From Book to Screen: “Children of the Corn”
The Stephen King Book to Screen Blog Series returns again with another adaptation from the Night Shift short story collection. At long last, we reach the final feature film adaptations from Night Shift. We’ve already covered a range of films, largely bad, but with a few winners here and there. We will be skipping I Know What You Need, a psychological drama that has a short film adaptation but no feature length one as yet. The remaining stories from Night Shift that don’t have feature length film adaptations are The Last Rung on the Ladder, The Man Who Loved Flowers, One for the Road, and The Woman in the Room. The Last Rung on the Ladder is a sad, atmospheric story about recalling childhood mistakes, and has formed the basis for several short films. The Man Who Loved Flowers, a story told from the perspective of a killer, has several shorts as well, and there is a feature in production limbo with a script approved by King himself. One for the Road is a short story follow-up to Salem’s Lot. It doesn’t likely need any kind of film adaptation, as it is a very short story that was likely just a way to allow King to squeeze the last drop of creative juice from his vampire tales. And yet there is a short film version pending starring Lance Henriksen. The final story without a feature, The Woman in the Room, is a grim tale whose short film adaptation is notable for being the first Frank Darabont King adaptation.
In this entry we will be covering one of the most famous Stephen King stories. It has spawned a dizzying number of sequels not based on individual King texts. There are actually two film adaptations of his one Children of the Corn story: the first is the 1984 film that launched the franchise, and the second is a far more obscure 2009 SyFy channel version. Though King’s original story is rather simple, something about putting it on film has struck a nerve in pop culture. Perhaps on the inside we all worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows…
“Children of the Corn” was originally published in Penthouse magazine in March 1977. Nothing like murderous children to get the blood flowing! Like all of the other short stories, it’s difficult to judge exactly what the critical reception was at the time, but presumably it was strong enough to secure its spot in this short story collection. Movie executives must have had dollar signs in their eyes when they got the film rights to it.
The story uses many themes present in King’s work: religion gone crazy, the fervor of group mentality, and supernatural demonic entities. King likes to follow children as well, and they are obviously a big part of this story. However, the perspective of the writing is not that of the children but instead a bickering married couple that wander into the town of Gatlin. “Children of the Corn” is more slow burning than most stories; it opens with a mystery of a dead child, and as the couple slowly explores the town of Gatlin King indicates to the audience that something is clearly very wrong. King plays with the idea of where the natural ends and the supernatural begins, which is a strong point in most of his writing. It’s never really resolved whether a supernatural evil is at play or simply an evil within the children’s hearts.
“Children of the Corn” does connect tangentially to other King stories. The town of Gatlin neighbors Hemingford Home, the hometown of Mother Abagail from The Stand. Gatlin is also name-dropped in It. Two other short stories take place in Gatlin as well, The Last Rung on the Ladder and 1922. 1922 recently received a Netflix film adaptation which will be covered later in this series.
Though “Children of the Corn” isn’t King’s strongest story, it is a famous one and delivers some strong chills. It’s required reading for King fans and non-King fans alike, being a good example of his style and touching on important themes. It is nowhere near as hack-and-slash as the film or any of its sequels, so those dismissive of the story due to the movies’ reputation should still give it a try. Speaking of the movies…
After the rights to the story were purchased, King wrote a screenplay that focused more on the couple’s background as well as how the children of Gatlin took over the town. Allegedly, the first 35 pages of King’s screenplay was the couple arguing in their car on the way to Gatlin. But the studio decided against using King’s screenplay in favor of one written by George Goldsmith. King complained but the studio overruled him and picked the version with more slasher violence and a more conventional horror film structure. Of course, they still attempted to use King’s name in the writing credits, but he blocked them from doing so. Financially, though, the filmmakers weren’t wrong: Children of the Corn raked in $14 million on a budget of $800,000 and, as mentioned, spawned many sequels. One wonders how the King-written version might have turned out, though.
Director Fritz Kiersch helms a conventional horror product of the 1980s. The film departs from the story right away with a prologue that shows the children murdering all of their parents. Right away, the mystery and intrigue of the short story have been tossed aside for shock value. We are also given some “good” children to latch onto, including one who has some form of precognition and will serve as a somewhat unwilling ally for our adult protagonists later on. One of these children becomes the narrator for the film… and fails horribly at the task. Luckily, the narration doesn’t mar the opening credits, which feature creepy crayon drawings that hint at where the film will go. Not that the audience needs precognition to see what’s coming.
The film introduces the two main protagonists, Burt and Vicky, played by Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton respectively. Luckily for Hamilton, her career in 1984 featured a far bigger film in the form of The Terminator, likely saving her from the obscurity Peter Horton has enjoyed. She certainly is the strongest actor in the film, which isn’t saying much. Her first big acting scene features her dancing and singing like a goof in the couple’s hotel room.
The film changes the couple from married to dating for no discernible reason. It also changes the purpose of their trip from a marriage-salvaging vacation to a relocation for Burt’s new job as a physician. I guess this helps explain how he has the knowledge to conduct medical procedures later in the film, but it still feels like a pointless change. The film tries to develop the background of the characters, and the opening scenes do carry some degree of tension. The moment when they strike a small child on the highway is an effective jump scare and not punctuated with an annoying music blare like jump scares often are. Unfortunately, the tension vanishes when Peter Horton speaks. Horton’s performance isn’t as terrible as some of the kids’, but he has some unfortunate line deliveries.
The film only goes downhill from there as it goes through the motions of a standard horror plot. The movie uses a cheap dream sequence for no other reason than to try to generate a scare. A strange mechanic character who warns the protagonists to stay away from Gatlin is hammily performed by R.G. Armstrong. The script namedrops Hemingford, which is a nice Easter Egg for King fans. Our protagonists eventually discover what’s happened and spend the next forty minutes separated from each other and running around avoiding the children as we continually cut back to a terrible side plot about a power struggle between two of the children. Once again, filmmakers misunderstand what makes Stephen King stories work. This was never a gory story, and instead built suspense by showing as little of the children as possible in the text.
Instead we are subjected repeatedly to terrible child acting. Courtney Gains, who plays Malachai, has continually awful line delivery and just looks completely out of place. John Franklin, who plays Isaac, at least looks creepy but his whiny voice is irritating and I don’t believe for two seconds that anyone would ever agree to follow him in the first place. He’s better when he’s seemingly possessed by the corn god entity and just has to use his face to act while someone else provides the voice. It’s amusing to some degree to see Peter Horton fighting and attacking all of these children, but it never leaps to the hilarious awfulness of Nic Cage punching out women in The Wicker Man.
Ultimately, this adaptation is dragged down by mediocre directing and largely awful acting. There are a few instances of genuine creepiness, including a scene where the children listen to a religion sermon by Isaac. Children repeating dark words in unison is always off-putting. But terrible child acting always squelches any tension. There are also some horribly dated effects where yellow light covers Issac. That Children of the Corn has the cult following (heh) it does is fairly shocking. None of the kills are particularly gruesome, nor does the film offer any visually striking characters.
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Although the original run of the Children of the Corn series seemingly petered out with 2001’s Children of the Corn: Revelation, the SyFy Channel wanted in on the sweet corn money, too. Luckily for them, a producer on the original film, Donald P. Borchers, felt the first film was too “Hollywood” and wanted to try again. Borchers wisely learned from his mistakes and tried to get Stephen King to be an active participant, sending him the script for approval. But King, too, had seemingly learned from his mistakes, and Borchers’ only response from King was a letter from King’s attorney essentially telling him to take a hike. The SyFy Channel production would have to go on without King’s consultation. Borchers ended up writing, producing, and directing the picture.
Like the 1984 version, the 2009 movie opens with a prologue scene featuring the children plotting to murder their parents. The sequence is less dragged out than in the original, though, and there’s no awful narration. After the intro, we cut to Burt (David Anders) and Vicky (Kandyse McClure) driving in the car arguing. It feels like the pages of the short story come to life. Most of the lines of dialogue can be found in text, and the actors are an improvement on Hamilton and Horton. Not that they are great by any means, but there is some genuine emoting. I also thought the orange color grading on the film was effective, given the Nebraska setting and corn theme.
Yet some poor choices are made, too. Burt’s character is now a Vietnam veteran from the Marine Corps, and Vicky attacks him for being a NRA member. These cheap political references add nothing. Burt’s character also slaps Vicky in the face after they hit the kid in the road (a scene more effective in the ’84 version). This does come directly from the short story, but in the context of the film Vicky and Burt are now entirely unlikable. King can make unlikable protagonists work in his texts, but Borchers’ direction never gets me rooting for them. That could be intentional, though, since the film keeps the story’s downer ending.
The child actors here are an improvement on the ’84 version, of course. Daniel Newman delivers his lines as Malachai far better than Gains ever did. Preston Bailey‘s Isaac is younger than Franklin, yet has a far less whiny voice. Not that either of these child actors are all that great, but they can at least act a bit. It in’t a constant cringe. This is perhaps surprising, given that casting began only two weeks before production.
Borchers film is less repetitive and boring in the middle than the ’84 version. Instead of the endless running around town that occurs in the original, we have a series of set pieces that create a sense of progression and change. Burt wanders through the eerie town and we see direct references to the descriptions from the short story. The church’s depictions of Jesus match the text and are somewhat eerie. The scene of the children attacking Vicky in the car is pretty well shot, and there are actually a few moments here and there that, dare I say, were artful.
This film also maintains an image from the novel that I was very disappointed was dropped from the ’84 version. We get to see corpses of characters with their eyes torn out and stuffed with cornstalks. That description from the novel always was a chilling and effective way of selling the evil of the town, and the creep factor works on screen, too. Borchers makes a smart choice to convey Burt’s encounter with the demonic entity of Gatlin in a subtle way. In lieu of the original’s poor outline, Borchers has Vicky’s corpse talk to Burt, which is effectively unsettling.
Despite all these positive changes from the 84 version, this film does make some major missteps. For one, Burt’s military training comes to the forefront as he begins to fight off the children. The ’84 version featured this in a mild way, but this one ups the hack-and-slash and features Burt stabbing multiple teenage characters and snapping the neck of an eight-year-old boy. We also see Burt getting visual flashbacks to Vietnam while he’s evading the children in the cornfield, as if the audience didn’t understand his military background already. Depicting the murder of small children on film is always a sticky subject, and it feels somewhat tone-deaf here.
But perhaps the most questionable choice is a scene where the children go to their chapel after giving up on chasing Burt. They begin a mating ritual where an underage teen couple has sex in front of the entire population of the town. We see young children jumping up and down in excitement at this and we have frontal nudity of the copulating couple. Mind you, they are only quick flashes (aside from the female’s breasts) and the actors are adults, but they are portraying underage people. Like the violence from Burt, this seems like a cheap way to sex the movie up when it isn’t needed, and the scene isn’t present in the original story.
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The Best and The Most Faithful
The ‘09 adaptation is certainly a more faithful adaptation of King’s short story. While it adds to the material to pad out a 90-minute runtime, same as the ’84 version, it does more to maintain fidelity to the general flow of the short story and preserves a lot of the original dialogue. It doesn’t hide from the bitterness and doom of the story, unlike the ’84 version which opts for a happy ending where Vicky and Burt both survive and rescue some children from the cult.
The ’09 adaptation perhaps revels too much in its added grit, violence, and sex, but despite its bad choices the 09 version is still the better film. The performances are better across the board, with the arguable exception of Linda Hamilton. Borchers does more to build suspense and use his cast to create a haunting story. The irritating narration from the ’84 version is gone, and the ’09 relies overwhelmingly on practical effects that beat the original’s special effects. The film does make some callbacks to the score of the ’84 version with the soft children singing, which might be one of the few areas in which the original version is superior.
Despite the 1984 film spawning a franchise of endless sequels and being among the most well-known King-based films, it is not a good movie. It’s perhaps worth watching for its place in horror history and for proving the financial viability of the King name, but it’s just too dull and poorly acted to really give any type of recommendation. King aficionados are the only people to whom I could mildly recommend it.
The 2009 film isn’t great, either. The protagonists aren’t particularly likable or well-developed. Yet I think it is watchable at a a brisk 90 minutes and doesn’t spend time spinning its wheels like the original movie. No acting awards should be given to this cast, but it’s not as embarrassing. I would recommend it to King fans and general horror audiences as the best version of Children of the Corn to watch.
This are my personal ranking for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- Carrie (1976)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Shining (1980)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)