From Book to Screen: Thinner
Welcome back to the Stephen King Book to Screen series! In our last visit we covered Creepshow, a film adapting two King short stories that were not collected in any compendium. We return now to the next King novel in the chronology, Thinner. Thinner was the last book written under the Richard Bachman pseudonym before King was outed as Bachman by a clerk in Washington, DC. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Thinner‘s genesis was the result of Stephen King’s annual medical examination. After his doctor told him he was overweight, he started to slim down. Despite feeling healthier, King was angry that a lifestyle change had been forced upon him by his doctor. His mind started churning on an idea about someone who started losing weight uncontrollably, and the novel was born. He decided to publish the book under the Bachman name due to it fitting in with the other Bachman books with its darker and grimmer content and more real-world issues.
The book was published in November 1984. Upon publication, several outlets noted similarities in the writing style of Thinner and Stephen King novels. The true identity of Bachman would be confirmed when a bookstore clerk in DC checked copyright data in the Library of Congress that showed they were the same person.
King’s experiment as Bachman had been to see if he could replicate his success or if he had just gotten lucky. Due to his outing after Thinner, King felt he never had a satisfactory answer. Thinner sold 28,000 copies during its initial run, but the sales increased tenfold after his identity was revealed. The critical reception to Thinner was mixed, with some critics condemning its cynical, dark nature and ending. Others were irked about King hiding his authorship. Some praised the ending, though, and the quality of King’s writing received universal praise.
Thinner follows an overweight lawyer who defends mobsters, and who accidentally kills a gypsy while backing out of a parking spot due to certain “distractions” from his wife. Due to the lawyer’s close connections with the court, he is able to escape judicial punishment, but the gypsies concoct their own punishment in the form of a curse that causes the lawyer to rapidly lose weight.
As with all King works, the characters are well-crafted and are the center of the work’s themes. While certainly no deep literary masterpiece, Thinner does effectively detail a man corrupted by his nature and negligence. This “reap what you sow” idea works well throughout. King does a great job describing the loss of weight and the sense of wasting away, and there are some effective gross-out moments that send chills down your spine.
One might note that, regrettably, King returns to the well of ethnic curses, this time with gypsies. But there is an interesting commentary in the form of the protagonist returning the favor with “the white man’s curse.” This sort of mildly unrepentant main character is slightly repulsive to follow, but at least he is not a prototypical protagonist. This certainly isn’t the best Bachman book, but Thinner is willing to carry events forward to their natural conclusion, and that earns it points.
Thinner was adapted into a film in 1996. It followed the success of The Shawshank Redemption at the 1994 Oscars. King adaptations had been produced practically every year since the late 70s, but the 90s featured many fairly terrible ones, notably Night Shift which we have previously covered. Thinner was an attempt by Paramount to throw themselves into the fray with the most horror-ish Bachman novel.
The creative team might suggest a film of quality. It was directed by Tom Holland of Fright Night and Child’s Play fame, and written by Michael McDowell, who penned Beetlejuice. Despite this pairing, Thinner did not do particularly well commercially or critically. It made only $15.3 million on a budget of $14 million, far from a hit. Most reviews at the time labeled it a cheap cash-in on the King name that relied too much on hack and slash, but a few critics were kinder and found it one of the better King adaptations.
The film did garner a decent cast. Robert John Burke played the lead role. A veteran of television with some range, Burke is decent in this film, though the extremely cheap fat suit would look bad on anyone. Casting Joe Mantegna as the gangster friend of the lead was a fun choice, and he delivers enough goofiness and fun to make it work. King even gets a small cameo role. While this is no acting showcase, all of the performances are palpable enough.
Thinner is not a bad film, but nor is it a particularly compelling one. Holland’s direction isn’t bland per se, but it doesn’t add much to the film. It’s more or less a direct adaptation of the plot of the novel, though it gets rid of some of the nuance and procedure of the lead character tracking down the gypsies and adds a subplot about the wife. The cheapness of the film diminishes some of the creepy moments from the book, such as the rapid thinning of the main character and the two other deaths in the film.
While Thinner isn’t a particularly complex novel, the film squanders away what little thematic content was present. It’s not an entirely terrible film, but it chases down the gore aspects of the book without much creepiness or aplomb. The result is an entertaining enough movie, but not a particularly well-made or noteworthy one. Thinner could use another take from a more talented and notable director, such as David Cronenberg, or a new young director ready to take on the body horror throne. Though not a King classic, his fans will likely enjoy this one well enough, while non-fans may find little here of note.
- Ranked #7,376 globally
- 1868 users have ranked it
- Wins 29% of match-ups
- 1 person has it at #1
- 42/92 on the Stephen King filter
These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Stand By Me (1986)
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- Creepshow (1982)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- Christine (1983)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Cujo (1983)
- The Shining (1980)
- Pet Sematary (1989)
- Silver Bullet (1985)
- Apt Pupil (1998)
- Thinner (1996)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Firestarter (1984)
- Pet Sematary (2019)
- The Dark Tower (2017)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)