We know it be can be difficult not only to keep up with whatever the prolific Stephen King publishes next, but also which of his works are headed for feature or television adaptations. At the moment, King-affiliated projects include: the forthcoming TV series “Under The Dome” and the remake of “Carrie” along with a number of movies and/or shows in active development or being filmed, such as “A Good Marriage,” “The Ten O’Clock People,” “Mercy” and “11/22/63.” So perhaps it’s not a surprise the King’s latest effort “Joyland” — on store shelves today — already has a movie version in the works, with “The Help” director Tate Taylor set to write and direct and feature. Tate Taylor? Stephen King? It might seem like an odd choice, but the material isn’t your standard fare from the horror maestro.
Released via the Hard Case Crime imprint — a publishing division dedicated to pulp fiction and noir writing — this might be an outlier in the catalog. If anything, “Joyland” is a coming-of-age story first and foremost, a mystery second and in a distant third, a ghost story. Set over the summer of 1973, the story follows Devin Jones, a heartbroken young man just coming out of his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire. Licking the wounds following his breakup with Wendy Keegan — who he had been seeing for two years, and thought he was going to marry — he spends his summer in North Carolina working at the titular Joyland. An old-school amusement park of the first order, it’s a local attraction that has seen better and more profitable days in its past, but still remains a summer destination. And while the rest of his life might be in something of a shambles — as he still pines for Wendy, remains uncertain about his future and is spending the first summer away from home — he finds himself fitting hand-in-glove at Joyland.
Devin quickly makes a small circle of friends that includes Lane Hardy, the Joyland veteran who shows him the ropes, along with the beautiful, redheaded Erin Cook, and the boisterous, smart-mouthed Tom Kennedy, two youths Devin’s age who are part of the seasonal work force. But of course, this being a Stephen King story, it isn’t long before the supernatural creeps into the story. The legend of Linda Gray, a teenage girl murdered four years ago in one of the fun-house horror rides, looms large. Some say she still haunts the ride, but perhaps scariest of all, her killer was never found. Naturally, Devin will be drawn into getting to the bottom of the mystery, while other elements like a psychic, a handicapped boy with a “Shining“-esque gift, and his caring, but enigmatic single mother and more all coalesce into giving our lead a summer he won’t forget.
As we said, the crux of the story isn’t so much the spooky urban legend (or is it?) that mostly lingers in the background, building up steam in the latter stages of the second act and into the third, but on Devin and his maturation. It’s where the story really works best, with King expertly weaving the tumultuous feelings of young men of that age, with a character dealing not only with the loss of his first true love, but also his mother (who passed away four years ago) and severing the parent/child bond he shares with his father, as he learns to live on his own. This is the material that’s most well-realized and evocative, with King understanding little details, like how the heartsick will obsessively spin the same records over and over as they mourn their wounded spirit. But Devin doesn’t just mope; as he finds his niche at Joyland, his confidence begins to soar, and Wendy fades further and further into the background, as he rediscovers his sense of self and purpose.
But when the mystery does come charging back into the story, it’s when “Joyland” oddly enough becomes least interesting. King handles it almost like he doesn’t want to deal with it either, with a particular brace of information arriving in a torrent over a single chapter, rather than in traditional noirs that spread the pieces out like puzzle, only to thrillingly haul them all in when the chips are down. And there is a bit of anti-climatic feeling to the conclusion — again, because it’s Devin personal story that’s more effective — though its setting is definitely cinematic, in a manner we can see working really well on the big screen.
Which brings us back to Tate Taylor, who is taking on the job of bringing “Joyland” to the multiplex. While I’m certainly far from an expert on King’s catalog, it’s probably safe to say this will be on the B-tier of must-read material in the author’s career. Though, that’s not a slight — it’s written very much as simple page-turner, but it speaks to the talent of King that he brings a level of depth and character few can achieve within the format, even if takes it away from the traditional conventions of the pulp genre. But what does Taylor need to do to make “Joyland” work on its way to theaters? Well, let’s get into it…
1. Focus on the coming-of-age story and keep a light hand on the supernatural
We can only imagine that the combination of the period setting (which we’ll get to in a second) and the complex lead character was the attraction for Tate Taylor in signing on to the project. Somewhat like Emma Stone‘s Skeeter Phelan in “The Help,” Devin Jones learns a lot of hard lessons on his way to adulthood in “Joyland” and that’s where the power of the story resides. In writing the script, the temptation will be there to really use the secondary mystery plot — which includes some gruesome murders — as the center of the story around which everything else spins, and that would certainly be the more conventional approach. But it would be the more boring approach as well. As we said, the haunted amusement park ride/murder mystery conceit here isn’t particularly innovative and is more a device used to help enhance the character of Devin, than to drive the plot. If Taylor puts the story of brokenhearted kid finding himself at his first summer job first and uses it — like the book does — to involve otherworldly elements, and he finds that right balance, the material could make one of the more unique ghost stories to hit the screen in a long while. If he goes the other route, “Joyland” would really be just another generic thriller.
2. Keep the period setting
There’s probably no doubt that Taylor will keep the period setting, but just in case there’s any thought of making things contemporary… don’t. King’s choice of an old0fashioned amusement park as his setting is near-perfect, with the faded denim and baseball caps, cranking gears, old school games, the smell of hot dogs and general mechanical grind and clank of the rides leaping off of the page, adding a unique texture to this kind of story that one rarely gets. The same tale, told in 2013 at a Six Flags or something similar, just wouldn’t have the same pull or character; the setting helps establish half the mood of the piece. Without those nostalgic days of the ’70s, and the fashions and sense of atmosphere that go with it (including the innocence of long gone summer days), “Joyland” would lose a big part of its appeal.
3. Set aside some room on the budget for the soundtrack
Whether or not he was already thinking of how the book might play out on the big screen, if not quite wall-to-wall, Stephen King doesn’t let too much time stretch without a reference to some classic rock and pop. As Devin heals his broken heart, he spends his night endlessly listening to The Doors, with the dramatic “The End” being a favorite. Meanwhile, part of the fun times provided by Joyland come courtesy of the speakers pumping out music all day, every day. Among the many artists mentioned include The Faces, The Beach Boys, Johnny Otis, Big Joe Turner, Jimi Hendrix, and much more. Pretty expensive to license this kind of stuff? Definitely. But both the movie and book wouldn’t be the same without these distinct period-markers to help tell the story.
4. Keep the carny argot, but don’t overdo it
One of the most intriguing elements of “Joyland” is King’s embrace of carny slang, that he calls “The Talk” in the book. Crediting The Dictionary Of Carny, Circus, Sideshow & Vaudeville Lingo for providing him with a colorful, authentic vocabulary to draw from — while also adding a few inventions of his own — “Joyland” finds some fun rhythms as characters toss and chew on the language of the amusement trade. There would have to be a fine balance between making it a nice shade to the dialogue and having it be a confusing distraction, but Taylor would be wise to work some of it in. Just like the ’70s setting and the music, “Joyland” wouldn’t be the same without it.
5. Don’t be tempted to put big stars in all the roles
Okay, we understand the realities of film financing, and if you need to put a Robert Pattinson-type in the role of Devin Jones to get it made, it’s not the end of the world. But the temptation here will be to fill the supporting ensemble of players with big names — particularly with Taylor coming off the mega-success of “The Help” — but we hope he takes the more courageous road of going with more character actors. The mercurial psychic Rozzie Gold, the charming Lane Hardy, the attractive mom Annie Ross, and even the elderly owner of Joyland, Bradley Easterbrook, are great characters, but they would be undone with major stars taking them on. Set in a small town, “Joyland” would benefit from an array of character actors taking those supporting parts, and would help in building the small, folksy community that Devin travels in, while making the later developments all the eerier. Recognizable starry faces, and the baggage that comes with that, risks tearing the careful fabric King has created.
Thoughts, opinions? “Joyland” is on store shelves today, and we’re sure King fans are already devouring. And after you have, be sure to drop by and share your thoughts about the brewing movie adaptation.