All Too Real: Stephen King and Maximum Overdrive

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Stephen King is my favorite author; such a prolific writer that his stinkers are quickly outweighed by the number of excellent stories he continues to pump out. But he should’ve never been put in charge of making movies. I’m all for his adaptations—like his books, for every Dreamcatcher there’s a Carrie—but during one of his crests in film, a two year period that saw the release of Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine, Children of the Corn, Firestarter, Cat’s Eye, and Silver Bullet, the artistic expectations and ambitions surrounding King reached a fever pitch.

When King’s frequent adaptation producer Dino De Laurentiis hired King to direct a movie adapted from his own short story, “Trucks”, he didn’t care that King had never made a movie before—or that King was, self-admittedly, at the height of his cokehead days. King was bankable, interested in directing, and one of De Laurentiis’s people, having previously written the scripts for both Cat’s Eye and Silver Bullet for him. And De Laurentiis took care of his people. This is how we ended up with 1986’s killer machine movie, Maximum Overdrive. The horrors of its production and the flop that sprung from it mean that even now, clean and sober, I’d much rather King stay on the page and turn his work over to people that know the craft of movies (even if that means the milquetoast Frank Darabont…sorry Frank).

Stephen King was no director. He didn’t have the cinematic vocabulary, the logistical training. He was a former English teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant. Italian director of photography Armando Nannuzzi (who did not speak English) was brought in to be his second-in-command, the guy people would turn to when they needed practical things addressed like cover shots or camera placements. Their conversations were those between a moody artist thrust into helming a ship after writing a best-selling shanty, and a seasoned second mate who could do nothing but watch the iceberg approach.

King had vision, but was unused to operating within anything other than his own imagination. He demanded Bruce Springsteen as his lead actor. Who better to drive a truck than The Boss? When De Laurentiis got his friend Martin Sheen’s son (and bankable rising star) Emilio cast instead, King—according to De Laurentiis’s longtime translator Roberto Croci—“couldn’t give a shit about the movie”. It’s easy to see how, when a first-time director living in a drug-fueled fantasy realm of horror and movie-making magic is in charge of a non-union production staff, something could go wrong.

And something did go wrong.

Caught up in the awe of special effects, his ideas jumping from the page to the stunt man ablaze in front of him, King ruled like an overpowered child. De Laurentiis wanted the film shot quickly and cheaply, and staffed the film with pay-to-work crews. It was a dangerous playground for an unhinged novice.

King spent the majority of the press tour out front and center. Interviews with King at the time show the honesty that exhaustion and drug use can wring from someone unacclimatized to the Hollywood PR game. The film’s trailer opens with King himself on-screen, talking directly to the camera about his directorial debut. He invokes the old adage, “if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself,” referring to his widely publicized thrashing of Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining. Intercut with clips from the film, author and art blur as King’s horrific persona sells the film as the first ever to be made with his authoritative seal of approval.

And the cost of that seal of approval is a story worthy of King himself. The film contains a scene where a lawnmower chases a boy on a bicycle. It’s supposed to be the frightening climax to a relatively long, meandering sequence which follows the boy riding through a corpse-riddled neighborhood. The camera was on the ground, with a wooden wedge angling it from below, and the remote-controlled mower, showing a will of its own, was to drive right up to the lens. Concerned about the lawnmower’s blades, Nannuzzi asked King for their removal. King refused. He liked to see their glint on the approach, even if the camera (in the finished scene) doesn’t capture them. King needed fidelity, a reality—a danger—as close to his imagination as possible. This was his opportunity to reach beyond the page.

“Speed.” The lawnmower didn’t move. The effects manager told King he’d raise the power on the radio control. “Speed.” Again, nothing. The power was raised once more. “Speed.” The mower rushed from its mark, too fast, getting so close to the camera that the blades began chewing the hard plastic matte box covering the lens. King didn’t cut. In the few seconds that followed, the ironically out-of-control mower began destroying the camera, which the operator took from the ever-nearing blades only to leave the wooden wedge which, caught in the whirling steel, splintered instantly. A woodchip jettisoned from the mower five meters back and into Nannuzzi’s right eye. Blood was all over the set, production was halted. Croci remembers Nannuzzi whispering “Tienimi la mano, io non parlo inglese” in the emergency helicopter: “Hold my hand, I do not speak English.” The cinematographer lost his eye.

From a distance, away from the blood and eyeballs, it’s interesting how the promotional narrative focused around the act of adaptation, as though the faithfulness of this adaptation was worth the carnage. The trailer—meant to entice audiences—now serves as a bleak veneration of failure and a cautionary banner to would-be copycats. Thirty years ago and the warning seems perspicacious, as our culture’s fixation on adaptive fidelity has spawned thinkpiece after thinkpiece and a constant scrutiny between adapted works and their sources. Have childhoods been ruined? If so, why? Maximum Overdrive asks at what cost is it worth saying a film came straight from the source. The mechanics of tentpole movie-making have hamstrung studios by relying on these pre-sold fan audiences whose demands must be adhered to in order for the property to be “done right”—look at the troubles faced by Warcraft’s inclusion of heady lore or the contractual demands of 50 Shades of Grey scribe E. L. James.

Rather than focusing on bland fidelity, what Dr. Paul Heyer calls “media sense” must rise above all else. Artists must create an interesting story that somehow captures or grows from the ethereal “essence” of a beloved source, utilizing their medium to its strengths. Good media should beget good media, not the same media. King, whose stories are often intertextual epics within themselves, understands this within the context of books. But as the importance of “properties” and nostalgia take more and more precedence, more creators will be bulldozed into becoming transmedia jack-of-some-trades rather than mastering their chosen discipline. As long as this trend continues, our stories will continue to be regurgitated with diminishing returns, endangering the people making them both financially and artistically, if not physically. An extreme example of a pervasive problem, Maximum Overdrive is a monument to adaptation over-expectation.