The movie sequel business model dates back to the dawn of the film industry, but the notion of a shared franchise universe – while a staple in fiction and comic books for decades – was arguably popularized by the original Star Wars. Although the precursor “Episode IV” was famously added retroactively to A New Hope, the notion that one movie could be part of a much larger saga took hold in the public’s imagination.
The concept of a shared universe movie über-franchise was (arguably) not truly exploited to its fullest box office (and storytelling) potential until the coming of the cross-platform Marvel Cinematic Universe (although a strong case could be made for the cross-platform Star Trek universe). With interconnected movies, augmented by television and streaming-outlet series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil, planned out for the next half-decade and beyond, other studios are following suit: Fox’s X-Men franchise that will grow further in February to include Deadpool; the DC Extended Universe kicked off by Man of Steel and set to expand with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice; Universal’s Monster Movie Universe, and of course, Star Wars.
There is, however, one large and overlooked source for a shared universe ultra-franchise, and it’s right under the studios’ noses: the fiction (including comic books) of Horns author Joe Hill and his father Stephen King.
Stephen King is a household name by now, and while some of the adaptations of his prolific body of work are considered classics (Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption), some others are… not so classic (The Mangler, The Lawnmower Man, Dreamcatcher). Despite his frequent threats of retirement, King is now in his sixties and has been releasing one full novel nearly every year. Several well-regarded TV series have been adapted from his work as well, including The Dead Zone, the short-lived but critically-acclaimed Golden Years, Haven, and Under the Dome.
King’s son Joe Hill has become a highly respected, bestselling author in his own right. His supernatural horror novels Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and NOS4A2 were each very successful and have garnered a loyal following. His comic book series Locke & Key was likewise a hit both commercially and critically. Hill’s live-action adaptations have been mixed, however. A television adaptation of Locke & Key reached the pilot stage but was never picked up, and while his second novel Horns was a critically-acclaimed bestseller, the movie adaptation from director Alexandre Aja garnered a mixed reception.
With several high-profile King adaptations in the works (It, The Dark Tower, Hulu’s 11/22/63, Revival) and AMC adapting Hill’s terrific third novel NOS4A2, the shared universe connections between Hill’s work and King’s recent novels deserve to be explored.
The Existing Stephen King Shared Universe Connections
Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy/Western hybrid series The Dark Tower is comprised of seven main novels and at least two other book-length entries (The Wind Through the Keyhole and The Little Sisters of Eluria). He has called The Dark Tower his “Jupiter,” a narrative universe that contains nearly all of his other works. Many other novels connect to the main narrative of the series in crucial ways – Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, Rose Madder, Desperation and Insomnia, along with at least a dozen short stories. The main series ended in 2004 with The Dark Tower VII, but King has referenced the universe directly as recently as 2011’s 11/22/63, and Marvel publishes an ongoing comic book adaptation which fills in a lot of backstory left out of the books.
King’s ambitious über-tale was at one point set to be adapted in an equally ambitious way by director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman as a film trilogy augmented by a limited television series between films. The project has been cancelled and placed into turnaround several times, but now has a director in Nikolaj Arcel and a potential star in Idris Elba. Still, the major studios are still skittish when it comes to committing to such a huge project.
Perhaps such a multi-platform, long-form adaptation should be approached from a different route, through the connections between Stephen King and Joe Hill’s fiction.
The Connections Between King and Hill’s Fiction
Each of Hill’s three novels – Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, NOS4A2, along with his comic book series Locke & Key – take place in the same narrative universe. There are subtle references to Heart-Shaped Box in Horns, but NOS4A2 literally maps out the “United Inscapes of America,” which includes the supernatural realms and constructs featured in his books: the “Nightroad” where the dead travel in Heart-Shaped Box; the “Treehouse of the Mind” from Horns; and the “Lovecraft Keyhole” from Locke & Key. The “Pennywise Circus” is also mentioned – Pennywise being the name of the evil clown from It.
Another of these is Christmasland, the realm that exists inside the mind of NOS4A2’s villain Charlie Manx. At one point Manx references “the doors to Mid-World;” Mid-World is the setting for most of Stephen King’s Dark Tower stories. This is just one subtle reference in Hill’s work to King’s fiction, but it establishes that all of Hill’s novels not only share the same narrative universe, but they are also connected to the overall Dark Tower continuity/multiverse of King’s fiction.
This opens up an array of possibilities for an interconnected shared universe franchise, which could exist across several different platforms.
The Potential for a Shared Universe Franchise
While the themes of supernatural realms and parallel dimensions run through both King’s and Hill’s work, King’s novel Doctor Sleep (his three-decades-later sequel to The Shining) contains a direct reference to Charlie Manx, the villain of NOS4A2. Rather than being a throwaway reference, it takes place during an important early scene in which Dan Torrance remembers advice from his mentor (and fellow possessor of the “shine”) Dick Hallorann, which sets up Dan’s method for defeating Doctor Sleep’s antagonist in the final showdown.
While there are probably no plans from Hill and King to release any overt crossovers, these connections are ripe for expansion in different types of live action adaptations. With NOS4A2 coming to AMC and raising Hill’s profile with general audiences, the previously mooted multi-platform Dark Tower adaptation could potentially be explored by highlighting these connections a little at a time.
In our current Great Age of Shared Universe Franchises, the studios and networks they own/co-own/have production deals with are busy
monetizing expanding said IPs across a variety of platforms. This trend stands out with the superhero properties: the MCU’s direct connection with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and less-direct connection to Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones; Fox’s attempt to spin the X-Men into an (unconnected) series with Legion; DC’s various TV series (Gotham, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow), which will not intersect with the DCEU (or will they?).
Non-superhero shared universe properties are rare at the moment, but AMC spun off The Walking Dead into the well-received Fear the Walking Dead last year. That show served as both a prequel and an expansion of the main show and was successful enough to earn itself a second season. So there is a precedent for a cross-platform IP with narratives that are complementary and part of the same universe, but not necessarily dependant on one another.
It might require a studio and/or network to think outside of the box somewhat more than they are used to, but the reactions to and often wildly passionate followers of the MCU, DCEU and ongoing Star Wars and Star Trek multi-platform franchises indicate that audiences will eagerly get on board with very long-form storytelling – so long as it’s executed properly. The fiction of Joe Hill and Stephen King can be adapted into strong standalone film and television properties that could cross over with each other in highly engaging ways.
This would require some imagination on behalf of the powers that be, but would go a long way toward answering the main question studios have when trying to adapt The Dark Tower: who is this for? If done right, these fantastic, scary, enlightening and engrossing stories could definitely find an audience.
Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is currently in development at AMC. Stephen King’s 11.22.63 will debut on Presidents Day, February 15th, 2016, on Hulu. It, The Dark Tower, The Stand and Revival are all currently in development.