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Stephen King at 70: Gerald's Game director Mike Flanagan on adapting his darkness

Part III in EW’s weeklong birthday tribute to the suspense novelist

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Stephen King celebrates his 70th birthday on Sept. 21. In honor of the author’s milestone, EW is presenting tributes to the man whose Constant Readers think of as “Uncle Steve.”

Third up: Mike Flanagan, the director of such horror thrillers as Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Hush. His latest project is an adaptation of King’s 1992 suspense novel Gerald’s Game, starring Carla Gugino as a woman who finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a remote cabin after her husband dies during a sex game. It premieres Sept. 29 on Netflix.

The first King book I read was It. I was in sixth grade, and it absolutely traumatized me.

It also led to my first attempt at an adaptation — my friends and I shot a 20-minute video in the backyard on VHS (we didn’t have the rights, of course, and it certainly won’t hold a candle to Andy Muschietti’s new version, but we had a clown mask and helium balloons and everything!) I began devouring King’s books after that. By eighth grade, I declared him my favorite author, and I didn’t finish going through his library until I was in college.

I was always amazed by his characters. I cared so deeply for the people in his stories, and learned early on that that was why the horror landed so well. The horrific elements of his stories are born of the characters, and he always took the time to build a real, relatable world before the horror elements took hold. The characters felt real, the world felt like our own, and there was no safety net — you weren’t protected in the daylight, your family could turn on you, and children weren’t safe from the monster… in fact, sometimes they were its favorite food.

John Lamparski/WireImage; Smallz & Raskind/Getty Images

His work wasn’t only focused on the horrific that would occur — he was more focused on who it would happen to, and how it would change them.

The Stand, The Shining and Pet Sematary were the books dearest to me growing up. These days, I feel a strong connection to Lisey’s Story (a remarkable exploration of marriage), and The Talisman (I’m constantly shocked that one hasn’t been made into a film yet). I also fell in love with The Dark Tower, which was a dream project of mine for a long, long time.

But the book I wanted to adapt more than any other was Gerald’s Game. I read it when I was 19 years old, and I was floored. I remember putting it down and thinking that it was one of the most frightening and arresting novels I’d ever read, an unflinching dive into the psyche of a remarkably complex heroine… and I also thought it was utterly un-filmable.

Pocket Books

Reading the novel was such a visceral experience, I really yearned for it to exist as a film. I used to carry a copy of the book to general meetings when I first moved to L.A., just in case someone would ask me what my dream project was. It took me years to crack it, and even longer to get permission to work on a screenplay. When I began production on the film last fall it occurred to me that I’d been thinking about that particular film for literally half of my life.

When we finished the film, and sat to watch the final mix for the first time on the sound stage, and all of my work was finally done, I remember turning to my crew and saying “I’ve been waiting to see this film for 19 years.” In that moment, all of my other responsibilities faded away and I got to watch the film simply as a Stephen King fan.

I’ve never been prouder of a film as I am of Gerald’s Game, and when King saw the film and responded so positively, it was the strangest feeling… a mix of professional pride and fanboy giddiness. (Actually, if I’m really honest, it was just fanboy giddiness. I didn’t come down for days.)

I doubt there’s anyone else who has had as singular an influence on me as King. There are a number of filmmakers and writers who have helped form my work, but King has certainly made the most impact. Through his attention to character, his careful narrative structure, and his emotional authenticity, he shaped my entire understanding of storytelling. I can still see that influence in everything I do.

I do believe that people who grew up reading him approach his adaptations differently than some of the filmmakers who adapted his early work. Constant Readers have often read most (if not all) of his work, and the context helps inform their understanding of the story. The themes are sharper, the characters more familiar, and I think there’s more of an instinct to protect his intentions than would be there otherwise.

When you grow up reading King, you want to protect the experience you had with his work. To fail the material is to dishonor that experience, and for a lot of us that isn’t an option.

NETFLIX

His books aren’t simply stand-alone stories — often, they’re connected to other works, sometimes in profound ways. If you’re adapting him and you’re aware of those connections, you’re not just telling one of his stories — you’re part of the King Universe.

I think a lot filmmakers working on his adaptations right now are very, very aware of that, and want to make sure they’re honoring their corner of that universe.

King at 70:

Monday: Part I – Cemetery Dance’s Richard Chizmar hails the master of the macabre

Tuesday: Part II – You author Caroline Kepnes on finding yourself in King’s books (sometimes literally)