A guide to Stephen King : Pop Culture Happy Hour Stephen King is one of the most successful living writers. He's written more than 50 books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies. And his works have been adapted into a number of classic films, including The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, and It. This month marks the 50th anniversary of his first novel, Carrie, so we are revisiting our guide to Stephen King.

A guide to Stephen King

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Stephen King is one of the most successful living writers. He's written more than 50 books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies, and his works have been adapted into a number of classic films, including "The Shining," "Shawshank Redemption" and "It."

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

And this month marks the 50th anniversary of his first novel, "Carrie," so we thought it would be the perfect time to revisit our guide to Stephen King. I'm Glen Weldon.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. On this encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we are talking about Stephen King.

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THOMPSON: We were joined for this episode by two of our pals - Tasha Robinson, the film editor for Polygon, and Barrie Hardymon, NPR senior editor. Because we are primarily a TV and film podcast, we decided to start by talking about some of our favorite Stephen King adaptations. Here's Barrie.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: So I'm limited when it comes to Stephen King movie adaptations, because I really cannot do horror - like, actual horror. So that makes me the most - probably the most boring member of this group. And that my favorite - I'm not going to say "Shawshank," but my absolute favorite is still "Stand By Me." And guess what...

THOMPSON: Sure.

HARDYMON: ...Guys? I rewatched it recently and it totally holds up.

THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.

HARDYMON: It's really wonderful. And the combination of, like, Rob Reiner's nostalgia with dread...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARDYMON: ...That is King is just - is beautiful. And I, really, I still love it. Totally worth it. So it's based on King's novella "The Body," and it is about a group of tween boys. One of them is Wesley Crusher (laughter) - another thing I had forgotten.

THOMPSON: Yes.

HARDYMON: Sorry, I'm just reading - it's like - it's all...

THOMPSON: He's a...

HARDYMON: ...The first time.

THOMPSON: ...Wil Wheaton, he's, like, the...

HARDYMON: Yeah. He's...

THOMPSON: ...The narrator.

HARDYMON: Yeah, he's Gordie. And River Phoenix - it's like a hilarious Jerry O'Connell. I, for some reason, can't remember the fourth one, but it's someone else ridiculous.

WELDON: It's Corey Feldman?

HARDYMON: It's a Feldman...

THOMPSON: It's one of the Coreys...

HARDYMON: ...It's a Corey.

THOMPSON: ...Feldman. Yeah.

HARDYMON: Anyway...

TASHA ROBINSON: We've got Kiefer Sutherland in there.

HARDYMON: It's...

ROBINSON: Not as one of the kids, but...

HARDYMON: It is a great '80s piece of, like, all the people that you may have had on your wall at some point. But so it's about a group of tween boys who are off to find - they're looking for the body of a boy, and it's really - of another boy. And it's really mostly sort of about their friendship as they wander around looking for it. And it's told from the point of view of Gordie, who I think in the beginning, if I remember - this is a recent watch, but not that recent - who in the beginning, sort of tells you that the futures of these boys are in doubt. Which is actually the thing that then hangs over the whole movie...

WELDON: Sure.

HARDYMON: ...And the book, and it's so gorgeous. Because you keep forgetting about it as they josh and laugh with each other and have this just wonderful boy chemistry. It's just such...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARDYMON: ...Pubescent chemistry...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: ...Just came out. But you know what I mean, that, like, such boy chemistry.

THOMPSON: Well, speaking of pubescent chemistry, that movie came out at the exact right time for me. I felt I was the Gordie (laughter).

HARDYMON: Ah. You felt seen.

THOMPSON: I felt seen.

HARDYMON: Love it.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: From now on, you'll always be...

ROBINSON: Were you with leeches...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: ...At any point during this childhood of yours?

THOMPSON: 'Cause if there's one demographic that is really underserved, it's...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...People who were adolescents in the '80s...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Especially boys.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: So glad they had something for you, really...

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah. I...

HARDYMON: ...Good stuff.

THOMPSON: Good pick though. Wonderful, wonderful movie. How about you, Tasha?

ROBINSON: Well, in the '80s there was this run of, I want to say, really successful both conceptually and as an adaptation of films - "Cujo," "Christine" and "Firestarter." And I saw none of those in the 1980s. I was also afraid of horror at that point in my life. So I came to them late. And I suspect if I'd seen them back when they first came out, I would have processed them as schlock. But there's a schlocky element to Stephen King that I think is one of the reasons he's so successful, and I think we'll get into that in a little bit.

But I think that those three films actually pretty well nailed the humanism of some of his work, the way the characters work with each other and what's actually scary about the story. They're all very low-key, dialed-down films, in a way. And John Carpenter's "Christine" - I mean, it's a John Carpenter movie. It's trashy, but it's immaculately made. All of these films kind of pale, next to a film that is incredibly different in tone, and that's Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." I know that that is Stephen King's least favorite...

THOMPSON: He...

ROBINSON: ...Adaptation of his work.

THOMPSON: ...Hates that movie.

ROBINSON: He hates it so much. And he takes just the cheapest little potshots at Stanley Kubrick at random intervals. I was rereading the Rolling Stone interview, where he explains it, like, in a paragraph, very succinctly. And I understand his points, you know? I understand that it's not exactly the most feminist movie. I understand that Jack Nicholson is too crazy for him from the start, that it's not about the same redemption themes that he wanted in the story. It's not about the slow process of going mad. But it's still - it's a beautifully shot movie. It is utterly terrifying. I think Kubrick just nails the uncanniness that is one of the things that is frightening in Stephen King's work. It's so well executed, both on a storytelling level and on a scares level. It's so gorgeous. I just - I really love "The Shining" as a piece of filmmaking, even if King would fight me on that one.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: So I am not, by any means, a Stephen King expert. I would say - I mean, "Stand By Me" is way, way up there as just a favorite movie in general. I would also call it - and again, this is so obvious - this is not an esoteric pick, but I love "Misery."

ROBINSON: Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And the...

HARDYMON: Yes. But how do you feel about movies?

THOMPSON: ...The intensity, the scares, the relatability. One thing that I think King does well, his plots tend to be, in general - there are exceptions - pretty easy to explain. He is a writer. She is a super fan. She whacks his foot.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know, you get there...

HARDYMON: That's just if you could read...

THOMPSON: ...Pretty quickly. And when you look over the plots of Stephen King stories and the movies that I think have been the most creatively and commercially successful, I think the most successful ones often don't necessarily have an element of the supernatural. If you look at a story like "Misery" is just a person versus a person. "Stand By Me" is a coming-of-age story with a body. There are still horror elements, but they're more everyday. They're more relatable. And I wonder if that is a factor in what makes a successful Stephen King adaptation versus maybe a lesser one or one that, as Tasha said, qualifies as schlock.

WELDON: Well, let me push back on that a little bit, because I think his work often isn't about engaging the loftier, more esoteric brain functions. His work is visceral. And I don't mean that it's bloody. I mean that it is about engaging the body. He wants you to feel the emotion of fear. And he's targeting your emotional center, which is why I think when supernatural evil comes into it, I'm totally there with it, because that's what I want. I want speculative. I don't think he handles the mundane, everyday evil particularly believably because he's not interested in that. When you come up with a school bully or an abusive husband or a hateful prison guard in much of his work, they are just cartoonishly evil, mustache-twirling evil for a very specific reason - because he wants you to feel not just...

HARDYMON: Scary clown evil.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Well, yeah, the scary clown is a supernatural. But, like, I'm talking about the people - the other people in the town because he wants you to feel when they get their comeuppance. In many ways, a Stephen King story is about the comeuppance that the person who has been a jerk for the entire book finally gets. And when it happens...

THOMPSON: Yes, I want that.

WELDON: ...It's incredibly satisfying. But to get there, you need to kind of paint these evil people as capital E evil in a way that just - I don't buy.

HARDYMON: I would agree with you. I do happen to love "Misery," frankly, because she is so cartoonish. But I also recognize her because I'm like, I understand the feeling of superfan and, you know, could certainly - I wouldn't whack a foot but might, like, handcuff to a bed. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: This is taking a turn.

HARDYMON: I know. But I think, for me, the thing - I mean, when we talk about the different kinds of king evil, you know, for me, the best evil that he represents or he does - for me, the book that works the best is "11/22/63" in which the horror isn't really horror, it's just the fact that time marches on. And for me, that was the first time that all of the characters felt more well-drawn, and they were all up against the same thing, which is that Kennedy is going to get assassinated. Time is going to march on. We're going to - and there was that. So that, for me, I can see what you're saying. But, for me, that's where his evil is most successful.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I'm also going to push back on that original statement that - the sort of the less supernatural makes for the better story in King because, well, I mean, I totally agree with Glen that he draws evil humanity very, very broadly and that he is not what one calls subtle. But, to me, what makes Stephen King interesting is, like, he has more of a sense of time and place and ordinariness than any other horror writer I think I've ever read. I think there's a tendency in horror to get so excited by fast forward if you're writing something with monsters or aliens or ghosts or any of the big bugaboos, there is a tendency to want to get to that part. And I don't feel that in Stephen King.

Now, that can make him very discursive. It can make him very wandering. And people have rolled their eyes for literally decades now about his rabbit trails. I love his rabbit trails. I love his character building and his world building. But all of that goes into creating a very dialed-down mundanity that, when something supernatural walks in the door, it becomes all the more uncanny for it. I think where the movies fall down is too many of them are excited to get to the scary stuff and don't really care about the characters.

I've always gotten the feeling that Stephen King cares about his characters deeply, even the ones that get mulched in horrible ways, even the cartoonish evil ones with, like, 15 mustaches that they're all trying to twirl simultaneously. He cares about those characters. And you care about those characters. Whether you want them to die or you want them to live, you get involved in the story. And an awful lot of bad Stephen King adaptations just make the mistake of not trying to make you care about the people or the story, except as cannon fodder.

WELDON: I go back with Stephen King. I read his earlier stuff in high school because I was in high school, and that was the law. And - because I was resisting it, I guess, for a variety of reasons. I began to pick up on what struck me as a sameness. And I started to think, OK, I get this guy. Scary stuff happens in italics.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: So when you turn a page and you see some italics, you know, to kind of gird your loins. And then I thought to myself, OK. That was the moment I thought, I need to branch out and maybe find some writers whose narrative success is not font dependent, and then use some other tools and tricks. And so years passed. and this is how hopelessly bougie I am. He had a story in The New Yorker.

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

HARDYMON: Oh, my God. I can't.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: OK. Hold on. And so I was in Iowa at the time, the Iowa Writers Workshop.

HARDYMON: This gets better and better.

WELDON: My job was to resentfully seethe at anybody who got published in The New Yorker.

THOMPSON: Sure.

WELDON: Especially when it was a promising new voice like Stephen fricking King, a plucky young upstart like Stephen King. And the story was pretty good. Turns out the story was pretty good. It was a riff on "Young Goodman Brown," the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. And I remember just being impressed despite myself. But in terms of his fiction, it just doesn't - it still doesn't grab me. It still doesn't. He is just so much better for me about writing about the process of writing than writing itself.

THOMPSON: But give me a couple thoughts quickly on writing, in case we don't get back to it, because we have many other things to cover.

HARDYMON: Yes, professor Weldon.

WELDON: For both these books, "Danse Macabre" is about horror, not just writing it but reading it and watching it. And "On writing," which, of course, is more about the process of writing the craft.

THOMPSON: The craft.

WELDON: That's exactly the point, Stephen, because this is something - I used to give selections from these books to my students because students who are learning how to write fiction need to read about the craft, not the art. There's enough crap out there in the world about the art of writing and being a writer, and what they need is something that's clear, practical, useful, written in a voice, a very self-deprecating and funny voice that speaks in a way that dissolves the boundaries between the act of writing and being a writer. But reading these books, you get that writing is not an identity. It's an action. It's not who you are. It's what you do. And if more writers were trained on that and had gotten that at a very formative time in their life, we'd have a lot less insufferably pretentious writers in the world right now.

HARDYMON: But the bars would be less full.

WELDON: The bars would be.

HARDYMON: And maybe a little less fun as a person that also has an MBA in fiction.

WELDON: That's exactly right.

ROBINSON: (Inaudible) sales and the sales of leather elbow patches.

WELDON: Exactly. Less Bukowski.

HARDYMON: Right.

WELDON: More King.

HARDYMON: And also it was really important to read the - you should have the draft of the book in three months...

WELDON: Yeah, well.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: ...Which, I know...

THOMPSON: Good luck with that.

HARDYMON: ...But it gave me - it was odd to me because it gave me the feeling, like, you can do this. Like, anyone...

THOMPSON: Exactly.

HARDYMON: ...Can do. It was such a you can do it.

WELDON: That's the point.

HARDYMON: So encouraging.

WELDON: That's what a lot...

HARDYMON: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Of, like, introductory writing things just don't do. It's always this thing that's off there in...

HARDYMON: Right.

WELDON: ...The ether to show that the only thing that's standing between you and that is just sitting down and doing it.

HARDYMON: Is butt in seat.

WELDON: Hugely important.

ROBINSON: That said, I mean, there is a degree to which both of those books - I mean, both of those books do have a certain amount of if one does it the way I do it, then it will get done, and that process doesn't work for everyone.

WELDON: Sure.

ROBINSON: If that was how it worked, everybody else would also have literally 30 New York Times bestsellers.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: Right. And he's...

ROBINSON: But, I mean...

HARDYMON: ...Clearly, like, impulsive.

ROBINSON: Yes, exactly. He's to the point where he almost died, and he said he was going to stop writing, and he couldn't stop writing. He got to a certain age, and he said he was going to retire, and he couldn't stop writing. But "Danse Macabre" has one of my favorite thoughts of all time on the process of writing. He basically says no one is exactly sure of what they mean on any given subject until they have written their thoughts down. I similarly believe we have very little understanding of what we have thought until we have submitted those thoughts to those who are at least as intelligent as ourselves, which is kind of how I feel about coming on this podcast...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: ...Or really, one of the things that I think that those two books really get at is the idea that thinking and talking and living in the world are as important as butt in seat.

THOMPSON: Let's say you've got this Stephen King itch that...

HARDYMON: Oh, that sounds like a terrible Stephen King novel.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: It's like "Thinner."

THOMPSON: It's just called "Itch."

HARDYMON: Right. There's "Thinner" and "Itchy."

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I just want to hurl - have you guys hurl some recommendations to wrap up our segment. I have in my notes here, Tasha wrote down...

HARDYMON: Oh, I want to hear this.

THOMPSON: ..."The Tommyknockers," parentheses, don't look at me that way. I will fight you. So I'm gonna start with you, Tasha, if you want to defend "The Tommyknockers," but also give us a few other King recommendations.

ROBINSON: "The Tommyknockers" is one of his most despised novels. Even he despises it. He says it's too long and wandering, and he would have cut it down. But that book just has some mental byways in it that I find exceptionally beautiful. It's ultimately about aliens, but the path to get there wanders through yet another of King's many, many writers with alcoholism battling his addiction and, in this case, not battling it particularly well. And there's a segment in that book where he's at a poetry reading, and he loses his way.

He's reading his poetry, and he kind of forgets what he's doing. And he stands there wool-gathering and loses his audience and then finds a way to bring them back. And none of that is necessary to the plot. It's one of the better short stories that I've read. So - and that book has just such a sense of the creeping dreads in a way that is one of my favorite things about King. So, yeah, I love that story, and I will, in fact, fight all comers to defend it, including King himself. I think if Stanley Kubrick held him off as long as he could, I can take him.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: To go back and give myself the lie about his supernatural books or his best ones, my flat-out favorite Stephen King book ever, the one that I hand to people who say why Stephen King, is "The Long Walk," which he originally published as Richard Bachman back when he was putting out a bunch of books under a pseudonym, basically just to see if people would still like him if he wasn't Stephen King. And this book is about 100 boys who are set out on a walk with men with guns, and if they drop below a certain speed too many times, they are shot. And whoever - the last survivor gets whatever they want.

It's a very, very slightly sketched future dystopia. I think it's just a masterful example of completely mundane, no monsters, no supernatural, no anything horror that's just about people. King loves his interiority. He loves being in people's heads. And when he does it badly, it's this horrible crutch where his characters communicate psychically and give each other all the answers. When he does it well, again, it becomes just about that scene-setting experience. So "The Long Walk" - all-time favorite Stephen King.

THOMPSON: All right, Barrie. How about you?

HARDYMON: So for a long time, I thought that "The Stand" and "Tommyknockers" and "Gunslinger," which is - that really was Stephen King. And then we interviewed him for his - what was being sold as this big literary novel, which was "11/22/63," which I've talked about a little bit. And it is - it's really, really good. It's the story of a high school teacher who finds a portal back in time in a Maine diner. You don't say it's in Maine.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDYMON: And I will say, also, I do love all the little Derry bits. And I like...

WELDON: Right.

HARDYMON: ...A writer who's got all the little Easter eggs of his thing. And it's a gorgeous book about, you know, what you can and cannot change about yourself. And then the other one I would recommend, which is actually very gory, but I think is a really great short story about childbirth is called "The Breathing Method." And it is the fourth in "Different Seasons," which contains Shawshank, which is called "Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," which you may have heard of, and "The Body," which we've talked about.

And "The Breathing Method," which no one would want to make into a movie ever because it involves a decapitation, is really, really good. It takes place - it's the story - it's another story within a story. A doctor who is at this - in this very odd gentleman's club, which is somewhere in the Dark Tower, I don't know, some - there's some kind of alternate universe happening, tells a story of this patient that he had, a young woman who, in the '30s, gets pregnant out of wedlock and is determined to have the baby and practices his breathing technique, which is an early Lamaze.

And I think that's all I should say since I already said the other thing about what might be in it. But it's really, really moving, and it is horror. I mean, it's gory and weird, and I've read it a couple times, and I still think it holds up as just one of these really, really great allegories of, you know, the horror that is the every day and also how people can survive it even if they don't actually survive it.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Barrie Hardymon. We want to know, what are your favorite Stephen King books and adaptations? Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show.

This episode was produced and edited by Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR FROM NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.

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