alfonso cuaron

When Alfonso Cuarón Adapted Stephen King

Photo: Canal de las Estrellas

With the 2004 film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuarón attempted the difficult task of adapting a story by one of the most famous fantasy authors in the world, marrying his filmmaking sensibility to someone else’s distinctive vision in the hopes of finding a rich middle ground between the two. It was an unequivocal success, bringing an emotional intensity and visual artistry to the Harry Potter series not evident in its first two entries, proving that Cuarón could deliver a commercial hit for a major studio, and setting the stage for Cuarón to make the daring Children of Men. But this wasn’t his first time trying to pull off such a feat. Fifteen years earlier, a much greener Cuarón attempted a similar trick with a Stephen King adaptation that’s since become a footnote in Cuarón’s career, but at the time represented a big step up for the director.

It’s also a fascinating look at a creator laboring to find his voice under trying circumstances. Running for over 100 episodes between 1987 and 1990, La Hora Marcada, brought a Twilight Zone–like horror anthology to Mexican television. In the process, it gave early shots to Cuarón, Cuarón’s film school cinematographer friend Emmanuel Lubezki, Guillermo del Toro and others, offering a chance to wow viewers with tales of the uncanny and the supernatural — so long as they worked within a limited budget.

Cuarón would direct six episodes, five of which were co-written with his brother and frequent collaborator Carlos Cuarón. The Cuaróns made their debut on the show with the 1989 episode “A Veces Regresan,” an adaptation of King’s 1974 short story “Sometimes They Come Back” (even though King’s name is nowhere to be found in the credits). It’s a loose adaptation, but one that keeps the broad strokes of King’s story, a tight, disturbing tale of childhood trauma and supernatural revenge.

“Sometimes They Come Back” first appeared in the March 1974 issue of the men’s magazine Cavalier, when King wasn’t even famous enough to rate a mention on the cover alongside such stories as “Have American Women Had It?” and “A Collage of Black Beauties.” It tells the story of Jim, a man applying to a teaching job after suffering a nervous breakdown spurred on by the childhood death of his brother Wayne at the hands of some bullies in 1957. Though Jim seems to have gotten it together, he finds his sanity threatened when the bullies, having seemingly not aged a day, begin showing up in one of his classes. In time, they kill Jim’s wife, forcing Jim to call on a demonic force to defeat them, a force that takes the form of the long-departed Wayne. Because sometimes, like they title says, they come back.

An early example of both King’s use of ’50s greaser toughs — a fixture of “The Body,” Christine, It, and other stories to come — and concern with the way the past bleeds into the present, it’s potentially good fodder for a TV-length adaptation. (And was adapted as a TV movie starring Tim Matheson in 1991.) Cuarón doesn’t quite get there, but it’s easy to see some of the ambition of his future work in his attempt, which can be found in two parts on YouTube. (A disclaimer: This is without subtitles and my command of Spanish is terrible. I recruited a friend to help with the translation, but she also struggled with some of the dialogue due to the poor sound quality, which seems to be more the fault of the original episode than any issue with the upload.)

Cuarón’s first choice is to streamline the story and emphasize the best bit of production value available to him: an empty amusement park where young Juan and his doomed brother are having the time of their lives before the arrival of their tormentors. Cuarón, too, seems to be enjoying himself, trying out a long tracking shot along a chain link fence, then following the boys as they use rocks to play midway games, climb the hills of a roller coaster, and pretend that one ride’s stationary fighter plane cars are deep into combat mode. Cuarón underscores that moment jet noises and camera movements that capture the boys’ excitement before pulling back to a stationary shot that shows they’re not moving at all, just rocking their cars back and forth.

Then: trouble. Three greasers show up, their leader, Eddie (Eduardo Palomo), clutching a candy apple and promising to tell them stories. Eventually, the encounter turns violent and Eddie stabs Juan’s brother to death (though it’s hard to tell what happens without rewinding this bit a few times) then grabs Juan, at which point a previously unseen policeman shoots Eddie in the head. “Demasiada!” Juan cries. “It’s too much!”

Flash-forward to 25 years later. The now-grown Juan (Miguel Angel Ferriz) is a dedicated father to a daughter named Andrea (Frida Hauptvogel) — who one day returns home carrying a familiar-looking candy apple. Despite being in the the midst of a seemingly difficult divorce, Juan seems to have put the past behind him. But the past has other ideas. One-by-one, his greaser foes show up. In the film’s scariest image, Eddie looks at a sleeping Andrea as a the soundtrack fills with the song and sounds of the earlier amusement park scene. It’s the closest Cuarón gets to channeling the spirit of King’s story, suggesting that the echoes of past trauma never fully fade with the passing of time. The seemingly spectral Eddie gets that too: One kidnapping later, we’re back at the amusement park, where Juan again struggles with the bullies, this time while trying to protect his daughter. In another use of echoes, Cuarón repeats some shots from the episodes opening moments — only this time the rides don’t stay silent. When Eddie threatens to pounce on Andrea as he did Juan’s brother, he’s run over by a roller coaster. Enter the brother’s ghost, who gives a cute little “Ain’t I a stinker?” shrug before fading back into the afterlife. The end.

“A Veces Regresan” was Cuarón’s first work as a director since his film school days, and it would fit the narrative of Cuarón as a born filmmaker to say his genius is evident here. It’s not, though if you stretch just a little you could make a connection between characters being haunted by their past and Cuarón’s masterful new film Roma, a kind of personal journey through the past and the childhood ghosts that remain a part of his life. (Okay, maybe you have to stretch a lot to get there.)

The episode would go on to play a key role in Cuarón’s professional and personal life, however. In a 2015 Los Angeles Times story exploring the friendship between Cuarón, Del Toro, and fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu, Cuarón recalled the first time he met Del Toro who asked him if “he made that show inspired by the Stephen King story.” When Cuarón said “yes,” they spent some time enthusing about the source material before Del Toro said, “Let me ask you something. That story was so great, so how come your show sucks so much?”

In truth, it doesn’t suck that much, even if it sometimes bears an aesthetic resemblance to the Ben Stiller Show sketch “Low Budget Tales of Clichéd Horror.” But it does raise an intriguing possibility: What if Cuarón took another shot at adapting King? His career has tended to strike a one-for-them, one-for-me balance, and with Roma — an autobiographical story shot in black-and-white — he’s coming off his most one-for-me project yet. His next one-for-them will coincide with a  significant upturn in the quality of King adaptations thanks films like It, Gerald’s Game, and the King-inspired series Castle Rock. Could, as in the story, the past repeat itself? If so, what an inspired twist that could be.

Thanks to Monica Castillo for translation help.

When Alfonso Cuarón Adapted Stephen King