Joe Hill knows the power of a single word. That’s the main difference between the new movie adaptation of The Black Phone and his unsettling 2004 short story that inspired it. Otherwise, both tell the story of a young boy named Finney, who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a basement where a mysterious old telephone allows him to hear the voices (and potentially lifesaving guidance) of the serial killer’s previous victims.
Hill has had several novels and comic books adapted before, among them Netflix’s Locke & Key, the Daniel Radcliffe movie Horns, and the AMC series NOS4A2, so he knows change is inevitable. He has been fortunate with regard to faithfulness. “I think most of the stuff that’s been made has stayed true to the characters and the situations,” he tells Vanity Fair. “If I particularly love The Black Phone, I think it’s because everything that’s in the story is in the film.”
The Black Phone director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill do expand upon Hill’s original story, adding more victims to the mysterious calls to fill out the narrative, but they really only altered one thing from his original text: One thing about the madman, known as The Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke.
“He’s totally the same character. He has all the same lines and does all the same things,” Hill says. “The big change is that in the movie, he says, ‘I’m a part-time magician.’ But in the short story, he says, ‘I’m a part-time clown.’”
Hill lets that hang for a moment. “It isn’t that hard to understand why we made that change.”
For those who can’t guess, the answer is also one word: It.
“As a child, I read It and I loved it,” Hill says. “It just completely electrified me. And I watched the TV movie, like a lot of other kids my age.
“When I wrote The Black Phone, it had been 20 years since I read the book and 15 years since I’d seen the TV movie and I never thought of It at all. It never crossed my mind once,” he adds. “What I was thinking about were the more notorious child killers from American history. And the first one that springs to mind, the one that’s inescapable, is John Wayne Gacy—who was a part-time clown.”
A decade and a half after the publication of the story, Derrickson and Cargill signed on to make The Black Phone their next film after collaborating on 2018’s Doctor Strange. Suddenly, the word “clown” seemed like a large shadow looming over the project.
“When we talked about The Black Phone as a movie, by then It: Chapter One was on the radar,” Hill says. “And I think the feeling amongst us was it would be a mistake to let the bad guy be a clown, that America has had its fill of evil clowns. There’s Pennywise and there’s not room for another one. So we need to rethink. And I knew from reading about the history of magic and the famous Carter Beats the Devil routine in which the magician plays both the devil and himself, that there was this history of Lucifer being part of old timey magic acts. So we talked about a devil mask, we talked about a magician. And I think we also thought it was interesting for Scott Derrickson to go from Doctor Strange, about the world’s most heroic sorcerer, to the flip side of that coin, to the sinister illusionist. That was the big change. And I think we made the right choice.”
Here’s where we present another twist in the story for anyone unfamiliar with Joe Hill’s background. He was not just a reader and fan of It, but the novel was dedicated to him, his sister Naomi, and brother Owen. Hill, for those who aren’t already aware, is Stephen King’s son. When he began his professional career he used the pen name “Hill” as a means of differentiating himself from his famous father.
They’ve collaborated several times, and Hill has firmly established his own status as an author, but all these years later, The Black Phone adjustment shows that’s still a shadow he has to evade. Although, to be fair, any writer of frightening fiction might have made the same change to The Grabber. “I think that the danger of having him be an evil clown would’ve looked like we were just jumping on Pennywise’s fairly long coattails,” Hill says. “So—best not to do it.”
The other changes to The Black Phone are all additions rather than subtractions. “If they had only used the short story, used everything, that’s like 45 minutes,” Hill says. “But there’s another 45 minutes to the film.” What the filmmakers added has Hill’s approval. “It becomes this very autobiographical statement on the part of Scott Derrickson about what it was like to grow up in the ’70s in the Midwest and what the ’70s really looked like. And it’s a little bit less of a sort of bubblegum, bright nostalgia piece as we’ve sometimes had with movies set then,” Hill says. “The 1980s and the late 1970s didn’t really look like a Spielberg film for a lot of people. Instead it was gritty and lonely sometimes.”
The Black Phone remains special to Hill because the short story marked a kind of personal turning point in his life. “I was a failed novelist. I had written four novels I couldn’t sell. But I had learned how to write a short story. And I had started to stack up some good ones. When I was working on ‘The Black Phone,’ it almost wanted to become a novel. I could see how to expand it,” he says. “In the end, I didn’t quite trust my abilities to carry it off. I thought, ‘I’ve written four failed novels, so there’s no reason to think this would be any better.’ If I wrote it as a short story, though, I think I know where I can sell it. There’s an editor who likes me in England who will pay me 35 pounds for it. So, I kept it tight. I kept it a short story.”
The primal thing that both the movie and the story tap into is the enduring fear, embedded in kids of that time, that they could be stolen off the street at any moment. This has been credited with the restrictive helicopter-parenting trend that came into style when those kids grew up to have children of their own in the 2000s. The Black Phone taps into that gutteral feeling of seeing a “Missing” poster tacked to a telephone pole. Children did vanish from time to time; that really did happen. But the notion that it could happen everywhere to everyone is a terror that was never fully rational and never fully went away.
“C. Robert Cargill and Scott were able to look at the story and see how to explode it into a much bigger narrative,” Hill says. “Cargill understood that the story could work like a horror movie escape room, with Finney locked in the basement and receiving calls from dead children on this disconnected phone. Each child has something different to tell him that might help him escape. And there’s terrific power in that.” He adds with a laugh: “Also, if Universal wants to license a Black Phone escape room, I am okay with that.”
Another major turning point for Hill was a different adaptation from 2013— the movie Horns, which featured the star of Harry Potter as a man who begins to grow a pair of demonic spikes on his head after being accused of a murder. The movie came about years after Hill had already established himself as an author, but personally he still felt shaky as a writer. “I didn’t believe it was a good book until [director] Alexandre Aja and Daniel Radcliffe told me it was and wanted to make a film out of it. And I thought, ‘Geez, maybe it is a good book. If these guys want to make it, I must have done something right.” And gradually, I’ve come around to feeling that Horns is a good book and that I’m proud of it. I was just going through a really tough time when I wrote it.
“There’s this cliche in rock ‘n’ roll where the guy says, ‘I don’t know how everyone can dance to that song, I was in so much pain when I wrote it,’” Hill says. “You just want to slap them, like ‘Get over yourself!’ But it is true that what you’re going through at a certain time can color your feelings about a piece of work. So it’s always been tough for me to fully love Horns because I was just such a bitterly unhappy person when I wrote it.”
At that point he had already published the 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts, which includes “The Black Phone,” and had a best-seller with the 2007 novel Heart-Shaped Box. “It was bigger than I ever expected. I never imagined in my life that I would have a book that would be as successful as Heart-Shaped Box was,” Hill says.
Then it was time for an encore. “I had no good ideas for a second book. I was under pressure to write one. I wrote one piece of garbage that I threw out after another. My marriage fell apart. I was having a nervous breakdown and then Horns came to me. And I was able to write Horns, one difficult day after another,” he says. “It never felt fun. I never worked on it and felt like ‘This is why I became a writer!’”
Horns hit bookstores in 2010, and the movie followed three years later. That galvanized Hill in ways that still astound him. “I still don’t know why it happened. I think all the adaptations since—NOS4A2, Locke & Key, In the Tall Grass, The Black Phone —owe something to it,” Hill says. “If Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t want to star in Horns and Alexandre Aja doesn’t want to make it, that film never gets made and maybe none of the other ones do either. So I remain tremendously grateful to both of them for taking a chance on that book. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to find my way to a third novel. I had been struggling a little bit with depression and it was this terrific spark of excitement that lit me back up.”
The lesson stands: Sometimes it really is just one thing—one word, one adaptation, one turn of luck (good or bad)—that changes everything.
The post The Black Phone: Joe Hill Explains the One Change From His Short Story appeared first on Vanity Fair.