“Although ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ has always been the question I’m most frequently asked (it’s number one with a bullet, you might say), the runner-up is undoubtedly this one: ‘Is horror all you write?’ When I say it isn’t, it’s hard to tell if the questioner seems relieved or disappointed.” – Stephen King, Different Seasons afterword
Different Seasons, Stephen King’s first published collection of novellas, was released forty years ago this week. It represented the first significant departure from the supernatural horror King had become known for. Different Seasons, which yielded not one but two flawless, Oscar-nominated film adaptations, is one of my favorite works of fiction, a timeless, compulsively re-readable classic.
In the late 1960s, while attending the University of Maine, King began selling his short stories to the school’s literary journal Ubris and men’s magazine Cavalier. After graduating in 1970, he worked odd jobs to support his growing family – his spouse Tabitha and their two oldest children, Naomi and Joe (youngest child Owen came along in 1977) – and continued submitting his stories. In 1974, King sold his first novel, Carrie, and subsequently became known primarily as a novelist. But some of King’s best work is his short fiction, short stories as well as novellas. His short story collection Night Shift was the first King work I ever read; I was just ten years old, and I was gobsmacked. Different Seasons came along a year or two later.
As King launched his publishing career, both his agents and editors had expressed concern that King would be pigeonholed as a “horror” writer (when his books began selling millions, I’m assuming their fears were assuaged). It’s not that Different Seasons isn’t horror; Nazis are horrifying, as are a boy being killed by a train and an innocent man serving life in prison. But only one of the novellas, The Breathing Method, contains the sort of supernatural elements that had become King’s trademark by 1982. King, worried that he’d have a hard time getting these stories published, opted to package four of them together with an overarching theme. It’s a format that King has returned to several times, including 1990’s Four Past Midnight and 2010’s Full Dark, No Stars, both of which earned King a Bram Stoker Award. Obviously, in the case of Different Seasons, the theme was the four seasons, with each novella representing one of the seasons.
- Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (“Hope Springs Eternal”)
“Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
At its heart, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is about hope. Yes, it can drive a man insane, but it can also keep a man going during the darkest of times: a life sentence for a crime someone else committed, rape, endless days of solitary confinement. Through it all, Andy Dufresne remains hopeful that one day he will regain his freedom. Andy doesn’t just have hope, though; he has a plan, and it involves a Rita Hayworth poster and a rock hammer, both of which his new friend Red can procure for him.
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is ninety-two pages of perfection, a powerful, poignant ode to friendship, freedom, and above all hope. It was adapted into an essentially perfect movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank was a financial disappointment, earning only about $16 million in its initial run against a $25 million budget; in its first week of wide release, it came in ninth place at the box office, just behind the absolutely awful Exit to Eden (if you’ve never seen it, consider yourself lucky). But Shawshank was a critical success, earning seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and the film found its audience on home video and a few years later when TNT began airing it. King himself once said, “If that isn’t the best [adaptation of my works], it’s one of the two or three best”, and IMDb users agree: Shawshank is currently tied with The Godfather for #1 on the site’s list of the 250 all-time greatest movies.
Fun fact: After writer/director Frank Darabont finished his screenplay, Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment offered him $3 million for it if Reiner himself could direct. Reiner had already helmed the adaptation of another Different Seasons story, The Body (more on that in a bit). Darabont refused, ultimately accepting a lower fee in exchange for creative freedom, and thank goodness for that: Reiner intended to cast Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford as Andy and Red.
- Apt Pupil (“Summer of Corruption”)
“Sometimes, the past don’t rest so easy. Why else do people study history?”
The only novella from Different Seasons written in the third-person, Apt Pupil is about the monsters that hide in plain sight. Teenager Todd recognizes his elderly neighbor as Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander and blackmails Dussander into telling him tales from his Holocaust days while wearing his old SS uniform. As Todd and Dussander begin a homicidal pas de deux, King forces us to accept that there is more than one monster in this story.
Apt Pupil was adapted into a 1998 feature film starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro. It’s my least favorite of the Different Seasons movies, but it’s buoyed by terrific performances; McKellen, not surprisingly, is especially great, but the supporting cast includes talents like Joe Morton, James Karen, Ann Dowd, and Bruce Davison.
Fun fact: Apt Pupil also co-starred David Schwimmer in one of his earliest dramatic roles. Director Bryan Singer had seen Schwimmer, then best known for Friends and romantic comedies like The Pallbearer and Kissing a Fool, in a stage play and knew he had the chops for drama.
- The Body (“Fall from Innocence”)
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 – Jesus, did you?”
The Body is one of King’s most autobiographical works, a coming-of-age story for the ages. Our King stand-in is Gordie LaChance, an aspiring writer who goes on a journey with his three best pals to find the dead body of a missing boy. Gordie, neglected at home following the death of his favored older brother, is looking not only for the body of Ray Brower but for something else he can’t quite define. With The Body, King found a way to work through some of his childhood trauma; as a child, King witnessed a friend get struck and killed by a train, though he apparently had no recollection of the event when he came home in shock, unable to speak. Gordie’s inattentive parents fill in for King’s father David, who abandoned his family when King was just two years old. And finally, King once had a run-in with some nasty leeches, inspiring one of the story’s more memorable passages (and yes, he really did have a leech “down there”).
The Body was adapted into the 1986 masterpiece Stand By Me, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon’s stellar screenplay and two Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director for Rob Reiner. And that cast! The four young actors who played Gordie and his friends – Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman – were each so perfect for their respective roles that it’s impossible to imagine them being played by anyone else. Not to mention Kiefer Sutherland, so icily evil as antagonist Ace Merrill, and Richard Dreyfuss, credited as “The Writer”, who also provides the film’s narration as the adult Gordie. Stand By Me is a perfect movie, an endlessly rewatchable coming-of-age classic.
Fun fact: Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell weren’t acting scared enough for the train scene, necessitating multiple takes in the 100-degree California sun. With crew members starting to grumble, Rob Reiner resorted to shouting at the boys, who nailed the scene on the next take (see clip below for the full story).
By the way, Wil Wheaton is now 50, a dozen years older than Richard Dreyfuss was when Stand By Me was filmed, and I’m still waiting for him to start looking like Dreyfuss.
For more on Stand By Me: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/08/22/stand-by-me-at-35/
- The Breathing Method (“A Winter’s Tale”)
“Here, sir, there are always more tales.”
A story-within-a-story, The Breathing Method is the most overtly horrific of the four novellas. In the frame story, a Manhattan lawyer named David joins an exclusive men’s club whose members love to tell macabre stories. David recalls for the reader the night Doctor Emlyn McCarron recounted the tale of a young woman determined to give birth to her out-of-wedlock child, and this is where our nested story begins. Sandra, the mother-to-be, has mastered the doctor’s controversial new breathing method (what we now know as Lamaze); on the way to the hospital, Sandra is involved in a grisly car accident and Dr. McCarron learns the lengths to which she will go to deliver her baby.
The Breathing Method is the only Different Seasons novella that hasn’t been adapted for the screen, although one is listed as being in development as of 2019.
Fun fact: The gentleman’s club featured in The Breathing Method is also the setting for King’s short story “The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands”, which appeared in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew.