The untold story of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg's (almost) collaborations
This is a tale of parallel Steves.
They are about the same age, both are prolific with no signs of slowing down, and both have been profoundly influential for nearly five decades. And even though they began making their marks at the same time, they have never truly intersected.
On April 5, 1974, after honing his skills with years of unsettling short stories, a high school English teacher named Stephen King had his first novel published, Carrie, the story of a bullied teenage girl who harnesses telekinetic powers to exact fiery revenge.
On the same day, Universal Pictures wide-released the jailbreak comedy The Sugarland Express, the first theatrical film from a young director named Steven Spielberg, who’d made his name in TV with chilling movies of the week like Duel, Something Evil, and the Night Gallery episode “Eyes.”
King’s second book, Salem’s Lot, came out four months after Spielberg’s Jaws scared people out of the water in 1975. The year 1977 began with the January publication of The Shining and ended with the November release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nearly every landmark in one Steve’s career is matched by the other’s.
They came close to collaborating a few times but never joined forces — although the generation of filmmakers who grew up as their fans now merge their styles. You can see it in the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things and in director Andy Muschietti’s It, a King adaptation with an unabashed Spielbergian vibe.
“I don’t know how Stephen King and I aren’t related by blood,” says Spielberg, 71. “I cannot believe that part of
Stephen King is not Jewish, and I can’t believe that we haven’t actually made a movie together. I really think Stephen and I have a spiritual connection in terms of the movies and the stories we love to tell.”
In a separate interview, King, 70, reveals that there was one movie they almost did together: Poltergeist. “It didn’t work out because it was before the internet and we had a communication breakdown,” he says.
Spielberg adds,“Yeah, I wanted him to help me out with the script and sort of write it with me, but he was unavailable.”
King never got the message — until it was too late. “I was on a ship going across the Atlantic to England,” he recalls. It took so long to reply that Spielberg moved on.
While the 1982 suburban scarefest went King-less, another of the author’s books caught Spielberg’s interest: 1984’s The Talisman, a fantasy quest through a monstrous alternate dimension that King co-wrote with Ghost Story author Peter Straub.
“Several times he came very close to making it, and there were a lot of discussions about that,” King says.
Spielberg says he still might. He liked the story so much that he bought the rights before it was published, when it was still a work in progress. “I feel that in the very near future, that’s going to be our richest collaboration. Universal bought the book for me, so it wasn’t optioned. It was an outright sale of the book,” Spielberg says. “I’ve owned the book since ’82, and I’m hoping to get this movie made in the next couple of years. I’m not committing to the project as a director, I’m just saying that it’s something that I’ve wanted to see come to theaters for the last 35 years.”
About a decade ago, Spielberg tried to turn the 944-page novel into a six-hour TNT miniseries, adapted by The Skeleton Key screenwriter Ehren Kruger. “At that time it was just too rich for TNT’s blood,” he says. “Then I pulled it back and decided to try to reconfigure it once again as a feature film.”
The Steves have had a few other close calls. In the mid-’90s, they discussed crafting a haunted-house tale set in a sprawling Victorian mansion, but after they shelved it King kept going with the concept and turned it into the 2002 ABC TV miniseries Rose Red.
Years later, through his Amblin Television company, Spielberg executive-produced the CBS TV show based on King’s 2009 book Under the Dome. And there are several shout-outs to the author in Spielberg’s new film, Ready Player One, including a chase through Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining and the killer Plymouth Fury from Christine tucked in among scores of other cars in a giant race.
At some point in the mid-’80s, while King was visiting L.A., the two men’s families did spend a day together, but it was strictly socializing: All play, and no work.
Spielberg brought a toy clock for King’s son Owen (who, last year, co-wrote the novel Sleeping Beauties with his dad). “It didn’t work at first, and he went crazy trying to get it to work,” King recalls of the clock incident. After an eternity of tinkering, they figured it out.
Maybe there’s a metaphor in that. Many years have passed without the two parallel Steves intersecting. But there’s still time to fix that.