A Stephen King Movie Universe: Warner Bros.’ Big Opportunity

We think Josh Boone's film adaptation of The Stand might be the start of an entire cinematic universe. Here's why...

Editor’s Note:There are several major spoilers throughout this article…

We’ve known for a while that director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) is adapting Stephen King’s The Stand for the silver screen, and that it would probably take more than one film to tell the book’s massive tale. In fact, it’s going to take four movies. There is a bigger discussion to be had about what this means for Stephen King movies moving forward. 

The Stand is perhaps best known as King’s magnum opus — although you might get some pushback from big fans of his Dark Tower series. Originally published in 1978, this is a roaring novel about the end of civilization and its reconstruction in a world taken over by monsters. The biggest and baddest monster of all, and one of King’s longest lasting creations on the page, is a man named Randall Flagg, a master of disguise and agent of chaos who has appeared in several of the writer’s works. 

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Whether Warner Bros. know this or not, Randall Flagg is the key to a larger King Cinematic Universe. If the studio ever wanted a chance to create a franchise out of something that wasn’t based on a comic book or YA novel, WB would do well to take full advantage of a character like Randall Flagg. They’re lining up Matthew McConaughey to play Randall Flagg, which is a good indication that they mean to really hit home with this character and perhaps introduce us to a larger universe where he plays a pivotal role.

Warner Bros. is already organizing a line-up of King films. With guys like Josh Boone, True Detective‘s Cary Fukunaga (IT), and The Walking Dead‘s Glenn Mazzara (The Overlook Hotel) making King films for the studio, who’s to say Warner Bros. isn’t stealthily creating the Stephen King Cinematic Universe? 

Why a Studio Would Want to Do It

Before I get into mapping the King fictional universe (and I’m totally going to, even if only briefly), let’s discuss the current state of Warner Bros. The film studio is currently suffering a franchise dry spell. 

Warner Bros. lost their two biggest franchises, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and the Harry Potter series, at a time when they needed them the most. Both series reached their logical conclusions, and Warner Bros. have been left scattering for something new.

WB’s answer to their big franchise problem? Reboot both Batman and Harry Potter with the ambitious DC Cinematic Universe (with at least one new film every year from 2016 to 2020) and the unnecessary Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them series. There’s also The Hobbit, which was inexplicably turned into a trilogy and is coming to an end this year, Pacific Rim, which is getting a sequel in the next few years, and the new Lego franchise.

Is Warner Bros. doing the right thing by jampacking their line-up with big budget, franchise-igniting films? In terms of quality, I can’t imagine a studio could make that many worthwhile blockbusters in the next six years. We’re entering a state of blockbuster overload that will probably leave us a bit fatigued by New Years 2021. But what else can they do if they want to keep up with the times? Sony, Disney, Fox, and Universal have all jumped into the franchise game — and Disney having so far been more successful at it — which leaves them no other choice but to follow suit. It’s what the people want until they no longer do (2020 franchise apocalypse imminent).

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So what big household name that has nothing to do with comic books or YA novels could they use to cook up something really big?

“Hello, Uncle Stevie. Your Constant Readers love your books and will watch all of the movies based on them. Not to mention that many of your novels connect and take place in the same universe. Hmm…”

If Warner Bros. were smart, they’d mine the King Universe for that much-needed franchise. Apart from fun little easter eggs here and there, the films have never been acknowledged as part of a larger universe. Yet this universe has one of the most coherent backbones ever known in fiction. World-building wouldn’t be difficult at all. Just look at how all of this stuff connects…

How The Stand Connects to a Much Larger King Universe

Forget the time and space-warping continuity of comic books. King introduces one point in his fictional universe around which all of his other supernatural tales revolve.

This might be grossly simplistic, but: you know how the Solar System works, right? Then you know how the Stephen King Universe works. Imagine Randall Flagg was trying to blow up the sun. Boom. You have these films that start to introduce things like the Macroverse (IT) and the dastardly villains that set all of the chaos in motion (The Stand), and then you set it all off with a race to this ONE point in time and space that controls everything else you’ve seen so far…Well, that seems like a perfect franchise to me.

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I told you I’d map the King Universe out for you (and I am), but don’t expect a huge dissection of King’s 50-plus novels and bazillion short stories. Better men than me have tried. So here’s a brief glimpse that will give you the right idea: 

(You can find an even better flowchart over at Tessie Girl, but for the sake of this discussion, the less detailed one above will do just as well.)

As you can see, the King Universe revolves around his Dark Tower series, which unites a lot of the characters, monsters, and themes from his other books into one big “Crisis on Infinite Kings” (if you’re a comic book fan). The connections are even more extensive when you look at how his “standalone” novels and stories connect, e.g. the PENNYWISE LIVES reference in Dreamcatcher. It helps that most of King’s work takes place in Derry and Castle Rock (after Lord of the Flies), Maine. 

But The Dark Tower series is where things really come together to tell a singular story, and the ties that bind all of these tales are at the forefront. Even King is a character in this maxi-series.

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Where does The Stand come in? Not only does the series make direct references to the book in IV: Wizard and Glass, The Stand also introduces the main antagonist of the King universe.

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Randall Flagg haunts the pages of King’s early novels The Stand (1978) and Eyes of the Dragon (1987), making his first two appearances by that name — although his second appearance is technically in I: The Gunslinger as the Man in Black aka Walter o’Dim. Flagg is a man of many faces. He appears in The Dark Tower several times under different identities to cause trouble for Roland and his ka-tet.

In The Stand, Flagg is not unlike the Joker. In fact, he might be this universe’s version of that character. For example, at one point in the novel. Flagg points out that his origin remains a mystery. He just “became” one day. VII: The Dark Tower finally sheds light on Flagg’s early life as boy in the land of Delain (Eyes of the Dragon), but even that isn’t certain.

Wherever Flagg goes, his motive is always to topple the established order and rebuild civilization as its ruler. He tries to do this in Las Vegas after a superflu virus known as “Captain Trips” wipes out most of the population in The Stand. In the land of Delain, Flagg is an evil wizard who manipulates the young king, plunging the kingdom into a dark age. Finally, his ultimate plan is unleashed on the King Universe, as Flagg seeks to climb The Dark Tower and rule over all of time and space. 

You can probably already see how Warner Bros. could set all of this up with a four-film adaptation of The Stand. But what if McConaughey isn’t really into the idea of playing the same character for 4+ films? That’s not really a problem. Like I said before, Flagg has a dozen identities with different likenesses. No one can possibly complain if they change the actor once The Stand is complete. You almost need someone different to portray guys like Walter o’Dim and Marten Broadcloak. And I honestly can’t see McConaughey playing an evil medieval wizard from Delain…

I’m not a big fan of this next approach, but I’m trying to think like Warner Bros. would: the studio could even begin to introduce the larger universe within Josh Boone’s films. Perhaps there’s a scene that mentions the Crimson King — think Thanos in the King Universe — and that Flagg works for him. Introducing the Crimson King would immediately open the doors to an adaptation of Insomnia, The Talisman series (if Paramount passes), and The Dark Tower. Or perhaps we see a post-credits scene of Roland and his ka-tet approaching a postapocalyptic version of Topeka by series end.

And don’t forget those other films I mentioned in the intro. Boone is a life-long King fan (he even wrote him letters as a boy) and Fukunaga adapts the kind of Lovecraftian stuff that King has been writing for a long time. Even The Overlook Hotel could spark a series that continues with Kubrick’s The Shining (Warner Bros.), and ends with an adaptation of 2013’s Doctor Sleep, which would feature those pesky energy vampires that play into the later Dark Tower books. ENDLESS CONNECTIONS.

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The bow that would tie this universe together, of course, is missing from Warner Bros. line-up of King films.

The studio passed on Ron Howard’s The Dark Tower, a film adaptation of the epic series, back in 2012. After both Universal and WB turned the project down, Media Right Capital began serious talks with Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, but there hasn’t been any confirmation or update on this since 2012. I reached out to MRC about the status of the project, but they declined to comment.

WB can’t build a meaningful and profitable King Cinematic Universe if they don’t have the big film event. The Dark Tower would undoubtedly be this universe’s Avengers. Even if MRC is making the film, they’ve collaborated with Warner Bros. in the past, so the series could still find its way back to WB. If WB want the King films to match the big franchise money they’ll likely earn from the DC Cinematic Universe and the Harry Potter spin-off series, the studio needs to buy into The Dark Tower.

Whether you approve or not, you can’t deny the opportunity here. Think Marvel Cinematic Universe: iconic villain that appears in more than one film? Check. Evil god-like entity that looms over present events but won’t become the big bad until a much later event film? Check. The ability to make several Stephen King movies out of one book or series? Triple check! Wait, and so much of this stuff already connects and makes sense together?

Warner Bros. has a winner.

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John Saavedra is a huge Stephen King fan. Palaver with him on Twitter