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Den of Geek wrote a similar article on the same topic recently. To clear up any concerns I’ve included a disclaimer/clarification after this article if you’re interested.*
If you’ve never read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – a quintessential text for any aspiring writer and/or creative type – I highly suggest checking it out ASAP from your nearest lie-berry. Even if you’re not at all interested in writing, the book still works as an amazing autobiography, detailing every part of King’s life – from his earliest memories growing up to his first successes an an author.
And that’s one of the truly amazing parts of the book: we witness him go from a nobody to a somebody after years of busting his hump. King and his wife Tabitha (Tabby, to Steve) were married with a newborn on their hands, struggling to make ends meet. He was teacher and grading papers during the day, and writing his stories at night. And after chipping away at it long enough – and nearly almost giving up – Carrie was finally published, and the rest is history. King is humble and forthright in On Writing – he makes no airs about the fact that he’s since made boatloads of money and doesn’t need to write another book for the next few millennia. But he’s a writer in the truest sense: he writes because he’s so passionate about it; he can’t do anything else.
So it was with this understanding of being utterly devoted to creating works of art – combined with the fact that he didn’t really need any more money – that King began allowing aspiring film makers the right to film any of his short stories… for one dollar. He labeled these projects his “Dollar Babies“.
By the late 1970s King had amassed a large collection of short stories, and after the successes of his full length novels Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, he started receiving correspondence from college-aged film makers hoping to adapt a piece of his work. As King tells it:
Around 1977 or so, when I started having some popular success, I saw a way to give back a little of the joy the movies had given me. ‘77 was the year young film makers – college students, for the most part – started writing me about the stories I’d published, wanting to make short films out of them. Over the objections of my accountant, who saw all sorts of possible legal problems, I established a policy which still holds today. I will grant any student filmmaker the right to make a movie out of any short story I have written, so long as the film rights are still mine to assign. I ask them to sign a paper promising that no resulting film will be exhibited commercially without approval, and that they send me a videotape of the finished work. For this one-time right I ask a dollar. I have made the dollar-deal, as I call it, over my accountant’s moans and head-clutching protests sixteen or seventeen times as of this writing .”
So with those simple rules in place, students and ambitious directors were allowed to have at it. The professionalism on these projects covered both ends of the spectrum, from hundred-dollar cheapies shot on VHS, to big-budgeted badboys like the adaptation of Umney’s Last Case, which was shot on 35mm film for over $60,000.
Some of these little labors of love would end up being launching pads for soon-to-be award winning directors. So let’s look at a few of the first Dollar Babies ever produced, and the teams behind them.
The Boogeyman is the first Dollar Baby to be produced. Released in 1982 (based on a story written by King in 1973), it was directed by Jeffrey C. Schiro who would later get into TV, directing an episode of Tales from the Darkside. It had a budget of a whopping $20,000! In 1982, that was practically a million bucks. While Schiro and his crew didn’t go on to do much more after this little flick, the seeds were planted for an exciting new venture with endless possibilities.
This 30 minute short came out in 1983 and was based on King’s 1977 short story, Children of the Corn. This is where things get interesting: in the beginning of King’s career, there was really only interest from major movie studios in his full length novels, which is why he allowed budding auteurs to adapt his shorter works for only a dollar. While not necessarily a loophole, it did allow a fortunate few to be the first to adapt what would later become major motion pictures. Disciples of the Crow was the first instance of this, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Perhaps the most prominent and significant of all the entries, The Woman in the Room was not only Frank Darabont’s first film but also technically the first Dollar Baby. A 20-year-old Darabont, who wasn’t even involved in the movie industry at the time, loved the story so much that he wrote King a letter asking if he could make a short film of it. King, keen on conceptualizing a way to allow this put into action the Dollar Babies. It took Darabont over 3 years and $35,000 to complete the film, making his entry third on the list – but he was the first one to approach King with the idea back in 1980. King went on to say it was, “Clearly the best of the short films made from my stuff.” So good, in fact, that Darabont and his crew entered it for Oscar consideration in the short film category. It even ended up being purchased (along with The Boogeyman and Disciples of the Crow) for release on home video. It would be the beginning of a long and successful career for Darabont, who would end up adapting several more of King’s works – The Mist, The Green Mile – and would eventually win the Oscar for Best Picture (as well as pretty much every other category) for The Shawshank Redemption – which of course, was based on a short story by Stephen King.
Last on the list, we have the whole reason I wrote this piece: The Lawnmower Man. I was surfin’ the net as kids are wont to do these days, when I fell down one of those rabbit holes – the deep and endless kind where one click leads to another click, leads to another, and another; from Wikipedia, to Youtube, and back again. Link to link to link. I’d somehow found myself watching what I thought was some cheapo home movie on Youtube simply entitled The Lawnmower Man. And I wasn’t entirely wrong: it is a cheapo homemade movie, and it is entitled The Lawnmower Man. But what I didn’t realize until seeing the opening credits was that it was indeed based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name.
Most notable is the fact that this short film is more faithful to its source material than 1992’s big-budgeted take on the story, which bears absolutely no resemblance to King’s work other than in name. Pretty impressive: some anonymous students with $5,000 did a better job of adapting a Stephen King story than Hollywood could with 10 million smackers.
And that’s the beauty of the crossroads where determination, creativity, passion and respect intersect. King is an artist – once a very struggling artist – and he knows what it’s like to have that fire burning so badly in your belly; nothing can snuff it out, but being allowed to create your art can at least temper the flames for the time being.
*Whenever genius strikes me – whether I’m in the shower, trying to fall asleep, or drinking an Olympic-size swimming pool amount of beer (almost always that last one) – the first thing I do is run to Google. I immediately punch in whatever article idea I have to make sure of two things:
In this Internet Age when everything is a rehash of a rehash, it’s important to me to do my best to not add anymore overdone, hacky detritus to the pile of listicles, burying worthwhile reading deep underneath. Sometimes I write an entirely original piece (like my article on the name Francis in 80s movies); sometimes I write on a familiar topic, like Jason Voorhees. Either way, I try my best to make it my own – and it’s always a challenge I welcome.
NOW, all that being said, when I wanted to write this piece on Stephen King and his “Dollar Baby” concept, I did like I always do and searched Google. And damn it all, wouldn’t you know it that Den of Geek just wrote a piece on this same topic not even 2 months ago! Alas, that’s the way things go when you’re trying to generate new material in this fast-paced web-based world. I decided to proceed anyway because after reading their take, I thought I definitely had more to add. I’m an admittedly long-winded, overly-explanatory writer, and to me this is a definite strong point; I make sure to cover every facet, explain every detail, and inject as much personality in my articles as I can because I want to convey to the reader that I not only know what I’m talking about, but that I actually enjoy the subject I’m writing about. I don’t want it to read like I’m some paid shill who got an email full of factoids to investigate from my boss. Because I didn’t, I’m not being paid, and I don’t have a boss. It’s all me, baby.
Anyway, I included this disclaimer because, I don’t know…I’d feel grimy otherwise. I still encourage you to read their piece, too! And then tell me mine was better, naturally.