Stephen King is a prolific author who has published so much work that it is hard to believe that this type of conflict does not happen more regularly. I mean, how many stories written by King barely resemble the source material by the time they hit the screen? Sadly, too many.
A few of those I might argue are the following:
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- The Mangler (1995)
And the list goes on.
Anyway, today I want to look at a particular case of theft of name because it is one of the more bafflingly ridiculous attempts I am familiar with that involves a famous author. This is the story of a studio using an author’s name and not really caring about the material, even a little bit.
The short story
Let us begin with the work that was being sourced for the movie:
The short story “The Lawnmower Man” by Stephen King.
The short story was first published in Cavalier in 1975 and told the story of Harold Parkette, a middle-aged man who hires a new company to mow his lawn. After the new lawnmower man arrives and upsets Harold with some of his innovations in lawn service (eating grass, paying homage to the Greek god of the wild Pan, and a bunch of other weird stuff), Harold is killed by the satyr-like employee. It is a super brief story about interjecting strange happenings into the humdrum of suburban life.
(There is more to it, but why not go read the story to get all the details?)
The film adaptation was a lot different.
The film was released in 1992 and is a science-fiction thriller directed by Brett Leonard. It tells the tale of Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), who is intellectually disabled, and Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), who wants to help Jobe by giving him a higher intelligence by using virtual reality, which indeed pushes Jobe’s intelligence but also his lust for violence and inevitably his desire to conquer cyberspace.
The movie was originally titled CyberGod, which I do not think is not a great title but makes more sense than The Lawnmower Man, as, ostensibly, the only similarity between the short story and the movie is that they both (at some point) feature a person and a lawnmower, and I just do not feel like you should be allowed to use an author’s name on your movie if tenuous has to be used to describe the relationship between your film and the writer’s work.
A failure at adaptation
It would seem that the adaptation part of turning a story into a film was the least of New Line Cinema’s (the studio in charge of releasing the film) concerns, as the movie featured nothing from the story outside of the few aforementioned elements. As such, a court found the company in the wrong for using King’s name.
As stated in an Entertainment Weekly article:
“In 1992, a New York court issued an injunction against New Line’s use of King’s name to sell the film. In a later settlement the studio also agreed to pay the writer $2.5 million in damages” (Davidson).
You would think it would have ended there…but it did not, as New Line still released the movie with King’s name on the packaging. King found this out by using “a team of private investigators,” and as stated by writer David Rollinson in “The Lawnmower Man Redefines the Term ‘Loosely Adapted.’”:
“A judge slapped New Line Cinema with contempt of court, diverting all film profits from May of 1993 to King himself, as well as fines of $10,000 a day until the offending VHS covers were changed. While no final sum has been disclosed, King has stated he was very happy with the outcome” (Rollins).
The chutzpah on some of these companies, I tell ya’.
I am not entirely sure what the takeaway is here, but I am always obsessed with how artists are treated when their works have been commodified to an unhealthy degree—such as most of Stephen King’s work. Though cynical, I think these types of grievances can be expected when your name and content have been used on a coffee cup or for a Funko Pop figurine.
Then again, it is nice to see the artist can win out against the machine from time to time.
Davidson, Casey. “Stephen King Wins Lawsuit.” EW.Com, 22 Apr. 1994, ew.com/article/1994/04/22/stephen-king-wins-lawsuit/.
Rollison, David. “‘The Lawnmower Man’ Redefines the Term ‘Loosely Adapted.’” The Spool, 18 Sept. 2019, thespool.net/features/fotm/the-lawnmower-man-stephen-king/.