceived. If you want an example of how this works in practise, the works of a Mr Stephen King provide a good example. Personally I’ve always felt that King really has been a victim of his own success as a horror writer, because despite his success as a writer he seemed to be limited to critical acceptance within the sphere of horror alone.
Now, please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that King is a bad writer, or even that genre is a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact. What I’m trying to say is that as a horror writer the mainstream critical acceptance of his work has been filtered through critics and a wider culture that has a certain notion of what horror writing is. You know what I mean – the idea, subtle though it may be that whilst King is a very good writer, horror is not quite ‘proper’ literature, the kind of stuff that wins awards and gets labelled as a ‘classic’ with the cool book jackets and the big sales figures. Now as I said, this attitude has receded in recent years but it used to be quite a big deal and for that reason I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen King. It helps that if you strip away some of the preconceived notions about horror you’ll find a writer who is imaginatively and thoughtfully trying to engage with the deepest problems of the human condition. ‘The Shining’ is about fatherhood, masculinity and the scars of growing up. ‘Misery’ when you remove the body horror and torture is about obsession and the burden of creation that artists have to go through, ‘Carrie’ is an insightful study of religion and the struggle of the protagonist’s burgeoning femininity. I could go on, but I hope I’ve made the point that Stephen King is a much more interesting writer than he is given credit for – and whilst his recent work hasn’t matched the power and depth of his earlier novels I’ve always felt that his writing that doesn’t fit in the easy definition of the horror genre shows off his talent to the fullest degree, or rather that when he writes ‘stories’ rather than ‘scary stories’ King finds an audience wider than normal – the people who wouldn’t pick up a horror novel if you paid them!
King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons is an excellent example of his writing away from the rules of the horror genre and it features perhaps one of his most famous works – the novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The text was adapted by King’s pen-pal and close friend Frank Darabont and was released in 1994. It met with limited critical acclaim and a lukewarm commercial response when it just barely made back its budget. It also had the misfortune to be released in the same year as the mega smash ‘Forrest Gump’, so even though it was nominated for seven Oscars it failed to win any of them. Slowly, steadily this film has found a way into the hearts of cinema lovers and now regularly tops lists of best movies ever made.
The key to the film’s success largely rests on two things –one, the fact that it was regularly run on movie channels and TV to good ratings and perhaps the better reason – it is just a great, well told story. Attempting to avoid any major spoilers I’ll explain what the film is about – though it feels strange to be explaining about a film that is just so well-known, but here goes anyway. The story starts in 1947 where soft-spoken accountant Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) has been sentenced to two life sentences for killing his wife and her lover. The evidence against him is circumstantial at best but he is sent to Shawshank prison where he quickly becomes friends with Red (played by Morgan Freeman) and his gang. Andy tries to survive by indulging his passion for rock-shaping, (geology –it ROCKS…..sorry…) but he quickly finds life inside hellish and often brutal thanks to sadistic prisoners and violent guards. Using his knowledge to gain favour from the guards and from the pious but utterly corrupt warden, Warden Norton. Andy uses his skills to make the warden a lot of money, all the while trying to preserve his own sense of humanity and protesting his innocence. How the film ends is something I won’t spoil here but it involves a huge emotional catharsis and some of the best visual imagery for a character’s emotional journey I’ve ever come across. Fundamentally the film is an exploration of human goodness – how one man, in a terrible situation survives and finds a way to remain sane, to remain hopeful and to remain good. It is a hugely affecting piece of cinema, marrying old-fashioned good people with complex ambiguous situations. If you haven’t seen it, it genuinely deserves the title of a modern classic. So, how does it compare as an adaptation?
Really good actually.
What helps is that King is a master of perspective, often at his best when writing in the first person. From a literary point of view, it is quite a restrictive technique, limiting what readers can see but the flip-side is that specificity allows clarity of what he is attempting to communicate. Freeman’s character Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding is the narrator and the clarity of his communication is all down to the quality of King’s writing and his mastery of point of view; the closer King gets to Red’s POV, the more clearly we can ‘see’ the world of the novella – and this helps it translate quite easily to the cinema screen as it is very easy to visualise everything described.
The plot is kept roughly the same apart from a few alterations – for example in the novella Red is actually a red-haired Irish man, something that cleared up that odd bit of dialogue in the movie and a few minor details are altered in the film that help keep the film focused where the book has a little more room to stretch out and explore it’s themes a little more.
To sum up then, this is just a lovely slice of cinema and if anything I hope this has helped open a few more eyes to the range that Stephen King possess. What’s telling is that often the film adaptations of his horror writing have either been very good, (‘Carrie’), nothing like his original vision, (‘The Shining’) or really weak, like ‘The Tommyknockers’ or ‘IT.’ However, once King is allowed to back away from the expectations of his genre, one sees the depth and power of his imagination and in the movie version it translates excellently to the big screen.
Now I realize it may have sounded like I was being a little harsh on the idea of genre writing but that doesn’t make any sense; I love genre writing and I am genuinely excited to see where talented writers like King will take things now that the more elitist notions about the quality of genre works is slowly receding, (largely down to the sheer excellence of writers like King and the acceptance of their works by large audiences.) However as a little side-note I’ll finish by giving a recommendation for a genre series that King has been weaving throughout his career, the thoroughly excellent Dark Tower series – a sprawling and fantastic mythos that allows King to demonstrate the sheer range and power of his imagination. So, if you want to see why the idea of genre novels gaining wide critical acclaim is possible, you could do well to check out this series.
PS. I really *am* sorry about that geology pun…won’t happen again…hopefully…
- The Shawshank Redemption Film Review (filmamir.wordpress.com)
- The Grand Stephen King Experiment: Different Seasons(1982) (tannerwillbanks.wordpress.com)
- Morgan Freeman Gives You That I-Think-I-Can-Vibe (thewishfactor.wordpress.com)
- The Shawshank Redemption – Shawshank Redemption Fans Want Morgan Freeman For Anniversary Event (contactmusic.com)