But despite two honorable attempts to bring the novel to the screen, with a third on the way, why has it been so difficult to make a great movie out of one of King’s greatest books?
First Attempt: Salem’s Lot (1979)
Naturally, the rights to ‘Salem’s Lot were snapped up almost immediately by Warner Bros. Pictures with the idea of turning it into a major feature film. King himself did not write a screenplay, but several others did, including Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) and It’s Alive director Larry Cohen. But all of them came up against the problem that has since haunted many a King adaptation, which was boiling down a 400-page (or more) novel and vast cast of characters into a two-hour theatrical motion picture.
The solution to the problem was to shift the adaptation from the big screen to the small, with ‘Salem’s Lot reconfigured as a two-part, four-hour miniseries, shown on two consecutive Monday nights. At the time in 1978, TV miniseries—with the possible exception of “prestige” ones like Roots—were filmed on TV budgets with TV crews and resources, and were not designed to look as cinematic as modern offerings from HBO, Prime Video, and Netflix today.
But Warner Television and CBS (which aired the project) did land a film director in Tobe Hooper, and his resume up to that point, which included The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, didn’t exactly scream primetime fare.
The cast was a mix of familiar TV stars (David Soul), fresh faces (Bonnie Bedelia), and older, somewhat faded Hollywood icons (James Mason, best part of the show), along with the usual complement of “that guy” character actors. The most controversial choice was the casting of Austrian actor Reggie Nalder as the main vampire, Kurt Barlow, swapping out King’s erudite, distinguished-looking bloodsucker for a feral, non-speaking, blue-skinned take on Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
Barlow only appears in a few scenes, leaving his human assistant, played by Mason, as more of the film’s primary villain, one of many notable changes from the book. Many of the other changes involve combining characters, such as making heroine Susan Norton’s dad and town doctor Jimmy Cody into one person (played by Ed Flanders), or having Bonnie Sawyer (Julie Cobb) have an affair with her boss, realtor Larry Crockett (Fred Willard), eliminating the local electrician she actually gets busy with.