This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, movies like those discussed in King on Screen wouldn’t exist.
King on Screen is a love letter to a horror icon. Daphné Baiwir’s documentary recounts the many film adaptations of works by author Stephen King. Told by the filmmakers themselves, it explores more than the process of adaptation. This is also about why one writer captivated a generation of genre lovers. By fans for fans, King on Screen is hardly objective but the audience it’s meant for certainly won’t mind.
The documentary contains a marvelous opening. Recreated shots from iconic adaptations such as The Shining bring audiences into the viewing. References to the horror author’s vast pantheon fill every second. Through a collage of subtle nods and obvious Easter eggs, King on Screen establishes a tone both grim and playful.
Though it feels like the film will continue in this vein, anyone curious to see how a documentary unfolds in a fictional setting will find the film switching gears to the standard format — interviewees addressing the camera. This isn’t a bad shift. It simply feels like a lost opportunity. Given that much of the film found funding through crowdsourcing, budgetary considerations may be to blame. However, make no mistake, King on Screen looks great from start to finish.
Directed and wonderfully edited by Daphné Baiwir, the documentary pulls together notable horror moviemakers. Genre gourmands will likely recognize some before the average audience. Mick Garris, who also appears in the fictional introduction, is a prominent voice. Besides creating the frightening series Masters of Horror, he’s directed miniseries adaptations of The Stand, The Shining, and Bag of Bones. Frank Darabont is another conspicuous presence throughout. Known for adapting The Shawshank Redemption, he helps bring in the other end of the Stephen King spectrum.
King on Screen does an excellent job of reminding viewers that the ink-slinger is more than a mere horror author. That isn’t to say it (or I) belittles the genre in anyway. On the contrary, the documentary smartly observes the high-quality human elements present in the iconic novelist’s myriad fictions. Works such as Stand by Me reveal not only a writer with a large array of literary accomplishments but help emphasize why his horror is so potent.
As filmmakers express what drew them to King’s dreamscapes, the documentary touches in many respects on the genre’s allure. This indirect exploration of horror is endearing for fright fans such as myself. So many of the accounts sounded familiar, it’s easy to feel akin to the voices on screen. In this way, King on Screen is also partly about what it means to be a fan as well as how that devotion evolves individuals into their present self.
Still, the main emphasis is on films. Like Stephen King’s “On Writing”, which is more memoir than writer’s guide, Daphné Baiwir’s documentary is a glimpse into storytelling. Despite the narrow focus, the mechanics which work best have broad applications. Namely the use of relatable human characters, particularly in pressure cooker situations which force reactions. Plus, the fact that King conceived works as varied as Hearts in Atlantis and 1408 implies why his cinematic universe is well worth investigating. It not only demonstrates the perils and pleasures of adapting literary works but the same hazards and heights of making any movie.
Perhaps the best example of all this is a refreshing conversation about The Shining. Perhaps the most legendary adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it can also be the most controversial, especially given the author’s well-known dislike for Kubrick’s take. King on Screen does an interesting job presenting all the reasons why many believe the 1980 horror movie is an astonishing cinematic accomplishment while simultaneously being a terrible adaptation. There’s never any hate for Kubrick’s version, simply sad eyes from folks who feel the famous director just didn’t get it. Whether every viewer agrees is another matter entirely, but King on Screen deserves praise for including the divisive position.
The documentary serves to a small degree as a history of Stephen King’s rise into a pop culture icon. There’s no denying the author owes the epic heights of his career to films. Initial sales of the epistolary novel “Carrie” weren’t bad but skyrocketed to 4 million copies sold following the release of Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation. And while King on Screen touches on this history as well as tropes and clichés which were fresh when King formed them, it mainly views them in passing.
This is partly due to the middle of the film largely becoming an evening with Frank Darabont. While his accounts of working on Shawshank and The Green Mile are interesting and informative, it seems to have eaten up any time for other directors to share their perspectives. More modern King adaptations like the 2019 Pet Cemetery by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer tend to get left by the wayside. Still, King on Screen abounds with interesting anecdotes for film buffs. Those who love to have insider tidbits like how a prop in 1408 connects to The Shining will have a field day.
Sadly, some stories can only come secondhand. George A. Romero collaborated with King on Creepshow and other works, but having passed away, the dearly departed is remembered by those who knew him well enough to share his side. In that respect, King on Screen reveals how, in many ways, it’s friends of the author recounting their relationship. Perhaps that negates any objectivity but a film like this is unapologetically slanted.
King on Screen isn’t so much a documentary as a love letter to an author who continues to inspire many. It has minor flaws such as audio that needs better balance but overall, Daphné Baiwir presents some fascinating insights into why filmmakers are drawn to the author. The film is ultimately less about King the person and more about the creative reaction to him. Additionally, it reveals what makes for compelling storytelling. Stephen King fans certainly shouldn’t miss it, but casual viewers will likely enjoy King on Screen as well.
KING ON SCREEN hits Theaters August 11th and is available On Demand and Blu-Ray September 8th.