Stephen King stories will live forever, long after we’re gone and books are a relic of the past.
In the six decades since King began writing he’s published more than 70 novels and 200 short stories, many of which have been adapted into award-winning feature films and TV shows.
From The Shawshank Redemption to Stand By Me and It, major blockbusters have their roots in the Stephen King universe with no signs it slowing down yet. If there’s a Stephen King story yet to be optioned, it’s almost guaranteed to be in the works already.
In the past five years alone, we’ve seen dozens of King adaptations: It Chapters 1 and 2, 11.22.63, The Mist, Doctor Sleep, The Outsider, Castle Rock, Pet Sematary, The Dark Tower and In The Tall Grass, to name a few.
In 2020, we’ll also be seeing an adaptation of The Stand. If you haven’t accepted modern pop culture is the house Stephen King built yet, it might be time to get on board.
At this stage, ‘Stephen King’ has become a genre of its own with multiple TV shows and films spinning out of the horror-filled worlds the author created. You don’t even have to adapt a Stephen King tale to become part of his canon in modern pop culture. In many ways, his works have gained a life of their own.
The recently cancelled Castle Rock was the perfect example of how King’s work have gained a form of sentience.
Castle Rock was an anthology series set in the mythical Maine, written to life by Stephen King — as opposed to the real life Maine, which doesn’t feature nearly as much murder and mayhem.
The first series focused on the arrival of a mysterious Kid who’d been hidden away in Shawshank Prison for 27 years.
If that number feels familiar, it’s because it’s a recurring time period in Stephen King’s books. The creature in It returned to Derry every 27 years — and the same mythology was used for the unnamed Kid. Both characters are played by Bill Skarsgård, but the connection between them is never explained.
Unlike other King adaptations, the first season of Castle Rock wasn’t tied to any one work. Instead, it was ‘inspired’ by King’s works and sought to carve out its own identity within the universe he created. Castle Rock, in essence, was Stephen King fanfiction.
Instead of relying on existing lore, it carved out a story using the hallmarks of the Stephen King ‘genre’: a small town, supernatural happenings, tense familial bonds, strange beings and long-kept mysteries. While not every King tale ticks those box, many of them hew close to this familiar formula.
It’s fascinating because it’s so simple. Characters in Stephen King’s worlds exist in insular locales. They’re coping the best they can with their circumstances, and their stories are hung on relationships. It’s simple, and relatable.
Essentially, Stephen King stories are all about people. Beyond monsters and body horror, people are the real stars of King’s works. It’s why we love them so much.
They’re about struggle, and dealing with the things that frighten us. It remains a popular story (despite its dated tropes) because it’s about growing up and coming into your own. The Shawkshank Redemption is about a man’s struggle against structural injustice. The Stand is about surviving in a devastating global pandemic. Even when they’re about ancient mythical monsters, alien auras taking over people’s minds or killer cars, Stephen King writes about everyday, authentic people. He creates a world that’s just like our own, but a little bit stranger.
Castle Rock expanded on these ideas by focusing on the nature of humanity and what drives people over the edge. It’s a theme King has often played with in tales like Misery and The Shining. In spotlighting Misery’s prime antagonist Annie Wilkes in its second season, Castle Rock expanded on the Stephen King mythos in new ways.
The story attempts to plug the gaps within King’s fiction and weave its own, humanising tale between the pages. Like Season One, it doesn’t seek to adapt King’s work, but creates new King stories where none previously existed. King’s work became an inspiration for the show, but it quickly outgrew the source material to become something else entirely.
It’s a trend that extends back even further, with the creation of Syfy’s Haven.
Haven was a show loosely based on The Colorado Kid, a little-known King crime fiction novella set on the fictional Moose-Lookit Island in Maine. The word ‘loosely’ should be used very liberally when talking about this adaptation because it mostly carved out its own story using the basic structure of King’s tale.
It retained the characters Vince and Dave from the novel — who would serve as minor players until later seasons — and it kept the overall Colorado Kid mystery in the background. The Grey Gull diner from the novel even became a central location in the show — but the similarities stopped there.
The Colorado Kid is a story about two reporters and their intern puzzling through a man’s mysterious death. Haven is about a cyclical supernatural affliction that gives people devastating anti-superpowers.
In one case, a woman’s drawings come to life and terrorise people. Another person’s ability traps an entire town in a snow globe.
Rather than attempting to adapt the story on its own merit, Haven used Stephen King as a point of reference.
In earlier seasons, the writers alluded to King’s work constantly. Series protagonist Audrey Parker has a fear of clowns, and It makes a cameo appearance in Season Two. Shawshank Prison, Castle Rock and Derry are all named as nearby locations.
The opening credits reference Randall Flagg from The Dark Tower. The supernatural affliction haunting Haven (known as The Troubles) returns every 27 years.
Some episodes are even short-form adaptations of King’s lesser-known works. Episode 301 features an alien invasion storyline with ties to King’s The Tommyknockers — the town in this story is also called Haven.
“Love Machine” is inspired by the tale of Christine, the living car. Like Castle Rock, Haven ties itself into the mythology and world-building of King rather than his actual stories. While technically it is a Stephen King adaptation, it largely uses the King formula for its own purposes.
This reverence, and the inspiration King generates, is part of the reason why his works will live on long beyond their publication dates. It’s why his legacy has become firmly entrenched in pop culture.
The worlds he creates and the stories he tells inspire deeper thought. It’s not enough to say Annie Wilkes is a terrifying protagonist, or that the murderer of the Colorado Kid will never be discovered.
Readers want more from King’s stories. They want to know what made Annie so obsessed. They want to know who killed the Colorado Kid. In the spaces between Stephen King’s works are questions, and as long as King remains popular, TV shows and films will pop up to fill that gap.
The world King created is massive and continues to grow, but there’ll always be scope to expand on it. There’ll always be reimaginings and reworkings.
The fictional universe Stephen King built is so entrenched in pop culture it feels real. In many ways, the fictional topography of Stephen King’s Maine feels more authentic to readers than the real deal. It’s a world that feels lived in, and it’s one people will continue to visit, long after his works cease publishing.
At their core, King’s works are about real people. They’re about struggle. They’re often deeply relatable. It’s why we’ll continue revisiting his worlds for decades to come.