Once and future King

Stephen King's work has inspired dozens of horror movies, but now The S hawshank Redemption has delivered the biggest shock of them all. Nick Hasted re ports

"Plain fiction for plain folks," Stephen King says of his work in the afterword of Different Seasons, his 1982 collection of novellas. "The literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries." He's right: King's books are seen as junk-food literature. Time magazine crowned him "The Master of Post-Literate Prose" in 1982 and the slur stuck, like his other tag, the King of Horror. The smallest story he publishes is filmed, but almost all of them have been horror flicks of minimal merit. Until, that is, The Shawshank Redemption. That King should be responsible for this literate and quietly profound prison drama about the friendship between two very different men (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) was a shock even to the film's producer, Niki Marvin, who has admitted she was "really surprised by the delicacy of the piece". And the story of how this writer has managed to survive and reinvent himself, like the cowed heroes of his latest film, is as strange as his fiction. If the rumours of Oscar nominations for The Shawshank Redemption prove true, it may even end happily.

In 1972, Stephen King was a dirt-poor laundry worker, dreaming of a life in the lineage of American Realists from Dreiser to Robert Bloch. By night, in the furnace room, he banged out a serious novel: Carrie, the story of a persecuted high-school girl with psychic powers. It was bought for a near record sum in 1973 and filmed, by Brian De Palma, in 1976. Electrifyingly manipulative, garish and daring, its success sent a jolt through King's life.

That same year, he wrote The Shining, which in 1980 was gutted by Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson for another film. By 1983, 40 million of his books were in print.

The acceleration was shattering. And King's dreams of literary acceptance were gone, dashed by papers like The Village Voice, which caricatured him as a dollar-typing weasel. Showered with riches and insults, he wrote. He hammered out novellas, novels, comic books, short stories, literary dissertations, haunted cars, biting clowns, mouldering children: 25 books by 1990. And in his rush, the even quality of his early work cracked. Before, he had just been a writer. But that was no longer true.

King was now read by people who read no one else, people astonished to find writing they could grasp. "I know the words in this book!" was a typical reaction. His original constituency, horror fans, observed him uncertainly, but others grabbed his books regardless, from supermarket bins and other low places. Film producers, too, snapped at the rights, although the consistent failure of these King adaptations was part of the reason that Hollywood turned away from horror until this year.

Still King's words were filmed, because what was being leeched was not money, but his name. By the mid-1980s, "STEPHEN KING" was no longer just a man who wrote books, but a phenomenon: a brand-name as comfortable as Levi's and (like that of his only cultural equivalent, Steven Spielberg) slapped on the front of films with which he had the vaguest connection. He could, he noted, now publish his own laundry list. In fact, he could do anything he wanted. What could he do?

He became someone else. In 1985, King revealed that, since the late 1970s, he had been releasing early novels under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman. "Bachman" was a misanthropic, violent ex-marine and, at King's insistence, his novels were released as "justplain books" - the unpretentious paperback originals to which, for all the speed and effort of his output, King had never been able to return, even in spirit. He had written more than the market could bear, he explained, and he wanted to test out his status: was he a bestseller from talent, or luck? In fact he had just finished a novel which he had hoped would give "Bachman" a shot at the big time before the secret came out.

In 1987, King published this novel under his real name. It was Misery, about a "serious" novelist, Paul Sheldon, who has fallen into writing bestsellers. Sheldon has just gleefully killed off the bodice-ripping heroine whom he resents for giving him fame, only to be snared and hobbled by the heroine's Number One Fan, who makes him write a new romance. As he types away at a narrative which should be absurd but which soon has him in its grip, Sheldon not only sustains himself, he also gives new life to the weary King.

King had fashioned Misery into a rivetingly post-modern horror story about the writing of a popular novel. He snatched his talent from the insane success that had seemed about to swallow it by making that very success his subject. And through Sheldon's return to popular fiction, he also fiercely embraced his own talent's mass appeal. In the teeth of derision, Misery was King's case for his defence.

He slammed the point home in The Dark Half. Begun, like Misery, as a Bachman book, The Dark Half was finished under King's name. In it, the "serious" writer Thad Beaumont disowns his bestselling pseudonym, George Stark, only for Stark to come to life andstart his own savage book. King had fictionalised his own predicament and turned it into art.

Even films now worked in his favour. Rob Reiner's movie version of Misery (1990) had the sense to strip the novel of its creative discursions in favour of its physical tension, boring in on Sheldon's helplessness. An enormous hit and Oscar-winner (for Kathy Bates as the Number One Fan), it eased millions into the book's strange spell. George Romero's The Dark Half (1992) was by comparison a failure, but its very existence served to cement mass acceptance of King's provocative new turn. In 1992 he sued for the removal of his name from The Lawnmower Man, at last finding a "Stephen King" film too dreadful even for him.

Dolores Claiborne followed, in 1992. For the first time since Different Seasons, a decade before, King abandoned horror and the resulting book was one of his very best. The confession of an abused wife, told in the voice of "plain folks", its shockingly stark tale of revenge was a revelation. Reviews showed surprised respect, discovering in the book's remorseless monologue the skills of a born novelist. King's vindication was upon him at last.

Given this background, The Shawshank Redemption shouldn't surprise anyone. In its seriousness and respect for its source novel, it merely adds to the march of slow acceptance that Misery began. Its wistfully brutal tone and even its words are his, in a way that only Rob Reiner's Stand by Me had come close to before. When a convict sighs of "time that draws out like a blade", and when Tim Robbins whispers, "Do you trust your wife?", it's King that you're hearing. Best of all, it brings King's narrative spell to the cinema, stripped of all encumbrance, spinning a tale that grips. "Plain fiction" it may be. Hamburgers it isn't.

n `Shawshank' opens on 17 Feb

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?