40 Years Ago: Stephen King’s Changing Seasons

After years of slugging it out in short stories, Stephen King rose to prominence with his 1974 bestseller, Carrie. In short order, novels like ’Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand followed, cementing him as a modern master of horror. But what happens when you dominate one genre, but still have other kinds stories to tell? For King, the answer was two-fold; on one hand, he released some books under the  pseudonym of Richard Bachman, and the on other hand, he gathered four novellas into one volume that were (mostly) departures from his famous horror fiction. The collection produced a popular coming-of-age tale, a dark prediction of sinister indoctrination, a story most considered unfilmable, and, quite unexpectedly, the basis for one of the most beloved films ever made. These were Stephen King’s Different Seasons.

Stephen King on his writing process (Uploaded to YouTube by Bangor Daily News)

King addressed the collection’s genesis himself in the book’s afterword. He noted that he is frequently asked if horror is all he writes. King wrote, “When I say it isn’t, it’s hard to tell if the questioner seems relieved or disappointed.” He went on to say that each novella had been written following the completion of a full novel, likening the process to “having gas left in the tank.” However, given the length of the pieces (too short for a conventional novel) and their varied subject matter, King was uncertain about their chances for publication until he pitched the notion of a collection to his publisher. While novellas often showed up in magazines (and in that discussion, King spent more than a few lines talking about how much he loved The Saturday Evening Post for its fiction selections as a young man), it was rare to see single releases, so the group seemed the way to go.  The publisher, being no dummy as King had already knocked out several bestsellers, gave the collection the green light.

Released at the end of August in 1982, Different Seasons contains four stories, each with a seasonal heading: Hope Springs Eternal: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption; Summer of Corruption: Apt Pupil; Fall from Innocence: The Body; and A Winter’s Tale: The Breathing Method. King had his tongue in cheek on a couple of those headings, using two clichés (for spring and fall) and outright invoking Shakespeare (winter). Nevertheless, applying the seasonal theme gave the stories a sense of connection, even if they were very, well, different.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is narrated by Red, an inmate at Shawshank State Prison. Red relates the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker who is convicted of murder in 1947. Over time, the two men develop a strong friendship, and the details of what happened to send Andy to prison become clear. One of the central themes in the story is hope, the one thing to which Andy clings while trying to navigate the boredom and brutality of prison life.

The second novella, Apt Pupil, is the first of two stories featuring teen characters. This one, though, is much more sinister than the one that follows it. When teen Todd Bowden visits the elderly Arthur Denker, he has blackmail on his mind; Todd has figured out that Denker is really Kurt Dussander, a Nazi who was commandant of a concentration camp. The combination of the two becomes toxic as both give in to terrifying impulses.

At a different end of the teen spectrum lies The Body. Here four teenage boys set off to see the dead body of a missing kid that was discovered and abandoned by one of their older brothers. The boys grapple with their own traumatic family lives in different ways as one of them zeroes in on the fact that he might have the talent to escape his small town.

The final story, The Breathing Method, hews closer to the King we know. The tale centers on an exclusive New York City gentlemen’s club devoted to the sharing of stories. The one told on this winter’s night involves a woman with an almost supernatural determination to safely deliver her unborn child. The slow burn nature of the tale and its shocking and gruesome climax have led many to consider the (usually very cinematic King) story completely unfilmable.

Despite its unusual construction, Different Seasons turned out to be another bestseller for King. A contemporary review by Alan Cheuse of The New York Times opined that, “Each of the first three novellas has its hypnotic moments, and the last one is a horrifying little gem.” Hollywood agreed, and the town soon came calling. In 1982, King was already firmly established in television and film, with Carrie, The Shining, and Creepshow hits on the big screen and the ‘Salem’s Lot TV mini-series having pulled in solid ratings and reviews. By the time that the first adaptation pulled from Different Seasons got to theaters, a whopping eight additional films based on his work went to the screen.

The original Stand by Me trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by FT Depot)

It was The Body that got the movie treatment first in the form of director Rob Reiner’s 1986 version, Stand by Me. Though some reviews were mixed, the film did well at the box office and grew over time into perhaps the most beloved coming of age movie of the 1980s. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, the film also received an enthusiastic endorsement from King himself, who considers it one of the best adaptations of his work. The movie is also noted for the breakthrough roles it provided for young actors like Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland, while also showcasing the already-established Corey Feldman. Reiner has called it his favorite of his own films, even above The Princess Bride and A Few Good Men.

The next film should have been Apt Pupil, also in 1986, but an initial attempt with Rick Schroder and Nicol Williamson was shelved when the production company couldn’t come up with the funds to complete it. Apt Pupil did get made in 1998 with Bran Renfro and Ian McKellen. McKellen’s take on Dussander earned him a Critic’s Choice Award, but reviews were mixed, and the film didn’t recoup its budget.

Any talk of King on film always returns to the one adaptation that towers over them all. Years before its 1994 release, director Frank Darabont was one of King’s “dollar babies.” King has long maintained a policy that he’ll allow film students to adapt one of his available short stories for a one-dollar fee. Darabont’s short film of “The Woman in the Room,” a story from Night Shift, became an Academy Award semi-finalist in 1983. Based on that film, King gave the director what Darabont called a “handshake deal” that he could adapt the first story from Different Seasons. With a slight title change, it would be released as Darabont’s feature film debut, The Shawshank Redemption.

The trailer for The Shawshank Redemption (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Much has been made of the slow rise to prominence that the film took. It had the misfortune of being released while America was captivated by The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump. As a period-set prison film with an unusual name, it had a harder time gaining ground. Ironically, the studio deliberately kept King’s name away from its ad campaign, making the mistake of shooting for an imagined “more prestigious audience” instead of pitching toward the literal millions of established King readers from all walks of life. The movie did eventually make three times its $25 million budget, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any. Reviews were generally good, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert among the film’s supporters.

When the film departed theaters, it took on a second life, becoming one of the biggest video store rentals in 1995. TNT got the television rights, and Shawshank blew everything else out of the water when it was on. This led to the network showing it semi-regularly. Over time, the movie’s reputation only grew. While people generally seem to know that King wrote it, there’s also quite a large audience that doesn’t. In interviews, King has frequently related an encounter with a lady in the grocery: “I was in a supermarket down here in Florida, and I came around the corner and there was a woman coming the other way. She pointed at me, she said, ‘I know who you are! You’re Stephen King! You write all of those horrible things. And that’s ok. That’s alright. But I like uplifting things, like that movie Shawshank Redemption.’ And I said, ‘I wrote that!’ And she said, ‘No you didn’t. No you didn’t.’” At present, Shawshank sits atop the Top 250 ranked films on the Internet Movie Database, a position it has held since 2008.

What’s the lesson of Different Seasons? The most obvious would probably be that artists should be allowed to try new things. On the flipside, audiences should also give things a try, even if an artist is well-established in another genre or medium. Who expected a hopeful prison tale by the “Master of Horror” to end up such a beloved film? Maybe the only thing that would be more surprising is if The Breathing Method finally gets made. And it might. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) is said to be developing the story for the screen, and he may finally be the person that makes it work. After all, his 2021 hit The Black Phone was a very successful adaptation of a book by Joe Hill, who just happens to be . . . Stephen King’s son. That’s the kind of twist that would have been right at home in Different Seasons.