The book is always better than the film! In this week’s From the Mouth of Madness, Felix takes a look at the world of horror adaptations.
Art inspires art: that’s obvious enough, and some of the best films ever created have been adaptations of novels. But is it any different with horror films? Does a good horror actually need to be adapted from a book to be creatively and financially successful, or is it the original ideas that triumph in the end?
Stephen King is the go-to guy when this topic of conversation ever comes up. The debate still rages on about whether we should class his work as ‘literature’ or simply popular genre fiction, but whatever the answer, it can’t be denied that he can tell a damn good story.
Over thirty films (not including sequels) and around ten mini-series each based on a novel or short story have been made and most have been pretty good. The most popular include Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Misery, Cujo and perhaps the most famous of all, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film which the author himself detests, recently proclaiming the character of Wendy to be ‘one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film’.
Then we’ve got The Shawshank Redemption, adapted from the less well-known novella ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’, Stand By Me (‘you guys wanna see a dead body?’) and Maximum Overdrive (directed by King himself). The list goes on. And on.
Cult science fiction author H. P. Lovecraft is another shining example of literature inspiring horror. Though dead for over 75 years (may Cthulhu watch over his remains) his collection of weird tales has been the basis for some of the genre’s classics, most notably the Alien series (concept artist H. R. Giger was a big fan) and John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film with more than coincidental similarities to the 130-page adventure epic ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.
Re-Animator (a re-hashing of Frankenstein starring Jeffrey Combs as the notorious brain surgeon Herbert West) is also a favourite among horror enthusiasts, as is From Beyond, a tale of cosmic horror and extra-dimensional happenings. Guillermo del Toro is also a devotee with Lovecraftian influence running through his films, Cronos and the Hellboy series in particular.
Going back even further to the early 19th century, king of the macabre himself, Edgar Allan Poe has influenced countless filmmakers, but none as prolific as director Roger Corman. His adaptations of Poe’s gothic tales in the 1960s are second to none in how they manage to evoke the author’s archaic settings and insane protagonists, especially when accompanied by the great Vincent Price.
House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death are perhaps his best.
On top of that there are the Universal Studio monsters: the stereotypical and over-parodied Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein movies – all of which have their roots firmly planted in gothic literature.
Then there are also the stand-alone horror classics such as The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Ringu and Rosemary’s Baby which are all relatively faithful adaptions of books, as are The Birds and Don’t Look Now (both by Daphne Du Maurier, author of Hitchcock’s Rebecca). It’s inescapable just how much the horror genre owes to literature.
At the other end of the spectrum there are a great many films of this genre that have very little grounding in literature. The ‘slasher’ sub-genre (the one with serial killers and screaming teenagers) is the perfect example: John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Scream, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not to mention the seven or eight sequels they have each spawned) – there are so many, and virtually none of them are connected to a preceding novel. This may suggest that writers are less keen to spend months of the lives constructing violent and derivative plotlines than filmmakers are, probably because it tends to look better on screen.
Similarly, found-footage horror films like the Paranormal Activity series, The Blair Witch Project and REC have very little literary inspiration behind them because it’s all about that effective home-video quality that these films project and the idea that they are in some way ‘genuine’. It would be near impossible to pull that off in literary form.
In the same sense, the zombie sub-genre is very much to do with visuals (George A. Romero’s Living Dead trilogy sets the bench mark), although in the last decade zombie fiction has become increasingly popular.
Equally, though you might argue that ‘torture porn’ has its grounding in crime thrillers, the Saw franchise and Eli Roth’s Hostel films are both examples of movies where graphic violence takes centre stage, then going on to become some of the most financially successful horror films ever created.
It’s difficult to come to any satisfactory conclusion. It really depends on what you look for in a horror film: if what you want is a good story and multi-dimensional characters, then these aspects can usually (but not always) be found in adaptations – remember when the film of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs won all those Oscars?
It’s certainly not necessary though for horror films to be adaptations for them to be any good; if on the other hand you love to watch people being hacked to bits by chainsaws (as we all do sometimes), then your best bet is to steer clear of anything remotely based on a novel.
It’s Halloween soon – you’d better decide fast or you’ll be stuck wandering whether to watch The Shining or The Evil Dead: a tricky decision to have to make. Or you could just read a book.