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Clowns, Langoliers, and Tommyknockers: Appreciating “The Stephen King Miniseries”

on September 05, 2019, 7:30pm

Some argue we’re in “the new golden age of the Stephen King adaptation.” It’s not hard to see why: Back in April, Paramount had some fun again with Pet Sematary, this weekend sees the release of It: Chapter Two, the Avengers-sized blockbuster sequel to 2017’s smash-hit adaptation, and come November, we’re getting an adaptation of The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. It’s just as busy and even more pervasive on television. Not only do we have Hulu’s Castle Rock, Audience’s Mr. Mercedes, and Shudder’s forthcoming Creepshow series, but Kingian works such as Stranger Things have also tapped into our nostalgia-hungry cultural zeitgeist to significant pop culture impact.

In a sense, this isn’t particularly revelatory. Stephen King has long been a player on the cultural stage, having been the grandpappy of literary horror since the ’70s. Today, however, we’re seeing a second generation of creators who grew up on his works, delivering his particular brand of scares to a whole new audience, and through a spirited range of mediums and platforms. Though, as we’ve seen over the past few decades, Stephen King adaptations take on many forms, shapes, and sizes; after all, he’s the most adapted living author of our time. Yet one particular sub-genre that’s oft-ignored today is the most curious and fascinating of ’em all: the Stephen King TV miniseries.

The peak era for the King mini (as we’ll call them henceforth) began with Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of Salem’s Lot for CBS and continued up until the 2002 ABC ratings-hit Rose Red. (Yes, there have been other minis since then, but the less said about Bag of Bones, the better.) This particular stretch was the era of the epic miniseries, back when network television attempted to catch up with the scope and size of feature films with three-to-six-hour parables. It was a popular format, too, thriving from the culturally relevant source material and all the star power a TV budget could afford. King was an understandable target for these tentpole events — his works are best-selling horror stories that feel innately cinematic — and he wrote a lot of ’em. So, all throughout the ’80s and ’90s, King not only haunted theaters, but living rooms, too.

Rest assured, the two mediums are worlds apart, and there are a few things you have to swallow in order to truly stomach the tone of a King mini. They essentially amounted to lengthy soap operas that were constrained by minimal budgets and totally neutered by network censors. Budget-wise, the gulf between TV and film doesn’t seem very wide, at least not on paper. After all, ABC’s The Stand miniseries was made for $28 million in 1994, which was only three million more than it took to make The Shawshank Redemption that same year. The most obvious difference is that one is a sprawling road trip through an apocalyptic world beset by a mysterious plague stretched out to a 366-minute runtime, while the other is a sensitive prestige drama that was mostly relegated to the confines of a stony prison … and took less than half the time to tell.

That difference speaks to the paradoxical sweep and scope of a King mini, though. While most of the best, most acclaimed King movies are stripped-down horror thrillers or slightly supernatural dramas, the King mini was often tasked with world-ending stakes. It told a decades-long tale of a group of friends reconciling their childhood trauma with their adult selves while fighting an inter-dimensional spider-clown. The Stand took us on a nation-wide journey through the end of the world. The Langoliers dabbled in Lovecraftian ideas of dimensions and world-eating monsters. All of these were told on a TV budget with network censors hacking through every curse word, every gory kill, and any whiff of sexually suggestive material. In other words, it wasn’t easy for the likes of Mick Garris and Tom Holland, who were given with these Herculean tasks.

And yet, the Golden Age of the King mini saw some of the best adaptations of his works ever dedicated to screen. There’s a reason Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 ABC miniseries of It is still hailed as one of the seminal King adaptations of its time. Through all of its comparative visual blandness and garish ‘90s fashions (woof, Richard Thomas’ ponytail), Larry Cohen’s script structured the 1000-page novel into a truncated, but effective adventure with as many genuine scares as they could push on to a primetime TV audience. Let’s not forget Tim Curry, whose unforgettable turn as Pennywise became the creepy clown to end all creepy clowns. And while the pacing is a bit leaden, and the effects don’t quite match King’s ambition (a common problem with the King mini), It remains largely the gold standard by which a King mini should be measured.

Occasionally, the King mini gave the man himself a chance to redress shortcomings he perceived in some of his more famous adaptations. After disapproving of the dark departures Stanley Kubrick made to The Shining, King took it upon himself to directly re-adapt his own book. In 1997, Garris and King turned in a six-part miniseries to ABC that paints Jack Torrance (a devoted, post-Wings Steven Weber) as a good man driven to madness by the Overlook Hotel as opposed to the innate toxicity observed in Kubrick’s vision through Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance. While the miniseries has its own cadre of defenders, the entire production mostly serves as a fascinating glimpse into the limitations of an adaptation, namely the rewarding notion that being faithful to the source material doesn’t always guarantee a better product.

To be fair, not too many King minis hold up well upon re-watch, especially given the hindsight of a decades’ worth of Peak TV and cinematic King adaptations. The Stand, for all its bombast and A-list performances, is even more leaden than It at six entire hours, leaning heavily on some of King’s creakier stereotypes (note: If you’re a little kid, or a minority, or someone with a disability in King’s Dominion, best believe you’ve got super-special psychic powers). All the while, both The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers lean on some really dodgy effects and their supernatural baddies look, respectively, like a dried-out Grey alien and a Swedish meatball with chainsaw teeth. Hell, at one point in The Tommyknockers, Traci Lords disintegrates two people with a lipstick death ray, and it looks like something right out of the original Star Trek. Not a compliment.

And there’s something in the water that brings out halting, ridiculous performances from even the most skilled actors. Bronson Pinchot’s screeching business boy Mr. Toomey in The Langoliers is a prime example (“I lost 43 million dollars, and I did it deliberately!”). On the other side of the coin, there are the bland King analogues — your Tims Daly, your Stevens Weber, your Garys Sinise — who don’t get to do much besides drink and offer up doe-eyed prompts for exposition. Collectively, these King mini-casts all feel comprised of community theater thespians, which is both oddly charming and downright distracting.

Still, there are diamonds in the rough, especially when it comes to King’s baddies and madmen. We’ve already touched on Curry’s impish, manic Pennywise, but Colm Feore’s turn as sinister devil figure Andre Linoge from 1999’s Storm of the Century is one of the downright creepiest performances in the Stephen King canon, a sneering, controlled sociopath determined to tear apart a small community by pointing out the sins that lie at the heart of mankind. No one can deliver lines like this with the same reptilian relish:

All in all, the King mini lies within a fascinating subset of the world of Stephen King adaptations. They’re ambitious relics of a bygone age. Sometimes, they worked; oftentimes, if we’re being honest, they were duds. But the King mini, for good or ill, remains a beautiful artifact of the time when 19 million people could be expected to watch the same thing on the same station at the same time (as they did for The Stand), and we didn’t yet have the tools to tell perfectly feature-quality stories on the small screen.

Things change, though: Given the success of It, many of these minis — be it Salems’ Lot or The Tommyknockersalready have filmic remakes in development. What’s more, miniseries are finding a second life in the age of Peak TV, which should give King’s works the production value and time they deserve. Next year alone will see Josh Boone’s star-studded reimagining of The Stand on CBS All Access (with Marilyn Manson, no less) and Julianne Moore bringing King’s 2006 novel Lisey’s Story over eight episodes for Apple +.

In the words of the man himself, sometimes they come back.

Revisit each miniseries discussed with The Losers’ Club below:

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