Red Fury: John Carpenter and Stephen King Turn the Corner

By Michael Crosby

Credit: ElTibur0n

By 1983, both author Stephen King and filmmaker John Carpenter had become well-established leading voices in the horror genre.

Stephen King had written his way to the top of the heap; by now, he was firmly established as the brightest light in the genre with an absolutely amazing number of projects becoming not only best-selling novels but critically and commercially successful films with even more potential projects on the way. Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976), Tobe Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1979), and Stanley Kubrick’s epic and divisive The Shining (1980), had established King as not only the leading horror author of the time but one of the bestselling authors of all-time, regardless of genre.

John Carpenter’s career as a filmmaker began taking off right around the same time as King’s career as a novelist. In 1976, Carpenter’s debut effort, Assault on Precinct 13, attracted good notices from critics and film festivals but little in terms of profit. His next film, built on the burgeoning wave he had created with Assault, guaranteed his place on film for all time. Halloween (1978) was the kind of success that stunned the industry and basically created its own genre. Carpenter would continue to deliver a string of successful and culturally significant efforts for the next 5 years by directing films such as The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and writing/producing/composing music on Halloween II (1981) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Then came Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982).

Fresh from his early successes, Carpenter was hired by Universal to helm a remake of their title, The Thing, which had been a fair hit in the 1950s for the studio. Directed (some say nominally) by Christian Nyby and produced by one of Carpenter’s main influences, Howard Hawks, the film (then in the public domain) had played on TV screens within Carpenter’s film Halloween as part of the Halloween horror marathon being played by a local TV station. Originally a novella by John W. Campbell entitled Who Goes There?, the Nyby version is heavy on the melodrama and a bit light on the story’s darker aspects of paranoia and cabin-fever. Carpenter, it can be argued, fixed all that. Audiences, and especially critics of the time, disagreed. The Thing was a flop, and suddenly the heir-apparent Carpenter had an enormous debacle on his bio, despite the fact that it would be eventually hailed as a masterpiece over time.

King was entering a period where he was basically the golden boy. Everything he touched succeeded one way or another. His first half-dozen or so novels and collections had all been bestsellers: Carrie (1974), Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), Night Shift (1978), The Dead Zone (1979), Firestarter (1980), and the novella collection Different Seasons (1982). Even his initial foray into filmmaking, Creepshow, had been a success in the fall of 1982 for Warner Brothers and collaborator/director George A. Romero.

By the spring of 1983, both of these icons were at creative crossroads. King had both nothing left to prove (by his own admission, he could publish his laundry list and it would still make money), and Carpenter was at this point essentially treading water, looking for the best deal he could find.

Enter the common denominator in this puzzle: producer Richard Kobritz.

Producer Richard Kobritz and director John Carpenter on the set of ‘Christine’ (1983).

Ultimately, the fusion of King and Carpenter into Christine (1983) would prove to be a successful one. It’s fascinating to see these two talents mold something, pass it off to each other, and riff on it. Though wildly different in tone and execution, there is much in the material that seems to speak to them both. While much of the novel is largely jettisoned in the film version (a function of both creative and budget), much is carried over, or even improved upon. Let’s look at this for a moment. Slide our hand up underneath the body bag, so to speak.

Contrary to many critics’ feelings at the time, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips actually kept much of what made King’s novel work so well: placing it in the time period of 1978 (ironically the time of Carpenter’s own Halloween film), shooting the film in similar California suburbs standing in for Libertyville, Pennsylvania, and the 1950s rock connection. Even Arnie’s transformation took place at key points including when he first sees the car, when he deals with LeBay and Darnell, when he argues with his parents for the first time most poignantly, when he falls in love with Leigh, when he is mercilessly bullied, and when he turns on Dennis. The fact that Carpenter and Phillips turned in as effective a draft as they did, after distilling the novel of 400 pages to a fraction of that, is a testament to their abilities.

Where King can differ so successfully is in the scope afforded a novel and a simple difference of point of view very similar to the one present in Kubrick’s The Shining. In essence, both The Shining and Christine novels are exploring similar themes. They are both about ghosts, and in King’s view, ghosts are simply the past and always bound to haunt our present selves constantly. Much was made in critical circles of the time of how writing a novel about a haunted hunk of steel was the ultimate in shameless pandering to a troglodytic base of fans. A haunted car?! They were horrified that their New York Times Bestseller List was being cluttered up with such drivel.

While Carpenter, for budgetary reasons alone, couldn’t recreate the set pieces of the novel, he did Hella-well with what he had. Carpenter’s largest contributions are in terms of cinematography, pacing, editing, score, and casting. Casting is one situation where the film flexed its wings. As someone who loved both King and Carpenter and was invested in this project as both a novel and a film, I can’t tell you how positively I responded to Keith Gordon’s casting. He completely embodies and inhabits that character from a nerdy kid to Christine’s cool accomplice. The supporting cast is off the charts. Roberts Blossom, Harry Dean Stanton, and Robert Prosky are a hit-list of amazing character actors.

Director John Carpenter (R) on set with actor Keith Gordon (L).

King’s novel benefits most in terms of scope and imagination. Characterization too. There is so much raw material to work with that it’s simply impossible to convey it in a screenplay. Arnie’s relationships are so fleshed-out in the novel that they become nearly off-putting in the final film. In particular, the Thanksgiving scene seems rushed. In the space of King’s novel, it takes several months to move the characters from point A to point B. In the film, it takes about 20 minutes. One of the strongest points of the novel is the winter / Christmas / NewYear’s atmosphere in it takes place. Impossible in the film, the novel takes advantage of the setting. Christine manipulates icy roads on her own, chases her oppressor Buddy Repperton and his friends into a snowy graveyard and murders them, and then barrels her way through a house in a blizzard to kill Darrell in what is arguably the biggest unused set piece. Carpenter’s version of Christine has so much to offer. There isn’t any doubt about that. The “Christine Attacks” theme alone is worthy of Hall of Fame status.

In the end, both Carpenter and King walked away from Christine better than they found it. Both innovative talents happened upon similar byways in their careers, and through opportunity and talent, managed to help each other.

Key jingles. Engine starts. “Bad to the Bone” begins.


Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020, and we miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.

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