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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

How much Stephen King can our quivering hearts take?

As we await the film of Stephen King’s 1992 novel, Gerald’s Game, on Friday, we explores the writer’s multigenerational appeal

Trapped in a cabin in the woods, Gerald’s Game is a psychological thriller Alamy Stock. Kira Volkov / Alamy Stock Photo
Trapped in a cabin in the woods, Gerald’s Game is a psychological thriller Alamy Stock. Kira Volkov / Alamy Stock Photo

The man from Bangor, Maine, who hit 70 last Thursday, shows no signs of slowing down, even as wave after wave of adaptations drawn from his horror canon continue to arrive on television screens and cinemas around the globe.

Stephen King’s latest onscreen manifestation, Gerald’s Game – an original movie available on Netflix this Friday – was long thought unfilmable, because so much of the action takes place in the head of its tormented heroine Jessie Burlingame. She is played with a shocking, animal intensity here by Carla Gugino, known for her work in Spy Kids and San Andreas.

“It took years to find a studio brave enough to make the film the way we wanted to make it,” says screenwriter and director Mike Flanagan, whose creepy credentials include the successful fright-flicks Oculus and Hush.

“On the surface, the story is about a married couple who take a weekend away to try to rekindle the spark they’ve been missing. Tragically, the husband dies during a [marital] game, and his wife is left [trapped in the cabin] and must figure out how to survive.”

Adapted by Flanagan from King’s 1992 novel, the film was shot in 23 days in Mobile, Alabama, with the unlucky husband Gerald played by one of King’s favourite actors, Bruce Greenwood, a journeyman talent known for J J Abrams’s Star Trek reboot.

Unable to free herself, and dehydrating without food or water, Jessie soon starts to fantasise, hallucinate and flash back to grim childhood memories as she weakens, even as a rabid dog with an appetite for human flesh makes its way into her cabin.

But the nifty trick and sweet challenge for viewers is this: what is real and what is fantasy, as her reality blurs into a string of nightmares.

“It’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done,” Gugino says in a Den of Geek! interview. “I love this woman ... you’re dealing with something that has elements of horror but also is really more of a thriller, in the vein of a Misery. And she is also dealing with this childhood trauma ... and those are all tricky tones to

find together.”

Meanwhile, as Pennywise the Dancing Clown does a moonwalk to the studio’s bank, with hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket proceeds from It, we can’t help but ponder the other “Uncle Stevie” shows we’ve braved over the past year, and likewise wonder if King fatigue is likely, or even possible.

When it comes to TV, the series recently aired or in the works include: a time-travel quest to prevent United States president John F Kennedy’s assassination (11.22.63); fogbound monsters from the Id preying upon a terrified town (The Mist); a psychological-horror anthology set in King’s beloved fictional Maine town (Castle Rock); and an ambitious serial killer eager to make his mark (Mr Mercedes).

When it comes to films, as It audiences have seen, or are about to see: an interdimensional gunslinger of the apocalypse (The Dark Tower); a child cult into human sacrifice (Children of the Corn: Runaway); gothic axe-murder horror on a haunted Nebraska farm (1922); and a trapped woman’s primal struggle to survive abandonment (Gerald’s Game).

While King rightly deserves a Croesus-sized payday for his singular imagination, studios and marketing gurus are the enemy as they insist on dragging out and padding his tightly polished stories into mini-series and multi-part movie franchises to shake more gold from

our pockets.

This only serves to blunt, dull and dilute the punch of his dark tales to the point where we wind up with ho-hum confusion and box-office distress (The Dark Tower), plus the mindless insertion of gratuitous characters and surplus subplots (The Mist).

But don’t expect fandom’s love for all things King to fade anytime soon for various reasons. For one, with broadcast networks, cable giants like HBO and streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all crying for original drama – at the last count there were more than 450 scripted dramas on American television – the backlist of a prolific, brand-name author with as many as five decades of bestsellers simply cannot be ignored.

King’s appeal is truly multigenerational; his fans cross many different demographics, from boomers to millennials, which also helps to drive ratings.

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Read more:

Why Stephen King continues to shine, on-page and on-screen

Television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist comes to Netflix

Twitter retaliation: Stephen King blocks Trump from It

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Horror movies can also be relatively cheap to film – a fraction of CGI super-hero blockbusters – and profits are usually forthcoming. Unlike many genres, horror is also best enjoyed as a communal experience, in a theatre of shrieking, gasping viewers.

But perhaps most importantly, the streaming success of Stranger Things – Netflix’s nostalgic nod to the era of E T, Freddy Krueger and the eerie, sci-fi loving Americana of the ‘80s – has been hugely reinforced on the silver screen by the phenomenal earnings of It, now nearing half-a-billion US dollars and still rising, with its infusion of Stand By Me poignancy and childhood camaraderie.

The floodgate of demand has been well and truly opened for even more film and TV recycling of King books into new adaptations that will attract not only aging baby boomers, who pine for a tang of their youth, but also their grown children who discovered King in the ‘90s, and even today’s millennials, who will graciously spend their money for a good scare. For studios and investors, King’s perennial popularity and 1-2-3 generational punch are hard to beat.

Gerald’s Game is available to stream on Netflix from Friday