Producer: Sebastien Cruz  Director: Daphné Baiwir   Cast: Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, Mike Flanagan, Tom Holland, Vincenzo Natali, Greg Nicotero, Mark L. Lester, Taylor Hackford and Lewis Teague   Distributor: Darkstar Pictures

Grade:  B-

How novels should be transferred to the screen has always been a contentious subject; authors often feel differently from filmmakers on the subject.  Should fidelity to the text be all important?  Or should a director be free to use a book freely to express his or her own vision?  Daphné Baiwir’s documentary focuses on the myriad movies, mini-series and television episodes based on Stephen King’s works over the years, alternating between clips of some of them (along with occasional behind-the-scenes production footage) and clips from interviews with some of the directors who made them.  It’s an interesting approach to King on film, even if the result is necessarily scattershot and its tone extremely adulatory, bordering on the hagiographic.

Baiwir begins with a puzzle prologue designed to appeal to King fans by calling on their ability to catch references to his work imbedded in the journey of a woman to a shop in a small town in Maine to deliver a painting.  It’s done in what appears to be rotoscoping, which gives it a semi-surrealistic air, but isn’t much more than an in-joke; and when it returns to provide a capper at the close, the effect is no better than the lame twists in the worse episodes in “Creepshow.”

Once it gets around to its main purpose, though, the documentary gives directors like Frank Darabont, Mick Garris and Mike Flanagan, among many others, the chance to discuss their interactions with King in bringing various of his works to the screen.  In most instances, he appears to have been receptive to their suggestions for alterations, although they sometimes have to be presented to him gingerly.  Mike Flanagan, for example, tells of King’s antipathy to the idea of making the film of “Dr. Sleep” too dependent on people’s memories of Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining,” which King so disliked that he revisited the book for a mini-series that he wrote himself, entrusting the direction to Mick Garris, a person he trusted from previous work together.  (King even took a small part in the mini-series, as he often did in films made from his books, though from the footage it’s clear he was, whatever his virtues as a writer, a pretty terrible actor.)

The section on “The Shining” is fairly substantial, and tries to be even-handed, because as much as King might have disliked Kubrick’s take on the tale (because, the interviewees suggest, the book was so “personal”), it’s a recognized masterwork by a visionary director, easily one of the most important films ever made from a King book, and underplaying its place in the author’s “filmography” would have been ludicrous.  The segment on the two “Shining”s is ironically also the section of the documentary that most clearly focuses on the different approaches to adaptation: Kubrick used the book as a springboard for his own purposes, while Garris was content to follow King to the letter.  Which adaptation has lasted?

Like the section on “The Shining,” most of the others concentrate on the adaptations that have stood the test of time.  Pride of place goes to Darabont’s two prison-set films, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” but considerable space is also devoted to “Stand By Me” and “Carrie,” though neither Rob Reiner nor Brian Da Palma is among those interviewed; nor is John Carpenter, whose “Christine” is also showcased.  King’s collaboration with George Romero is treated, with the inclination of both to add provocative touches to genre material highlighted, and Taylor Hackford discusses “Misery” in terms of King’s depiction of strong female characters (the author’s wife Tabitha is also portrayed as an important influence in his life—it was she who prevented him from burning the manuscript of “Carrie”—especially in the aftermath of his near-fatal car accident in 1999).  Darabont returns at the close with “The Mist,” paired with “The Stand” as evidence of a prophetic strain in King’s work in view of our pandemic experience.

On the other hand, little time is devoted to the many mediocre (or worse) movies made from King originals, although people involved in writing or directing many of them are interviewed.  They, along with the makers of more exalted ones, discuss how influential King’s stories were in their lives (“It” is repeatedly mentioned as especially terrifying, with the 1990 mini-series a touchstone), as well as the characteristics that make them so attractive to adapt to the screen. 

And throughout the interviewees and Baiwir emphasize King’s collaborative spirit, enthusiasm and good nature.  Apart from his attitude toward Kubrick’s version of “The Shining,” there’s little darkness in his treatment of people to speak of here.

“King on Screen” is not exactly earth-shaking in terms of new material, and one can certainly wish that the editors—Baiwir, along with producer Sebastien Cruz (who also served as one of the cinematographers) and Alex MacKenzie—had been able to mold the material into something better organized and more analytical.  But fans of King and the adaptations of his work should find the documentary, with a nice score by Nicholas Pike, enjoyable if not terribly enlightening.