EXCLUSIVE: From 'Mr. Mercedes' to 'Dark Tower,' Stephen King Is Having a Moment

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Since his 1974 debut with Carrie, the author has long been one of the most recognizable names in horror and science fiction. And with so many film and TV adaptations of his work hitting the screen in 2017 alone, King's influence and unique voice has never been more pervasive.

"I like to tell people that Hollywood is celebrating my 70th birthday," says Stephen King, who turns 70 in September.  

In 2016, Hulu seemingly kicked off a resurgence of King’s work on screen with 11.22.63 starring James Franco and Chris Cooper. This year, Spike TV followed with The Mist, which is halfway through its 10-episode run, and AT&T’s Audience network is taking on Mr. Mercedeswith David E. Kelley writing and Jack Bender directing. Meanwhile, Netflix is producing film versions of Gerald’s Game and the novella 1922. In theaters, the long-awaited adaptation of The Dark Towerstarring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey arrives on Aug. 4, and Pennywise makes his return with It: Part 1 – The Losers' Clubon Sept. 8, with a reported sequel, It Part 2: Pennywise, slated for 2018. And Hulu will bring King’s prolific multiverse to TV in 2018 with the J.J. Abrams-produced Castle Rock starring Sissy Spacek -- the actress who helped start it all -- and Andre Holland. 

While you could credit this wave to “peak TV,” nostalgia or Hollywood’s appreciation for the author, King admits that it’s mostly a serendipitous confluence of circumstances with long-in-the-works projects finally seeing the light of day. "What really happened was it was just coincidence. All these things came to fruition at the same time. And it's great," he says. "There's such a huge market for material on TV and in the movies that I was just sort of the beneficiary of a seller's market."

With so many high-profile projects in production, there are two things that would worry most authors: quality control and oversaturation. But for King, he says there's no point in worrying about those elements, and he just does what little he can to foster what’s needed to make sure everything is as good as it can be. "The way you try to maintain quality control is that you OK good people who want to be involved. And if the people who are involved don't have such a great track record, you say, ‘Thank you very much and maybe somewhere down the line we can do something else,’" he says.

When it comes to Mr. Mercedes, in particular, Bender wanted to be involved soon after the author sent him gallies of the 2014 hard-boiled detective novel. "He directed a great many episodes of Lost. He's a real workhorse and he's very talented," says King, who met the director when he was on set for an episode of Brian K. Vaughan’s TV version of Under the Dome. "He cares about the product and he's just not churning out the movie of the week or something. He's good, he's committed to what he's doing."

As for oversaturation, King says he's no stranger to quips about his prolific body of work and the occasionally lackluster adaptations that have come about in the past. "I'm sure that there will be some piece in newspapers and on TV and magazines where they'll say, ‘Geez, all at once this guy is everywhere.' And there will be some jokes about it and all that stuff. And I can't do anything about that. It's just the way that it happened," he says, admitting that his own writing has slowed considerably to producing one book a year.

For King’s part, the author doesn't feel the mad pressure or panic to produce content like he did in the mid-1980s, which saw at least two films or TV shows based on his work released each year from 1983 to 1990. "If I'm struck by an idea, I wanna chase it as much as I can. But I'm not as fast as I was," he says. "[Back then] everything was just coming out at a furious pace."

In 1976, director Brian De Palma directed the film adaptation of Carrie, which went on to earn two Academy Award nominations. Since then, King's expansive body of work -- including 56 novels, 10 short story collections, five nonfiction tomes and a slew of other short pieces and essays -- have been adapted into more than 100 films and TV series. While many of them -- The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me and Misery, to name a few -- have been commercially successful and critically beloved, there have also have been a number of critically derided adaptations that didn't exact capture the spirit of the source material. 

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However, King's philosophy is, essentially, to let the creators do what they need to do and just hope for the best. "It's a little bit like sending a kid off to college. You give them $25 and say, 'Go on out there and be a success and try to not get into trouble,'" he explains, reiterating a sentiment he expressed in a 1983 interview with ET, where he suggested that his stories not go out, get drunk and get a sexually transmitted disease.

When it comes to the lesser received projects, King’s learned how to handle those delicate situations. "Sometimes it doesn't work. I don't talk about those things. My mother taught me as a kid that if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all," King reflects. As an example of what is worth his time, the author says the best compliment he can pay to any project is to publicly promote it with interviews, like he’s doing by talking to ET about Mr. Mercedes, when he doesn't really need to.

"If I think the product is something that's not going to reflect well on my work, I'm like, 'Thank you very much, I'm too busy.' If it's quality, you're never too busy. You want to be a cheerleader and shout about it and say, 'Look, this is really good! Go see it!'" says King, who signed on to be an executive producer of the Audience network series after watching an early cut of the pilot. 

MORE: On Set of David E. Kelley's Anticipated Adaptation of Stephen King's 'Mr. Mercedes'

One of the problems that many adaptations face is bringing the complex world and character depth of King's voluminous tomes into a format that's appropriate for the screen. It's hard to condense hundreds (if not thousands) of pages into a two-hour format -- or even six to eight hours, in the case of a limited series.

Because of this, producers and writers often have to make some pretty dramatic changes from the source material, which can often leave fans, and King himself, a little cold. "If it doesn't work, then you just keep your mouth shut and say to yourself, 'Well, that was a good effort but it didn't work,'" he says, adding that when it does “then I'm down with it.”

One example the author recalled in which a change benefited the story is a scene from Misery, when Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) has kidnapped author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and is forcing him to write a new novel. In the book, Annie uses an ax to chop off Paul’s foot, but in the movie she hobbles him with a sledgehammer. “That's the scene that people remember," King says, adding that in that instance, the change was great. "I love that when it happens."

MORE: Stephen King's Greatest Film and TV Adaptations, Ranked!

In the case of the Dark Tower series, it’s fitting a sprawling, vast world of eight books into multiple installments of a film franchise, and the director and co-writer of the first film, Nikolaj Arcel, admits “choosing what to bring into this story and what to leave out for possible later installments presented the biggest challenge.” Having grown up on King’s work, “you learn more from the misfires,” he says, adding that an adaptation “that stays real and grounded yet still manages to be about the otherworldly is halfway there.” 

Like Bender, Arcel says that the best ones retain King’s “strong and incredibly fleshed out” characters. “In Stephen King’s hands first and David Kelley’s hands second, these characters just jump off the page,” Bender says, adding that his goal was to direct a character-driven show, not just a genre series. 

“I’ve always thought that if you care about the characters you care about what happens in that story,” King says, praising Kelley and Bender’s work in particular. “You see what can happen when creative people are given time to actually develop a story and watch it unfold. That’s what happened on Mr. Mercedes.”

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In 2002, after King was struck by a van and nearly died, he announced that he was retiring after finishing the Dark Tower series. King told reporters at the time, "You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you've been, and basically recycle stuff." Since then, he has published more than 17 new books and, upon hearing what he said 15 years ago, he admits that he's discovered other rooms to walk around in. "Some of the rooms were under construction years and years ago. Books like Under the Dome and 11.22.63, I had ideas for when I was a lot younger and I just didn't have the creative reach to bring them off. So I just kind of set them aside and let them be," he explains. 

"You get a lot of ideas when you're a novelist and you're working on a project, you can't necessarily get to all of them. And people say to me, 'Do you keep a notebook?' I don't, no. Because my feeling is the bad ideas will just sort of fade away and the good ones will stick around forever."

Recovering from his extensive injuries, King says he didn’t know if he was going to be able to continue writing in the same way he once did. "But I got better, and, luckily, the creative urge stuck with me so I'm going to work as long as I can.” Not only did he finish the Dark Tower series, he also wrote 11.22.63, Mr. Mercedes and Under the Dome -- all of which have been adapted into TV or film. 

Arcel says King's impact on him and other creatives cannot be overstated; he's left an indelible mark on an entire generation. "He's one of the greatest storytellers of our time. There seems to always be a new generation of filmmakers who grew up loving his work intensely," he says, adding: “He is an incredibly artful and heartfelt writer who just happens to love telling highly entertaining tales. That’s a rarity and it makes his work very timeless.”

While his legacy and his place among the titans of the literary world is something that King finds himself occasionally contemplating, he doesn't let the thoughts sink their claws too deeply into his psyche. "Every now and then, as I get older, the thought occurs to me: What will people think when I'm gone? Will anyone still read these books? Will I have made any lasting impression at all on literature?" King admits. "And what I say to myself afterward is, Shut up about it and get on with your job."