Mark Browning, Stephen King on the Small Screen

Posted by Conny Lippert on December 14, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Mark Browning, Stephen King on the Small Screen, Intellect, 2011. ISBN: 978-1841504124

Reviewed by: Conny Lippert, University of Bristol

As a companion study to his own monograph Stephen King on the Big Screen (2009), in which Mark Browning discusses theatrically released movies formulated around a King-based premise, Stephen King on the Small Screen (2011) now deals with television-oriented productions based on material by King. A brief introductory review of the major works on the topic up to the date of publication demonstrates that this is indeed a much neglected area. King adaptations in television are mostly mentioned in passing, if at all, even in those works proclaiming to analyse a wide range of material. Browning thus provides a platform for King’s television pieces to be discussed in their own right and outside of potentially restricting or distorting theoretical frameworks.

Big Screen’s focus on the functions of genre has widely been maintained here, and Browning’s large-scale omission of detailed genre theory, with only a reference to the earlier book for information, suggests that the two works are definitely meant to be read in conjunction rather than as stand-alones. Accordingly, emphasis is placed on the differences between television and film, especially concerning potential implications for genre – another area of study which Browning highlights as particularly neglected in theoretical consideration. While he briefly addresses some interesting general contrasts between film and cinema, as for example the respective social context in which movies are viewed, the works’ generic functions remain the analytical focus throughout. Adaptations made for television or DVD release, as well as those that had a global release so limited, that their primary viewing context is the small screen, are examined here. Thus Browning’s focus is almost exclusively the effect these texts have, rather than the way in which they are produced specifically for their intended viewing context.

Whereas the structuring of filmic texts into chapters according to their generic signifiers was reasonably clear-cut and straight-forward in Big Screen, it has become a little less so in the current work. Dividing the book into six individual parts, Browning tentatively groups the works into generic chapters. Beginning, for instance, with the segment heading “Vampires,” which interestingly includes It (1990), the chapter structure continues to appear more contrived than it did in Big Screen. Following the general stance that King adaptations tend to defy strict generic labelling, this somewhat problematic categorisation works to underline the argument. The second chapter (“Stalk and Slash?”), consisting purely of the Children of the Corn series (1984 – 2009), poignantly “does not seek to rehabilitate the series as masterworks of cinema but to question more closely how the films work and why they exists at all” (p. 57). This is a statement worth keeping in mind for the whole book, as it does not aim to glorify by means of critical attention, but to examine and analyse.

Despite the attempt to create a fairly comprehensive account of the filmic adaptations of King’s work, Browning excludes the so-called ‘dollar babies’ – short movies made by film students, given the rights to a piece of King’s fiction for the token fee of $1 – from his discussion. Neglecting these short movies might seem incongruent with Browning’s otherwise unusually inclusive approach, especially since Frank Darabont, now arguably one of the most successful directors to adapt King’s material, was the first person to produce such a film. While considerations of scope and quality render it a sensible decision to omit the ‘dollar babies’ from Small Screen, the popularity of the generic ‘Stephen King adaptation’ in this context is something that might deserve a closer look in its own right.

Small Screen profits from the fact that some of the most well-received King-adaptations are to be found amongst TV mini-series based on his work; It (1990), ‘Salem’s Lot (1979), and The Stand (1994) prominently amongst them. The book accordingly ponders the question whether King’s narratives might lend themselves to adaptation into a television mini-series format in particular, and if so, why. With this effort, Browning wants to counteract what he calls a “ghettoization” of the format in existing critical treatment of King adaptations. He rightfully mentions the influence television has had on King’s development as a writer. Particularly shows like the original The Twilight Zone (1959-64) have left a detectable imprint on his creative output.

Browning’s Small Screen addresses a gap in King-scholarship which – with its connotations of status-evaluation – echoes often-voiced reservations toward King-scholarship on a general level. Although Browning appears to lose sight of his initial questions throughout the individual chapters and their own conclusions, he manages to eventually return to them and round the book up in the final conclusion. While not every question is answered exhaustively, a number of interesting observations and useful discussion points crystallise out of the book. Regarding, for instance, not only the differences between TV and cinema, but a potential approximation of particular aspects of the two, Browning discusses the increasing frequency of cinematic sequels and their connection to television series in some detail.

While television adaptations of King’s work seem to smack of greater author involvement, they might also be considered ‘safer’ for the producers, as, such goes Browning’s argument, the generic label ‘King adaptation’ speaks to the viewers in such a way, that it becomes one of the last vestiges of the communal viewing experience, by merit of fulfilling viewer expectations (apparently at the same time as defying generic labelling). Curiously, Browning describes increased involvement on King’s part in the actual production of a filmic piece as detrimental to its overall quality. Nonetheless, King’s brand-name quality renders his material a safe choice for television producers and is given as one of the main reasons for the persistent popularity of the King adaptation on television.

This book follows its predecessor in many aspects, which unfortunately includes editing. Whilst written in an accessible and not overly convoluted style, the book on occasion bars itself from readers who lack a sufficient familiarity with King’s works, both in print and on screen. Although it is heavy on narrative recapitulation, it does so in ways still presupposing knowledge of the entirety of the material. This book, potentially even more so than its predecessor, will be of most use to those readers who already bring a certain amount of fluency in King’s material to the table. Whether coming from an academic background or not, this will also be the readership most appreciating Mark Browning’s contribution to the analysis of Stephen King’s work in film.

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