Daniel Radcliffe has horns growing out of his head, and it’s luring the darkness out of his small, unassuming town. Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, talks to us about his first novel turned film, which is new turf for him — one that took his famous father a long time to find his footing on.
Despite the early success of Carrie and The Shining — a movie that, despite its masterpiece status, the elder King hated for the way it played fast and loose with his text — Stephen King adaptations in the 1980s were plentiful and often junk: For every Stand by Me, there was a Maximum Overdrive and Children of the Corn. Hill, working with director Alexandre Aja, has managed the first time out to whip up an adaptation that’s both faithful to the spirit of his novel and stands on its own.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Ig, a young small-town man who has spent a year living under the suspicions that he murdered his girlfriend (Juno Temple). One morning, he wakes to discover that his pounding headache is due to the horns that have begun to sprout from his forehead. Stranger still, no one seems to notice them, although the people around him do acquire the habit of telling him their darkest feelings, which range from comically intense to genuinely disturbing. As Ig searches for the killer, he finds all manner of secrets he never meant to uncover, and has to face the fact that a man with horns like the devil’s may be the nicest guy in town.
Before the movies made out of his books started getting nominated for Oscars, your father had a rough track record with adaptations. This is the first time one of your novels has been adapted for the screen. What were your concerns going in?
My theory on this was that I had already done my version of the story, and it would probably be healthiest and most freeing for Alexandre Aja if I gave him the room to do his version. They got a great scriptwriter, Keith Bunin, and when I talked to Keith and I talked to Alex, I talked about the two ways that adaptations can be terrible. They can be terrible when they go off and do a movie that has nothing to do with the source material, if which case you have to ask why they bothered to pay the money to adapt the book at all. The other way they can fail is if you try to stay so faithful that you end up with something that’s dead on the screen.
I encouraged them to find a happy middle, and for Alex to feel free to make a movie — to do his version of the story. I was moderately hands-on with the screenplay; I talked to Keith a lot, we had lots of great arguments. I visited the set a few times, and I was a cheerleader while they were filming, but I didn’t have much to do with that stage of things. I wanted to stay out from underfoot. And then again in the editing process, there was a really healthy back and forth where I made some suggestions and offered what ideas I had and tried not to mess anything up, because it seemed like they had something that was really energetic and powerful in its own right.
Did you talk to your father about the adaptation process, or learn anything from his long road to getting the movies to turn out well?
There’s this thing about novels where every time you sit down to write one, you have to figure out how to write a novel all over again. It’s like nothing you learned from the last novel can be carried over to the next one. That’s not really true, but sometimes it feels true. I feel like that’s also true of movies. All these people come together to make a movie happen, and each one of them is like a different rung in a ladder. Any one faulty rung in a ladder can lead to a total disaster. On the other hand, sometimes those rungs can really energize each other, and you get something marvelous. Certainly my dad has had some great, great adaptations, and I think that’s because he discovered some really great people to work with who’ve done really faithful, exciting work, like Frank Darabont and Rob Reiner.
The book is divided into five parts, each with its own distinct style and focus, and features a scene in which Ig pushes his grandmother down a hill in her wheelchair. There’s a lot of tonal balancing to get right.
There is a sense in the story that characters are sort of like Russian nesting dolls, that a character can be popped open to reveal a darker figure within, and then maybe you can pop them open again and see something darker. Ig is growing horns, but he’s also growing these unnatural powers that are very Satanic, and he can use them to force people to confess their secrets. That’s really the animating idea of the story: What would it do to you to have to face the worst in everyone you knew and loved? What would it do if you popped open those dolls and had to see the darkness hidden within? That’s sort of the basis of all story, which is to force characters to confess. All stories are basically working towards that point where a character has to stop hiding and admit who they really are.
When you say “Satanic,” you’re not really talking about the personification of evil. There’s a devil in this story, but there’s no God.
Well, I don’t know? The book made the argument that the devil and God were working on the same side, that the idea they were adversaries missed that they each have their own function. We have a character in the devil who is comfortable with wickedness, but this wickedness tends to be a force for good. I kind of feel like the devil is a superhero. He has a great superhero look, with the horns, a great superhero weapon — Thor had the hammer, Captain America has his shield, the devil has a pitchfork — he can talk to animals like Aquaman, and in his first adventure the devil frees two naked prisoners being held in a jungle gulag by a megalomaniac, and he sets them free, introduces fruit into their diet, and awakens them to their own sexuality. I think that’s so positive. He’s like a cross between Animal Man and Dr. Ruth. Where did we get the idea this was the bad guy? He seems pretty cool. I do think Ig would fit nicely on the Avengers.
“The devil” as superhero isn’t necessarily the easiest concept for a potential movie investor to swallow. Was it hard to get the movie made?
With Horns, I never imagined anyone would make it. It’s a story with a lot of comedy, but it has this tragic love story to it, and does have an almost Stand By Me-like riff in the middle, a story of childhood wonder and innocence lost, and then it’s a horror story and a tragedy. That’s a lot of different components. I think that these days it’s more common to see films that are just one note, that are just scary, or just funny, or just romantic — not because that’s a better form of storytelling, but because it’s a lot easier to market. You know how to market a Nicholas Sparks film. You know how to market Ouija. But that’s too bad because that’s really marketing undermining the possibilities of story.
I heard someone talking about music once, and he said he loves listening to a song where somewhere in the middle there’s a trap door in it, and he falls through into something he didn’t expect, and it’s exciting and fresh. The thing that bums him out is when a song is really great but it does exactly what he thought it would do. I think I feel that way about film. I definitely feel that way about novels, but novels are such weird beasts. They’re not as beholden to marketing. In some ways, novels are more like TV shows. Breaking Bad certainly had an overriding mood, theme and subject, but there were funny episodes, dark episodes, thrilling episodes, there was room to move around and try on a different wardrobe again. I certainly hope we won’t reach a point where marketing chokes that off. But Horns got made. Birdman got made. Someone keeps putting up money for Michel Gondry to make movies. Not all hope is lost.
Someone asked Daniel if he would want to be in a superhero movie, and he said he would want to play a villain, which is so cool. At the moment, he’s walking around sporting this really Satanic-looking beard, which he’s really rocking.
One of the arguments of the book is that a lot of suffering isn’t created by hate but is created by love. Goodness is painful, and sometimes you can do a lot of good with little wrongs. Morality is complex.
It’s also kind of a William Blake riff: Ig begins at a place of innocence and ends at a place of experience, but his basic core of decency and love is unchanged. It can’t be changed.