The Key to Adapting Stephen King and More: Everything We Learned From Mike Flanagan's Fantasia Film Fest Panel

“In college, I wrote an adaptation of Christopher Pike’s The Midnight Club and sent it to his agents,” Mike Flanagan tells filmmaker Mick Garris over Zoom. “They sent me a cease and desist letter.”

Back before he became the world-famous showrunner and director of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan was just hustling like the rest of us.  A constant reader who hails from Salem, Massachusetts, Flanagan seems destined to adapt the dark prose of Stephen King, to walk where bricks met neatly alongside Shirley Jackson, to gaze out longingly over fog-covered embankments just as Henry James intended.

It’s no wonder the writer/director went on to helm Netflix’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game, a seemingly impossible book to bring to the screen which Flanagan nailed so effortlessly. From there, Flanagan ran an entire show devoted to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a loose reimagining of the source material that despite its offbeat premise, won over the hearts of millions of viewers. Up next for the filmmaker is The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second season in his new anthology series, which takes James’ 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw and places it smack dab in the middle of the 1980s. Bly is due to premiere on Netflix on October 9 of this year. After that? You’d never guess. “I’m doing a Christopher Pike show too, for Netflix,” Flanagan laughs. “The Midnight Club is the title of the show”.

Based in Montreal, Québec, the Fantasia Festival is paving the way for virtual events, showcasing a slew of hidden gems and highlighting filmmakers from around the world, all from the safety of home. Although it’s a shame not to be there in person to witness Flanagan swooning over Garris’ rendition of The Stand firsthand, it seems fitting to watch the pair discuss their favorite books leisurely at their desk with a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Just two Stephen King fans bonding over the time they each spent at the Overlook Hotel.

/Film was lucky enough to attend Mike Flanagan’s ‘Torn From the Page, Bled Into Light’ panel at Fantasia, hosted by Mick Garris and broadcast across the globe. Deciding to make Hill House unabashedly spooky. Finding the beauty in Stephen King’s being inspired by Shirley Jackson. Finding the beauty in Shirley Jackson’s being inspired by Henry James. Wanting to adapt The Dark Tower. Trading nihilism for optimism for the sake of his children. We learned more than a few things during the horror filmmaker’s chat with Garris, and we’re here to share it with everyone who might’ve missed the live event when it originally aired.

The Haunting of Bly Manor Will Adapt The Romance of Certain Old Clothes in Addition to The Turn of the Screw

Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House used the source material as a springboard to launch new ideas, taking inspiration from the original novel and brainstorming with a writers’ room to flesh out an entire ensemble of well-developed characters. However, regarding the upcoming Bly Manor, things have changed a little bit this time around. Instead of stretching one single piece of literature — in this case, The Turn of the Screw — across the span of several episodes, Flanagan and his fellow authors have opted to use several different Henry James fables for their sophomore stab at the anthology series. Most notably, they’ll be pulling from the short story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.

“What’s kind of unique about Bly Manor is we didn’t just do Turn of the Screw,” explains Flanagan. “We read all of Henry James’ ghost stories and we’re pulling from all of them and stuffing them all together in one big adaptation. When the show launches, you’ll see each episode is actually the title of one of his stories, and they’re all braided together and made to work in one, hopefully, cohesive story.” 

He continues: 

“The excitement about that for us is where I could actually take specific passages from The Haunting of Hill House and put it into characters’ mouths, you know, Olivia and Nell directly quote Shirley Jackson right off the page numerous times. That was harder in the Henry James world, and then when we decided the show took place in the 1980s, that was really tough. We found a way though, and I think part of it is, you know, there’s a story that Henry James wrote called The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, it’s a phenomenal short ghost story, and if you strip away all of the proper kind of language and all of the context of the time, underneath it is the prototype, you see the DNA of The Ring, of The Grudge, you see underneath it all, some of the seeds that have grown into these powerful, huge trees of horror iconic imagery. They’re all there and he’s one of the first to be playing with them, so I think finding the commonality under the language and finding the connections to a contemporary audience and to other contemporary authors, that helps cut through it, but trying to protect the tone is something that’s always on our mind, it’s just not always easy.”

Flanagan is Directing Every Single Episode of Midnight Mass

Despite having nine solid feature films under his belt by the time he began prepping for The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan still felt the need to make a good impression with his television debut. Looking for a way to control the daunting task that lay ahead, he made a tough decision to shoulder most of the responsibility for the entire program by directing every single episode himself during the entire season. 

“For me, this is my first time getting to work in television,” says Flanagan. “Whether it was a good idea or a bad idea, I’ll never know, but I was determined to direct all of it, so that sink or swim, if it fell on its face, I would have nobody to blame but myself. That made me want to throw everything I could at it.”

The pressure of his decision weighed heavily on Flanagan physically as well as emotionally:

“I had a really hard time doing Hill House. I lost 45 pounds during production. I looked really…by the ending of it, I was hanging by a thread. And I came out of it feeling like I couldn’t put myself through that again, and I couldn’t put my family through that again. Even with Kate [Siegel] being on the show, I mean, our marriage was essentially put on pause for a year. And that was really difficult.”

You’d think the filmmaker would’ve learned his lesson. You thought wrong:

“But it’s weird because then the next one, I’m in Vancouver now doing Midnight Mass, which is an original, and that one I’m directing all over again. So I’ve learned nothing.”

The Key to Adapting Stephen King

One thing Mike Flanagan and Mick Garris seem to adamantly agree on is the fact that although The Shining is a great Stanley Kubrick film, it is not a good Stephen King adaptation. It may sound harsh, but both things can be true. Flanagan says:

“I think one of the primary reasons why [Garris’] Shining adaptation exists is that if you miss the point, like underneath all of minutiae of what scenes you keep or how you combine characters or condense everything, if you miss the heart of what King is trying to say in the story, he’s going to be very unhappy, and I think that’s what happened to the Kubrick film. It’s such a, from the perspective of a fan, not only of King but of Kubrick, and somebody who admires the hell out of that film, it’s impossible if you love the book to look at it and say, this is a good adaptation of the book. I think people can reasonably debate whether the film itself is deserving of the huge amounts of praise that its received and its iconic status – I think it is – but as an adaptation, as a King fan, it’s impossible also not to say, well, it’s not a great adaptation and it’s because it lost that kernel of what it was ultimately about, specific to the arc of Jack Torrance”. 

He’s not wrong. Jack Nicholson’s roaring performance as the struggling alcoholic just looking for a fight is one that starts at eleven and only builds upwards from there as the film rolls on. As he hurls his limping body down the halls of the Overlook Hotel, a man haunted by his demons, both real and imaginary, drunkenly dragging his axe past ghosts and ghouls alike, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role with such intensity. Those eyebrows carry the third act on their shoulders. And yet, admittedly, it’s not quite the possession story that stumbled out of Stephen King’s dreams.

“That contradiction and that stressful place to be, just as a fan, is kind of what was coloring my process with the script route [for Doctor Sleep],” Flanagan tells Garris. “It was like, how do I fold all of this back together and somehow try to protect that kernel of intent that colors the whole story — both books — which is, I think, something that you protected so beautifully in your adaptation of it.” 

He Still Wants to Do the Dick Hallorann Spinoff

Stephen King emphatically retcons the Kubrick narrative from the very first page of the Doctor Sleep novel. The Overlook Hotel has burned to the ground. Dick Hallorann is alive. The Grady twins might have asked Danny to come play with them well over forty years ago, but the seething hatred with which King regards the 1980 Shining has yet to subside.

On the plus side, King’s inability to let go of the past inevitably brings Hallorann into our future, perhaps even allowing enough leniency for a brand new spinoff all about the man who taught Danny how to shine. Flanagan was originally set to direct the sequel for Intrepid Pictures, going so far as to strike a deal with Warner Bros. for a film about Danny and his mentor. Sadly, Doctor Sleep performed poorly at the box office, and the Hallorann project was temporarily shelved. Now, with Covid cases soaring and all of Los Angeles productions placed on hold, Flanagan’s Hallorann movie may be postponed indefinitely. 

Given the chance, Flanagan would still love a crack at one of his favorite literary characters, and he’s already got a few ideas in mind for what his latest King adaptation would entail. Most importantly, he wants to share Hallorann’s heart of gold with the world:

“The heart of that character, who he really fleshed out beautifully in both The Shining and Doctor Sleep, you learn a lot more about Halloran in Doctor Sleep than in The Shining. He also appears in IT very briefly, there are some really interesting things to play with there. That’s one where if it gets to move forward, and I have no idea if it will at this point, our plans prior to the release of Doctor Sleep and prior to Covid, everything’s kind of changed. We don’t really know what’s gonna happen with anything anymore, but if that were to proceed, that’s something where I’ve never gotten to do that either, trying to take someone else’s character and tell a whole new story. Because there’s no information about Hallorann, there’s this huge chunk of his life where King never provided anything, and that’s where you wanna play. The fun part about that is I have signposts on either side of that story that I know I have to land. I know where he begins, and I know where he ends, and it’s all about getting him from that little boy at the beginning of Doctor Sleep who’s talking about his evil grandfather and the shining and the lock boxes, and getting him to be that man who takes the job at the Overlook Hotel, and who clearly, as is referenced all over the books, clearly had some kind of traumatic experience in Room 217. But yeah, that would be an incredible job, I don’t know how to approach that. I do know that I would need to touch base with King constantly to make sure that we’re not messing up his character.”

How much has Flanagan written for his Dick Hallorann movie? He says:

“There’s a thorough outline and I’ve got pieces of a script, I don’t know if it’ll go any further, to be honest. The industry right now is in this really confusing place of trying to figure out what is theatrical anymore, what kind of projects are they gonna put the resources into, what does it mean to release a film theatrically. We’re barely beginning to answer that question. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and the enthusiasm with which people would green light a project in the past, that was already a very fraught process, full of hesitations and no’s, and now it’s just a different world. So I don’t know what, if anything, will come of that project. I hope someday it really gets back on track because I really liked it, but I don’t know what’ll happen”.

Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep Gives King The Shining Ending that Kubrick Denied

Although Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Stephen King has always adamantly argued against it. Wendy is too fragile. Jack doesn’t have a proper arc because Nicholson played Torrance like a madman from the start. The story should end in the boiler room. King has a million reasons why he doesn’t like the 1980 slow burn thriller, and he has stood firm in his disapproval for decades now. If anyone can hold a grudge, it’s King, and whether or not he’s justified in his complaints about Kubrick isn’t necessarily the point Flanagan is trying to argue. He just wanted to make sure he didn’t end up in the same camp as the banished filmmaker who came before him. 

When it came time to adapt Doctor Sleep, Flanagan found himself going up against one of his greatest challenges. There was much media to pay fealty to. Not only did he have to adapt King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, but he also had to play homage to his 1977 novel The Shining in a way that would both serve its author and the many fans that the story had garnered over the years. Even the fans were a complicated lot. While many were horror hounds who adored Kubrick’s interpretation of the text, some preferred Garris’ more faithful 1997 miniseries, and the rest were King purists. It would be nearly impossible to please everyone, but Flanagan found himself the most afraid of disappointing his favorite writer:

“I was terrified. But I also had kind of decided at the beginning that if [King] didn’t like what I wanted to do with it, I wouldn’t do the movie. I certainly didn’t want to end up on the same list with him that Kubrick did. My initial pitch was I want to try to, as safely as possible, adapt the Doctor Sleep narrative up until the very end, and there was the big change. I said I feel like we have an opportunity here because the book takes place on the grounds of what used to be the Overlook Hotel, which he makes very clear on the first page, nope, that was destroyed. The final confrontation between Dan and Rose and Abba is at the grounds that once were the Overlook, but now it’s long gone. And so the pitch that I made was, how about we keep the hotel alive, but abandoned, and let Danny intentionally use that as a weapon in his arsenal against Rose, who he can’t beat otherwise. The seed for that is already in the book in that he uses the ghosts of the book, in particular, the ghost of Jack, as a secret weapon, and that the lock boxes are kind of the ace up his sleeve, so I said that thematically, it’s the same idea. It’s just gonna be expanded to include the hotel itself.”

In order to truly seal the deal with King, Flanagan knew he’d have to heal the man of his ultimate grievance. In order to right the wrong that had plagued King for so many years and create a happy marriage between the author’s words and Kubrick’s cinematic language, Flanagan offered his mentor the ultimate olive branch – he would give King the ending from The Shining that Kubrick denied:

“What I want to do is, do the thing that I know he really hated about The Shining and change the ending, and the fate of the characters. The pitch that I was able to make is, I can give you the ending from The Shining that Kubrick denied. And that hopefully would pull it all together. He initially wasn’t really wanting to hear much about it, once I said the Overlook would be there, was like oh, no, no, no, but it was the scene between Danny and Jack at the bar, when I pitched that to him, he kind of thought about it and was like, okay, actually yeah, if that’s how you’re gonna approach it, then you may go forward and try it. So, it was a very weird thing, because I had the book, I had Doctor Sleep open, I had already ripped that to pieces and pulled out all the material from that, and then I had the novel of the The Shining open and I had done that as well to the back third, and I had both of the cinematic references open, I had the Kubrick and the miniseries to pull from, and I’m referencing all of that together, and then I just started trying to tie all of the little bits together. I had two big questions that were always kind of up front and center: who is Dan and who is Jack? And if I could keep true to that for the last twenty minutes, then I thought there was a chance it could work.”

Although he blends the texts together beautifully in his movie, Flanagan makes it a point to articulate the fact that the books are entirely different beasts. While The Shining is about an alcoholic who finds himself backsliding in isolation, Doctor Sleep is about a damaged soul in recovery. The result of the trauma is not necessarily an echo of sentiment:

“Adaptation at its heart is you have to best express what that story actually is, you’re just translating it into a different medium. The books were so different, and that was something I loved, my expectations as a fan were so upended when I first read the novel, and it made sense when I would look back at it. If The Shining is about alcoholism and addiction, and Doctor Sleep is about recovery. These are completely different stories, and they’re written by a man who, King at the time when he wrote The Shining, as you’re well aware, was so in grips of his own addiction, and the fear of what that could do to his family. King at the time that he wrote Doctor Sleep had decades of sobriety under his belt, his children had grown, and were successful and happy in their own lives. It’s just a very different person. I love that Danny Torrance is not Jack Torrance, and Doctor Sleep is not The Shining. They’re intrinsically linked, and Danny wouldn’t be Danny if Jack hadn’t been Jack, and Doctor Sleep’s story is informed of The Shining and a descendant of The Shining, but it isn’t just The Shining again, and I loved that. I do think it made for a bit of tonal whiplash for people, especially, if they’re unfamiliar with both books, who are only familiar with the cinematic adaptations. I’m very sympathetic to how people are like wait, there’s this gang of vampires and they’re flying over the earth, and it’s kind of like a superhero movie? It’s not what you’d expect, but that’s kind of what I loved about the book, and that goes back to one of the facets of adaptation that I think is really important, which is that you aren’t trying to take a piece of work and turn it into something else.” 

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