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: Lot of Salem (1979)
Of course, the rights of ‘Salem Bundle were snapped up almost immediately by Warner Bros. Pictures with the idea of making a major feature film. King himself did not write a screenplay, but several others have done itincluding Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant (In the heat of the Night) and It’s alive director Larry Cohen. But all ran into the problem that has since haunted many King adaptations of compressing a 400-page (or more) novel and extensive cast of characters into a two-hour theatrical film.
The solution to the problem was to move the adaptation from the big screen to the small, with ‘Salem Bundle reconfigured into a four-hour, two-part miniseries, airing two consecutive Monday nights. At the time, in 1978, television mini-series, with the possible exception of “prestige” series like Roots– were filmed on TV budgets with TV crews and resources, and weren’t designed to look as cinematic as modern day offerings from HBO, Prime Video and Netflix today.
But Warner Television and CBS (which aired the project) found a director in Tobe Hooper, and his resume so far, which included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and eaten alivedidn’t exactly scream in prime time.
The cast was a mix of familiar TV stars (David Soul), new faces (Bonnie Bedelia) and older, somewhat faded Hollywood icons (James Mason, the show’s best part), plus the complement usual character of “that guy”. actors. The most controversial choice was the casting of Austrian actor Reggie Nalder as the lead vampire, Kurt Barlow, replacing King’s erudite and distinguished bloodsucker with a wild, non-speaking, blue-skinned version of the Count. Orlok’s Nosferatus.
Barlow only appears in a few scenes, leaving his human assistant, played by Mason, as the film’s main villain, one of many notable changes from the book. Many other changes involve combining characters, like making heroine Susan Norton’s father and town doctor Jimmy Cody one person (played by Ed Flanders), or having an affair between Bonnie Sawyer (Julie Cobb) and her boss, real estate agent Larry Crockett (Fred Willard), eliminating the local electrician she deals with.