Stephen King is one of the most celebrated and best-selling American novelists of our time. He turns even the simplest elements of everyday life into instruments of terror. Now is a great time to be a Stephen King fanatic, as there are dozens of film and TV projects in development based on his stories. (His latest novel, THE INSTITUTE, was just published, too.)
The biggest new King film is DOCTOR SLEEP, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING and an adaptation of King’s bestseller of the same name, which opens in November. So we thought it would be fun to look at the ways in which some of the author’s most immortal works are tied together into a web akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) … only a lot more scary.
One of the easiest ways to link King’s works is through a trio of fictional Maine towns. The author created Derry (home to the murderous clown from IT and the alien invasion of DREAMCATCHER), Castle Rock (where Satan himself set up an antique store in NEEDFUL THINGS and a teacher gained psychic powers in THE DEAD ZONE) and Jerusalem’s Lot (shortened to SALEM’S LOT and infested with vampires), and has returned to them repeatedly throughout his career.
Multiple works have taken place in or around these towns, with secondary fictional hamlets like Little Tall Island (STORM OF THE CENTURY and DOLORES CLAIBORNE) and Ludlow (PET SEMATARY and THE DARK HALF) also serving as the perfect setting for macabre thrills. With shared locations, characters from different novels also occasionally bump into one another or have memories and different perspectives on common events. (More on that below.)
Deeper connections between King’s works come through something affectionately dubbed the Multiverse. The Multiverse is the primary concern of King’s magnum opus THE DARK TOWER, a sprawling fantasy epic which, in 2017, was finally adapted into a movie. These books introduce several ideas, including the concept of a psychic bond linking like-minded individuals. (It's sort of like the Force in STAR WARS.) This notion has appeared in a number of non-DARK TOWER stories, including DREAMCATCHER and the novel "Insomnia," which hasn't yet become a film.
Additionally, the idea of multiple universes, occasionally bridged by “thin spots” in our reality, is inherent to several stories. These include IT, "The Stand" (where the big bad from THE DARK TOWER appears in a different form) and HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, in which a main character later becomes a major player in the DARK TOWER saga. And, of course, the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING, seen above in DOCTOR SLEEP, might be one of those nexus points, too. Getting trickier, isn’t it?
Another idea that King plays with, time and time again, are events that are charged with supernatural power, even if the event itself isn’t outwardly supernatural. The events of CUJO, a story about a psychopathic St. Bernard that cuts a bloody swath through Castle Rock, are referenced in THE DEAD ZONE, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, and several other books and films. And a maybe-mystical solar eclipse becomes a key moment in both GERALD’S GAME and DOLORES CLAIBORNE.
It’s one thing for King to dream up these connections on the page, but it’s an entirely different thing to bring those connections to the big screen. In particular, sorting out the rights to the disparate adaptations is an acrobatic feat. That makes a true shared universe, akin to the aforementioned MCU, a long-held pipe dream. Watching the film adaptations, you can sometimes feel the concessions. In HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, for example, the main character was stalked by “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” but since the rights to THE DARK TOWER lie with another studio, the “Low Men” became anonymous government goons; allusions to the Tower were deleted entirely.
Sometimes, references are heavily veiled to imply connections without causing an actual infraction. THE DARK TOWER is littered with references to King’s other works: A St. Bernard walking down a Manhattan street; a photo of the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING; an abandoned circus that bears the name of the murderous clown from IT; and a toy car version of the killer car from CHRISTINE. Because DOCTOR SLEEP comes from the same studio as THE SHINING, however, it gets to work like an actual sequel — a rarity in Stephen King cinema!
Could there actually be a single unified Stephen King universe? Potentially. Warner Bros. distributes several of the big recent King adaptations, like IT CHAPTER TWO and DOCTOR SLEEP. There's also a rumored prequel to THE SHINING in development. WB could braid them all together.
Mike Flanagan, the director of DOCTOR SLEEP, knows his Stephen King material; he also made GERALD'S GAME for Netflix. Ewan McGregor stars as the grown-up Danny Torrance, who still deals with echoes of his father's descent into madness, as seen in THE SHINING. While other movies have to be circumspect about depicting connected King stories, DOCTOR SLEEP has the freedom to reference and even recreate scenes from THE SHINING — and we expect there will be several deeper connections to discover, as well.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.