No one can doubt that Stephen King is one of the best horror novelists ever. However, if you examine Stephen King’s work carefully, you can see that he excels as a novelist but fails as a screenwriter. The best Stephen King novel adaptations were done by other writers (“Misery” and “The Shawshank Redemption”) while Stephen King wrote the screenplay for “Maximum Overdrive” and “Cell,” both which flopped at the box office.
The difference is that novels take place in the mind of different characters while movies occur visually. Read any Stephen King novel or short story and you’ll immediately get engrossed in sights, sounds, smells, and touch of putrid, rotting fungus and sinister shadows in forests of stunted trees. Stephen King’s prose evokes horror in practically every sentence and paragraph.
What makes horror frightening is the unknown, and when your imagination has to conjure the fear, it becomes doubly frightening because each person imagines the worst.
However when you translate horror to movies, now the horror must be visual and that immediately takes the horror out of the imagination and on the screen. Anything seen on the screen, by its nature, isn’t necessarily horrifying. Horror comes from the unknown and the sudden revelation.
In “The Shining,” (the Stanley Kubrick film that Stephen King initially disliked), the greatest horror comes from not knowing what’s going on. One scene shows something flowing out of an elevator. Successive appearances of that scene show more and more of the liquid flowing out of the elevator until we finally realize it’s blood.
Another visual horror scene involves the two little girls. The little boy rides his tricycle around the hotel once, twice, and then the third time he turns a corner and sees the two ghost girls staring at him. This sudden appearance is shocking, and then seeing their bloody bodies win the hall is doubly shocking.
Movie horror relies more on shock and surprise and less on actually seeing something all the time. Once you show horror, it loses its impact. That’s why in “Alien,” the monster was hidden for most of the movie so your imagination could take over. That’s why in “It Follows,” the stalking ghost constantly changes appearance so you never know what it will look like next.
Horror in movies fail when it’s too visible. In “Cell,” people have been turned into zombies through a cell phone signal. Yet there’s nothing particularly horrifying about seeing a bunch of zombies coming at the main characters since we’ve seen this image multiple times in other movies and TV shows. In “Maximum Overdrive,” machines come to life and start attacking people. Once you’ve seen a truck or lawnmower attack and kill someone, adding more gore won’t make it more horrifying.
Describing a truck or lawnmower killing someone in prose is far more horrifying because your imagination takes over. Seeing that same truck or lawnmower killing someone is far more passive so there’s little horror. Horror stems from shock, surprise, and the unknown, which movie horror eliminates once you show the horror.
Horror in movies really comes from suspense. In “The Blair Witch Project,” the witch is never shown at all. Instead, we hear screams at night from a missing character, we see odd sticks on the ground, we see the main characters walking in circles and getting frightened on why they can’t get out of the forest even when they seem to be walking in a straight line. Showing horror immediately drains that item of horror, and that’s what Stephen King’s screenplays fail to understand.
Stephen King’s screenplays focus on showing horror and that simply gets boring after a while even if the special effects are good. We don’t want to see horror as much as we want to experience the impending doom of its arrival. Stephen King’s screenplays bombard viewers with images meant to be horrifying but that just turn out to be another violent scene devoid of any emotion whatsoever.
Watch “The Shining” (the Stanley Kubrick version) and compare it to the TV mini-series written by Stephen King and you’ll notice a huge difference. The Stanley Kubrick version hints of horror such as the man chasing his wife and son with an ax. The Stephen King TV miniseries version tries to show as much horror as possible and drains any suspense out of every scene.
In novels, we can’t see anything so describing horror scenes is terrifying. In movies, we can see everything so showing horror scenes isn’t horrifying as it’s simply watching more gore splatter with no tension or suspense to make that violent scene emotionally engaging.
That’s why Stephen King excels as a novelist but fails as a screenwriter. Stephen King is an excellent novelist because he knows how to engage the imagination. He’s a poor screenwriter because he fails to force the viewer to use their imagination. In place of imagination, Stephen King screenplays simply show horrifying scenes that aren’t really horrifying precisely because we can see them.
Ghosts are scary because you can’t see them. Casper the Friendly Ghost isn’t scary because you can see him all the time so there’s nothing left to the imagination.
Horror is never about showing more gore (dubbed “horror porn”). True horror is about suspense, tension, impending doom, and fear, which you can never create with special effects.
Watch a movie like “It Follows” and you’ll see very few special effects. Watch a lousy horror movie like “Cell” or “Maximum Overdrive” and you’ll see an overabundance and reliance on special effects. As a general rule, if your horror screenplay relies on special effects, you’re probably doing it wrong. Just ask Stephen King if he’s ever written a horror screenplay that comes close to matching any of his excellent and truly frightening novels.